Although its known as the 'land of the morning calm', South Korea is anything but calm when it comes to prayer. Every morning churches fill with people praying passionately for their nation and their pastors, as well as for the unification of Korea. On Sundays, thousands gather first for worship services and then for prayer groups and study groups which can go on for the entire day. Korean church members are kind, generous, loving and welcoming.
There is however a darker side to the Korean church - factionalism which sows seeds of division. Elder-led divisions can be discouraging to ministry leaders and even cause splits within churches. This is one of the strategies employed by a cult called ShinCheonJi (SCJ) which has recently been making inroads in the UK.
Members of this cult become members of churches, or seminary students at orthodox seminaries, and offer to lead Bible studies. They begin with what sounds like fairly normal biblical teaching. But they end up subverting the teaching of the Church with the teaching of Man Hee Lee, who has named himself "The Promised Pastor whom the Counselor, the Holy Spirit is with Jesus, whom the Holy Spirit of God was with, was referred to as the one who spoke on behalf of God – the Counselor."
I first became exposed to SCJ while a small group leader at a major English ministry in Seoul. One of our group members told us that she was approached by a couple who offered to help her understand the Bible. She thought more Bible study would be a good thing and would often come back with questions about things that she had been taught, which were far from orthodox. A red flag was raised when she told my wife and I that it was only by attending this other church, and believing exactly what they taught her that could she be saved.
Another friend was invited to a free language and culture class that included cooking lessons by the Manam Volunteer group. They kept inviting her to strange events and she quickly found out that Manam was a front and recruiting organisation for SCJ. She immediately cut contact with the group.
They appear quite normal at first, hosting Bible studies and volunteering for service and leadership positions. But as they grow in power within church congregations the SCJ member will make accusations against a pastor, often making up allegations in order to create divisions within the church. In some cases they have ousted pastors and installed a SCJ pastor in their place. One of SCJ’s strategies is to snatch away buildings as well as congregations.
SCJ teach that the Bible can only be understood figuratively and that only Man Hee Lee is anointed to give the accurate interpretation.
SCJ teach that the Bible can only be understood figuratively and that only Man Hee Lee is anointed to give the accurate interpretation. They even declare that the Spirit of Jesus indwells Mr Lee, suggesting that he is the returned messiah and that "salvation comes from the promised pastor."
Unlike other cults, SCJ do not use traditional recruiting methods for converting people towards their teaching. They are subversive and devious. One testimony of a former member describes the manipulation that went on as she was increasingly duped into Bible studies, and then indoctrinated into the cult.
Confronting a cult can be a daunting task. The church needs to be aware of their methods and be able to discern false teaching. In some respects the infiltration of SCJ to the UK Church is a sign that there is growth here. It's an encouraging sign! Attacks will come when there is growth.
We may heed the warning and encouragement from 1 Peter 5:8-9, "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world."
My prayer is that the Church in the UK would continue to grow and be discerning enough, with their knowledge of orthodox doctrine, to understand false teaching and stop such a cult from establishing roots.
Rev. M. Liam Steele was born in Scotland, raised in Canada and lived in South Korea from 2001-2016. He obtained an MDiv at Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul, and worked at a pastor for an English Children’s Ministry for five years in Seoul. He is now an OM missionary in South Wales.