Periodically, alleged members of the banned religious movement Three Grades of Servants are arrested in China. However, it is possible that the group no longer exists.
Bitter Winter has reported repeatedly about the arrest and sentencing of Christians in China under the accusation of being active in a xie jiao called Three Grades of Servants (三班仆人). However, those arrested and sentenced denied being part of the movement and claimed that in fact they had never heard this name.
But what is the Three Grades of Servants? As for other Christian new religious movements, information is scarce and often come from the Chinese authorities.
The founder of the group was one Xu Wenku (徐文库, 1946–2006), also known under the names of Xu Shuangfu (徐双富) and Xu Shengguang (徐圣光). Reportedly, Xu was born in Nanzhao county, in the province of Henan, in 1946. He converted to Christianity as a child or a teenager, and joined with other independent preachers to evangelize after the end of the Cultural Revolution. He was arrested repeatedly. His evangelistic activities were confused with those of the Shouters by the authorities, although in fact he had never joined the Shouters. When the Shouters were severely repressed in Henan in 1982, Xu escaped to Shaanxi, where he continued an independent ministry. He founded his religious movement between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. By 2000, it had between half million and one million members according to Chinese official sources.
Xu’s main teaching was that God operates in history through the recurring pattern of “three grades of servants,” which may be triumvirates either of persons or of functions. In the Old Testament, there were rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties. The primitive Christian Church had apostles, prophets, and teachers. Xu’s movement claimed to restore this system, by creating a triumvirate consisting of servants, “handmaids” (使女) and evangelists(守望). Within the servants, there were again three Grades, with Xu as the “Great Servant” (大仆人) occupying the higher degree.
The Three Grades of Servants were accused by the CCP of practicing “the remission of sins through lashes.” According to this criticism, members of the movements were frequently subjected to 40 lashes for being purged of their sins. It is difficult to evaluate whether these accusations are true, although, as some scholars have noted, the practice of ritual lashes had existed in China before, in Catholic, Buddhist, and Taoist brotherhoods.
According to CCP’s anti-cult sources, Xu also predicted the Second Coming of Christ and the “elimination” of nonbelievers for the year 1989, and later for the year 1993. Again, it is difficult to distinguish the truth from official CCP propaganda in these allegations.
What is certain is that Xu preached with virulence against The Church of Almighty God and other house churches, trying to prevent his followers from converting to other religious groups, and that, in the areas where his movement operated, several members of The Church of Almighty God were assassinated between 2004 and 2005. Hundreds of members of the Three Grades of Servants were arrested for these crimes, including Xu. According to CCP sources, Xu confessed to have ordered the murders. He was convicted, and executed in November 2006, although his daughter maintained that he confessed only because of torture. Other leaders of the Three Grades of Servants were also executed or received heavy jail sentences.
As a result of the 2005-2006 crackdown, several scholars believe that the Three Grades of Servants disappeared or were reduced to a handful of underground followers. Under President Xi Jinping, however, the Office 610, which is in charge of suppressing the xie jiao, and other police forces have arrested several Christians claiming that they are members of the Three Grades of Servants. These Christians vehemently denied that this is the case. The most probable explanation of these arrests is that the CCP simply uses the name of the Three Grades of Servants, a group that is very unpopular among Chinese Christians, to justify the arrest and sentencing of members of house churches who have nothing to do with the movement founded by Xu Wenku.
The article has been amended on December 1, 2018, on the basis of information received from our correspondents in China.