Witness Lee was the protege of his predecessor, Watchman Nee, a well-known missionary in China. The “Local Church” movement was founded in China by Nee and brought to America in 1962 by Witness Lee. Thus began a long and strange saga of charges, counter-charges, lawsuits, strife, and misunderstandings between the “local church” movement and the Evangelical community that has left much wreckage in its wake, and has yet to be fully resolved. Foremost in the controversy is whether the LC is a legitimate movement within Christianity or a cult. Statements made by Lee over the years have caused his organization to be described as a cult by such counter-cult organizations as the Christian Research Institute—under both founder Walter Martin and current president Hank Hanegraaff—and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. However, a 50-page series of articles in a 2009 edition of the CRI Journal has come out strongly in favor of Lee’s teachings and the local church movement.
The history of the conflict between Witness Lee and his “local church” movement—also known as the “Lord’s Recovery Movement,” along with their publishing arm, Living Stream Ministry (LSM)—and the counter-cult establishment is far too long for a detailed recounting here, but those who are interested in the full story can access it through the CRI website http://journal.equip.org/issues/we-were-wrong. Since the publication of CRi’s retraction of their former stand, churches and ministries, including GotQuestions.org, have had to rethink and reinvestigate their stand on Witness Lee and the Local Church.
For the purposes of this article, the major causes of controversy between the Local Church and the Christian community in the West will be addressed. The concerns raised by counter-cult organizations about Lee’s teachings center primarily on four areas: the nature of God, the nature of man, the legitimacy of Evangelical churches and denominations, and the lawsuits brought against Evangelical churches, publishers and individuals by the Local Church. We will look at them one by one.
Regarding Lee’s views on the theological doctrines of God and man, the controversy centers around statements which are “red flags” to Evangelicals, particularly those in the West. This is an important factor to keep in mind in this discussion because it appears much of the controversy could have been avoided if only Lee and his followers had made an effort to understand the Western Christian culture into which they were moving. Part of the training of Western missionaries sent to foreign countries is sensitivity to other cultures. Unfortunately, in bringing their doctrines to the West, no effort was made to “Westernize” them, and this was the source of much of the confusion, misunderstandings, and recriminations that resulted. For one thing, Lee’s method of teaching—to make radical statements and then balance them elsewhere in his teachings—proved to be antithetical to the Western idea of “say what you mean and mean what you say.” Lee’s doctrinal statements on the nature of God and the nature of man are perfect examples. In one of his messages, he states: “The traditional explanation of the Trinity is grossly inadequate and borders on tritheism” (Life Messages, p. 164). Naturally, this is enough to inflame Western Evangelicals, who proudly affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as it has been passed down from the great theologians of our Western Christian heritage. To judge it to be “grossly inadequate” by Lee raised legitimate concerns about Lee himself. Closer scrutiny of the Lee’s teachings elsewhere, however, bring to light that they actually agree with, and can be squared with, Evangelical orthodoxy.
The same can be said of his teachings on the nature of man. Some of his most inflammatory statements are in regard to what appears, on the surface, to assert the deity of man. In an LSM publication, A Deeper Study of the Divine Dispensing (p. 54), Lee states “My burden is to show you clearly that God’s economy and plan is to make Himself man and to make us, His created beings, God.” On page 53 we read: “We are born of God; hence, in this sense, we are God.” In the same publication, Lee refers to the Triune God as now the “four-in-one” God, with man as the fourth person. Nothing raises a red flag to Evangelicals faster than any notion that man is God, because we are rightly taught that it is the original lie from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:5) and is the same lie propagated by cults and false religions such as Hinduism, New Age, and Mormonism throughout history. To the Western mind at least, imparting the idea of any kind of godhood to those who struggle against the sin nature is disastrous. Western Christians, already steeped in the philosophy of freedom, autonomy, individuality, and the triumph of the human will—and the pride such thinking inevitably produces—need not be encouraged to see themselves as divine. But the CRI researchers found that a closer examination of context and terminology reveals that Lee’s views on the “deification” of man (another unfortunate choice of words and red flag term) do not really mean that at all. The sentence after the “in this sense, we are God” quote reads “Nevertheless, we must know that we do not share God’s Person and cannot be worshipped by others.” Herein lies the problem. In other words, putting the two statements together, Lee is essentially saying we are God, but we are not God. It is no wonder that confusion is rampant.
