A Shady Meeting
by Phil Martin
Yesterday I had an unusual experience that was simultaneously sobering and instructive. Sobering because of the eternally consequential deception that I saw. Instructive because I had a chance to look up close how these groups operate.
On Sunday I attended a house church here in Changchun for the first time. As I was leaving a man eagerly introduced himself and got my contact info. He asked if I enjoyed studying the Bible (I do) and said he is a new Christian and likes reading the Bible a lot. He asked if we could get together to read the Bible, including the suggestion that I could practice my Chinese. Out of curiosity, I agreed. Over the next two days he continued to contact me and we agreed to meet for lunch on Tuesday. I told Sara that I felt something was off about the whole thing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I decided to go, if for no other reason than to get a better feel for what the church is like in China.
He was very shifty with our plans, not being clear with where we were meeting or what we were going to do. I thought we were meeting at a location where we would then look for a restaurant. He instead picked me up in a car, promptly picked up another person, and took me to an office building.
The whole time they were using a ton of Christian-ese. Most commonly they were saying, “Thank the Lord.” Later, I openly disagreed with the teacher during the service and she responded in an exasperated tone, “Thank the Lord.” It was almost as if this phrase replaced sighs, or uh and um that we use to fill in conversations. Even when she was angry, she covered with a quick “Thank the Lord.”
Once in the meeting place, I realized that I had been tricked into going to a service. They have three 90 minute services every day! About 25 people piled in the little room with a benches and a chalkboard at the front. Only 4 men were there and the average age was at least 45 if not older. The people’s names were recorded as they entered, which I think was a mechanism for putting pressure on people to keep coming. More on that later.
Everyone was suffocatingly friendly and warm. It was the off-putting type of friendliness that is obviously not entirely genuine. All of the leaders had a constant 32 tooth salute, but the members that came in looked tired and unenthusiastic.
When I tried to talk to other members, the leaders were keen to get in my way. When I talked loud enough that others could hear my questions, they leaned in whispered. At one point I said, “I want to ask you directly, what denomination is this?” With a polite sternness three replied in unison, “We are Christians. We don’t accept those other titles.” Then they tried to change the subject. When I didn’t let it go, one said, “Christians don’t need those other titles.” The subtle insinuation being that if you employ a descriptive denominational title, you aren’t a true Christian. All of this was said with warm smiles.
Later as I tried to leave, two members followed me an argued with me for another 45 minutes. Their friendliness and Christian-ese all disappeared when I asked direct questions and refuted their interpretations. I asked the man I met at the church on Sunday if he agrees with that church’s doctrine. He wouldn’t answer. I asked why he went there, and again he deflect the question over and over again. He was going trying to peel off weak and naive Christians.
The teaching and conversation style was very manipulative. I once heard this style described as a gallop, and that is very accurate. They all talked frustratingly fast, jumping from topic to topic, scripture to scripture. If I tried to ask a question, or state an observation I was interrupted and my words were restated back to me in a form that was very different than what I said. It was a form of the “So you are saying” tactic that became infamous in the Channel 4 Jordan Peterson interview.
In the entire time I was there (over 2 hours) there was never one verse that wasn’t taken out of context. Their conversation was FULL of scripture, but it was bits of pieces from all over the Bible. Each one filled with technical meanings that weren’t present in the original author’s mind. If I protested on the meaning of a passage, I was told that that is man’s interpretation, not God’s word. Somehow, all of their interpretations were divine but everyone else’s were conjured up by ignorant men. When I tried to show from the text what I was saying, they employed their shifty, “Oh I know, you are saying that…” and built a straw man which they then tried to destroy.
They often asked seemingly obvious questions. e.g. “Can man use his mind to understand God, to get up to God?” This led to illogical conclusions such as, “We don’t use our mind to understand the Bible, rather the Spirit reveals the mysteries of the kingdom to those of us who have the light.” Conveniently, the teacher happened to know the keys to unlock those mysteries for her followers. Ironically, the seductiveness of the teaching seemed to be appeal to common sense. This is obvious, this is clearly what this verse means. With one hand they undercut rational thought as “Man’s ideas” while with the other making an appeal through the appearance of reason.
