Approaching The Lair
I spent a night with an apocalyptic cult.
One block away from St Barnabas Broadway Anglican church in the middle of Sydney sits the World Mission Society of God. Their building had nothing particularly interesting about it: it just looked like any other business centre full of small company offices that you might pass in that area of Sydney. There were no sinister vibes as I walked up to the front door.
What lay inside was a slightly different story.
My phone buzzed as it received an SMS: “Please call me or text me when you get in here. Thanks Alex.” Their enclave needed a swipe card to enter. After a short wait the Deacon of the Church came down to collect me.
This Deacon who I was talking to volunteers his time to evangelise, lead the service, run bible studies and so on. He claims to not be paid a cent by the organisation. He explained he works as a chef outside the “church”.
I’m not sure what the situation looks like the further you go up the hierarchy, but I assume that the big dogs at the top of the organisation receive significant cash flow from the lower ranks, such as this small gathering I was about to witness.
Memories of Previous Encounters
I was ushered into the cult’s office, which is essentially a refurbished apartment.
I had been here once before, during my first extended bible study with these people. I remembered how at that first meeting, we flipped back and forth through scripture for 3 hours straight, as another Deacon took me on a grand tour of this cult’s unique interpretation of the bible. I recall how during that meeting it took 90 minutes for me to catch on to where the study was heading: I could tell that the deacon was eventually going to do the grand reveal and claim that the founder of his church is Jesus come again. I waited another 90 minutes with baited breath: “When is he going to say it? When is he going to say it?”
When he finally dropped the bomb, I was so battered and exhausted from flipping back and forth in his bible that I could barely register a response. A lethargic “that’s interesting, I’ll have to think about it”, is all I could muster. The Deacon stared at me earnestly, clearly praying hard silently, praising God that he had found someone so receptive, and imploring him to lead me to the right path (ie. praying that I would convert to their church).
After that first bible study, I started inviting representatives from this cult to come and visit my house and continue chatting with me. Over the weeks that followed they lead me through their unique positions. Certain doctrines stood out:
- The Jewish Passover, eclectically fused with the Christian Lord’s Supper features prominently in their thinking. In their understanding, the end of the world is upon us and observing the Christian Lord’s Supper on the date of the Jewish Passover is the only way to escape the coming inferno.
- They believe in a Modalist Trinity. They think that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all the same person, just manifesting themselves in different ways at different times of history.
- They believe in two distinct Gods. The first God is the Modalist amalgamation of the Trinitarian persons, who they generally refer to as “God the Father”. The second God is “God the Mother”. This cult escapes all the biblical commands to observe strict monotheism by invoking the principle in Genesis 2:24 that when man and woman are united in marriage they become “one flesh”.
- They believe that both of their Gods have become incarnate one or more times. God the Father incarnated once 2000 years ago as Christ Jesus, and his second coming occurred on 13 January 1918, when he reincarnated as Christ Ahn Sahng-hong, a Korean minister of a breakaway Seventh Day Adventist church who died on 25 February 1985. God the mother incarnated on 29 October 1943 as a Korean woman called Jang Gil-ja who is still alive to this day.
- The second coming of Christ is identified with the Holy Spirit, and this cult believes that Christ Ahn Sahng-hong is in actual fact the Holy Spirit.
- They hold to a naive understanding of the classical protestant doctrine of “Sola Fide” – faith alone – and they have a particularly strange and seemingly arbitrary soteriology. They think that prior to Jesus’ coming a person had to believe in God the Father, by the name of YHWH, in order to be saved. They hold that once Jesus had come, we had transitioned from the age of the father to the age of the son, with the implication being that it is no longer sufficient to believe in the father alone in order to be saved, but you must believe in the son too. They believe that in 1918, with the birth of Ahn Sahng-hong, we entered into the age of the Holy Spirit, and of course it is now no longer sufficient to simply believe in Jesus; a person must confess Christ Ahn Sahng-hong in order to be saved. I have not yet been able to establish how such a wacky and naive “Faith alone” soteriology is compatible with the cult’s insistence that one must observe the Jewish Passover in order to be saved.
