When the Coronavirus was first spreading in South Korea in February of 2020, you may have heard the name Shincheonji. Headlines were running all over about this strange South Korean cult spreading the virus to thousands of people. You might be surprised to learn that this cult has over 300,000 registered members and has been growing even here in the United States. Imagine my surprise when I find out they are one of the many cults trying to recruit new members at my own university campus. Who are they, what do they believe, and what makes them a cult? What do Christians need to know about Shincheonji? After going through many of the church’s materials and the testimonies of several people who got out of it, here is what I found.
Another Guy Claiming to be Jesus
If you read my series a few months ago about the World Mission Society Church of God (You may have encountered them as that “God the Mother” cult) you’re going to notice some overlap here. Most notably, both start with a man in South Korea claiming to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. Lee Man-hee, their messianic figure, has little public information available other than their recent media spotlight from the Coronavirus. I found little more than that he is 88 years old and the church started in 1984.
Their claims about him seem to vary somewhat. In some cases, he is the full-blown 2nd coming of Christ. In others, he is speaking on behalf of Jesus. However even their views of Jesus are a bit unusual, believing that Jesus was just a man that the spirit came upon and spoke through. Some sources also took Jesus’ words of the coming helper in John 14 and 16 as prophecy about Lee, not the Holy Spirit. We’re already getting into some weird territory with the trinity. Now they claim that Lee is the promised pastor who brings the word of life.
They Are an Apocalyptic Church
I always find it a bit of a red flag when any church builds a large portion of their doctrine solely from the book of Revelation. Their full name is Shincheonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. Shincheonji translates to new heaven and new earth. Most of their own summary video about what is promised in the New Testament is only looking at a few chapters in Revelation, largely ignoring the words of Paul, Peter, James, etc. They pull a few verses out of context, try to squeeze themselves into the interpretation of the passage, and thus show how they are the true church of Christ.
Other claims are made, such as that the Shincheonji church are the successors to the 12 tribes of Israel. Their theology amounts to little more than, “See this weird and somewhat vague passage in Revelation? Yeah that’s us.” There is very little support for their claims. Just because someone supports their case with a Bible verse does not mean they are legitimate. We need to examine the context of the verses being used, and how their interpretation lines up with the rest of scripture being conveniently ignored in the conversation.
Shincheonji also teaches that the Bible is written in parables, or even a kind of code. We as humans cannot understand it. We need to have it revealed to us by someone who was given secret knowledge. This is yet another red flag. Cults are all about fear and control. If you open the floodgates and let the members learn everything themselves, you lose that control, and give them freedom. So how do you keep that control while still making everyone think they have autonomy? You give them the Bible to read at their leisure, but intentionally muddy the waters and confuse them so they believe they still need you to understand it. We’ve been seeing this for thousands of years, even into the early days of the church with heresies of Gnosticism.
The One True Church?
As with many cults like this, you’re going to see some gatekeeping. They always have to be special, and the only ones who know the truth. All other churches are filled with false pastors. They say, “And they can eat the food of eternal life and realize their hope only if they come to Shincheonji Church of Jesus. This is where heaven, the food of eternal life, God, and Jesus are along with the one who overcomes.” I’ve said it before, if a church presents a gospel that requires additional steps for salvation besides what Paul describes in Acts 16 or Romans 10, there is a problem.
What Does that have to do with COVID-19?
The church became notorious for spreading the Coronavirus. One of their members had the virus and met in a very tightly packed prayer meeting with several thousand people. This was before the virus had spread throughout South Korea, and the church did little to stop it early. There was talk of pressing charges against Lee and the church for negligence and even murder. Since then however, Lee has apologized and the church has been much more open with authorities and provided information on their members.
These are some of the core essentials of Shincheonji’s teachings and history. They’re a bit more closed off than some other cults I’ve looked into, but they use a lot of the same tactics. Adding steps to salvation not in scripture, twisting of the trinity, Christian gatekeeping, total devotion to a leader, just to name a few issues. Next week I’ll go into a bit more detail on some of their practices for evangelism that we need to be aware of.
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