Chinese Church Voices

House Churches and Anti-cult Campaigns

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional 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.

Last week five members of the Almighty God cult (formerly known as Eastern Lightning went on trial for brutally murdering a woman in a MacDonalds restaurant in Zhaoyuan, Shandong Province. The murder shocked the nation and prompted the government to launch a nationwide crackdown on illegal cults, or xie jiao (lit. evil religion).

Crackdowns on evil cults are common in China, and often bring with them unwanted attention and scrutiny of Christian house churches because government officials, scholars, and ordinary people often cannot distinguish between cults and house churches.

On July 17, 2014, the mainland site Christian Times published part one of a special report highlighting this problem of confusing house churches and cults. In it the author first looks 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. Second, the author solicits comments from various house church members and leaders from different parts of the country.

This article is a very interesting glimpse of a unique challenge that house churches face in China, especially during an anti-cult campaign.

On Confusing House Churches and Cults

The Third Redemption by Christ cult, (三救基督 aka Apostle's Congregation, aka Mentuhui) led a Hubei couple down the road to suicide. Members of the Almighty God cult (全能神) committed a tragic murder in broad daylight. These real cases in the first half of this year raised awareness on the part of our fellow countrymen regarding the savage nature of cults. Subsequently, the government published the names of 14 cult organizations and pledged to crack down on cults that are endangering society.

An independent Christian scholar recently stated that this is a significant move for the future healthy development of Christianity in China because it will be of great benefit to help purify Christianity in the face of a confusing religious environment. Many house church preachers who have been harassed by cults also support this initiative. But at the same time, they worry about social media and public figures who do not understand religion and who, in practice, confuse house churches with cults.

Current Existing Confusion

At 3:00 p.m. on July 9, 2014, I did a search for "house church cult" on Baidu.* The first page to pop up was not an objective introduction to the differences between the two. Rather, it was a post from Baidu's online Q&A forum Baidu Knows that posed the question, "are house churches cults?" In the post, the first answer accepted by users was "they basically are considered to be." What followed were over 100 unintelligible words with very confused punctuation. The first answer was still the most complete answer among the bunch.

This seems to indicate that although house church leaders and pastors can clearly distinguish between house churches and cults, in the most visible and accessible public information spaces there is no good explanation or information. This is something that churches need to think about. At present, there is a genuine interest in the matter on the part of the public, but little understanding.

If the multitude of people at the grassroots level who use news discussion platforms do not understand "the difference between house churches and cults," then the fact that more professional, respectable experts of social media and academics deliberately or unintentionally confuse the two is an even greater cause for concern.

June 3, 2014 

The Global Times published an article entitled "Attack Cults Immediately" by Lu Dewen, Associate Professor of Central China University of Science and Technology, China Rural Governance Research Center. The article discussed the characteristics of cults and how the three-point recommendation linked together cults and the underground church (a variant of "house churches"because the traditional gathering place for house churches is underground, they are also known as the "underground church"). The author states,

In recent years of field research and investigation, the author's team discovered that underground churches and cults have spread extremely fast, especially in the northern and central regions. The situation is extremely grim. The reason why this has happened has to do with both the distinctive traits of cult propagation and with disposing of biases against cults.

The following main points reflect the distinctive traits of cult propagation: First, the spread of underground churches and cults primarily relies on blood and family relations; therefore they are quite stable. Second, underground churches and cults pay close attention to their propagation strategies. Third, underground churches and cults are committed to building a network of grassroots organizations.

The government should guide and govern faith, resolutely crack down on cults, effectively direct folk religions, resolutely crack down on the leaders, and strengthen education for ordinary believers. There should be an increase in rural culture construction, especially to strengthen the grassroots governance capacity, which in turn will shrink the space available for underground churches and cults.

June 23, 2014

After the magazine Global People published the cover story "Exclusive Coverage: The Truth About An Evil Cult Leader," in which field interviews in Shandong and Hebei revealed the grassroots spread and danger of the Almighty God cult (全能神) and its leader, they interviewed Li Anping, President of the China Anti-Cult Association for his analysis of how to distinguish between proper religions and cults in everyday life. Li Anping believes there are five criteria: in his first point he says, "protected by the Chinese Constitution, citizens can freely believe in the five big religions – Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and that they can equally carry out activities within regulated religious spaces. However, cults frequently adopt the evangelism practices of underground house churches. "

July 5, 2014

The Observer (观察者) published an online article titled, "Yang Hua: The North-South Differences of Rural Underground Christianity," (Author: Yang Hua, Associate Professor of Central China University of Science and Technology, China Rural Governance Research Center). The first paragraph of the article reads,

