The local church
|The local church|
|SERMONS, ESSAYS AND OPINIONS||
The Local Church of Witness Lee is an anti-Christian, pseudo-Christian, Buddhist organization headquartered in Anaheim, California, USA under the title the "Living Stream Ministry" (LSM). In order to protect the secrecy of the organization, the LSM does not take a name for its cell-franchises and aggressively sues anyone who attempts to shine attention on its activities. Franchises of the Local Church can be located in phone books under the nondescript heading "The Church in" followed by the name of the city where the cell is incorporated for business.
Although its dogmas can be described accurately as Chinese folk-Buddhist, the Local Church of Witness Lee couches these dogmas in Christian terminology while maintaining sharp antagonism to Christianity itself. It markets its own version of the Bible which it calls the "Recovery Version," a name that explains its pseudo- and anti-Christian beliefs as "recovering" the Buddhist doctrinal roots it believes underlie Christianity. Its founder, Witness Lee, a pseudonym masking an unknown true identity, denied that the organization he founded had Buddhist roots. In the United States, he Local Church continues to hold a majority of Americans in membership, although a substantial number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese transplants dominate the leadership.
Witness Lee hailed from the People's Republic of China (PRC) and, unable to secure a post in the official Communist Party, relocated to Taiwan (RoC), where he claimed to have been a co-worker of Watchman Nee, a relatively obscure Chinese Christian holding controversial beliefs. Nee preached that every Christian should be absolutely submissive to persons appointed to "Christian leadership" who had the right to control every aspect of followers' lives, including their income. Since the PRC held Nee in prison incognito, Taiwanese Christians were unable to verify Lee's association with him in 1953. Within two years Lee attempted to take over Nee's Little Flock congregation in Taipei, Taiwan (RoC). The attempt failed, but only after having split hundreds of its members into Lee's own group. Although Lee was now the head of his own splinter group, leaders of the Little Flock exposed Lee as a fraud with no connections to Watchman Nee and forced Lee to flee the country.
Lee flew to the United States where, representing himself as a simple Chinese Christian fleeing Communist persecution, he was able to find audiences among less sophisticated non-denominational Evangelical Bible study groups. Even so, Lee spoke only a halting pidgin English and his non-Christian sentiments quickly became apparent while an increasing number of American hosts began rejecting his requests for speaking engagements and charity. By 1961, Lee was left with only a single Vineyard Fellowship in Los Angeles, California, willing to allow Lee to continue speaking among them. Lee continued to live off the charity of its members.
By 1962, Lee attempted to take over the Vineyard Fellowship in Los Angeles, just as he had done in Taiwan. This too failed. But just as in Taiwan, Lee was able to break off a large number of followers, and these Americans had access to a great deal more capital than Lee's Chinese followers. Lee had for years listened to naive accusations against him of "splitting" and "creating a division of within the body of Christ". His solution was simply to beat his hosts to the punch and accuse them of division. He argued that since only his doctrines were truly Christian, his hosts were creating division by continuing in their ways and refusing to follow him.
In 1962, under the advice of his new American advisors, Lee was able to establish himself at the head of a new religious organization. In 1963, his first line of business was to create his own publishing house to publish revisions of his spoken addresses using donations he had received from Americans and staffed by his advisors who had split off from their Evangelical churches and Bible studies. This was the beginning of the Living Stream Ministry which would quickly become the mini-Vatican of Lee's new and financially lucrative "Local Church."
By 1974, Lee's advisory leadership had created an organization of more than 7,000 members worldwide. A house on several acres on prime urban real estate on Ball Road in Anaheim California was built and donated to Lee, valued at four million dollars at the time, where he lived with his fourth wife. His favorite son lived in a similarly spacious complex on the same walled compound. Lee travelled throughout the world free of charge several times a year to build membership and acquire donors, chauffeured wherever he spoke and toured.
