Chinese Church Voices

House Churches and Anti-Cult Campaigns (2)

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

On September 3, we posted a translated article about the trouble that anti-cult campaigns often cause for house churches because government officials, scholars, and ordinary people often don't know the difference between a cult and a house church.

The article, from the Christian Times, looked at the writings of prominent scholars who suggest that house churches and cults are essentially the same thing, with some calling for the outright banning of house churches. It also solicited comments from various house church members and leaders from different parts of the country. 

This post is a translation of Part 2 of the Christian Times article. The focus on this piece is the issue of secretiveness vs. openness as a way for the house churches to avoid being mistaken for cults. The consensus on the part of the people interviewed and/or cited in the article is that secrecy remains a problem and that the more visible and open house churches become, the more it will become apparent that they are not cults.

Will Combating Cults Make the House Church More Secretive or Open and Transparent?

‪In addition to agreeing on spreading an even purer gospel message, training pastors, and other factors driving church growth, house church pastors and scholars also invariably agree on one point: using forceful measures to combat cults and attack house churches won’t make them more secretive; rather, it will make house churches even more open and transparent.

‪Scholar L said: "The reason for the rise in cults lies in their being "underground." Measures to eliminate them must also be "underground." House churches must go from being “underground” to being “above ground” and public.” ‪Seminary teacher "Wang" also believes that "openness and transparency" are very important weapons in resisting heretical cults, and can actually prevent their development. “If a church is open from the beginning, it will be more difficult for them to develop into a heretical cult.” Cults are, by nature, very controlling. They use psychological, financial, and social means to maintain strict control over believers. These methods require a high degree of confinement; disconnecting a person from society and other people is necessary to maintain control. Therefore, it is essential for churches to be open and public and to maintain contact with other churches.” Wang said, "So I think that openness is an essential factor. Transparency allows the church to be open and invite others to come, as well as allow for exchanges between churches. "

‪"The more orthodox religions are prevented from development, the more these heretical cults are likely to develop.” When talking about this issue, Pastor L. still maintains his outspoken personality. He said he could not agree with the suggested measures put forth in the article "The North-South Differences of Rural Underground Christianity," such as stopping the construction of all new churches, dismantling illegal places of worship, and gradually incorporating house churches into the "Three-Self" church to regulate their activity. In addition, he could not encourage rural construction of ancestral and Buddhist temples and the worship of Buddha. He pointed out that this suggestion does not take into account the history behind the Three-Self churches and house churches, nor does it understand the principles upheld by the house churches. The house churches adhere to the principle of the separation of church and state and, in practice, they are completely in accordance with the three principles of "self-propagation, self-governance, and self-support."

‪"They are called house churches precisely for the fact that they do not have church buildings. First the article suggests making people worship inside a church building. Then it says that new churches shouldn’t be built. That seems like simply a way of trying to limit the number of believers. In fact, the reason new churches are being built is because the number of believers has increased and there are not enough places for them to worship. Furthermore, the growth of believers does not depend on whether there are more or fewer churches, or whether they are big or small. Many American churches are empty. The most fundamental reason for growth is need. The reason religion is growing is because people’s hearts are empty. It has nothing to do with differences between North and South or with traditional ancestor worship. Traditional Chinese culture is just that – a culture – not a faith. Using culture to replace religious faith does not bring fulfillment.”

‪"It's like a city that needs a place for people to dance. If you do not provide a place to dance, there will be an underground place to dance. Publicize these needs, legalize them, and properly acknowledge them. Let them come out from underground and walk in the sun. This will leave no hiding place for cults because cults die in the light. Permitting house churches to be out in the open is an effective tool in combatting cults. The more the house church is attacked, the more living space is given to cults; the more wolves mix with sheep and others cannot distinguish between the two," said Pastor L.

‪Faced with the problem of house churches, which is the better attitude: confusion and hatred or tolerance and openness?

‪One possible reason for why those on social media and some scholars still confuse house churches and cults is because they lack understanding of the house churches and only look at the surface of the problem, says Mr. W. who works in media. "They see various things such as superstitions, miracles, and even missionary techniques like multi-level marketing in the rural churches, which produced some negative views.”

