Strong opinions surround Lee's Local Church

By John Gittelsohn

ANAHEIM-- Witness Lee died five years ago, but the preacher still reaches believers worldwide through writings and recordings.

"He's still trying to walk with us," Helen Chen said during a Sunday service at the Local Church in Anaheim, built by Lee in 1977. "It's not just a method; it's a way to perfect us all."

Lee's ministry is a classic American-immigrant success story with a religious twist, a saga that continues as Lee's heirs struggle for acceptance.

The Anaheim congregation is one of 2,000 Local Churches serving followers of Lee outside China, which has banned his sect as an "evil cult." Despite its outlaw status in China, the Local Church claims about 800,000 members, supported largely by smuggled materials.

Witness Lee, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, was born in 1905 in Chefoo, now Yantai, a port on China's Shandong peninsula. At 27, Lee became the protege of a pastor named Watchman Nee, one of China's most respected Christian thinkers.

"Nee should be regarded as one of the three or four giants of the Chinese church," said Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese pastor and Christian-rights activist in Philadelphia. "He built a very strong indigenous theology. Witness Lee is a little more problematic."

Lee and Nee were so close that Lee was best man at Nee's wedding in 1934. But their paths diverged in 1949, when the communists seized power. Nee stayed, spending his last 20 years in prison. He died in a labor camp in 1972. Lee fled to Taiwan and then to California. He moved his headquarters to Anaheim in 1974, building his first Orange County church at 1855 W. Ball Road three years later. More followed: Cypress, Fullerton, Irvine, Mission Viejo, Tustin and Yorba Linda. "His role is like Martin Luther," said Chen, a retired Cypress College chemistry teacher whose parents befriended the pastor 65 years ago in Shanghai. "He had no interest in fathering a movement, just being faithful to what he saw."

Fighting Cult Label

Lee taught a style of worship called "pray-reading," where believers repeatedly chant lines from Scripture and hymns to absorb their full meaning and to release the spirit of the Lord that they believe lives in everyone.

"When we call on the Lord, some people think we're chanting like the Hare Krishna, but that's not the way it works at all," said his youngest daughter, Susanna Lim, 54, hosting a prayer meeting for 10 believers at her Santa Ana home.

"How sweet to die for Christ," they sang. "Oh, it is so sweet to die with Christ. How sweet it is to die."

Their pray-reading was quieter than similar meetings in China, where the government dubs Lee's followers "Shouters."

Lee espoused other controversial ideas. Instead of the Holy Trinity, Lee spoke of the "Triune God," a concept that mingles the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Lee called Jesus the first son of God and said that believers who bring Christ into their hearts also become divine children of the Lord. He coined the term "God-man" for true believers, a term that critics say demeans the primacy of Christ.

In 1977, Lee bought full-page ads in The Orange County Register and other papers responding to attacks by the Rev. Walter Martin, a teacher at Melodyland in Anaheim, who called the Local Church a cult.

In 1985, the Local Church won an $11.9 million libel judgment against a Berkeley- based group, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, which also called Lee a cult leader. The group declared bankruptcy and never paid.

Andrew Yu, general manager of Living Stream, which provides materials and training for the independent Local Churches, said Lee's critics took his words out of context and that much of the criticism is thinly veiled racism. "They concocted these ideas and said Brother Lee was theologically Eastern or foreign," he said.

Theologians say the Local Church may deviate from the mainstream, but it is not the type of all-controlling cult that entraps believers or leads to mass suicides.

"Nobody's accused the Local Church of being a secular cult," said J. Gordon Melton, an authority on new religions and adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's all theological, and theology is the realm of opinion."

Witness Lee continued to travel, raise money and preach well into his 90s.

"We need a corporate model, a body, a people who will all live this way," Lee said in a 1994 videotape, looking fit in an elegant gray suit, speaking English with only a trace of an accent. "Live what way? Tell me, live what way? Live a life of the God-man."

Completely Hands Off

Upon his death in 1997, Lee left a corporate legacy as well as a religious one. Living Stream reported assets of $75 million and revenue of $6 million in fiscal 2000 tax filings, the latest available.

In 1998, the ministry paid $33 million for a 28-acre corporate complex at 2431 W. La Palma Road in Anaheim. The leafy campus is home to broadcast studios, classrooms, a bookshop and offices of interpreters who translate Living Stream publications into 40 languages.

This year, Living Stream expects to publish 2.3 million Bibles and other books. Lee's 238 titles make up more than half the ministry's catalog. Watchman Nee wrote most of the rest.

Living Stream does not set policy or dictate how to worship at Local Churches, said Yu, 54, who has worked for the ministry since 1982.

"We are completely hands-off," he said. "We run training sessions here (in Anaheim), which isn't a church activity. It's like Microsoft running a course for users of its software at different companies. Microsoft doesn't control those companies."

The ministry is trying to blunt accusations of heresy by working on its image.

"We have not changed our theological stand," Yu said. "We just want people to understand us."

In June, Living Stream executives met religious officials in China, laying a foundation to get their publi cations off the cult list. Validation closer to home came in July, when the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, an industry association, admitted Living Stream as a member after a debate over Witness Lee.

"We define a cult as a group with an all-powerful leader with the final word," said Doug Ross, president of the publishing trade group. "Living Stream doesn't have a single person. At one time, that may have been true, but we don't think it is today."

Editor's notes:

This article appeared in The Orange County Register on Oct. 13, 2002

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

Valid XHTML 1.0! Valid CSS!