Besides straw man arguments, the most common logical fallacy they employed was creating technical terms where they don’t exist. Kingdom, light, darkness, and mystery were all carefully defined in one passage. Then that meaning was imported into another passage different context, different author, and different point. At one point the pronouns “You” and “They” were filled with the meanings “Believers with light” and “Believers without light.” She went on to insist that since the Bible is light, the way to ensure that you have the light is to study the Bible more, which meant coming again tomorrow. “Studying the Bible” became a work that they do to ensure their justification. In this way the Bible wasn’t pointing to the glory of God revealed in the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead the Bible is work that we must do.
At least four times I heard them ask, “Have you been in church for many years but there are things in the Bible that you still don’t understand?” Of course some ideas are difficult to understand, and we all have a level of uncertainty about unclear passages. Heretical groups play on this by offering convenient explanations for these passages. The solution is a spiritual shortcut to miraculous understanding. Ironically, this light comes apart from actually studying the Bible using tools that we would use to understand any other text. Rather, there are secret keys to unlocking spiritual mysteries that you have to continue attending to learn.
Many of the members had clearly been through these lessons before. The teacher would ask questions which they would all answer in unison. If I had imagined what brainwashing might look like, I would have described a scene like that.
The best thing pastors can do to protect members from these self-deceived wolves is to keep teaching the bible. Clear teaching is great antidote to this type of muddle minded, manipulative, and muddying teaching.
The leader’s lesson was designed to create a category of “mysteries of the kingdom” which she could then fill. To reach this goal, she constructed a complex web from different passages. I understood her Chinese, but I can’t remember all the steps.
- Jesus taught in parables to keep some people from understanding.
- Those people were also believers, but didn’t have the light to understand.
- Light is God’s truth.
- Jesus was the truth when he was on earth 2000 years ago.
- Now, for us, the Spirit is truth
- You can have light in you through the Spirit
- The way you get the Spirit is through understand the mysteries of the kingdom.
- The mysteries of the kingdom are OT prophecies.
- They are mysteries because man can understand law and history but not prophecy.
- You understand these prophetic mysteries of the kingdom through studying the Bible.
- Studying the Bible = coming to hear this teacher’s many lessons.
That was as far as I got. They emphasized a few things over and over again. Jesus was then, 2000 years ago. Now we have the Spirit. The two were then pitted against each other. Jesus taught his disciples like that, but the Spirit teaches us like this. This sharp distinction between members of the Trinity is not uncommon, as it is an easy route to less reliance and emphasis on Christ and Him crucified.
They also repeatedly emphasized the idea that many believe in God, but they don’t have access to the full truth. This is a method of prying weak christians out of healthy churches. “Yes, all those christians that you know do believe. But they are blind to the higher level of understanding.” To make this point, they said that all Jews at the time of Jesus were believed in God. Certainly, they did believe that God exists. But the NT is at pains to define saving faith as more than intellectual acknowledgement of God’s existence. In fact the Jews were the group that Jesus and Paul used to make this point over an over again. By fudging the definition of belief, they can introduce a distinction within the people of God. If the Pharisees, Jews, and disciples were all believers, what made the disciples special? Applied to today, those Christians in your former church are believers, but they aren’t Spirit-filled/illuminated/higher level/mystery understanding Christians. In this way, the line between those in and those out is no longer faith alone in the finished work of Christ. Rather there are additional works that open up mysteries to make you the REAL Christian.
Besides likely denying the Trinity, they adhered to a type of universalism. They used 1 Peter 3:19 to say that the dead have a second chance to hear the gospel. Additionally all those who haven’t heard the gospel won’t be judged by God.
- I couldn’t help but notice the absence of the ideas of gospel and grace. Not once did they talk about grace. They did talk about repentance and confession leading to forgiveness, but they didn’t describe this as God’s grace. Rather the confession is the means of forgiveness.
- They didn’t sing! I’m not saying that a church service without singing is a cult. I am saying that praising God is inevitable when filled with joy in God and his works. It feels forced when everyone carries heavy burdens of self-justifying works.
- Everyone was dressed very well. From the outside it looked like a respectable group of devout saints.
- They were very motivated and zealous in recruiting new members. The lesson for us is that there is a way to motivate people and do evangelism that is not Godly. It is based on manipulation of people’s fear and pride.
- Being there was very uncomfortable. As we seek to preach the gospel to people, I hope that we never make them uncomfortable with our methods. The gospel is offensive, and that is good and necessary. That doesn’t mean we should be offensive. In short it gave me sympathy for those that I preach to. I want to be clear and simple. Explaining the text within its context. We should respectfully give people time for questions and answering those questions patiently from the Bible.