I am currently taking a class at college about the church. My professor encouraged us to take time outside of class to study church history. I started looking around online to see what I could learn. While I was researching, the local church movement came up over and over again. I decided to spend some time researching this movement.
What is the Local Church Movement? The Local Church Movement was a movement of churches started by Watchman Nee in the early 1900s. It started in China and spread to the U.S. The local churches would meet often to study the Bible, sing, and have times of teaching together.
- Who Was Watchman Nee?
- Who was Witness Lee?
- The Start of the Local Church Movement
- The Start of the Controversy
- Christian Research Institute & The Local Church
- Theological Debates
- The End of Nee’s Life
To understand the local church movement, we should first learn more about the man who started the movement: Watchman Lee.
Who Was Watchman Nee?
Watchman Lee was a Chinese church leader. He was born in 1903 in Shantou, China. Both of his parents were Methodist and he was baptized through the Methodist church when he was a young child.
Watchman Nee gave his life to the Lord in 1920, late in the month in April. In a book about his testimony, he wrote,
“As I visualized the Lord’s hands stretched out on the cross, they seemed to be welcoming me, and the Lord was saying, ‘I am waiting here to receive you.’ Realizing the effectiveness of Christ’s blood in cleansing my sins and being overwhelmed by such love, I accepted him there… Light seemed to flood the room and I said to the Lord, ‘Oh, Lord, you have indeed been gracious to me.'”
After this night, he started living a new life. He began praying for his friends often. He was able to lead many of his friends during this time to the Lord. Later on, he began studying the Bible. He studied diligently and also read many books about church history, spiritual growth, and many Bible commentaries.
In 1936, Nee outlined his ministry. In his testimony book, he outlined four areas he would be focusing on:
- Literary Work
- Meetings for the Overcomer
- Building up the local churches
- Youth training
Shortly after this, he began publishing magazines. Nee dedicated his life to those four aspects of ministry.
In the future my personal burden and work will generally comprise these four aspects. May all the glory be to the Lord.— Watchman Nee
Who Was Witness Lee?
To understand the local church movement, you will also need to know who Witness Lee is. He worked with Watchman Nee and the local church movement. First, let’s look at his early life and then his ministry.
Witness Lee was born in 1905 in China. Although he attended a Baptist school and church, he never converted to Baptist. He became a Christian at the age of 19 in 1925. From this moment forward, Lee was dedicated to serving God.
Witness Lee began studying Christian teachers after he dedicated his life to Christ. Through his research, he found Watchman Nee’s writings. He reached out to Nee for guidance while reading the Bible.
It wasn’t until 1932 that Nee and Lee meet in person. Lee went and visited Watchman Nee in Yantai, China. While on this trip, Nee felt the call to full-time ministry. After his visit to Yantai, he quit his job. Shortly after this, Nee reached out and told him he believed he should do full-time ministry. This helped to confirm Lee’s decision to enter ministry full-time.
He became the editor of Watchman Nee’s magazine two years later. From there, he went to help establish local churches in China. He worked to help support Christians while building churches.
God created and redeemed man for this purpose, that man might be the container into which He could dispense Himself. In the whole universe—time, space, and eternity—the center of God’s economy is to dispense Himself into humanity.— Witness Lee
Like Watchman Nee, Lee wrote many books. One of his most well-known books is entitled, The Spiritual Man. This publication is three volumes put into one book. It is a guide to true spirituality. This book focuses on the human spirit and soul and body. Here are the titles of other books he wrote:
- The All-Inclusive Christ (1969)
- A Deeper Study of the Divine Dispensing (1990)
- The Triune God to Be Life to the Tripartite Man (1990)
- The Life-Study of the Bible (1974-1994)
- The Spirit within Our Spirit (1994)
Nee helped to teach Christians through his books. Many of his books included teachings he gave while traveling around China. His books were widely read. Here is one of my favorite quotes by Witness Lee from his book, The All-Inclusive Christ.
