The Local Church movement is led by the elderly Chinese gentleman Witness Lee (Li Chang-Shou). This movement claims for itself to be the sole move and expression of God on earth today. Local Church members also claim to be the most orthodox of Christians. In their publication, The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches, this is clearly stated.
We want it to be known by all that the Christians in the local churches are absolute for the common faith and are the most orthodox of Christians.1
Witness Lee was born in the Chefoo region of China in 1905. He claims to have been saved in 1925, and came under the influence of the late Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee (1903-1972). Lee moved to Shanghai several years later to become a disciple of Nee. He became a full-time church co-worker with Nee in 1933. Watchman Nee himself was greatly influenced by writers of the Brethren and inner/deeper persuasion such as T. Austin-Sparks, M.E. Barber, John Nelson Darby, Madame Guyon, Andrew Murray, D.M. Panton, G.H. Pember, Jesse Penn-Lewis, and a host of others. Nee himself held to some unfortunate viewpoints of doctrine. He believed, for example, that there must be only one church fellowship in each city, his doctrine of localism, the joining of God's Spirit with man's spirit, the doctrine of mingling, a extreme emphasis upon the tripartite view of man, body, soul, and spirit, and the partial rapture of the saints, whereby only genuine overcomers are to be caught up to be with the Lord before the tribulational period.
In 1928 Nee began work on his first book, The Spiritual Man. The basis of this book was Nee's own understanding that man's constitution comprises of three parts, the body, soul, and spirit. Nee built an entire theological system based upon this single premise. It should be stated at this time that the series of published books bearing Nee's name today are primarily the works of editors who compiled them based upon the written sermons and conference messages of Nee.
In 1938 Nee wrote his second book, Concerning Our Missions, which was later retitled, The Normal Christian Church Life. This publication set forth Nee's exclusive, sectarian belief that there must be only one church in every city. According to Nee, the size of the church in each city is determined by the geographical dimensions of that city. All Christians living in a particular city belong to the one church in that city. The Local Church movement of Witness Lee received its name from outsiders who questioned this requirement of having just one church in every city.
Like many other Chinese Christians of his day, Nee had become greatly disenchanted with Western missionary programs, the intrusion of Western life and methods of worship, and the division of the body of Christ that occurred as the result of Western denominationalism. Nee sought to put to an end denominational divisions that existed and return to a simple New Testament pattern of worship and ministry. He established The Little Flock movement in China based upon the beliefs and practices of the Brethren and the inner/deeper life movement. Nee declared that denominationalism was sinful and detrimental to spiritual growth and urged all other Christians to forsake them and establish local churches. Nee had this, among other things, to say of people in the denominations:
Their denominationalism or sectarianism will mean that severe limitations are imposed upon the Lord as to His purpose and mind for them, and this will mean that they will never go beyond a certain measure of spiritual growth and fullness. Blessing there may be, but fullness of divine purpose, never.2
Watchman Nee had great influence upon those who followed him, including Witness Lee. Many of the same characteristics of Nee's movement are to be found in the off-shoot movement of Witness Lee's today. In his book, The History of the Church and the Local Churches, Lee comments on the influence of Nee in his life:
He was criticized because he repudiated and renounced the entire unscriptural system of Christianity. In the twenty-four issues of his magazine The Christian, published in 1925 and 1926, Brother Nee "demolished" all of fallen Christianity. Some people today condemn me by saying that I am different from Watchman Nee. But what I have ministered cannot be compared in strength to what Brother Nee released to expose in detail the fallen situation of Christianity.3 By reading Brother Nee's writings, I began to realize the truth concerning what the proper church is and the wrongdoings of Christianity. Although I was then in a denomination, I was inwardly through with the denominations.4
Nee appointed Lee as the leader of The Little Flock movement in Taiwan in the late forties as the communists were advancing on the mainland of China. Nee himself was imprisoned in 1952 by the communists authorities and would not oversee the movement again. He died in 1972. Doctrinal conflicts arose between Lee and other leaders and members of the existing movement. Although Nee held some unfortunate doctrinal beliefs, Lee took some of them further than Nee had. Lee also incorporated some questionable beliefs and practices of his own into the life of the movement. Controversy brought about a split of the movement. According to Witness Lee and the Local Church, The Lord's Recovery began when the Lord raised up Martin Luther and the reformers, and continued in recovering lost biblical truths through others as Madame Guyon, Father Fenelon, Brother Lawrence, Count Zinzendorf, the Moravian Brethren, John Darby, the Brethren, Watchman Nee, and today with Brother Witness Lee. In 1948 Lee extended the influence of his recovered Christianity from Taiwan to other Malaysian and Indonesian cities. In 1950 the movement reached the Philippines in Manila, to Japan in 1957, the United States in 1958, Brazil in 1959, Canada in 1963, South Korea in 1965, New Zealand and Australia in 1970, Germany and Nigeria in 1971, and Ghana in 1972.5 The movement is presently re-entering Eastern European countries, including the former Soviet Union. Witness Lee visited the U.S. in 1958 and 1960. He began meeting with a number of Christian fellowships in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In 1962 Lee returned to the U.S. and established his residence and first church in Los Angeles. As the result of extensive preaching, teaching, writing, and conference speaking, Lee raised up a number of church fellowships during the sixties and seventies. Local Church members in California began migrating to other major American cities to claim the ground for the movement. Individual Local Church fellowships in each city take on the name of those particular cities and claim to be the sole expression of Christ in them. The Local Church is represented in major cities worldwide by The Church in Anaheim, The Church in Austin, The Church in Chicago, The Church in Cleveland, The Church in Dallas, The Church in Long Beach, and so on.6 In 1962 Witness Lee established Stream Publishers as strictly a publishing concern. This organization was established to carry out the personal work of Lee himself, the publishing of his messages. In 1965 Stream Publishers was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation, dropping its identity as solely a publishing house. Its name was later changed to Living Stream Ministry.7 In their 1974 application to establish The Church Life Credit Union, Living Stream officials stated that they exist to serve the movement in the following ways:
1. The Board of Directors provides guidelines for the activities of the local church and also makes available teachers and helpers to assist the churches in spiritual and practical ways.