In between the bible studies with members from this cult, I would encounter missionaries on campus at the University of Sydney where I study. One particular missionary from Korea stands out in my memory. He struck me as incredibly stubborn, angry, fundamentalist and close minded, convinced that he had the truth and the rest of the world is lost and not to be trusted. I remember him blindly quoting scriptures at me during our brief discussion, attempting to shut me down by biblical fiat.
I asked him why I should trust the bible. He answered that it contains many prophecies, all of which have come true. I found this entirely disputable, but it didn’t seem like it would be fruitful to push him on the point. He insisted that his cult is the only church on earth today which observes the passover. I rolled my eyes and responded that the Roman Catholic church observes it every single day, but he didn’t want to hear it and just resumed firing bible verses at me as if that would prove him right.
I concluded that he wasn’t actually trying to convince me of his position; he was trying to convince himself. His strategy of rote learning bible verses and regurgitating them during conversation was like a drug that would sustain the illusion that his position rested on solid ground.
I asked him if he realised that God the Mother was a living woman. He responded that yes he knew that, and he has even met her in person. I was intrigued and asked him what she was like; he leant back with an offended expression, superior posture and with an indignant voice stated “She was like God!” I was amused, and let the conversation flow onwards.
Research Into The Cult
I began to do some research into the origins of their movement.
Who really was this Christ Ahn Sahng-hong character anyway? What I discovered didn’t exactly mesh with the information I was receiving from the cult first hand.
I discovered that Ahn Sahng-hong was simply a disillusioned parishioner of the Seventh Day Adventist church in Korea. In true protestant spirit, he simply got up, left, and started his own church. The church he founded was not all that different from the SDA church that he had abandoned. At no point during his life was he reported to have claimed that he was the second coming of Christ, and there is nothing in his extant writings which indicates he himself and his early followers thought of him as anything less than a simple preacher and teacher.
At one point while he was alive, some of the members of his church started worshipping a woman called Um Sooin, claiming that she was God the Mother and that Ahn Sahng-Hong was Jesus come again. These members were expelled from his church, and Ahn Sahng-Hong wrote a scathing critique and rebuttal of their views.
Upon his death in 1985, there was an immediate schism in the church he left behind. Some people wanted to conservatively follow the direction that he had set the church on before his death. Other people wanted to deify him as God and reintroduce the concept of God the Mother. The first group – lead by his son – split off as the “New Covenant Passover Church of God” the second, larger group went it’s own way and has adopted a variety of names, including “Witnesses of Ahn Sahng-hong Church of God” and “World Mission Society of God”.
A Brief Lesson Before The Liturgy
We entered the apartment, where there were rows of chairs arranged in the living room facing a pew and a television. A couple of people were sitting in the pews. We greeted each other and I was keen to chat, but I was whisked away to one of the bedrooms which had been done up as a little conference room. The Deacon sat down at the table and launched into a pre-prepared lesson.
“God’s people should fully observe the commandments of God”, he proclaimed. I immediately thought to myself “Sounds like some sort of spin on the old heresy of saving yourself via good works and keeping the law”. We began to go on another tour of scripture. It struck me that these people take the bible incredibly literally, and don’t pay much heed to the literary context of the verses that they focus on.
This particular study was all about idolatry, with a particular focus on Christian crosses being a most grievous violation of the second commandment. “The Cross does not save us, the passover does” he said. This was the first of many times the passover would be mentioned tonight. “Most Christians think that you must worship the cross to be saved” he said, making me wonder how he could be so deep in his own cults doctrines that he could be so misinformed as to what the wider Christian world believes.
We read 1 Corinthians 11:4-7, using the NIV translation. I noticed that this church only uses the NIV and enquired why. The Deacon responded that the NIV is optimal because it easy to understand. So much for sticking to the original Greek!
1 Corinthians 11:4-7 is a part of the new testament where Paul commands women to cover their hair during church services. Most Christian communities take that command to be a historical one – appropriate to a certain time and place – observance being optional today. However these guys take it literally and seriously.
“So wait, why exactly do you do this?” I asked, hoping that he would give me some actual logical reasons. “Because the bible says so.” is the only response I received. I internally shook my head.
