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Cult Watchers Reconsider

Former detractors of Nee and Lee now endorse 'local churches.'

Two notable critics have changed their minds on the controversial "local churches" movement that follow the teachings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.

Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), and Gretchen Passantino Coburn, director of Answers in Action, each published their new support in a November booklet by the Defense and Confirmation Project, founded to rebut criticism of Nee and Lee.

Hanegraaff says the local churches fit neither the theological or sociological definition of cultic activity. (CRI published critiques in the 1970s that influenced other watchdog groups.) Passantino Coburn, who coauthored The New Cults with Walter Martin, writes passionately and personally about the "most significant reassessment from my career."

"If you are a parent, proud of your young adult offspring's seemingly overnight spiritual blossoming but afraid that he or she is going to crash and burn in spiritual chaos, let me reassure you," Passantino writes. "The local churches are a legitimate, theologically orthodox, spiritually faithful involvement by means of which you offspring can develop genuine Christian commitment and maturity. They are not a dangerous ensnarement of the Devil."

The booklet also includes a three-year-old statement from Fuller Theological Seminary. Three Fuller faculty members—president Richard Mouw, theology dean Howard Loewen, and systematic theology professor Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen—met five times face-to-face with influential local church figures to discuss their beliefs. The Fuller representatives cited several areas of special concern, "such as the Trinity, the mingling of divinity and humanity, deification, modalism, their interpretation and practice of the 'local' church, the divine and human natures of Christ, and their attitude toward believers outside their congregations."

Now, the Fuller statement says, its faculty and administration "unreservedly recommend that all Christian believers likewise extend to them the right hand of fellowship." As a result of the Fuller dialogue, representatives of the local churches and LSM editors published a 39-page statement of their teachings in January 2007. But LSM spokesman Chris Wilde said the document has not been widely distributed.

The movement Nee founded during the 1920s in China subsequently spread to the West. After Nee died in 1972 in a Communist jail, Lee became the group's most prominent teacher. He died in 1997. The local churches claim more than 30,000 U.S. adherents and over 800,000 in China. Two of the group's traits immediately strike many evangelicals as strange. First, churches affiliated with this movement take no name except a geographical marker, such as "the local church in Chicago." Second, the group has no authority structure.

Lee was also very critical of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, raising concerns that the local churches regarded themselves as the only legitimate Christians. His statements prompted 60 evangelical leaders (including Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary and Paige Patterson of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) to publish an open letter in January 2007 asking the local churches and their publishing service, Living Stream Ministry (LSM), to disavow Lee's doctrinal statements and criticism of evangelicals. Wilde said the local churches issued invitations to dialogue with each signatory but did not near back from any.

As criticism has mounted, the local churches have sought help from other evangelicals. LSM was granted membership in the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and exhibited at the International Christian Retailers Show. (LSM has also sued critics. In June 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal of a rejected $136 million libel lawsuit against John Ankerberg and John Weldon, authors of The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions.)

But the group has not renounced Lee's most controversial teachings, and that's the key problem for critics such as Calvin Beisner, formerly of CRI.

Beisner faults Lee on a number of points, including two forms of modalism condemned by the early church's ecumenical councils, and said no critics who have changed their mind—including his sister, Passantino Coburn—have yet documented how former concerns about Lee were actually misrepresentations.

"Merely issuing doctrinal statements that are orthodox so far as they go but do not explicitly repudiate the contrary statements of Lee is not sufficient," Beisner said. "As Francis Schaeffer insisted again and again, in our postmodern world we must not only say what we believe, but also must deny what we don't believe. The Worldwide Church of God set a good example in the 1980s, repudiating the heretical teachings of its founder Herbert W. Armstrong, and it is not asking the Local Church too much to do the same."

But Hanegraaff says members of the local churches demonstrate theological acumen: "I have witnessed in them a keen interest in doctrinal precision sadly missing today in major segments of the evangelical community."

Passantino Coburn says the group's remaining critics should engage in deeper research. She said that further reading about the group's teachings revealed connections with persecuted churches and ancient Eastern church history, such as a "less purely analytical but more fully personal theology."

"When I applied the templates of the persecuted church and Eastern church to the local churches, I saw that, regardless of their formal association or derivation, the similarities were unmistakable, understandable, and fully within orthodoxy," she told Christianity Today. "This does not mean that I agree with every local church teaching, nor does it mean that I do theology like the local churches. But it does mean that I can more fully understand and appreciate that theology, and can be confident that while different, it is not heretical."

Related Elsewhere:

The booklet is available at the Defense and Confirmation Project's "Contending for the Faith" site.

Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.

Earlier Christianity Today coverage of the dispute includes the February 2003 news story "Local Church fights for evangelical ID card" and a March 2006 editorial, "Loose Cult Talk: There just might be a better way to solve theological disputes."

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