Lee stirred up controversy wherever he went and he never shirked from leveling the most basest of charges at whoever crossed him. Any writer who objectively publicized his eccentric pseudo-Christian dogmas quickly became the subject of unrelenting attacks launched from the full force of the LSM's war chest numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars. One such victim was Fr. Jack Sparks, currently one of the most highly respected priests in American Orthodoxy, the overseeing editor of the Orthodox Study Bible and the ongoing English Orthodox Bible translation project.
Lee's own project to create a version of the Bible reflecting his views ended in a debacle. By 1991, the translator and editors of his Bible, William H. Duane, Jr, Albert Knoch, and John Ingalls were driven out and excommunicated when they hesitated to reword the version contrary to the original language after they discovered that Lee and his eldest son engaged in a sex-ring involving adultery with Chinese members of Lee's Church in Southern California and elsewhere. The ensuing controversy almost ended the organization since it revealed that Lee's church stood on no moral grounds.
However, the enlightened leadership did not pursue any aggressive stance against Lee or his church. Through his LSM, Lee still controlled an immense tax-free war-chest, and Local Church activities once again continued. When Lee died in 1997, he was recognized by his church as God himself (attained through a "process" Lee called "Mingling"). A scramble among Lee's Chinese followers established a new leader of the LSM and its subsidiary Local Church franchises.
- Anti-salvation - Lee taught that man's soul must be utterly destroyed. Since the soul is totally evil, it cannot be saved. Instead, Lee taught that the soul must be replaced by an alien spirit through a process called "Mingling" and to effect what Lee called "salvation". Salvation was the beginning of the process.
- Anti-redemption - Although nothing of man's soul can be retained, its destruction does produce a harvest. The alien spirit that replaces the soul grows inside the hulking space left behind in the destruction. Eventually this spirit is reunited to its godhead in a result Lee called "redemption". Redemption was the end of the process.
- Soul-murder - The process of destroying a man's soul and replacing it over time with an alien spirit takes place by mixing the two natures together. The proportions of the alien spirit that Lee called "God" is increased while the human soul is decreased. Ultimately so much of the alien spirit has been added that nothing is left of the man. The man is destroyed. That man becomes God. Lee called this process "Mingling."
- Satanism - Lee taught that the "heart of the Gospel" is that "God became man that man could become God." This is the original sin that Satan performed before he was cast out of Heaven. That a created being should desire to become God is Satanism.
- Bibliolatry - Lee taught that "God-inspired" meant "God's essence" and thus the very words of the Bible were God himself and worthy of worship. Since the words themselves were holy, only the version of the Bible that Lee approved and profited from could be worshipped as God. Furthermore, any of Lee's published messages and notes to that version of the Bible were required to be worshipped as God. Worship of the words takes place in a ritual Lee called "Pray-reading." (See comments on Praying meaningless words in repetition below.)
- God's head - Lee never acquired more than a limited grasp of English. During one of his three-hour sermons it became clear that he thought that the word "Godhead" (properly meaning Godness or divinity) meant God's head. The audience immediately erupted into laughter, thinking that this was an honest mistake of a simple Chinese man and endearing. Lee, however thought his audience was mocking him. So he created a new etymology of the word to show, as he said, that he "knew English better than you Americans." This was fitted into Lee's dogmatic scheme to explain how man became God but not part of the Christians' Trinity: man became God, but not the Godhead; man became the body of Christ but not God's head.
- Emptying the mind - Lee taught that the process of Mingling can only take place if the mind is emptied. Orthodoxy knows this as a very dangerous practice during which the mind enters the spiritual realms and is thus vulnerable to spiritual attack. Hesychasts teach analogous Christian practice only with extreme caution. Even saints could be subjected to attack when in meditative visionary states. Lee, however, directed his followers to empty their minds through two methods. This had the added convenience that a minded thus emptied could not be critical of nonsense and craven requests for money.