China's rural underground Christian churches include house churches and cult organizations. House churches are those that are outside the Three-Self church. (Three-Self church refers to the Chinese Christian church that is "self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating," complying with the political leadership of the Chinese government and its ruling party, receiving no supervision and interference from foreign churches). House churches have not been integrated into the Chinese governments official system of administration for Christian organizations. Though they are still "underground," house churches already operate openly and have a complicated and ambiguous relationship with the Three-Self church. While there are both homegrown and imported Christian cults, most are homegrown. Cults are extremist organizations that have broken away from house churches, but sometimes still have close connections to house churches. The house church is the mother of cults. As long as house churches exist, cults will continue to develop and grow. Furthermore cults will become more and more extreme and thus lead to serious political and social consequences.

In that paragraph, the scholar puts house churches and cults side by side and considers them to be two components of rural underground Christianity. Moreover, he directly says "The house church is the mother cults."

Later, when talking about how to govern underground Christianity, the author says,

Third, the rapid development of the northern rural house church movement has produced many cults, thus driving the cults to further extremes. Southern peasants cannot distinguish between Christianity and cults; this provides the necessary conditions for the development of cult organizations in the rural south. The discrepancy between northern and southern cults is manifested in the fact that northern rural cults are more active and use more extreme propagation methods.

This paragraph indicates that the house churches are the "manufacturer" of cults in the north. But at the end he also states "southern peasants cannot distinguish between Christianity and cults." Through such discourse we can see that the article does not clearly distinguish between Christianity, house churches, and cults.After the article explores the characteristics and differences between rural north-south religious beliefs, it says, "targeted measures can be adopted to control and contain the spread of underground Christianity." The measures he proposes include: halting all construction of new churches in the rural south, encouraging farmers to build ancestral temples, and not prohibiting the burning of incense and worshiping of Buddha. In the rural north, he advocates an end to the building of new Christian churches, demolishing illegal places of worship, gradually integrating the house churches into regulated management under the Three-Self church. This means that house churches must accept the Three-Self patronage and clergy and those who do not accept its supervision should be banned.

To summarize, the views of the media and scholars cited above are generally this:

  1. The root cause of cults in large part can be traced back to the house churches.
  2. On the exterior, in terms of their form of worship, propagation, and organization, house churches and cults are very similar or even identical.
  3. Therefore, as the difference between the two is not very great, to attack cults requires attacking the house churches.

Clarifications from the House Church

Faced with this type of perception of the house churches, Christian Times invited a number of house church figures from different locations, including church leaders, pastors, seminary teachers and scholars, and people from social media researching the house churches to answer the question: Is the root cause of cults the fact that they are underground or because they are the church?

Teacher L, a Christian scholar who has spent over 10 years researching house churches in the south acknowledged that the problem of heretical cults developing in house churches due to a lack of theological training is real. It is necessary to admit this problem; however we most go deeper and examine the reason behind the problem.

"How and why do these cults develop," he asks. "The key issue is the nature of being underground. Things that are 'underground' easily mutate. On the surface it appears to be a question of religion, but in reality it is a question of management."

Mr. W. holds a position in a well-known social media magazine and for several years has paid close attention to religious topics. Most notably, after the events at Zhaoyuan, he traveled to Henan, Hebei and other locations to specifically observe and study the damage to family relationships caused by the Almighty God cult. In the process he came into contact with different types of heretical cults. When addressing the causes of cults, his view is similar to that of Teacher L. He says, "It is not so much that the underground church is the mother of cults, rather, under the restrictions of the religious policies, the secretiveness of the church is the soil which enables cults to spread.

He went on to add that, "If the underground church is the mother, it cannot explain the background of Taoist and Buddhist cults."

Pastor L. is an important house church leader. Since becoming a believer during the great house church revival 30 years ago, he has served as a pastor, and has a broad understanding of house churches in many regions of the country. He believes that singling out house churches as a root cause of the growth of cults is a simplistic understanding and analysis. For example, "Falun Gong is also considered to be a cult, yet it is not even marginally related to Christianity. One cannot blame Christianity since cults can evolve from a variety of religions. For example, Japan's most notorious cult Aum Shinrikyo is a derivative of Buddhism and yoga."

He also dismisses the idea that cults are only a problem within the house churches."One cannot say that the Three-Self is a utopian paradise. In fact, many Three-Self churches and believers in these churches have been pulled away by heretical cults. There are perhaps as many people from Three-Self churches who are involved in cults as there are from house churches. So we cannot say that the house church is the mother of cults. The house church is respectable and the number of mature fellowships that have been misled by heretical cults is still very small. And even in Three-Self churches, if the pastoring is insufficient and there is no spiritual growth, in the end believers will be duped into joining cults."

