Update (June 27): A Chinese court sentenced 25 members of Eastern Lightning — formally known as the Church of Almighty God — to up to eight-year prison terms today following the murder of a woman at a McDonald's by alleged members of the group, Reuters reports.
The state sentenced dozens of Almighty God followers since the murder, charging them with spreading cult materials in public places, disturbing social order, and undermining national laws, according to Reuters. The Daily Beast and The New York Times report further details.
A Chinese cult known for physical violence and coercion is prompting Chinese pastors to upgrade theological instruction in their congregations and help government officials understand the difference between orthodox Christianity and cult-like offshoots.
The Eastern Lightning sect began in the 1990s around Deng, a woman the group considers the second incarnation of Christ. Members of Eastern Lightning have severely beaten people who try to leave the group, often leaving them crippled, according to Tony Lambert, director of Chinese ministry research at OMF International. Recently, the cult has been advertising for members in Hong Kong and Taiwan, prompting local church leaders to publicly denounce it.
Eastern Lightning leaders teach that followers must leave behind their families and property. According to Lian Xi, professor of world Christianity at Duke Divinity School, they brainwash, kidnap, and murder to grow their following.
The group, which may have several million members, is known for befriending single women and house church members, said Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid.
"The only positive effect is that it makes the house church more alert and vigilant of their teaching on biblical truth to their flocks," Fu said.
In 2002, Eastern Lightning gained attention from the global church when members kidnapped nearly three dozen leaders of the China Gospel Fellowship, a house church network, by luring them to training sessions, Lambert said.
Since the kidnapping, China Gospel Fellowship leaders have been sharing information with government officials, said G. Wright Doyle, senior associate at the Global China Center. It's a tricky step to take, since the churches have been wary of state persecution. But it's an important one, said one Christian worker who regularly meets with house church leaders in China.
"The government isn't very good at distinguishing between house church and cult movements," the worker said, citing the case of a pastor who was mistakenly jailed for 11 days as a cult leader.
Lay Christians can have trouble telling the difference, too. In response, pastors told CT they are building up theological resistance in their churches by adding lessons on church history and doctrine to their Bible teaching. As a result, the cult is less successful at recruiting church members than it was a decade ago, though it still has strong followings in rural China, said an anonymous source who leads a large Chinese house church network.
"It's like a virus that has entered the body," another Chinese ministry leader said. "It may create an antibody resistance, but it also could get worse."