- Mocking the name of the Lord - Lee taught that salvation was a once and for all event that occurred only when a person shouted at the top of his lungs "O LORD JESUS!" ten times in public. This desensitizes the person to the Lord's name and trivializes salvation to a meaningless technique. When a person accustomed to shouting these words in Local Church meetings hears the Lord's name invoked with sincerity, it means nothing to him. Lee called this ritual "Calling upon the name of the Lord."
- Praying meaningless words in repetition - Lee taught that in addition to screaming the Lord's name, his followers must pick random words from the Bible, forget what they mean, and repeat them at least ten times prayerfully. Grammatical words such as "the", "a", "many", etc were particularly to be stressed. Lee justified this by saying that all scripture was "God-breathed" and thus literally the substance of God. The follower who did this was said "to eat the God" and thus continued the process of Mingling. Lee called this ritual "Pray-reading the Word" and "eating the Lord."
- Chaos - Lee taught that his followers should lead a "spiritual life" that was spontaneous and free. Each Local Church meeting is a psychological (not literal) orgy of screaming, emotional outbursts, gasps, public confessions of personal weakness, recitation of official slogans, punching the air, and jumping up and down. This is chaos. To be sure, none of this is spontaneous; each meeting is a rehearsal of the next and only the correct words, phrases and ways of punching and jumping are allowed. This is strictly enforced. Followers will be shouted down or shouted to sit down and shut up if they do not perform the chaos correctly. Slow learners are shunned socially and humiliated until they get it right. In addition to the chaos of the meetings, followers' personal lives are likewise often in chaos: latent neuroses and fears come to dominate their lives and their finances often skyrocket out of control.
- Christians face a fate worse than Hell - Lee taught that a Christian was someone who had begun the process of ingesting God. Once a piece of God was "imparted" into the man, God could never destroy the man as easily as he could a non-Christian. The Christian who did not accept Lee's doctrine of Mingling would never become God. The alien spirit Lee called "God" could not reunite from the man to himself if there were still parts of the man in the man. The solution was that all Christians would be cast into outer darkness, where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" until they accepted Lee's doctrines. If after a thousand years of eternity they still refused, they were then sent to Hell where their souls would be destroyed as Lee's God intended. Thus the fate of Christian is worse that of a non-Christian: he is rewarded with outer darkness and Hell too.
- Christianity, the synagogue of Satan - Lee taught that those who had not heard his doctrines are neutral but that Christians are the Devil's own.
- Amorality - Lee did not teach morality or ethics. Instead he said that preaching morality was the purview of "shallow Christianity." Members of his Local Church had no need of such talk, he said, since they were already the most moral persons on earth by nature of becoming God.
- Unitarianism - Lee claimed he was "trinitarian" but taught otherwise. To him, the persons of the Holy Trinity simply represented stages in the process he called "Mingling." God the Son was just God being born. The Holy Spirit was just the fluid whereby the mortal man Jesus became God the Father. God the Father was the end result of the process.
Lee's doctrinal scheme was simply his folk understanding of the Buddhist notion of Nirvana. Lee did not believe in an eternal soul that was separable from nature. Instead, he believed that every man's soul would be destroyed without exception. Humans have a choice whether to allow this destruction to lead to Hell or to lead to their empty hulk of destroyed soul returning to God. The soul becomes nothing, the soul joins God. This is Nirvana and bears no resemblance to the Christian concept of salvation.
Further, God follows the same process. God's nature is not immutable and eternal. Since humans can become God, God undergoes the process at the same time as humans do. This means, in effect, that God is nothing more than the "All" of Buddhism. Since Lee's scheme requires that God is both Creator and the created, the individual and the all, Lee taught pantheism.
Further, Lee taught that the process of soul-destruction and returning to God involved mechanical processes whereby definite proportions of God would replace the human's soul, destroy it and then return to itself, Lee was establishing materialistic mechanisms for the spiritual realm. This reduced the spiritual to the material.