We must not only be saved, but also transformed into the living stones for the building of God. Originally we are not stones; we are pieces of clay. But when we accepted Christ, He came into our spirit and has been continually working to transform us. By the renewing of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed from a piece of clay to a stone that we may be material for the building of God.— Witness Lee – The All-Inclusive Chist
In 1942, a revival broke out in Yantai and the church proceed to meet for a hundred days straight. In 1943, Lee was arrested due to suspicion of him being a spy and a Christian. He was interrogated for a month and tortured through flogging and water. From this persecution, he developed tuberculosis, which is a disease that affects the lungs. He put a pause on his ministry and took two years to rest and recover.
The strongest person is not the one who is able to do something, but the one who is able not to do what he has the power to do. This self-denial is the unique way to usher in God’s kingdom and to realize the kingdom life.— Witness Lee
The Start of the Local Church Movement
Nee started the first local church in Malaysia. He was only 21 years old. The next year, he planted a church in Shanghai, China. This church was at the center of his ministry. Within a few years, Nee’s local church movement had spread throughout Indonesia, China, Malaysia, and Singapore.
In 1928, he published his book called, “The Spiritual Man” and held an overcomer conference in China. From there, he went on to teach more conferences. Nee said, “My Christian life took a big turn from doctrines and knowledge to a living person, Christ, who is God’s centrality and universality.”
In 1934, Nee explained the practices of the local churches during a series of teachings. Later this year, Witness Lee joined Nee. Watchman Nee was going to help Witness Lee with his publications.
Nee went around the world teaching and giving a message about Christ in 1938. Many of the messages he spoke were later put into a book called, The Normal Christian Life. Nee began to understand the body of Christ in a deeper way during this time.
He said, “My first turn was to know Christ, and my second turn was to know His Body. To know Christ is only half of what the believers need. The believers also must know the Body of Christ. Christ is the head, and He is also the Body.”
Watchman Nee’s Beliefs
Nee believed in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He also believed Jesus was God incarnated as a man. Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He died on the cross, rose from the dead three days later, ascended to heaven, and will return in the second coming.
Nee believed anyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be forgiven of their sins and washed by His blood. A believer was also a member of the Body of Christ.
In China, Christians were under heavy persecution in 1949. Many false arrests were being made during this time. Three years later, Watchman Nee was arrested. He was arrested for theft, cheating on contacts, bribery, and more.
The Religious Affairs Bureau held a meeting in the church to discuss his arrest. People brought accusations against Nee and they found him guilty on all charges. He then was excommunicated from the church.
Nee was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Meetings were held around the world about him and many of them condemned his work and beliefs
Outside of Christ, I am only a sinner, but in Christ, I am saved. Outside of Christ, I am empty; in Christ, I am full. Outside of Christ, I am weak; in Christ, I am strong. Outside of Christ, I cannot; in Christ, I am more than able. Outside of Christ, I have been defeated; in Christ, I am already victorious. How meaningful are the words, “in Christ.— Watchman Nee
The Start of the Controversy
In 1960’s Watchman Nee’s books were gaining popularity among Christians and Campus Crusade for Christ. A few years later, Campus Crusade for Christ launched Christ World Liberation Front (CWLF). The start of the controversy with him begins with the Christian World Liberation Front and the countercult ministry.
The purpose of Campus Crusade launching CWLF was to reach people in the countercult. Jack Sparks, who was a dominant person in CWLF, spoke out against Witness Lee. Jon Braun also joined in on speaking against Lee. Sparks and Braun, along with a few other leaders, in Campus Crusades formed a group called the New Covenant Apostolic Order (NCAO).
Books & The Local Church
A leader, Peter Gillquist, over NCAO worked as head of books at Thomas Nelson Publishers. He worked to publish the book The Mindbenders by Jack Sparks. Many chapters about the local church in this book were written by Braun. He blamed Watchman Nee and Witness Lee for the trouble he had with a ministry he worked with previously. The Mindbenders was published in 1977.
Another book called The God-Men was also published around the time when The Mindbenders was. This book was about Witness Lee and the local church. After the publication of both books, members of the local church protested against Sparks and Braun.
They received hundreds of phone calls, letters, and in-person visits. One response to The God-Man book was over five-hundred pages long refuting what was written about the local church and Witness Lee. Although these two books had caused quite an uproar, second editions were still published in 1978.
