Cult Characteristics of Shincheonji
Shincheonji has all the trademarks of a cult, including a single, self-appointed, charismatic leader who is venerated to an extreme measure, controlling methods to exploit its members and insistence that a single specific denomination who follow a particular leader, are the only true believers. This review has been carried out by evaluating the municipal Shincheonji website and comparing that with what the Bible teaches.
On the Shincheonji website, it states, ‘Currently, the pastor of Shincheonji Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony is creating God’s kingdom of heaven here on earth, exactly as he witnessed it in heaven.’i Under the section ‘The Promised Pastor’, it says directly below ‘”I Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.” [Rev 22:16].ii The most bizarre hermeneutics are misapplied to arrive at this conclusion.
Jacob being the father of the twelve tribes of Israel is compared with Lee Man-hee, who apparently became the leader of the new spiritual Israel of the new twelve tribes which are bearing fruit crops each month (presumably meaning the number of converts). Matthew 19:28 and Revelation 22:1-2 are quoted in support. Basically Lee Man- hee is plucking texts from all over the Bible paying little attention to context and is claiming he is that ‘angel’.
Cult Trends, Concerns and Geography
In the United States, the four major cults, Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witness and Seventh Day Adventism, all arose in the 1800’s within a few hundred- mile geographic area. They seemed to somehow piggy-back on the interest in Christianity and revival in that time and region. In a similar way, though there is a noticeable Christian representation in South Korea, a number of cults have emerged. We are probably most familiar with the extreme practises of the Unification Church, the Moonies, such as the mass wedding recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.
Nonetheless there are a number of cults in South Korea and Shincheonji is one. It has rapidly increased not just in South Korea itself, but also worldwide in its extensive ‘evangelisation’ efforts and numbers second only to the Moonies. This is partly because, although there has been a rapid increase within South Korea, many are deeply disturbed about their practices, so efforts are made to establish other bases further afield.
From examining their website and blog, it is evident that there is an exceptionally strong and repetitive emphasis on the number of adherents. These include people who have graduated from their course (which is required to become a member of their church) and those who have attended events, who have participated in voluntary work, or in their art and cultural events.
The explosion in the number of followers is frequently presented as evidence of it being the real church, though one could easily present the same claim for the marked rise in Islam or Mormonism. Seeing such emphasis on vast numbers of followers at sports grounds and bringing heaven to earth is reminiscent of the unforgettable images of the mass Moonie weddings.
Secular media, churches, and evangelical organisations in Korea have raised concerns. In New Zealand and Australia, there have been several articles published in the national press including the New Zealand Herald. Universities where individuals have managed to escape the clutches of this emerging cult have warned others against it.Cult counselling has been provided and those leaving have been encouraged not to feel ridiculed by their previous involvement.
Shincheonji have been successful in recruiting young people from overseas. Individuals are expected to attend many seminars and find themselves increasingly separated from the rest of society. This has led to the break- up of families. Amongst other concerning matters ‘Got Questions’ note the following, ‘The group denies the Trinity. It claims all angels are humans. And, of course, that Lee Man-Hee alone has the ability to correctly interpret the Word of God.’iii
Like many cults that have preceded it, there is an unhealthy emphasis on eschatology, most noticeably the book of Revelation. Whilst we are blessed if we read Revelation and keep those things written in it (Revelation 1:3), Shincheonji has an extreme, unusual and dogmatic understanding of it. It has invented its own interpretation to serve its own purposes. To become a member of the church, all candidates need to complete and pass the aforementioned course and achieve a 90% success rate. There are three levels required to complete the course, and the last level is devoted to their understanding of Revelation alone.
The Promised Temple and the 144,000
Shincheonji is an abbreviation of ‘New heaven and earth’ and this explanation is given:
‘Just as Moses built a tabernacle on earth based on the patterns God had shown him from heaven, the creation of Shincheonji here on earth today is also based on what the Promised Pastor had seen in the spiritual realm. This is God’s Kingdom, which is created here on earth as it is in heaven, and its name is Shincheonji.’iv
In other words only Lee Man-hee has special revelation from God and has brought heaven to earth.
A curious logo is used and mentioned on the website known as the New Jerusalem emblem. Again, perhaps not surprisingly, an allegorical explanation is offered in support.
‘The two round rings around the mark represent the universe and earth respectively, and the square figure inside the rings symbolizes God’s Holy City, the new Jerusalem. The jasper and ruby like Bible in the center expresses God and His eternal word, and the rainbow colored ring around the throne represents God’s promise.’v
The Jehovah’s Witness offer their explanation concerning the 144, 000, sealed of Israel as being reserved for those who will go to heaven. Shincheonji affords a similar explanation, claiming that God’s new kingdom, Shincheonji, the spiritual Israel is formed from the twelve tribes which didn’t exist until today.
They claim it is the one and only kingdom and temple of God on this earth. Apparently, if you are not a part of these tribes, you are not one of God’s people. Their objective is to announce the news of the kingdom and heal the nations simultaneously.
The Promised Theology of Shincheonji
On the main website, this section is split into three parts. The first part shows a map of the world with representation of its members from various countries, and graduation figures are listed. The tree of life in Revelation 22, that has twelve branches and bears fruit, is compared with the twelve tribes of Shincheonji enjoying a rapid increase in its membership.
