The Local Churches: A Cult?

by Kris Rhodes

Well, first of all, I take exception to the label "cult" as applied to any organization. It has about three different definitions, depending on whether you ask a Christian group, a Psychologist, or a "man off the street." And furthermore, it has an undeniable connotation of bad weirdness that simply doesn't belong in any serious, truth-seeking discussion of religious matters.

We should all be fully aware that by almost any definition, the Christian church of the first century or two a.d. was itself a cult. Its adherents were said to seem to have become "completely different people," and indeed, their scriptures even celebrate this fact. They placed their full confidence in the headship of one man, and submitted completely to him. (No, not the pope... he was a little later!) Admittedly, they didn't as a whole teach 'heretical' interpretations of scripture. This is because many churches individually taught a different version of the fine points of theology. While they were unified in the belief that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he had risen from the dead, these widely separated churches often held very different ideas regarding the trinity, regarding the nature of resurrection, and regarding eschatology and spiritual gifts. This was precisely what led to the need a few centuries later, (when greater communication developed between churches,) to the instigation of "ecumenical councils" to hammer down such fine points of doctrine into what we call the "orthodox" position today. Before that point, every church could well have been called a cult.

Having said that, let's look at what is being said about the Local Churches.

That Witness Lee has dictatorial powers within the church.

I never experienced anything like this while attending this church. When they spoke of Mr. Lee, it was with great respect, and I might even say reverence, but they never spoke of him as an authority. They spoke of him as a very good but fallible teacher, and as a fine and good person, and they acknowledged that he was the main instrument used in the formation of the Local Church. But never once did I get the impression that, as I have seen on some of the "cultwatching" pages, Witness Lee's word was higher than the Bible's. In fact, a member of the Local Church would laugh bemusedly at such an accusation.

Let me tell you what happened one day. The topic of discussion in the meeting had come around to the nature and meaning of the Trinity. (They usually use the term "triune God.") Now, I have learned that what Witness Lee teaches is something called "modalism," that the Father, J.C. and the H.G. are all three exactly the same person, in different modes or aspects. In other words, the Son can rightly be said to BE the Father, and the Father IS the Holy Spirit, etc. Now, one of the elders happened to be speaking on this topic, and he was saying that the church must be very careful never to say that Jesus "is" the Father, or that the Father "is" the Holy Spirit. This elder was saying that the three persons are indeed different persons, and we must not confuse them. One of the other members of the church, however, said, "but Brother, here in this book [by Witness Lee] it says that Jesus is the Father." The elder stopped for a second, and said something to the effect of "well, that's fine, if Witness Lee wishes to say that," and then he went on with his speaking. He didn't dispute the other member, but he didn't agree with him either.

And the whole church understood that that was how it should be. The elder explained later on in the meeting that he had no wish to get involved in unnecessary disputes regarding such things, and so he had moved on to the next topic so as not to be a stumbling block to his brother. The brother in question made no move to argue the point, past his citation of Lee's book. And each was convinced in his own mind, and neither made too many bones about it, and that was the end of it. They are both still loving members of the church.

Now, to the outsider, it might have looked like a reading from Lee had shot down the elder's reading from the Bible. But as I have explained, that was not the case. Sometimes, when unity of mind and heart is threatened, the members of the Local Church simply back down and dispute no further. This is a beautiful, Godly thing. But, it can have the appearance, as I said, of unquestioning submission to authority. I can assure you, dear reader, and you, "cultwatchers," that this is not the case in the Local Church, as far as I have seen it.

That the Local Church teaches "Heretical" doctrine.

I am convinced that one of the saddest things to happen to Christianity was the setting down in stone of an "orthodox" position of theological issues. I actually happen to agree, in the main, with the orthodox position. But a lot of dear believers do not agree. There are those who believe Jesus was the Son, but was not God. There are those who believe that Hell, being "eternal torment," and "eternal destruction," can best be understood as "timeless" torment and destruction, and not, as the orthodox position holds, as "torment forever." There are those who believe that the Father, Son, and H.G. are three aspects of one person, or three modes of operation of one person. There are those who believe that Christ's atonement was for everyone, while others say it was for only the saved "Elect." I'm not sure which of these is the Orthodox side, but in any case it is apparently a raging debate in Calvinist circles.

