Lessons from 'Success' of Shincheonji Cult: Church Needs Tension with the World

A man sits in a church.
A man sits in a church.
By CCD contributor: Li DaonanMarch 30th, 2020

Had it not been for the coronavirus outbreak, the South Korean Shincheonji cult might not have attracted public attention and Christianity would not have entered the public eye. It is the deeds of this cult group that show us how enormously destructive the power of a hidden religious group can be if it controls its followers and obstructs social orders.

Shincheonji's membership is primarily comprised of believers from Christian churches because the cult is based on the theological ideas and classical writings of Christianity. The self-proclaimed head of the cult, Lee Man-hee, borrowed Christian concepts and altered them. As religious believers make up the majority of the South Korean population and with the support of the United States, Christianity in South Korea has gained power over legal restrictions on religion. Therefore, the country's religious environment is relaxed and religion can even influence its politics. The former president Park Geun-hye's downfall is an example of this. Park's confidante was Choi Soon-sil's father, Choi Tae-min, who was the head of the Korean Salvation Mission. Choi Tae-min once claimed that he and Park Geun-hye were a "couple" in the spiritual world. In South Korea religions are well developed. They are prevalent in various communities and each attempts to pull people to its own camp.

If the above situation is viewed from a marketing perspective, South Korea's religious market can be described as flourishing, its religious economy is developed, and religious products are abundant. Meanwhile, if a product is to enter the market and compete with other well established similar ones, then it must have competitive advantages over the others.

In sorting out the development model of Shincheonji and its success in developing hundreds of thousands of believers, there are two key characteristics: one is their pact with political power and the other is the control of the mind.

The religious sector in South Korea is diverse. Each religion, whether traditional or emerging, is an attractive target to political groups who wish to increase their power and win elections by wooing voters. In return, when political parties come to power they will favor religious groups who have supported them and even deliberately minimise legal restrictions to help religions develop. In Korea the religious sector is not taxed, and the government also subsidizes the development of religion through taxes. In terms of law, the religious sector is also higher in constitutional status than religious belief.

In studying Shincheonji, we find occasionally find news in the South Korean media that there are cases of sudden suicides or the unexplained deaths of civil servants who had investigated cults. Compared with religious powers as such, South Korean mafia groups are much kinder because the mafia is under close surveillance by the police, but the religious sector is comparatively "free."

The example of the Shincheonji cult shows us that there must be a clear boundary between religion and the current social order and no religious groups should have the power to interfere with the normal legal order of society, let alone going above the social legal order. Otherwise there will be a chaotic phenomenon of "a country within a country." In the face of this outbreak, it was the cult group's secrecy and lack of cooperation with the authorities that led to the infection of many innocent citizens and believers, which was why a mayor believed that Lee Man-hee should be charged with murder.

In addition to its compromise with political powers, Shincheonji's ability to control the minds of believers is also a reason for its success.

Because Shincheonji's origins are based on Christian ideas, it was inevitable that it would pull people from mainstream Christian churches. Because of its similarity to Christianity, many Christians who do not know the truth get fooled and caught up in their system and are become victims of brainwashing.

According to a former member of Shincheonji, the cult's promoters use the same tactics and assume the same level of understanding, even if people come to them from a mainstream church. Because of the passion of the cult members, those coming from mainstream churches slowly let their guard down and become relaxed. After a period of contact, the cult begins to offer gospel training courses. The curriculum is tightly controlled, and the difficulty and pressure are very high. The classes are scheduled three times a week and usually less than 20 percent of pass the final exam.  One can only move on to a higher training level if previous courses are passed.

Perhaps you will wonder why the final exam is so difficult and why so few pass the exam? It would seem that this would slow down the cult's membership growth.

I think Lee Man-hee understands human psychology very well and is knowledgeable in the social principles of religious development. If people can join Shincheonji very easily, then the sense of privilege within the cult will be reduced. The result of this reduced sense of superiority will be a smaller social strain so the sense of belonging and identity of the cult will become weaker. The cult could find easier ways to add to its members, but then they might have a group of less committed members. Lee Man-hee is not as concerned about reaching a target number and size as he is about developing a  well-trained staff and members who can obey the command of the organisation.

After membership is established, Lee Man-hee then brainwashes the followers by portraying himself as the head, and convinces them that only by following him can they be saved. As to society and the world, he portrays them as completely depraved. It is not unusual to pit the world against the church's doctrines, but it also isolates believers into their own private small groups  and widens the gap and strain with the world. This group obeys only the orders of Lee Man-hee and any obstruction of his order is a sign of the worldliness and evil.

To obtain this religious product, eternal life, believers need to pay a price, and that price is isolation from society. The greater the cost, the more psychologically precious the product is to the believers who have acquired it. This in turn strengthens the cult member's sense of belonging to a group, making it easier for Lee Man-hee to control the believers. We can see this, how in the face of rising infections, even though the government has repeatedly banned the public gatherings of believers, the cult believers are still hiding their travel records and physical conditions even in the face of death threats.

This incident tells us that Christianity should be in tension with the world, but this tension should not undermine the existing social order. If it destroys the social and legal order, it slides into the cult camp. On the other hand, religious belief is part of the spiritual world, belonging to God, and the world order belongs to Caesar. There is a boundary between Caesar and God, it is not a world without boundaries. Although God dominates the world, this does not mean that Caesar's existence destroys God's power.

Meanwhile, the 'digging' model of the development of Shincheonji tells us that usually while we are developing a church, we may be caught up in the search for grand churches as we fancy their size and venue, ignoring concern for the members. Shincheonji seeks to take advantage of this gap a pull believers away. Therefore, do not focus on issues of size and number, but the important thing is nurturing well the life of each believer.



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