In short, Lee was a pantheistic materialism, which is essentially what Buddhism is. Lee did not possess the education to elucidate this, but on the other hand he was selling his understanding of the Chinese folk-Buddhism that he was raised under in China as Christianity to a Christian culture. He would not have sold this successfully were he up front about it. Lee's methods of emptying the mind with meaningless words are traits specific to Buddhism of the Far East and Lee's soul-destruction equates to the nothingness of Nirvana.
According to the Local Church
Members of the "the local church" describe themselves as a group of Christians that practice meeting as the church wherever they live. They believe and teach that local churches include all of the believers in their respective cities; therefore all the believers in their respective cities comprise the church in each city. They receive all believers in Christ just as God has received them (Romans 14:3, Romans 15:7). The present day practice had its beginning in the teachings of a Christian teacher and author, Watchman Nee (1903-1972), and was brought to the United States by his co-worker, Witness Lee (1905-1997). This group has been called by various names, including, "The Little Flock" and "The Local Church". They adopt no formal name and only view the term "local church" as a description of what they are. In the writings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, the terms “local church” or “local churches” refers to the New Testament model, pattern and practice of one church in one city. Both Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, his closest co-worker, taught that in addition to its universal, mystical aspect*, the church also has a local, practical aspect.
Teachings from the works of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee
The Church Universal
- Matthew 16:18 – "...I will build My church..."(NSAB)
- In his Collected Works, Watchman Nee writes "The universal church includes all the believers both past and present. There is only one such church, and we cannot add another to it. The universal church is unique." (2.43.572)
(See also the Nicene Creed.)
The Local Aspect of the Church
- Matthew 18:17 – "If he refuses to listen...tell it to the church..."(NSAB)
- Nee writes "The local church includes all the local believers at a certain time and in a certain place. It is limited to time and place. It can be counted. This is why we see expressions in the Bible such as the “church” (Acts 9:31), the “seven churches” (Revelation 1:4), and the “churches” (1 Corinthians 11:16, 14:33)". (Watchman Nee, Collected Works, 2.43.572)
- Henry Cotterill, bishop of Edinburgh, authored the work "The Genesis of the Church" (1872) in which he wrote:
- "We have observed that whilst, in the language both of Christ Himself and of the apostles, the whole body of disciples or Christians everywhere is spoken of as “the Church,” yet apostolic writers speak of Christians in a particular country as “the Churches” in that country. But whenever they would describe the body of Christians in a single city,—even in Jerusalem where, shortly after the day of Pentecost, there were five thousand disciples, it is always “the Church,” never “the Churches,” in that city: the use of the singular indicating that common corporate life of Christians dwelling in the same place." (567)
- Augustus Neander, Professor of Theology at the University of Berlin, in "History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles" (1889) wrote: "But the Epistles of the apostle Paul give the clearest evidence that all the Christians of one city originally formed one church."
(See also Two Aspects of the Church.)
The Triune God/Trinity
"God is both one and three; the Three of the Godhead coexist simultaneously and eternally; that each of the Three is fully God; each of the Three is eternal; the Three coinhere inseparably; and the Three, each distinct though never separate, exist as one unique God."
"Modalism is heretical. Modalism teaches that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are likewise finite, not eternal. It asserts that They are merely three temporary modes or forms of activity through which God manifests Himself in time. Modalism claims that the Father's existence ended with the Son's coming and that the Son ceased to exist when the Spirit came. Thus, according to modalistic thought, the Father, Son, and Spirit do not exist simultaneously and eternally. This view, of course, is contrary to the pure biblical revelation of the Triune God."
(See also The Triune God.)
Information on the Local Church by the Local Church
Living Stream Ministry
Theological Journal published by LSM directed at non-members and new-comers
Responses to Accusations against the local churches
LSM Online Publications
Recovery Version Online
Sketch of the Life and Ministry of Watchman Nee
Sketch of the Life and Ministry of Witness Lee
Relationship Between Watchman Nee and Witness Lee