We flicked to Revelation 14:1-3. He explained to me that 144000 people would be saved without having to die, whereas “the multitude” are those who are saved but die before the second (or should I say third?) coming of Christ, at which point they will resurrect. Apparently this special group of 144000 people will ascend to heaven bodily, just like Jesus did, and will have something the Deacon mysteriously referred to as “creation power”, as well as judge angels and demons.
The Deacon highlighted the fact that the 144000 saved people are said to be singing a “new song”. He claimed that their church knows this song, and regularly sings it. I was intrigued, as I had never heard any doctrine similar to this before.
The Service Starts
8pm had arrived, so we returned to the living room and I took a seat at the back, next to a Nepalese guy. I noticed that the congregation was strictly gender-segregated: All the women sat on the right and wore veils, while all the men sat on the left. There was a young looking boy sitting on the men’s side, he looked about 12 or 13.
The service started with everyone simultaneously reciting the “teachings of mother”
It is more blessed to give love than to receive, as God always gives love.
When we give glory to God, the glory returns to us.
A beautiful mind has no hate, and brings forth a perfect love.
As Abraham was blessed with the better when he gave in for his nephew Lot, so we are blessed more greatly when we give in for our brothers and sisters.
Being arrogant means wanting to be served.
Though others do not work, we should not complain but do our work faithfully. Having the mind of a master allows us to work with pleasure and ease.
Arrogance comes from a mind full of complaint. When we serve God always with gratitude in our hearts, complaint and arrogance recede from us, and humility dwells in our hearts.
When we praise brothers and sisters, the praise returns to us.
As the sea receives all the dirt and purifies it, we should have a broad and beautiful mind enough to cover up even the faults of our brothers and sisters.
Whoever wants to be led by the Lamb should become a lamb smaller than the Lamb.
Sacrifice is needed to become a greater vessel.
We should endure present sufferings, for the Kingdom of Heaven is waiting for us.
Even God did not come to be served, but to serve. When we serve one another without wanting to be served, God will be pleased.
This was immediately followed by three hymns from their unique hymn book (302, 66 and 69), suspiciously labelled “A New Song” in reference to Revelation 14. I asked where I could obtain one of these hymn books and was told that they are reserved for members of the cult.
After the singing, the Deacon stood behind the pew at the front and launched into a long prayer. At first I couldn’t tell if it was formulaic or spontaneous prayer, however as he rambled on I realised that he was just making it up as he went along. Certain elements of the prayer contained hints of the cult’s apocalyptic nature, for example he referred to how most people are “deceived by Satan and the false prophet”, to which the congregation all murmured a hearty “amen!”. He concluded the prayer “in the name of Ahn Sahng-Hong yim” and everyone sat down.
The sermon began, although it turned out to be more like a bible study where the leader does all the talking, and the only interaction that the congregation has is to say “amen!” at regular intervals. The topic today was idolatry, “You shall have no other god’s before me”.
The preacher immediately revealed his naive understanding of Sola Fide. “Many Christians believe that you just have to have faith and you will be saved” he claimed. “The irony is that he’s not far from the truth” I thought to myself: most Christians DO believe that you just need to have faith and you will be saved. Most Christians don’t take the time to read up on the deep theology at the core of their tradition, and therefore never comprehend that their naive understanding of Sola Fide is actually deep and damnable heresy. This cult therefore rightly rejects the common distortion of the doctrine that the average Christian is peddling. “But alas,” I thought, “they don’t understand the true doctrine either”.
The preacher directed us to Matthew 22:35-38. He highlighted that the greatest commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then he flipped to 2 Kings 23:25, and noted that the only person who is spoken of as keeping all the commandments of God was King Josiah. Then we read 2 Kings 23:21-23 and once again the speaker emphasised the importance of keeping the passover.
The speaker was drawing outrageous, creative, illogical links between concepts based on the verses we just read. “How do we keep the greatest commandment?” he rhetorically asked. “By keeping the passover” he firmly answered. “Amen!” rumbled the congregation. “Is there any other way to be saved?” he asked. “NO!” exclaimed almost everyone in the room simultaneously, followed by lots more “Amen!”.
