Turmoil in the Local Church

by Elliot Miller and William M. Alnor

The "Local Church" movement may be experiencing its most severe crisis since it was imported to America from China in the early 1960s. Led by Witness Lee, former co-worker with the popular Watchman Nee (d. 1972), the movement has often experienced controversy and conflict with other Christian groups. But a growing dissatisfaction with the practices of Lee and his son Phillip Lee has given rise to unprecedented dissent within the movement, from Taiwan, to Europe, to America.

A 20-page pamphlet, Reconsideration of the Vision, has helped to fan the flames of dissent. Since its January 1988 publication in Chinese (since translated into English), much has happened in the movement.

The pamphlet, anonymously published and widely circulated to many local church congregations in Taiwan and the US, alleges that a "Mr. X," identified by people close to the church as Witness Lee, has engaged in questionable business practices, and states that he "arranged to have his eldest son as president" of a firm that went bankrupt. "Many saints were pressured to give their life savings to this business." When the firm went bankrupt, Lee asked one of his co-workers to persuade the investors "to consider the investment as a donation and not seek to be reimbursed," it states. "Many were stumbled at this and left the churches, and others who continued to demand reimbursement were ignored by Mr. X."

It also suggests that "Mr. X" may no longer be a "true apostle," and calls for the "saints" in the local churches to obey the Scriptures, not man. It accuses "Mr. X" of departing from the teachings of the Bible, as well as those of Watchman Nee. For example, it accuses him of teaching that every age is only allowed to have one spiritual leader -- with himself being that leader for today. It also questions "Mr. X's" behavior in several areas, accusing him of being "puffed up," of not disciplining his seriously erring "second son" (identified by former church members as Phillip Lee), of improperly insulting co-workers and elders, and of seeking to replace older and more spiritually mature leaders who might call him to accountability with "arrogant" but loyal younger followers.

The "local church" teaches that there should only be one church in each city, and that the movement spearheaded by Witness Lee is God's last-days "recovery" of the church which will precede Christ's second coming. The church's teachings on such doctrines as God, Christ, man, and the church have been called into question by many Christian authors, including Walter Martin and the Christian Research Institute< (The New Cults, 1980). (Martin does not accuse them of being a non-Christian cult, however.) Lee has used the courts to remove at least two books critical of him from publication, including The God-Men (1981), by Neil T. Duddy and the SCP (i.e., the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, California).

Referring to opposing books that were written against the sect, the pamphlet Reconsideration of the Vision states: "Although they did not state the truth in its entirety, many of their observations regarding Mr. X were accurate and not fabricated from their imaginations. Due to the fact that the points in question were deleted from the written publications of Mr. X's ministry, verifications cannot be made. However, numerous cassettes and videos bear witness to the observations of the so-called opposers. During the lawsuit [against SCP] the saints were warned and pressured to keep silent, and many voluntarily kept silent for the sake of the Lord's Recovery. On some occasions when outsiders sought to interview saints, only special ones were selected who were 'safe' to be interviewed."

The effects of the controversy have been far-reaching. Former elder Robert Smith says that several congregations around the world have doubts about their continuing association with the Living Stream Ministry office (the publishing and ministry arm of the worldwide movement, which is run by Phillip Lee and which represents the authority of Witness Lee). At least one congregation, The Church in Rosemead (California), has broken ties altogether.

The extent of disaffection varies widely. Some are not yet willing to abandon Lee, but they do believe he has erred in some respects and needs to be restored. Others believe Lee has erred in practice to such an extent that he should no longer be personally followed; and yet they continue to adhere to his doctrines and call for a reformation within "the Lord's Recovery." Still others have broken with Lee's teachings as well as his leadership. Many in this latter category are now attending churches outside of the movement.

William Freeman, a former leader of the movement in America, has broken with The Church in Seattle, where he was an elder, and moved to Arizona. Freeman figured prominently in the legal action filed against the SCP. According to Smith, Freeman has suffered some disillusionment and is presently neither entirely in nor entirely out of the sect.

The Church in Anaheim, which for years had been the leading church in the movement (with Lee residing in that city), has been one of the churches hardest hit by the controversy. "We've obviously been having some difficulties," said John Ingals, a leading elder at the church. However, Ingals said the church has not achieved a complete break with Lee. He would not elaborate on many specific problems facing the congregation.

According to a transcript of a meeting at the church on August 28, an elder told members that "we dissassociate ourselves from those practices and" conduct found in the Living Stream Ministry office, and that the office has "no authority over this church." Further, the elder said, "We do not want the elders of any other churches to be telling us what to do. I feel very sorry that we have let this kind of thing happen here in Anaheim."

Tapes of a stormy October 9 meeting at the same church reveal that the root of the church's grievance with Lee (as well as that of other churches, such as The Church in Stuttgart [West Germany]) is Lee's longterm failure to deal with the "sinful" behavior of his son Phillip. It is contended that "gross immorality" and other sins were committed by Phillip Lee over a ten-year period, with Witness Lee's knowledge, and that Lee and his co-workers tolerated and covered up this behavior. Not only this, dissenters maintain, Lee and his associates have more recently identified Phillip with Witness Lee's own ministry (as the one who would carry it on), and promoted him to a place of unofficial but effective authority over the churches. Phillip Lee was reportedly in Taiwan, and could not be reached for comment.

Editor's notes:

Copyright 1994 Christian Research Institute. This article originally appeared in "News Watch", a column from the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1988, page 5. Note that events described are not current.

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