Regarding the third area of controversy, this is what Witness Lee has said in his own publications about Christians and Christianity: “We do not care for Christianity, we do not care for Christendom, we do not care for the Roman Catholic Church, and we do not care for all the denominations, because in the Bible it says that the great Babylon is fallen. This is a declaration. Christianity is fallen, Christendom is fallen, Catholicism is fallen, and all the denominations are fallen. Hallelujah!” Once again, Lee’s unfortunate choice of words, possibly due to English not being his native language, has caused consternation among American Evangelicals. To say that Christianity is fallen is seen as painting with a far-too-broad brush and accusing the entire of the body of Christ of being false and fallen creatures. But here again, we have to dig deeper to find what Lee really meant by that statement. Context and terminology are once again at the center of a true understanding of Lee’s doctrine. After careful and diligent examination, the CRI researchers came to the conclusion that Lee’s pattern of the use of “certain hot button words associated in our minds with heresy or cultism” has led to misunderstanding of his meaning.
As one of the LSM leaders expressed it, “We are not out to proclaim that the denominations are Babylon.” However, Lee’s own statement, quoted above, that “we do not care for all the denominations, because in the Bible it says that the great Babylon is fallen” seems a direct contradiction, whether intentional or not.
The fourth major area of controversy between Evangelicals and the Local Church centers on the number of lawsuits brought by the Local Church and LSM leadership against individuals and ministries that were critical of them, despite the clear New Testament teaching against suing a Christian brother (1 Corinthians 6:1–8). This led to allegations of a “history of litigiousness” on the part of the Local Church and charges that they forced some of their opposing ministries into bankruptcy by the litigation expenses they were forced to incur. This is a complicated situation that has gone on for more than a decade and the details—who sued who when and how often—are still in dispute among the parties. For a complete history of the litigants and legal decisions, the reader is once again referred to the CRI article.
Summing up the crux of the conflict, it would appear that both parties bear a share of the responsibility. Lee and the Local Church leadership do not share the Western heritage that has shaped the thought processes and approaches of the Westerners among whom they settled. English was not their first language, particularly of the early leaders, and both the cultural differences and language barrier led to much misunderstanding. At the same time, the Local Church’s distinctively Chinese approach to Christianity was so unfamiliar to Westerners that it smacked of cultism, whether or not any actually existed. The Local Church leadership was unaware of the impact the use of certain “hot button” words would have on cult-wary evangelicals in America, while Western Christians were unaware of the tremendous impact that labeling a group a cult had on the Chinese. The Local Church resisted any changes in their terminology and for the most part refused to provide contextual explanations for some of their doctrines, an unfortunate approach that led to even deeper rifts between the two sides. At the same time, the counter-cultists failed to be as thorough as they could have been in their research. Thus, both sides developed an “us vs. them” mentality which negatively influenced both their thoughts and actions.
What is the conclusion of the matter and what are Christians to believe about Witness Lee and the “Local Church” movement? Elliot Miller, editor-in-chief of the Christian Research Journal, declares at the end of the 50-page treatment “We were wrong” and concludes that the Local Church is not an “aberrant Christian group” but a “solid orthodox group of believers.” Since Got Questions Ministries has a cordial and respectful relationship with CRI, we have no doubt their conclusions are based on extensive and diligent research and are therefore valid. It is left to the individual Christian to decide whether the thousands of man-hours, not to mention the expense of defending the various parties in court, the decades of charges, defenses, counter-charges and acrimony have not been, at best, a waste of time and at worst, a blot on the face of Christianity. How much more profitable it would have been if the hundreds of people and thousands of hours had been dedicated to knowing, loving, and obeying Jesus Christ. No doubt the counter-cult organizations thought they were providing a much needed service to the Christian community. No doubt the Local Church and Living Streams Ministry felt they were justified in their quest to clear their names and set the record straight. But as alluded to above, much of the controversy could have been avoided in the first place by more careful attention by both sides to the details of cross cultural communication. The old saying “the devil is in the details” finds its verification in this sad situation. The fear is that the devil may have profited from this controversy more than the body of Christ and for that, all parties are culpable.
 Got Questions Ministries. (2010). Got Questions? Bible Questions Answered. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.