Question: "What is Shincheonji? Is it a cult?"
Answer: Shincheonji, sometimes spelled “Shinchonji” or abbreviated as SCJ, is a pseudo-Christian religion primarily practiced in South Korea. The religion’s official name is “Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.” It was created by Lee Man-Hee in the 1980s and currently claims just under 200,000 adherents. The word Shincheonji itself is a combination of the Korean terms for “new,” “heaven,” and “earth.” The group has been criticized for shallow, academically weak teachings, taking an extremely figurative view of biblical texts, a cult-like atmosphere, and its members’ involvement in various social, civil, and legal troubles.
The sect’s twisting of Scripture has actually inspired several anti-Shincheonji task forces. Some are run by church groups, others by organizations like newspapers and television stations. The general Korean strategy for opposing Shincheonji uses social and internet media to discourage people from joining it. These materials also warn people about evangelism efforts that seem Christian but are actually coming from a Shincheonji group. Many Christian churches in South Korea actively work to keep their members from being dragged into Shincheonji’s aberrant theology.
The Shincheonji church is very active in cultural and volunteer efforts. The church runs several social-action organizations which disguise their relationship to Shincheonji teachings. One of their more famous events is an Olympics-style athletics festival.
The word cult is controversial and can be difficult to define. By the most common use of the term, however, it would be fair to consider Shincheonji a very large, very successful cult. The group is headed by a single, charismatic leader, Lee Man-Hee, who claims to have a special ability to interpret the Bible. When challenged about his authority, Lee can be evasive, but he frequently implies that he is immortal and that salvation requires faith in him, rather than in Jesus Christ. In fact, Lee’s Shincheonji church teaches that the Bible is primarily composed of metaphors, and he alone has the spiritual gift for correctly interpreting them.
Cults typically practice indoctrination rather than education. Shincheonji offers free Bible classes, which of course are slanted toward their theology. However, those involved in SJC are also taught that counter-evidence or other forms of discussion are tests of their faith. This causes them to ignore facts, reasons, and evidence that contradict Lee Man-Hee’s teaching. In some cases, Shincheonji disciples are discouraged from reading the news or using the internet, as these media can contain potentially damning challenges to their faith.
False teachings are a hallmark of cults, as well. Shincheonji teaches that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4 are members of the 12 “tribes” of Shincheonji. 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. In fact, Shincheonji goes so far as to claim that Revelation 7:2 is a specific reference to Korea (“East”) and to Lee (the first “angel”) himself.
Unfortunately, the most significant aspect of Shincheonji in South Korea is its success. By some estimates, there are as many as fifty heretical, home-grown, pseudo-Christian sects—or cults—in South Korea. Most are relatively small and have a low impact. The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, however, is a major diversion from the true gospel.