Witness Lee in the Dock
An ad hoc group of 60 evangelical leaders published an open letter in January challenging Living Stream Ministry (LSM) to disavow controversial statements from founder Witness Lee, who died in 1997. The open letter renews arguments hashed out for more than three decades about LSM and its Local Churches. Local Churches claim between 30,000 and 40,000 members in North America, along with at least 300,000 more worldwide.
Signers included noted evangelical scholars Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary; Gordon Lewis, professor emeritus at Denver Seminary; Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson; and Earl Radmacher, president emeritus at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.
The letter asks LSM to disavow and cease publishing statements from Lee on the doctrine of God and doctrine of man. "The letter also asks LSM and the 'local churches' to renounce statements made by Lee that denigrate evangelical Christian denominations and organizations," a release from the signers said. "Finally, the letter appeals to the leadership of LSM and the 'local churches' to discontinue their use of lawsuits and threatened litigation against Christian individuals and organizations to answer criticisms or resolve disputes."
In response to a Harvest House Publishers suit against them, LSM/Local Churches sued the publishing house and authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon over the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, a 1999 volume that included them. In December 2006, the Texas Supreme Court denied a petition to review the $136 million lawsuit, which a Texas Court of Appeals rejected in January 2006. A Harvest House spokesman said neither the firm nor authors Ankerberg or Weldon organized the open letter.
LSM leaders declined to disavow the statements but offered to meet with critics. "The open letter of evangelical leaders presents Witness Lee's statements without the biblical texts on which they are based, without the exposition of those texts, and without any balancing context found in his writings," an LSM statement said. "Therefore, they do not fairly present his teaching on these important points of truth."
One Lee statement criticized in the open letter comes from his 1989 Life Messages. "The traditional explanation of the Trinity is grossly inadequate and borders on tritheism," Lee said. "When the Spirit of God is joined with us, God is not left behind, nor does Christ remain on the throne. This is the impression Christianity gives." In another volume published by LSM, Lee said, "The denominational organizations have been utilized by Satan to set up his satanic system to destroy God's economy of the proper church life."
Dallas Seminary's Bock, who told CT he had signed on as an "expert witness" for Ankerberg and Weldon in the Texas libel case, said the open letter was "really an appeal to the movement to be clear about where they stand on the doctrinal [issues]" raised by some of Lee's quotes.
The open letter still may achieve its desired effect. LSM promised detailed explanations of the Lee quotes within weeks.
In recent years, LSM and the Local Churches have sought a closer alignment with evangelicals. They have joined the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, exhibited at the International Christian Retailers Show, and engaged in extensive talks with scholars at Fuller Theological Seminary, who issued a paper saying the group is orthodox.
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The Local Churches and Living Stream Ministry have issued a response to the open letter.
More than 60 evangelical leaders signed the open letter to Living Stream Ministry.
The history of the group and their beliefs can be found at Local-Church-History.org.
Other Christianity Today articles on Local Church include:
News Briefs | Local Church's petition denied, apology to Anabaptists, reward for AIDS work, and bankrupt tithing. (January 23, 2007)
Local Church fights for evangelical ID card | Witness Lee group sues for $136 million over Harvest House cults article. (February 1, 2003)