Apologetics Index

Is the Local Church a cult of Christianity?

As noted, the Christian Research Institute (CRI) has issued a “Position Statement” explaining why Hank Hanegraaff, president of CRI and Gretchen Passantino, wife of the late Bob Passantino and Director of Answers in Action filed a Friend of the Court brief on behalf of the Local Church.

In the Conclusion to its Position Statement, CRI writes:

Both Christian Research Institute and Answers In Action believe that the Amicus materials filed by the publishers, academics, and others on behalf of the appeal of Living Stream Ministries et al. to the Texas Supreme Court can assist the Court in redressing a wrong decision by a lower court. Such a correction would protect individuals and groups from defamation and come to the aid of people of faith who suffer persecution partly supported by this and similar abuses of the media. Our weighing in on this important but narrow legal question should not be construed as a commentary, positive or negative, on the teachings and practices of the LC beyond the question of whether they are a cult, which we have always answered in the negative. Such a commentary will be made public after our exhaustive evaluation of, and dialogue with, the LC is completed.
– Source: Statement from Christian Research Institute and Answers in Action: RE: Our Amicus filins on behalf of the Local Churches, Position Statement: PSL001PDF file Highlighting by AI.

Note that CRI says its Friend of the Court brief “should not be construed as a commentary, positive or negative, on the teachings and practices of the LC beyond the question of whether they are a cult, which we have always answered in the negative.”

While Hank Hanegraaff may indeed not consider the Local Church to be a ‘cult,’ in his Amicus CuriaePDF file he offers the following positive commentary:

From my own direct study of and interaction with the Local Church and Living Stream Ministry, I have concluded that the word “cult” does not apply to the Local Church either sociologically or theologically. While I disagree with Local Church leaders, as well as many other Christian leaders, on secondary theologically issues such as eschatology and ecclesiology, these are issues Christians can and do debate vigorously without dividing over them.
– Source: Hank Hanegraaff, Amicus CuriaePDF file, Aug. 7, 2006

Hence Hanegraaff makes it clear that he and by extension, CRI, view The Local Church as theologically in agreement with the essential doctrines of the Christian Faith.

Gretchen Passantino, in her statementPDF file to the Court says she fully endorses Mr. Hanegraaff’s conclusions and concerns.

This is a strange turn of events. After all, in a 1978 CRI statement titled, “The Teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church,” Cal Beisner and Bob and Gretchen Passantino wrote:

Our conclusion can only be that some of the basic teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church are heretical and dangerous. We urge Christians to pray for those in the Local Church, help them see Lee’s errors and return to the truth as it is in Jesus and the Word of God, which is the lamp unto our feet. Let us all heed the warning of God’s Word in all matters (Acts 20:31). A number of the basic teachings of the Local Church are false, and it is man’s carnal nature as well as Satan that breeds falsity (John 8:44). Such teachings are darkness (Eph. 6:12), and the Christian must not walk in darkness (1 John 1:5-7). Let us walk in the light as He is in the Light (1 John 1:7).
– Source: Cal Beisner and Bob and Gretchen Passantino, The Teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church, Christian Research Institute statement DL-075

Walter Martin on the Local Church

In the Seventies, Dr. Martin held a Sunday School class at Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California. He also had his “Bible Answer Man” program each Saturday night on KYMS.

Christian apologist Paul Carden, who for many years was a researcher with the Christian Research Institute, says “The Local Church leadership would regularly take out large ads in the Orange County Register in which they attempted to answer his [Walter Martin’s] refutations of Witness Lee’s doctrine.”

In response, Martin restated his opinion of the Local Church:

Walter Martin on Witness Lee Melodyland (010178 Q and A) Information about Apologetics Index research resources (MP3)

Orthodoxy vs. Heresy

As we note in our article on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, in most religions, certain doctrines are considered essential to the belief system.

These central, or key doctrines form the primary basis of the belief system. Denial of one or more of these essential doctrines would compromise the religion. Someone who denies one or more central doctrines would therefore not be accepted as a genuine follower of that faith.

In Christianity, the term orthodoxy refers to “The body of essential biblical teachings. Those who embrace them should be accepted as Christians.”

The opposite of orthodoxy is heresy, “[d]octrine which is erroneous in such a way that Christians must divide themselves as a church from all who teach or accept it; those adhering to heresy are assumed to be lost, although Christians are unable to make definitive judgments on this matter.” [Note: these definitions come from “A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy Part One: The Case For Doctrinal Discernment”, Christian Research Journal, Summer 1990, page 28, by Robert M. Bowman.]

Individuals who – while claiming to be Christians – reject one of more central doctrines of the Christian faith are considered heretics.

Groups which reject one of more essential doctrines while claiming to represent Christianity, are considered – theologically – cults of Christianity (Note the difference between theological and sociological definitions of the term ‘cult.’)

Cal Beisner and Bob and Gretchen Passantino in their CRI’s article, “The Teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church,” write:

The Local Church has distinctive teachings which set it at variance to the Body of Christ, and it is our purpose to survey and compare these teachings with the Bible. It is important to understand first the attitude of the Local Church toward all the denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, so that we will see just how important these teachings are. Witness Lee writes, “Do not try to be neutral. Do not try to reconcile them…. You know the denominations are wrong, yet you still remain because you are afraid of what others will say.”(1) For Lee and the Local Church, then, all denominations are wrong (we will return to this subject later). What sets the Local Church apart from the denominations?– the primary points are teaching and practice. Since the practices of the Local Church stem from its teachings, the two can, for practical purposes, be treated together.

We will discuss five primary areas of teaching in the Local Church and compare them with the teaching of the Word of God: 1.) the nature of God, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity; 2.) the way of salvation; 3.) the Church: focusing on “localism” and the relation of the Church to God; 4.) the nature and use of the Bible; 5.) the nature of sin and Satan.
– Source: Cal Beisner and Bob and Gretchen Passantino, The Teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Church, Christian Research Institute statement DL-075

In each of these areas, the authors point out where the teachings of the Local Church are contrary to God’s Word. These are not, as Hank Hanegraaff appears to suggest, “secondary theological issues”. Rather, these issues clearly demonstrate that the Local Church is, theologically, a cult of Christianity.

Article details

Category: Living Stream Ministry, Local Church, Lord's Recovery
Related topic(s): , ,

First published (or major update) on Thursday, October 19, 2006.
Last updated on January 25, 2013.

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