‪If they only look at one side of the exterior, then the two [house churches and cults] "indeed are similar." Some areas are difficult even for the government to distinguish. This is an important piece in understanding the development of the house churches,” Mr. W. added. ‪Moreover with the opening up of society, any topic of discussion related to society will inevitably produce completely opposite views. People in the media are still influenced by their fundamental values. These values influence what they know and how they approach various problems. Their values influence their worldview. Even though Mr. W. is neither a Christian nor a follower of any other religion, he thinks that as a social media writer he should maintain a tolerant and open mind to know and understand the house church. "For the media, work is like drawing a sketch: for a realistic sketch, what you see is what you sketch. Of course, one can’t avoid including one’s own values. Regarding the question of house churches, I think that an inclusive and open-minded attitude would be better."

‪Scholar L. said, "The views which confuse the house churches and cults are specious and I can see no objective reason behind them. This deliberately causes people to develop a hostile attitude toward Christianity, to not truly respect religious freedom or have a disposition to protect the right of religious belief."

‪"Why are they so hostile to Christianity? If it is because their friends have experienced intrusion and harassment by heretical cults, we first express our sincere apologies and explain that those people are not truly Christian. "Pastor L said, "Also, it doesn't matter if some are good or bad, they are all hostile enemies. Why? We should look to see if it isn't because we are haunted by the thought of cultural conservatism."

‪Pastor L said that after he studied these confused views of house churches and cults he felt that “these stories make people hostile to Christianity," which made him resentful and regretful. At the same time, "reading the stuff written by these people, I can only say that they do not understand religion. The measures they propose are complete foolishness."

The Viewpoints of Two Sociologists

‪When it comes to religion and the house church, Pastor L. said two modern local sociologists have a better understanding of the house church, and that their points of view are fairly impressive and worth learning from. One is Professor Liu Peng, Director of the Pu Shi Institute for Social Science, and the other is Professor Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

‪Professor Liu Peng believes that the greatest characteristic of the "Almighty God" cult and similar types of groups is blind worship: ““Blind worship” is a vivid word that carries with it the meaning of "paying servile obedience to someone." An important special characteristic of cults is pursuing blind worship (“paying servile obedience to someone”) of an individual who has proclaimed the establishment of a new “religion” with absolute deference. Many secretive cults emerge within closed societies. They often possess antisocial tendencies, cutting themselves off from society.”

‪To successfully suppress such groups, Professor Liu believes the government must first strengthen the rule of law and protect human rights. Being able to punish certain acts according to the law will help it combat the harm done to society by cults. In the long term, solving the problem of the existence of cults requires first solving the problem of insufficient supply and demand in the area of religious belief. "If the supply of faith is insufficient, then endless numbers of various religious groups that do not conform to religious standards will appear. Therefore, if there are always people in society who, in the name of religion or faith, form various cult groups, then to eliminate these types of groups, we must fully guarantee freedom of religion, as well as protect the dissemination and services of regular religions to meet the needs of numerous religious believers." He concludes that "full religious freedom, religious competition, and improved rule of law for religion" is the most fundamental way to eliminate the danger of such groups.

‪In July 2010, Yu Jianrong appeared on an episode of Phoenix TV's program "Social Visibility." This was a rare instance of reporting and investigation on house churches in the Chinese media. He said he felt that following the last two years of government policy easing, his own research showed that the house church was moving from being “underground” to being able to appear in the light of day. He and his team had spent more than a year researching in more than ten provinces in China. According to their investigation, the house church already existed in 1954. The attacks that started later continued up to the Cultural Revolution. Such attacks as the "Three-anti's" and "Five-anti's" campaigns,* but particularly the Cultural Revolution, were especially severe. When they conducted their investigation in Wenzhou, however, they discovered that "the more it was attacked, the faster it grew." Instead of attacking the house church, they chose instead to spare them and show restraint. ‪After the reform and opening up [which began in 1978], the government relaxed its religious policies, and house churches began to rapidly grow. Especially as intellectuals poured into the church, urban house churches also began to develop. Professor Yu Jianrong said that currently the activities of the house churches "are basically open. I have seen these churches and they are no longer hiding."

‪The program also focused on "Three Grades of Servants," "Eastern Lightning" and other cults and their differences with the house church. The reporter asked, "Many people are concerned that China's house churches may eventually evolve into a cult, as in the case of 'Three Grades of Servants.'" Professor Yu believes that “a core problem with “Three Grades of Servants” is that when they preach, all the windows are covered up. Imagine you were able to openly conduct religious activities. Then, along comes a preacher who says, “we must cover the windows” because he fears government suppression. A person in a cult could easily take advantage of this situation. My point is that secrecy is a perfect cover for cults. The way to combat cults is through transparency and legalization.”