Both books made accusations against the local church. They claimed they isolated members, used fear to control people within the church, were theologically unsound, and used sociological deviance.
Because of these publications, members of the local church were harassed and even physically assaulted. Many were also dismissed from their jobs.
The Three-Self Patriotic Movement, in China, commissioned a book to be written about how persecution toward the local church was justified. The God-Men book was used to help support their argument against the local church. Thousands of local church members were arrested and some were even killed.
Lawsuits Against the Books
The local church members attempted to communicate with Sparks and Braun about their books after the second editions were published, but they never received a response. In 1980, they filed a liability lawsuit against Sparks, Braun, and three other men involved in the publication of The Mindbender.
Two years later, the defendants, Sparks, Braun, and three other men, signed to give finical compensation for the damage made by the publication.
Another lawsuit was filed by the Church against Neil Duddy, the primary author of The God-Men. More lawsuits were filed against other publications that made false accusations against the local church.
Through the trial, it was found that Duddy did not research his sources used in making a case against the local church. The court awarded the church over $11 million dollars for the damage caused to the local church.
The press widely ignored both court cases and the outcomes. The countercult community also ignored the outcomes. Because of this, both books continued to shape people’s perception and view of the local church and Witness Lee.
After the court cases were closed, Dr. J. Gordon Melton wrote an open letter. He stated that The God-Men book had misrepresented Lee’s teachings. He claimed the research done for the book was flawed. Melton asked for this book to be discarded and for responsible Christian scholars to inspect Witness Lee’s teachings.
The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions Book
A chapter about the local church made its way into the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR). This encyclopedia was written by John Ankerberg and John Weldon in 1999 and published by Harvest House. The reason Weldon had included the local church chapter into the Encyclopedia was because of the information he found in The God-Men book.
This caused quite the stir within the local churches. Many people within the church wrote ECNR and protested the inclusion of the local church to the Encyclopedia. People even attempted to meet with the authors and or/publishers in person, but all requests were ignored.
Then, Harvest House went on to sue the Church in Fullerton, which was apart of the local churches. They claimed the church was harassing them over the Encyclopedia. Harvest House said the number of letters they were sending them was harassment. The State of Oregon dismissed the charger in 2002.
The church alleged that ECNR claimed terrible things about them in their Encyclopedia. A few examples, include…
- they subjecting members to physical harm
- they used deception in their fundraising
- they were involved with fraud
- members of the church used drugs
- they encouraging prostitution & child molestation
- and they practiced witchcraft and black magic
The church said because the local church was written about, in the Encyclopedia, a normal reader would conclude the church was involved in the things listed above. According to The Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas’ opinion, a reasonable reader wouldn’t apply the things listed above every single group wrote about in the book. Appeals were made by the local church, but they were denied.
Christian Research Institute & The Local Church
J. Gordon Melton’s call for other Christian’s to review the local church was taken seriously. Two groups sent years examining the local church along with Witness Lee’s teachings. These two groups were the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and Fuller Theological Seminary.
In 2009, the Christian Research Institute released its findings after six years of research on the local church. The man who represented CRI was Hank Hanegraaff. He had been a critic of Witness Lee and the local churches. He wrote, “The result of our primary research is encapsulated in the following three words: ‘We were wrong!” The issue also contained two more statements by Hanegraaf, an article in which Gretchen Passantino explains why she was reversed her opinion on the local church, and more.
A year letter, a letter was written by Norman Geisler in rebuttal to the issue CRI had released about the local church. It was co-written by Ron Rhodes. Geisler and Rhodes made many accusations against CRI and the local church in his letter.
Hank Hanegraaf wrote an article in which he used Geilser and Rhode’s open letter to CRI as an example as to how apologetic should not be done. Hanegraaf ended up writing fourteen articles in response to Geisler and Rhodes’s accusations. His writing ended up being published in a series of books called, “Brothers, Hear Our Defense.”
Fuller Theological Seminary
The Fuller Theological Seminary was the other group that researched the local church along with Witness Lee. The panel of people researching included the President of Fuller Theological Seminary, Richard Mouw, members of the seminary’s faculty, and the Dean of Theology.
