Fears Grow That China Will Class House Churches as Cults

Monday, December 18, 2000

Authorities Urged to Determine Whether Cults are 'Harmful to Society'

by Alex Buchan

LONDON (Compass) -- The Chinese government sponsored an International Symposium on Evil Cults in Beijing November 8-10 that urged local authorities not to inquire too closely into the beliefs of accused cults. Instead, authorities were encouraged to assess whether they are "harmful to society" -- a catch-all criterion that some house church leaders fear could lead to their own movements being classed as cults.

Nearly 60 academics from all over the world attended the Beijing Symposium, and it was full of predictable denunciation of the Chinese folk religious movement, Falun Gong. But it was a recommendation buried beneath academic verbiage that caught the eyes of some house church leaders: "We should not excessively debate whether it is a genuine religion or not. We should mainly view it from the angle of whether it is harmful to the society."

According to a Shanghai-based house church leader, "Every house church movement could be accused of being 'harmful to society' simply because we refuse to belong to accredited religious bodies, which leads them to say, 'You must be a cult because you are being so secretive.'"

Interestingly, many house church leaders interviewed express surprise that the government did not crack down harder this year. Said one in Xian, "It's like the government has been distracted with Falun Gong." Another in Beijing added, "In practice, many authorities are able to distinguish between a genuine Christian house church and a very unorthodox Christian sect or cult, but local police are often not so discerning."

At the same time, a prominent China ministry profiled the secretive "Two Grains of Rice" (Er-Liang-Liang) Christian cult. The ministry released its findings to Compass on the understanding they would not be named.

The sect, also known as the Blessed Group (Meng-Fu Pai), or the Disciples, is growing rapidly in the provinces of Hebei, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Shangdong and Yunnan. Estimates start at 100,000 members and up. Members are put on starvation rations and told to pray not to Christ but to the founder of the movement, San-Shu, who claims to forgive sins.

Members also undertake dangerous fire baptisms and refuse medical treatment. Various provincial governments outlawed the movement in 1995. The sect teaches that military rebellion against the government is legitimate, referring to police as the "great locusts" of Joel 1:6.

The research of the China ministry makes it clear how hard it would be to classify the "Two Grains of Rice" sect as an orthodox house church movement, however much Scripture may be quoted back and forth.

Started in 1982 by a man called Ji San Bao, he changed his name to San-Shu after becoming a Christian. Then he quickly began to propound heretical viewpoints. Citing the New Testament Scripture 1 John 4:2-3, he claimed to be "the second manifestation of Christ in the flesh." He married again, to a woman called Hsu-Shu, who claims to be the living manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Members of the group must pray in the name of these two leaders. San-Shu claims that only he has the right to forgive sins. Followers must write down all their sins and pass them to him for forgiveness. If he decides to put them into an "ark of the covenant," then they are forgiven.

San-Shu also claims to determine when the coming of the "kingdom of Zion" will take place, and proclaims that the new Zion is in fact the Chinese city of Xian. Stories of miracles abound surrounding his ministry, though his power comes also from the fact that his disciples sell all they have and deed their property to his movement. However, he is believed to be under arrest at the moment.

The nickname "Two Grains of Rice" comes from a doctrine unique to the group. They link the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 from two loaves and five fish in the Gospel of John, chapter six, with the widow's "handful of flour and a little oil" in the Old Testament verse in I Kings 17. They claim these items are the "bread of life," and thus each meal should be a kind of miraculous feeding.

So a person should eat no more than two grains of rice at each mealtime to experience a miracle of multiplication. If a person eats more than two grains, it is a sign they lack faith and have not repented. Not surprisingly, there have been cases of starvation and severe malnutrition among many of the followers.

Another peculiar doctrine concerns baptism. San-Shu takes the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11 that "the one who comes after me ... will baptize with fire" quite literally. The rite of baptism in the cult involves passing through live flames and sometimes of throwing infants through flames.

"The cult really only flourishes among the very poor peasants that live in isolated communities, though it is also making inroads among the unemployed," a house church leader in Xian commented. "The challenge is to give these cult members some real biblical teaching, and the whole cult is organized to deny us access to bring this teaching."

Yet it is remarkable that the Chinese house church movements have remained largely orthodox in their Christian teaching, despite a repressive government policy which makes the teaching of the Scriptures a hazardous activity. Bibles are still in short supply in many rural locations, and Bible teachers have to conduct their seminars in secret.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service.