"Individual believers who are spiritually immature and lack knowledge of the Bible are easily confused and therefore susceptible to cult teachings. As a shepherd, Pastor L. speaks more from a pastoral view about why one could be confused by heresy. "When a child is young, he or she can easily be abducted. But when he or she grows and matures it is not easy for them to be abducted. In the same way, a believer's spiritual life is also like this.

Can Worship Locations that Resemble Each Other Become a Similar Standard for the House Church and Cults?

Pastor L. is frustrated by the way people confuse the house churches and cults because they both meet secretly. "Saying that because cults and house churches both meet in people's homes, therefore they are all pretty much the same is like saying that since good and bad people wear glasses, all who wear glasses are bad people. That logic doesnt hold up. Those who are mentally ill and those who are normal eat food. Does this mean that all who eat food are mentally ill?"

In addition to looking at exterior elements such as worship locations and outer appearances, Pastor L. uses one simple sentence to reveal the difference between the two: "Cult members worship people, Christians in the house churches worship God. The natures of the two are completely different."

Scholar-Teacher L. also reiterated that the orthodox house church is an important part of Christianity: "the orthodox house church is part of nearly 2,000 years of Catholic Christian tradition."

So how do we distinguish between orthodox Christianity and heretical cults? Teacher W., from a Beijing house church seminary, gives a more detailed explanation. He says, "The thing to remember is that any orthodox church will recognize two authorities: Scripture and Catholic tradition. Among these, the tradition of the Catholic Church includes for example the confessions of the church and the structure of the church that were passed down from the apostles and the prophets. Protestantism views the Bible as more important than church tradition, while in Catholicism the two run parallel. Some say that it pays more attention to tradition. In any case, orthodox churches recognize these two authorities. These two also protect the purity of the faith and orthodox churches will not stray from them. But what is pertinent to Christianity is that any heretical cults that derive from Christianity all have more or less broken with these two authorities. For example, some exegesis does not comply with the general principles of interpretation and the organizational form of the church has become very strange."

In the Resistance to Heretical Cults, Are House Churches Contributors or Spoilers?

There is actually an additional blind spot in confusing house churches with cults. The work of the house church in resisting heresy has actually been practical and effective. Scholar-Teacher L notes,

Beginning in the 1990s, for a full 10 years, Chinese churches around the world were all closely following the growth of heresies in China and noting the harm they were doing. Many pamphlets on how to identify and resist heretical teachings were produces and distributed. These were very effective.

In particular, China's house churches have put a great deal of time and effort in identifying heresies and teaching their congregations about them. This has been done despite the restrictions under which they operate. They are doing a lot of work that the social sector simply is not aware of. The house church movement, since its beginning, has taken the job of resisting cults very seriously. Over the years, the house church has made a great contribution in this regard, thereby reducing the impact of heretical cults. If not for this, the situation today would be even worse. For example, the cults Three Grades of Servants and Almighty God used to have a great deal of influence. However, it has now become very difficult for them to influence Christianity in urban and mainstream regions; they are only able to dupe people in rural and remote mountainous areas. Much of this is the result of the efforts by the house churches.

A longtime pastor in Wenzhou named Brother Zheng shared that because Almighty God cult has been active in the area near his church for 20 years, the impact it has on his church today has diminished. However, the church does continue to regularly preach messages from the pulpit about identifying cults and heresies to help believers understand more clearly. Believers are also reminded that if they discover people entering the church impersonating believers, they must report this to the church pastor and even the police, so that these people do not have the chance to exploit anyone. These practical measures are already creating a natural protective barrier for church members against much confusion and attacks from heretical cults.

After the Zhaoyuan murder, many house church pastors expressed complete shock and spent a lot of time reflecting on the incident. They especially felt an even more direct and greater sense of urgency to spread the true gospel message. Pastor R., from an emerging urban church in Beijing said: "China has so many Christians who have heard the true gospel. If we were engaged in more evangelism, then maybe this incident would not have happened. This is a little harsh to say, but ultimately it is because, in terms of evangelism and preaching, the orthodox denominations have been slower and less zealous than the heretical cults. So in some way, we Christians have an indirect responsibility."

Teacher Wang from the seminary suggests that in order to resist cults and heresies the church must train good preachers: "This is the most fundamental thing we can do. When such preachers are trained and then preach correct messages, this helps our brothers and sisters fight against heretical cults."

*Baidu is the most popular Chinese search engine

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)

Image source: The Washington Post

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