What am I to do with these believers? These believers who can be shown from scripture (see 1st John) to be my brothers in Christ, believing that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God, and that he was resurrected from the dead in the flesh. (I must admit, I do hold that the resurrection must be understood as physico-spiritual, rather than simply as spiritual. Sorry, Arians!) Am I to reject these believers out of hand? Or am I to try to teach them the true understanding of theology, until they refuse to accept my teaching, and then reject them out of hand? Or am I to fellowship with them in love, sharing with them the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord of Heaven and Earth, that he is Head of our church, and that Amen, he was raised from the dead? I take choice C. Here's why.

It is clearly stated throughout scripture that if a person confesses with his lips "Jesus is Lord" and believes in his heart that Jesus was raised from the dead, he will be saved. This is the only Gospel I can preach, either within the church or in the world. Now, there are some confusing matters, questions which might come up in the mind of the believer. How is our sin taken care of? I can point to scripture where it explains that Christ's death on the Cross atoned for the sins of all the world. Yet, another believer may tell me that no, the atonement was for only a certain set called the Elect. That is fine. I find that scripture contradicts them in spirit and in fact at every turn, but I do not begrudge them their belief. Such belief is not a belief that will save or destroy you. It is a belief about the mechanisms of salvation and atonement. That is theology. (Theology is the study of the word of God, rather than the living in the word of God. Theology is fun, but it is not to be taken too seriously.) I will not reject this man because I think he is mistaken about how in the world it comes about that some people aren't saved. I will accept him because he has the same King as I do.

The same goes for Trinity doctrine. It is not an important thing to understand that the Father Son and H.S. are three different persons which are one being. (That is not even exactly what I believe, but I will not get into it here.) This is a concept, true or not, which arises out not out of concern for Jesus as Lord, but instead out of mankind's desire to understand with his mind. To say that my brother has misunderstood the Trinity is not to say that he is not of the same King as myself.

Now, the only reason I would reject any group for any reason related to these kinds of doctrines would be if they themselves required me to believe and affirm their version of theology in order for me to be truly accepted by them. Even if I agree with their version of theology, I will not so affirm my belief to them. They have shifted their submission from Jesus, the Resurrected Lord, to a set of creeds and brainy suggestions.

Ok, how does this relate to the Local Churches? Witness Lee teaches a form of Trinity theology which I disagree with. Had they required me to believe it, I would have been out of there. But, as you read above, it is quite an open and accepted fact that some of the believers in this church believe differently than others, on this and other issues. They simply don't mind. Each is convinced in his own mind, and each also knows that as Christ works with them and in them, they will be emptied of any killing doctrines eventually. They affirm this, and they live it by simply fellowshipping with each other on one basis and one basis only: Jesus Christ, Son of God, resurrected in the flesh, is our Lord and King.

Miscellaneous Matters

I have seen it said that adherents are encouraged to mindlessly chant things. They do, indeed, say such things as "Oh Lord, Amen, Hallelujah" *almost* like a Hare Krishna might repeat his mantra. But the "chanting" of a member of the Local Church is not (or at least, should not be) mindless at all. They are encouraged to say it, not merely as a physical set of meaningless sounds, but as a fully real expression of the emotions of submission and joy, and of the idea "Jesus is my King, I assent joyfully to everything that he does in me and around me, and all praise to God!" In my experience, we never repeated this more than three times in a row, and to my mind, this kind of disallows its classification as a mantra.

I have read on a cultwatching page that Mr. Lee wrote that if a person calls out "Oh Lord" three times, whether he knows what he is saying or not, he will be saved. I never heard this preached in the church. If Mr. Lee said that, that's fine that he said it. He was quite incorrect, of course, and I'm sure any member of the Local Church would agree with me on that statement.

Regarding "how to be saved..." I have read that Mr. Lee teaches against the necessity of water baptism. Coincidentally, I do not believe in the necessity of water baptism as any kind of ordinance or command. If someone *refuses* water baptism, I seriously question their motives. But I do not believe it to be necessary in and of itself. Here, meanwhile, is what I found to be taught in the local church. I was invited to lunch at an elder's house, where a new convert was also eating lunch. This person had not been baptized in water, and the entire discussion at the table was an encouragement to this believer to be immersed in water. The elder explained that while Jesus himself does all the inward washing of sin and regeneration of the spirit, the water baptism outwardly affirms this inward washing and regeneration. The implication, unspoken but understood, was that Jesus will only work in a heart that is submissive, and when one is presented with the biblical pattern of water baptism, and with the fully recognized Christian tradition of water baptism, and then doesn't get baptized in water, there must be something wrong and that something is almost certainly in the area of the submissive or unsubmissive heart.

