Introduction to the "Local Church" movement

The "Local Church" of Witness Lee is a religious movement whose teachings are rooted in Biblical Christianity, but with several unique elements that have led many observers to label the group a cult. The current movement began in the 1960's in southern California, U.S.A. with the teachings of Chinese-American preacher Witness Lee, and it has since spread through much of North America and parts of Europe and Asia.

Churches affiliated with the movement can usually be identified by their name, which almost always follows the pattern "The Church in [city name]". Members typically claim that the movement has no official name, although the term "The Lord's Recovery" is often used internally as a descriptive name. The term "Local Church" is generally used by outsiders, and refers to the movement's belief that the church should be organized by city, and that individual churches should take the name of the city in which they are located. Other names sometimes used include "Church of Recovery" (Philippines) and "Shouters" (China).

The founder, Witness Lee (1905-1997), grew up in mainland China where he was a disciple and co-worker of the fairly well-known Chinese evangelist and preacher Watchman Nee. After the communist revolution in China, Lee, along with a number of Nee's other co-workers, fled to Taiwan, and he later made his way to the United States, settling in southern California in 1962. He then began preaching and planting the churches that would develop into the modern-day "Local Church" movement. Witness Lee died in 1997 in southern California.

Estimates of the size of the "Local Church" hover around several hundred thousand members worldwide. However, it is difficult to produce precise numbers, largely because it is difficult to gauge the number of adherents and partial adherents to the group's teachings within mainland China itself, where the movement appears to thrive but has been driven underground by government persecution.

The "Local Church" has also spawned several related ministries run by its members. These include Living Stream Ministry, a publishing company focusing on the writings of Witness Lee and Watchman Nee, Bibles for America, an organization promoting and distributing the movement's unique Recovery Version translation of the Bible, and eManna, an email devotional featuring the teachings of Witness Lee.

Outside criticism of the beliefs and practices of the movement appears to have begun in earnest in the 1970's with the release of several books and tracts from major Christian apologetics and countercult organizations labeling the movement cultic. The "Local Church" sued several of these publications, eventually winning settlements in a few cases, although under unusual legal circumstances. Because of these events, evaluations of the "Local Church" movement by the evangelical Christian community are few and far between, and the movement remains poorly understood to this day.

Those who label the "Local Church" a cult refer to several of Witness Lee's teachings that appear to contradict accepted norms in evangelical thought. These include a modalistic view of the nature of God, an extreme emphasis on inner experience and corresponding de-emphasis on Biblical study, and a form of human deification. They also point to the view within the movement that theirs is the only true church, sometimes, though not always, to the point of questioning the salvation of those who do not follow the ways of their movement. Finally, testimonies of former members often tell of significant psychological and sociological abuse typical of other cultic organizations.

Other observers refuse to use the "cult" label, pointing out that the theological deviations in the movement's teachings are not in the same class as those of the "traditional" cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. They also note the vagueness of many of Witness Lee's theological statements, suggesting that many of them could be interpreted in a way more in harmony with mainstream theology. Finally, they assert that the essence of the message of Christian salvation is intact within the movement, such that most of its practicing members are likely saved Christians even if other doctrines and practices of the group are erroneous, thus rendering it inappropriate to consider the movement "non-Christian".

"Local Church" Information Site
Studying Witness Lee and the "Local Church" from the evangelical Christian perspective

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