Pastoral Perspectives

A Distancing Of A Different Kind

As a result of the recent COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea, a religious group known as Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ) is now under greater public scrutiny. This is because a female member in her 60’s who had continued to attend worship services despite being unwell ended up being tested positive for the coronavirus. Upon further contact tracing, the South Korean health authorities found her to be responsible for infecting more than 400 other members and causing one of the local branches of SCJ to become a virus cluster within the city of Daegu.

In Singapore, SCJ is also embroiled in some controversy now that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has begun to investigate their activities due to some accusations of this group being known as a cult. In their official statement, MHA mentioned that “A controlling influence is exerted over young members requiring them to comply with strict instructions to conceal the local existence of SCJ and their involvement with it”. In addition, “members are not allowed to contact one another, verify teachings with other churches, or inform their families of their involvement”.

Upon further investigation, MHA has discovered that not only has this group failed to officially register in Singapore, it has also put up several front companies to carry out their illicit activities. Given that this group is known to have little qualms resorting to deceptive recruitment methods in order to get people to be involved with them, it is no wonder that the MHA has chosen to step in and is considering banning SCJ’s activities in Singapore.

As Christians, we can take heart that a move like this will certainly help curtail the influence of such an unorthodox group in our nation. Judging from the experiences of a handful of Singaporeans who were initially drawn to SCJ, there is a real danger that many other young Christians would have been lured into their trap if not for this timely exposé.

This danger arises because to those who attended SCJ’s “Bible study” sessions, much of what SCJ taught and practiced appear to be similar to mainstream Christianity. For example, they would conclude each session by reciting “The Lord’s Prayer”. Furthermore, the songs sung during worship are familiar ones such as How Great is our God

In fact, to many undiscerning believers, SCJ could have easily passed off as being biblical and adhering to Sola Scriptura. This is because the teachers from SCJ often portray themselves as being passionate about the Bible and seem to be always able to back up their teaching points with Scripture. As time passes by, the new “recruits” would be led to hold their teachers in high regards and consider them as credible and knowledgeable even when they were actually distorting Scripture and taking verses out of context.

Apart from their teachings which are touted as profound truths that can only be perceived by the spiritually mature, SCJ has also been rather successful in offering a sense of community. They would extend hospitality through offering cooked meals before each session and are very intentional about helping newcomers feel like they belong there. Unfortunately, their real intention is not to help the individual grow in their obedience and reverence of Jesus but encourage a blind and unquestioning allegiance unto SCJ’s human founder.

According to one young adult who joined them for some sessions, she was under the impression that the people she met were all very genuine and patient.  It was only upon her father sharing a newspaper article on SCJ that she started to suspect that some of the other newcomers may not be actual seekers but were being “planted” as positive influences.

It is not surprising that even in today’s context, there are a myriad of religious groups who claim to have affiliation with Christianity but are actually far from orthodoxy. After all, Jesus as well as his disciples have warned believers against false prophets and false teachers (Matthew 7:15, Acts 20:28-29) and how the latter may arise from within the Christian community (2 Peter 2:1). Here it is worth noting that SCJ’s founder Lee Man Hee himself used to part of a fringe religious group whose founder once served as an Elder in a Presbyterian Church in Korea!

When it comes to handling false teaching, Apostle Paul even had to on certain occasions publicly name some of the false teachers (Hymenaeus, Philetus – 2 Tim 2:17). Such an action was needful so that the churches could watch out for such individuals and guard against their influence. Likewise, Christians today, especially church leaders would understand why there is a need to be wary and help minimise the spread of false teaching. It is no coincidence that Apostle Paul would unreservedly describe false teaching as gangrene.

Given that social distancing is being encouraged today in view of the COVID-19 outbreak, there would be a need for Christians to practice “theological distancing” whenever appropriate and necessary. In some instances, it could mean simply refraining from forwarding an inspirational quote or a sermon excerpt of some “celebrity” pastors of questionable theological inclination even when it feels and sounds so right.

In our church library, we do not carry some titles even though they may be bestsellers in the Christian bookstores because some of their content is not consistent with what Scripture teaches or are found wanting in their theological reasoning. Hopefully, our worshippers will understand that it is not a matter of allowing the believer to enjoy the “meat” and spit out the “bones” by themselves in the name of learning from others when there are other titles with sound teaching on the same topic.

However, distancing does not mean that we stay away from individuals who are enamoured by false teachings or deceived by some heretical groups. In such cases, we certainly need to humble ourselves in prayer and ask God to grant us wisdom and love in a manner where we can be winsome and instrumental in helping others come to their senses (2 Tim 2:24-26).    

If we desire to grow in discernment and maturity, we will need to cultivate a hunger for God’s Word and be properly rooted in “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). More often than not, old is gold when it comes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More than just head knowledge, Christians must seek to put God’s Word into practice together with the rest of God’s people. And as we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us to reverence and deeper delight in God’s truth, we will find ourselves far closer to God than any new “revelation” can ever offer.  

Rev Edwin Wong

March 22, 2020