The Local Church, and Living Stream Ministry — its publishing arms — have three responses to criticism:
- Legal treats, lawsuits and dirty tricks
- Falsely claiming that critics have misunderstood the movement’s teachings, and that its words have been taken out of context.
- The use of cult apologists — academics and other experts who, for one reason or another, have decided that the teachings of the Local Church fall within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity.
At times, the legal wranglings have worked. As the record shows, a movement with significant financial resources can easily outmaneuver organizations or individuals who lack the financial backing necessary for a sustained legal batlle.
The cult’s dirty tricks have also worked – particular in the case of Jim Moran. After his untimely death, the cult managed to convince the family of this vocal critic to sell his research material as well as copyright to his writings. The Local Church subsequently used legal threats to remove Moran’s writings from the Internet.
Employing cult apologists has not been as succesful. In the Local Church’s lawsuit against the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, this cult of Christianity was aided by cult apologist J. Gordon Melton — a man who is good at writing or rewriting PR material, but who is notorious for his lack of discernment when it comes to interpreting his research — some of which is described by one sociologist as a “travesty of research.” Using J. Gordon Melton as a source for information on what does or does not constitute Christian orthodoxy is like using George W. Bush as a source of intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Recently a few irresponsible Christian apologists have come to the aid of the Local Church, claiming that their research has led them to believe that the Local Church is within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy after all.
That conclusion says much about the depths to which these erstwhile defenders of the Christian faith have sunk. Rowing against the stream of countless theologians, apologists and countercult experts who have concluded that the Local Church is — theologically — a cult of Christianity, they have apparently bought into the movement’s contentions that it simply is misunderstood.
It is therefore refreshing to read a recent corporate statement from Harvest House Publishers, posted in response to a legal victory — in which the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the Local Church against the dismissal of its lawsuit against Harvest House Publishers and authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon.
As part of its statement, titled, “A Call to Keep Theological Disputes Out of the Courts,” Harvest House Publishers writes:
Over the six–year span of this lawsuit, many Christians who at first were unfamiliar with The Local Church and its premier teacher, Witness Lee, have come to know of its unorthodox beliefs and joined in the vigorous theological debate over the group’s teachings. So much so that, in January 2007, a group of 71 Bible scholars and ministry leaders signed an Open Letter (www.open–letter.org) expressing deep concern over some of the group’s doctrines and its history of silencing critics through legal threats and lawsuits.
The gist of The Local Church’s response to the Open Letter is the same one it has given its critics for several decades: We’ve been misunderstood and our words have been taken out of context. If you would just give us a chance to explain ourselves, you would understand us better and see that our teachings are biblical.
But the problem many have noticed is that much of what The Local Church has said in recent years to clarify Witness Lee’s aberrant teachings is at odds with literally hundreds—if not thousands—of statements in Witness Lee’s books. This raises a crucial point about apologetic methodology. When it comes to determining a group’s orthodoxy, shouldn’t that group’s printed word stand on its own and always supersede any kind of qualifiers—written or spoken—that are given by that group in an attempt to explain away its controversial teachings?
Very recently, a few former critics and others have announced that with the help of face–to–face dialogue, they have arrived at the conclusion that Witness Lee’s teachings are, in fact, orthodox after all.
But Harvest House, authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon, and a host of respected Bible scholars and apologists contend otherwise. If the written word is insufficient to effectively and accurately communicate a group’s teachings, then that written word needs to be changed rather than explained away.
Ankerberg and Weldon have based their conclusions about The Local Church on years of extensive research and careful analysis of many of Witness Lee’s books and Living Stream Ministry’s publications. After the lawsuit was filed, both the authors and Harvest House conducted additional detailed research involving many more Witness Lee books, current Local Church websites, and the newest Living Stream Ministry journals and periodicals. The result? Our original concerns about The Local Church’s problematic theology became even more magnified. They have not merely been misunderstood.
The Local Church also cannot argue that their words have been taken out of context. If a statement in and of itself is heretical, it will remain heretical even when it is viewed in its original context. Hundreds of examples could be cited; here is just one:
…the entire Godhead, the Triune God, became flesh. 1
Though that is just part of a sentence, no amount of explanation or context can change the fact Witness Lee taught that the entire Trinity became flesh. He taught this repeatedly, making himself dogmatically clear when he said:
God was just God in eternity past, but one day the entire God, the complete God in the second person of His divine Trinity, became incarnated…. The Triune God entered into a human virgin’s womb and stayed there for nine months. 2
Such a teaching is utterly foreign to biblical Christianity.
The bottom line is this: Printed words have intended, discernable, and literal meanings. If the Local Church has constantly found it necessary to “clarify” their writings through verbal and written assurances, doesn’t that indicate something is very wrong? If The Local Church is so concerned about acceptance into the evangelical Christian community, why hasn’t it removed or changed the myriad of printed controversial statements that have caused alarm among theologians over the past 40 years?
The fact The Local Church, to our knowledge, has never changed or retracted any of the aberrational teachings that it has put into print—while continuing to give “lip assurance” that they are a biblically sound group—should cause any believer to ask hard questions. Discerning Christians will continue to challenge The Local Church as long as their texts contain teachings that are unorthodox.
– Source: A Call to Keep Theological Disputes Out of the Courts, Corporate Statement, June 20, 2007, Harvest House Publishers
The publishers of Apologetics Index call upon the signers of the Open Letter to reject the Local Church’s appeals — and to reject the attempt by irresponsible apologists to move the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.