On other parts of the website, pictures are presented from around the world accompanied with a text confirming the number of attendance or the number of nations presented.
Astoundingly, they claim their graduates did not graduate in the world but in heaven! Sadly, there is an absence of a systematic theology and it is clear that the whole foundation is based on select parts of the Bible somehow meshed together by an individual who claims to have this revelation from heaven that is not supported by Scripture.
The second section unpacks the meaning of the ‘Zion Christian Center Emblem.’ Not surprisingly, this again relates to representing heaven and earth the Zion Christian Mission Center is seen as the fulfilment of Mount Zion in Revelation 14:1-3. The assumption is that the ‘promised pastor’ had a revelation of the pattern apparently in the same way that Moses did.
The introduction outlines the three levels of the curriculum, concerning true knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, an overview of the Bible and the book of revelation.
Shincheonji Culture of Heaven
A major heading on the Shincheonji website is the ‘Culture of Heaven’. This consists of a blog complete with pictures of its members at athletic stadiums who take part in sporting events and diverse performing arts. In what appears to be the opening ceremony, strange symbolism is used, apparently based on the Bible. For the 6th Shincheonji National Olympiad an explanation is given:
‘The Art and Sports Festival, which was held with the Olympic spirit hoping for peace through the spirit of love and justice for the cessation of war, had 20,000 participants who hoped for world peace and the restoration of light. It was an unprecedented event that marked the end of wars of the physical realm as well as the religious wars of the spiritual realm; it was a festival for the spirits and was in line with the origins of the ancient Olympics that perfectly depicts the culture of heaven.’vi
In addition to combining the ancient Olympics (which were originally set up to honour Zeus) with depicting the culture of heaven, this is a humanistic method of attempting to bring heaven to earth reminiscent of the tower of Babel. The only difference is, instead of trying to ascend to heaven, it is assumed they have been able to bring heaven down to earth! In reality, this isn’t the culture of heaven but the strange culture of a cult, which has syncretised diverse concepts to suit its own ends.
A constructive response would be to firstly ascertain how people become absorbed into these cults and secondly how best to provide support and help them leave. With reference to the problems of Shincheonji experienced in New Zealand, Steve Worsley, writing for a Baptist magazine in New Zealand, helpfully wrote explaining how these cults work. Some of his points include:
Cults flourishing where there is ignorance
How cults operate
That individuals think they are simply being invited to a Bible study and
The targeting of influential, intelligent and personable young people who are also superbly adept at recruiting others.vii
Cults often operate under the radar. Cult advocates don’t always reveal their identity. I remember doing outreach in London and speaking to a ‘missionary’ and it wasn’t until I asked him probably for the fifth time who he was affiliated to, that he reluctantly admitted that he did belong to a group I would consider a cult.
Many Christians unwittingly access cult websites that are well disguised, so it is worth looking for either a statement of faith or an ‘about’ section when investigating a ‘Christian’ site that you are not familiar with. If those things are missing, look for their view on the trinity and see if it agrees with Scripture.
Similarly, targeting influential, intelligent and personable people seems to be one strategy of the scientologists. In their hunger and thirst for self-improvement and spiritual knowledge, famous and successful individuals are recruited and used to recruit others. When this is combined with a shared sense of community, even strange ideas can seem appealing for people who are willing to experiment.
Therefore we need to ensure that our church members are better informed about what cults are and how they operate. Also, if we know our Bibles well this will help us to recognise teaching that is unscriptural. Worsley asks a key question “Given that all ‘Christian’ cults challenge it, can our church members defend the Trinity from Scripture?viii
Interestingly when a mass of heresies emerged in the early church, genuine believers were forced to define and use the Bible to explain the fundamentals of Scripture and one of the vital teachings was the doctrine of the Trinity. If we are able to defend that from Scripture, that will help us to immediately recognise false teaching from cults since ‘Christian Cults’, all undermine that in one way or another.
In essence Lee Man-hee is a self-appointed figure who claims that he is bringing heaven to earth and that his followers are the new Spiritual Israel inclusive of the twelve tribes of Israel and that they are the 144,000 from Revelation 7.
Their theology is based on their particular three module curriculum which takes less than a year to complete.
They claim to be the only denomination who understand the truths of the Bible and their vindication is the apparent fruit that is coming to fruition, (meaning the rapid conversion rate) which is again equated with the Tree of Life in Revelation 22. This is presented with their allegorical misuse of the scriptures in an extreme way and sadly there are many followers both in South Korea and in their network overseas.
Though this may appear strange and we may wonder how such extreme and outlandish ideas can achieve such a following, we should remind ourselves “for false Christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible even the elect ” (Matt. 24:24).
Particularly apt regarding their idea of apparent revelation from heaven, Paul warned, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you, than what we have preached to you, than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).
Jude warned not only to contend for the faith (Jude 3), but also ‘others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh‘ (Jude 23). Cults entrap people and, though some have become indoctrinated, if we are able to, we need to speak the truth in love and point them towards our Lord Jesus and urge them to trust in Him alone.
ii Ibid, The Promised Pastor
vi Culture of heaven http://en.shincheonji.kr/bv_historyofCultureandSportsCelebrationEn_4445
vii Steve Worsley 1st April 2018 10 things I wished I knew about cults Baptist Churches of New Zealand Magazine https://baptistmag.org.nz/10-things-i-wish-id-known-about-cults/