2. Sponsors semi-annual general conferences for all members of the local churches on a national level to promote the progress of the local churches.
3. Holds frequent seminars with regional representatives of the local churches to ascertain their needs and offer new ideas.
4. Publishes a quarterly periodical, books and booklets, and has a tape ministry distribution to the local churches.8
Today Witness Lee continues to propagate his doctrinal instruction to his followers through this ministry. This ministry distributes his messages by means of books, booklets, pamphlets, tracts, audio and video tapes, highly-organized training sessions and conferences, and many evangelistic activities. Witness Lee wields a considerable amount of influence over the day-to-day operations of the Living Stream Ministry and the Local Church movement as a whole.
The Present Situation Within the Local Church
The Local Church has experienced a reasonable amount of success during its thirty-year history in the U.S. Witness Lee began the movement in several homes and has spread his movement out across America and to the rest of the world. This movement has caught the hearts of those who became dissatisfied with what traditional Christianity has to offer. The sharp denunciation of denominationalism and the call to unity and simpler forms of worship had attracted many converts during the turbulent sixties and seventies. The brief history of the Local Church has been characterized by charges of propagating heresy. Beginning in 1972 a steady flow of publications and public lectures have critiqued the Local Church. The Local Church responded by threatening legal action to silence unfavorable public criticism of their movement. Despite much media attention, however, the Local Church continues to draw new converts, primarily from college campuses and the undiscipled from mainline Protestant denominations. This is primarily due to elaborate mechanisms employed to gain and maintain loyalty to the movement's messianic cause. In recent years a number of people have left the movement, including long-serving church leaders. In some cases, nearly entire church fellowships have distanced themselves from Lee and the movement. Some have severed their ties altogether, as was the case of The Church in Rosemead (9), which broke with Lee and Company in 1988. In January of 1988 former members of the Local Church distributed a twenty-page pamphlet, Reconsideration of the Vision, in both the English and Chinese languages. This pamphlet alleges that Witness Lee had strayed from the teachings of the Bible, engaged in questionable business practices involving members' money, and failed to discipline his son, Philip Lee. Later that year Philip Lee was excommunicated from the Anaheim fellowship based upon allegations of sexual misconduct.10 This publication also questioned Witness Lee's role as an apostle. The stormy October 9, 1988 meeting created a significant amount of tension. Local Church publications including, A Response to Recent Accusations, The Fermentation of the Present Rebellion, and The Present Turmoil in the Lord's Recovery and the Direction of the Lord's Move Today,attempt to dispel charges of authoritarianism presented by former Local Church leaders who had recently left the movement. Despite these setbacks, however, the Local Church has continued to grow, reaching out and winning new converts. The Local Church will be on the scene for many years to come.
1. The Co-workers in the Lord's Recovery (Witness Lee?), The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches (LSM: 1978) 1. This booklet contains the Local Church's only official doctrinal statement, which, in the opinion of many, including the author, does not accurately represent their actual beliefs and practices. See Duddy, The God-Men, 29.
2. Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Church Life (LSM: 1980) 110-111. See, Further Talks on the Church Life (LSM: 1969).
3. Witness Lee, The History of the Church and the Local Churches (LSM: 1991) 73, parenthetical note added.
4. Ibid, 123.
5. Ibid., 60.
6. Living Stream Ministry, A Table of the Churches in the Lord's Recovery (LSM: 1985).
7. Eugene Gruhler, Testimony of Brother Eugene Gruhler from Anaheim, California," The Fermentation of the Present Rebellion (LSM: 1990) 94.
8. Quotation taken from paperwork submitted to the National Credit Union administration in February, 1974, by Local Church official(s) desiring to form The Church Life Credit Union. Document on file with the author.
9. Miller, Elliot, and William Alnor. Turmoil in the Local Church, " Christian Research Journal. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Christian Research Institute (Fall 1988) 5.
10. Anonymous, Reconsideration of the Vision (Jan. 29, 1988). This pamphlet, published by anonymous former Local Church members, alleges that Lee had strayed from the teachings of the Bible, questions Lee's authority as an apostle, criticizes his failure to discipline his allegedly sexually immoral son, Phillip, and charges that Lee misappropriated members' own money for his own personal financial gain. Translated from the Chinese language.