Professor Yu believes that “a core problem with "Three Grades of Servants" is secrecy — when they preach, all the windows are covered up. Imagine that you were able to openly conduct religious activities. Then, along comes a preacher who says, "We must close the windows" because he fears government suppression. A person in a cult could take advantage of this situation. My point is that secrecy provides a cover for cults.” Therefore he believes that openness and legalization are required in order to successfully battle cults.

In October of that same year, he re-published a transcript from a December 11, 2008 lecture at Peking University titled, "Desensitizing the House Church." The points he makes are the same as those he expressed on the "Social Visibility" program. In the lecture, he also clearly and concisely expresses his approach towards the house church, as well as the attitude all sectors of society should take towards the house church. He believes that its better to have an objective attitude rather than one of disregard, fear, avoidance, and hatred. "Currently, the house church is a sensitive topic, and as a result nobody dares talk openly about it. This forces the church to become even more covert and mysterious to society. Therefore, in order to better guide the development of the church, the movements of the church should be undisguised. "Along with the development of the house church, Yu Jianrong said that what he is most worried about are the issues of legalization and registration. He said we need to "recognize the legitimate existence of the house church, and not pretend they are invisible."

‪June 10, 2014, one week after Global Times published the article, "Hit Cults Without Delay," Yu Jianrong published the article "Expose All Cults to the Maximize Degree." He does not talk about this topic from the perspective of underground churches and cults; rather he points out that secretiveness is the most noticeable characteristic of a cult. "I have repeatedly appealed for the model of religious management to be re-examined under the concept of modern state governance. The government should face and take seriously the question of how to allow for faith to be practiced among the people and for the people to legally and openly conduct religious activities. To turn a blind eye to the problem or to handle it with brutal crackdowns is destructive to normal religious life and even to social order. As far as possible, cults should be marginalized and exposed. Placing them within the midst of public observation and supervision and within the strict supervision of the rule of law will thus minimize the dangers of cults. This is the just method of governance that a modern nation should adopt.

Following the Zhaoyuan murder case, the TV program “Legal Weekend” interviewed sociologist Sociologist Zhang Chunli, a professor of contemporary religion and director of the Research Center of China Social Security at the People's Public Security University regarding her ideas for combatting cults. She proposed that carrying out precision strikes against cults, against exact locations, would strike a severe blow against cults that seriously endanger society. "The advantage of precision strikes lies in both the ability to clearly distinguish between religion and cults, but also in the ability to concentrate the power of attacks against cults. At the same time, it also safeguards people's freedom of religious belief.”

Conclusion: Let the Light Come In

‪Whether it is the house church or cults, these are not simple topics. Within China's developing society there is gradually more understanding of these topics. Such attitudes as avoidance, disregard, misunderstanding and antagonism will occur in this process.

‪When all is said and done, how should one avoid cults? How should one be more objective in understanding the house churches? How should general knowledge about orthodox religions be popularized? These are all topics worth consideration and investigation for Christians, religious groups, and people from all walks of life in the community. The future progress of these issues is also worth sustained attention.

‪Following the Zhaoyuan Incident, Christian Times invited Pastor R. to discuss the issue of dealing with cults. I remember that he used an interesting analogy.

He said, "In the darkness crows and pigeons feel the same, it is very difficult to tell them apart. But if the light comes in, you can clearly differentiate between what is black and what is white."

‪Perhaps letting the light in is the most critical thing that can be done to solve the problem of cults. The Christian believes that the truth of the Bible is light. When the light comes in it signifies that the true gospel spreads out to judge the darkness of heresy and cults. But for society, to let the light come through can mean a kind of openness and transparency, and this is precisely the best way to eliminate secret and blind worship.

*The "Three-Anti's" and "Five-Anti's" campaigns were launched by the Communist Party in 1951 and 1952 respectively in order to root out corruption and "enemies of the state." They were used by Chairman Mao to further consolidate his power.

Original article:【特稿】请勿将家庭教会与邪教混为一谈(上)(Christian Times. Translated and posted with permission)

Photo Credit: China Hope Live 

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