We jumped to Deuteronomy 6:4-8. The preacher seized on the language used in verse 5 “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Noticing the similarities between that and previous verses we had just read, the speaker concluded “The greatest commandment of God is to keep the passover”.
We continued on a whirlwind tour of scripture following this same pattern again and again. First of all we would read a verse, then the preacher would ask some rhetorical question about what we need to do to be saved, and the answer would always be some variant on “we must keep the passover” followed by lots of “Amen!” from the crowd.
At one point, the preacher asked “What happens to those who don’t keep the passover?” and interestingly he completely waffled on the answer, rather than just being straight up and confessing that they will burn in hellfire forever and ever.
Hints of Extremism
About halfway through the sermon, things started to get weird.
“Who hates the passover the most?” the preacher queried. “Satan” muttered the congregation. “How will Satan tell us not to keep passover?” he asked. “Indirectly, through enticements and temptations” he immediately responded.
This was a prime example of brainwashing tactics. The preacher was convincing his flock that if anyone objects or disagrees with his doctrine, they are equivalent to Satan.
He flipped to Deuteronomy 13:1-5, and I started to get uncomfortable as he continued to take what it said dangerously literally. “What should we do with false prophets and those who disbelieve?” the preacher asked. “The bible says to kill them!” he confidently proclaimed. “Satan always tries to destroy the passover” he claimed, “We can see it in history!” I was getting very edgy at this point, as the preaching seemed to be moving towards expounding extremist ideology.
We flipped to Isaiah 24:1-6, a classic Armageddon text which describes the chaos and terror as the world comes to an end. “Why were these people damned?” the preacher asked. “Because they broke the law and failed to keep the passover” he staunchly stated.
I realised that these people are experiencing a dramatic tunnel vision, as they are utterly convinced that the world is about to go up in eschatalogical flames and they are freaking out trying to work out how to escape such a fate. They have a cult-level sense of urgency and are single-mindedly convinced that following the Jewish Passover is the only way to escape the coming calamity. “We share the good news” the preacher intones, “because this is how we escape the destruction.”
The End of the Service
The sermon concluded around 8:45, and we moved on to the tail end of their informal evangelical-esque liturgy. Another hymn was sung (song 70), as the collection bag was passed around and the congregation contributed their tithings.
After the tithing song, a sister was called to the front to deliver the closing prayer. Once again I couldn’t tell if it was spontaneous or formulaic, but the content was remarkable. Lots of petitions were addressed to both the father and the mother, I got gnostic vibes as she repeated “Thanks for saving us from this sinful and evil world” twice. Some sort of doctrine of pre-existence was briefly hinted at.
As I listened to this prayer, I was struck by how simplistic, primitive and unsophisticated these people were. Their faith was not particularly reflective, and involved simply taking the bible as literally as possible.
After her prayer, the entire congregation together recited a formulaic prayer in Korean. Unfortunately I’m not sure what was said and don’t have access to the text or a translation.
With that, the service was finished. All of the women immediately removed their veils and people began to pack up and go home. The Deacon approached me and asked me to delete the photos I had taken inside the building that day. “What have they got to hide?” I wondered to myself.
I hung around for a little longer and tried to interact with some of the people, but they all seemed highly brainwashed and incapable of actually holding a conversation. Eventually I left and walked home. I made it home alive, happy that I managed to survive the experience. I intend to continue meeting with their missionaries, and hope to visit their main church out at Blacktown next time.
Appendix: Summary of the WMSCOG liturgy
- Communal recitation of the 13 “Teachings of Mother”
- Three hymns, two sitting and one standing
- Deacon leads with an opening prayer in spontaneous format
- The core Bible study and sermon
- Hymn, and collection of tithings
- Sister delivers a closing prayer in spontaneous format
- Entire congregation recites a formulaic liturgical prayer in Korean
The songs that were sung were all heavily tailored to express the cults unique theology. Far more was sung about “Heavenly Mother” and “Christ Ahn Sahng-hong”, than was sung about the father, Yahweh or Jesus.