Not exactly the orthodox position, of course. Not exactly my position, although I am closer today to that position than I was when it was first taught to me. (Ironically, it was a couple of Mormon missionaries who caused me to look at the pattern of water baptism found throughout the book of Acts. This in turn brought me much closer to the position that Water Baptism is, in some sense, a necessary sign that a soul is saved from this "untoward generation.") So, whatever it is Mr. Lee teaches, I can only tell you what I saw taught in the church.

Some problems I did have with the Local Church

There is an undeniable spirit operating in this church that encourages the members to feel that the Local Church is quite superior to any other church, and even, sometimes, I found that they felt that the Local Church is God's specifically chosen voice in the world. This is a pretty serious matter, and I do not think I could agree with them in it. But, the thing is, this is not, as far as I could tell, a matter of their official doctrine or position. In fact, on more than one occasion, I heard speakers urging their brothers and sisters to rid themselves of this kind of attitude. It was recognized as a bad attitude and as an incorrect teaching, and every effort was made to not allow it to hold sway over the members of the church. I am not sure what it was about the local church that caused this spirit to be so active and hard to get rid of, but I can assure all readers and cultwatchers that it is not a belief held by the local church that they are the one true church. They do believe that in many matters, such as the matter of "localism," they are right and everyone else is wrong. But it is my experience that this sort of belief is what characterizes any church. When it comes right down to it, a church believes itself to be right and all the others to be wrong. What is important is how a church deals with this belief or attitude. I found the local church to be a little exclusivist, but quite loving. Members were quite willing and even excited to fellowship with believers who were 'in the denominations,' thought they might have felt a little iffy about actually attending a denominational meeting. And I can't stress enough that in the meetings, they were always coming actively against the spirit of exclusivism and against spiritual pride. Every church has its problems, in this world.

It can also be seen occasionally that a very serious error pops up in the meetings. Many of the members are quite convinced that in the end, a saved person becomes god. This may shock you, I suppose. How can I defend them if they hold that man becomes equal to God?

Well, that's not what I said. They believe that the end goal of salvation is that we become one in nature and purpose with God, and become therefore, god. (The old Capital G little g trick!) But we do not become as great as God, and we don't become part of the Godhead. It is simply that our identification with God becomes so intense that it is almost an identification as God, but not quite. Rather than being God, we are god. This, by the way, is not an individual matter, but a corporate matter. It's not that you and I become gods, or that I am God and you are God, or that you and I become God, but that you and I, in being saved, will be corporately god in the world to come.

This is a strange teaching, and I do not think that fully agree with it. I think there is something to it, however! For the scriptures speak constantly of the fact that we have the life of Christ himself as our life when we become saved. How are we to understand this idea, that our life is actually Christ's life, which in turn is God's life? It is a good, good question, and I think the conclusion is perhaps stranger than we had previously suspected.

Meanwhile, in the local church, I heard it said once that we are baby gods, and I heard it sung once that somehow when I study the words and actions of Christ, they are the words and actions of me. Both of these are problematic ideas at best. In fact, when I spoke to a friend of mine (a member also of the local church) after the meeting in which it was said that we are baby gods, he agreed with me that probably that should not be said, since it is not true. But it is important in the local church that the members be able to speak as they feel the spirit leads. Should anyone say something that is quite false, there is no need for other members to "fear" those words and quash the speaking. They merely go on with the meeting. At another time, it may be that someone will minister to the mistaken brother or sister, to make sure he or she is still centered on Christ as Lord.

That's it, I think. That's what I have to say about the idea that the local churches are a "cult." You can read a summary of my experience with the church here, if you like. I simply wish to reassure the readers and the cultwatchers that this church is fully acceptable as a church of Christ, and that the members are dedicated solely to Jesus Christ as Lord, and to no other teaching. Where they may be 'heretical,' (whatever that means, anyway,) they are speaking only of theological issues about the modes and operations of God and salvation. They in no way deviate from faith in the resurrection and in Jesus as King. I would urge that you guys quit trying to give them a bad name.

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

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