Their conclusion stated, “It is the conclusion of Fuller Theological Seminary that the teachings and practices of the local churches and its members represent the genuine, historical, biblical Christian faith in every essential aspect.” The full statement made by the seminary is available here.
The panel went on to say the local church’s beliefs and the teachings of Witness Lee have been misunderstood, especially among evangelicals. In 2006, Christianity Today endorsed the panel’s findings.
Critics of the local church, Witness Lee, and Watchman Nee have focused their criticism on three areas: deification, the nature of God, and the Church. Let’s look more into the theological debate surrounding each one of these topics.
Deification is one of the main beliefs critics used against Lee. According to vocabulary. com, “Deification is when a person is treated like a god. If you love your basketball coach so much that you build her an altar and bow whenever she walks by, that’s deification…[it’s] treating a mere mortal as someone godly.”
Witness Lee said, “In the second to the fifth centuries, the church fathers found three high mysteries in the Bible: (1) the Triune God, the Divine Trinity, the highest mystery; (2) the person of Christ; and (3) the deification of man—that man could become God in life and in nature but not in the Godhead.”
Critics rejected the belief that “man could become God in life and in nature but not in the Godhead.” They claimed this was deification.
The Nature of God
Another one of Witness Lee’s beliefs was that God is Triune. He said that God is one, and has three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Much of his teachings were focused on the Triune God.
Critics claimed this was modalism. Modalism was a heresy that was condemned by the early church. Modalism is the view that the persons of the Trinity are not coexisting person, but merely represent three moods of divine revelation (Dictionary).
Witness Lee wrote about the Trinity and LSM published his works in the 1970s. In this work, Lee explains why modalism is wrong. He also explains how the Trinity is co-external. Even though critics claimed Witness Lee supported modalism, he did not support it in his own writings.
Watchman Nee taught the local church is an expression of the body of Christ. He fully explains his beliefs in his book, The Normal Christian Church Life. You can read his book here. Nee based most of his view of the local church from the churches mentioned in Acts.
Witness Lee was critical of the church and the body of Christ. He said,
- There are many substitutes for the living person of Christ;
- The clergy/laity system nullifies the proper function of the believers; and
- The divided state of the denominational/free group system is contrary to biblical injunctions to keep the oneness of the Body of Christ
This is from his book called, Satan’s Strategies Against the Church. Critics claimed Lee was attacking all Christians. Living Stream Ministry has published many articles showing how critics took Witness Lee’s beliefs about the church out of context and blew it out of proportion.
The End of Nee’s Life
In 1950, Watchman Nee and Witness Lee were together for the last time in Hong Kong. For a month, they worked to help bring revival to Hong Kong. Nee told Lee he needed to lead the elders of the church and buy land to make a new place of meeting for the church.
When Nee returned to mainland China, he was put in prison. He was in prison for the last twenty years of his life. The time Nee and Lee had in Hong Kong was the last time they ever were able to speak to each other. Watchman Lee died on May 30, 1972, while in prison. Later on, Witness Lee passed away on June 9th of 1997.
Although both Nee and Lee had many critics of them and the local church, they still pressed forward with their ministry. People within the local church stood up and fought for Nee and Lee’s teachings even after they had both passed away. The people within the local church saw the importance of speaking the truth about what Lee and Nee taught. They saw how people were twisting what Lee and Nee had said or written. They did their part to debunk what the critics said.
Nee and Lee spent time studying and researching the Bible, along with reading many books about God. With this knowledge, they were able to go and teach others about God. To this day, people study the works and books by Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.
In closing, Watchman Nee and Witness Lee were dedicated to God. They both worked to bring the church to many different places in China. They even saw revival break out. They helped Christians understand the Trinity, the church, and the nature of God.
I hope you now have a better understanding of the local church movement and the controversy surrounding it. I will leave you with my favorite quote by Watchman Lee:
When one tries to increase his knowledge by doing mental gymnastics over books without waiting upon God and looking to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, his soul is plainly in full swing. This will deplete his spiritual life. Because the fall of man was occasioned by seeking knowledge, God uses the foolishness of the cross to destroy the wisdom of the wise.— Watchman Nee