Article ID: JAF8326 | By: Gretchen Passantino Coburn


This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 32, number 06 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


The teachings of Witness Lee were first criticized in publication in America in 1975 by me and my late husband, Bob Passantino. Witness Lee and the Local Churches (CARIS, 1975) represented our investigation into a movement that had been in America since 1962 that achieved public notoriety such that we (and our organization CARIS) and CRI founder Walter Martin believed analysis was needed. Over five years other publications followed: The Teachings of Witness Lee and the Local Churches, coauthored by my brother E. Calvin (Cal) Beisner, my husband Bob, and me (CRI, 1978), an audio teaching by Walter Martin, and an appendix contributed by Cal, Bob, and me to Walter Martin’s book The New Cults (Vision House, 1980). CRI researcher Elliot Miller, as well, contributed research, editing, and discussion that helped determine CRI’s position. CRI published only a short summary informational piece and a couple of news updates subsequent to 1980. Neither CARIS nor Bob’s and my later organization, Answers In Action (AIA), published anything else on the subject.

Although several organizations before and since published criticisms, CARIS and CRI provided the theological base for most of the negative public exposure. Some publications were not restricted to theological evaluations and some were inflammatory and derogatory, leading the local churches (LC) to defend themselves legally.

After the local churches prevailed in two lawsuits, little criticism was published until John Ankerberg and John Weldon’s Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR) in 1999. By that time, Walter Martin and Bob Passantino died (1989 and 2003), E. Calvin Beisner left active cult apologetics to further his education and become a teacher of theology (1992–2007), Hank Hanegraaff assumed leadership of CRI (1989), Elliot Miller remained at CRI, being the editor-in-chief of this Journal, and I continued directing AIA. The publication of ECNR drew Hank, Elliot, and me back into the controversy because the misstatements of fact and defamatory nature of ECNR caused severe, unmerited harm to the local churches, particularly to members in China denied freedom of religion and other basic human rights, including being imprisoned.

While the local churches had represented a passing theological exercise early in Elliot’s and my careers, and historical documents for Hank as CRI president, the subject now provoked a sense of urgency to reexamine that earlier work and determine if our biblical stance would now be to defend the local churches or merely to correct quietly our zealously irresponsible colleagues (Ankerberg and Weldon). When the local churches approached us for mediation over ECNR, we were eager to be used by God to bring any needed redemption, reconciliation, or correction. We had learned that direct interaction, compassionate charity, and contextual, comprehensive research were necessary for accurate analysis. Bob was still alive, and he was adamant that we had an obligation, as the ones who had first published on this movement in America, to revisit the issue and ensure the analysis was correct. Although he died before the research commenced, I know he would join Hank and Elliot and me today affirming that the local churches are orthodox in essential doctrine, our brethren in Christ, defamed by ECNR, and wronged by us, who contributed to the criticism that caused such destruction on the local churches’ religious and personal freedom, especially in China.

Elliot’s contribution is to reevaluate essential local church theology. My contribution is to summarize why we first made wrong conclusions, and to encourage my apologetics colleagues either to reexamine and include the greater evidence, as we have, or at least to refrain from condemning the local churches based on the original faulty research.

First, when we encountered LC teaching that was problematic, we assumed the problem stemmed from heresy or confusion on their part rather than misunderstanding on our part. We and Walter Martin always refrained from calling the local churches a cult. We preferred the term “aberrant,” and affirmed they were brothers and sisters in Christ, although we were convinced some of their teachings on essential doctrines were at best contradictory, at worst heretical. But we misunderstood Lee’s provocative habit of making stark, seemingly contradictory statements and then explaining and distinguishing them from heresy elsewhere in his text, sometimes far removed from the provocative statements. For Lee this alerted his students to pay careful attention and not presume. For us this signaled confusion and/or heresy. Our more recent research of a greater body of material coupled with direct interaction with local church leadership convinces us that those teachings are neither contradictory nor heretical, but still confusing to many, especially outsiders.

Second, the material we studied in the 1970s was deficient in depth and breadth for three main reasons: (1) There was much less in print in America then. (2) Much was not easily accessible to us, especially when members became afraid that we would use anything written merely to criticize. (3) Most of what was available in print was neither defensive nor polemic, but was instead meant as teaching aids for members under the leadership of experienced brothers who clarified the confusing and restrained heretical misunderstandings. A further deficiency was more in our intellectual depth and breadth at this early point in our careers than in the materials themselves. Lee’s heritage was Eastern, not Western, and consequently did not reflect the rational, didactic, Aristotelian exposition familiar to us, causing us to suspect theological error rather than mere cultural difference. This practice of using paradox and/or significantly postponing clarification—neither to be confused with irrationality, incoherence, or mere relativism—is common in Eastern thinking and in earlier periods of Western writing, but has been virtually erased in contemporary American writing.

Third, Nee and Lee’s theological approach was different from the systematic theology of Western Christianity, especially Protestantism, more especially among evangelicals, particularly among cult apologists. Local church theology is more practically oriented; it enables a Christian to follow Christ day by day, especially under persecution or opposition, rather than describing a theoretical and rational paradigm. In this sense, local church theology is similar to Eastern Orthodoxy, even though local church teachers say they did not study nor derive their theology from Eastern Orthodoxy. This paradigm appeared not merely different, but wrong.

Fourth, we isolated the teachings of the local churches from their historical and cultural roots, mistaking some of their unique experiences as affirmations of heresy. The local churches came from China, not from Western Europe by way of America. Eastern ways of thinking, Asian cultural customs, and ancient roots had their own unique impacts on how Christianity developed in the local churches. For example, for American evangelicals who have never been enslaved or invaded, a uniquely “European” Christianity is virtually indiscernible. But for Chinese Christians who have been enslaved and invaded, European Christianity historically linked to the opium wars and being “Shanghaied” to America, slaving to build the railroads, is at best unappealing, at worst threatening. When a Chinese Christian sees the New Testament’s practice of giving no name or distinction to a gathering of believers other than its locality (“the church in Rome”), this idea leaps out as a corrective to the Roman Catholicism of invaders or the Protestantism of Shanghaiers. When we properly placed the teachings of the local churches into their historical and cultural contexts, we realized they did not teach the exclusivism of “we are the only true church” but instead the inclusivism of “we are only the true church, just like all true believers.” The differences between the local churches and most American churches is more like the differences between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians of the New Testament, both groups true believers; it is not like the differences between the Gnostic heretics of the second century and the orthodox true believers of the same period. (This is true even for American or European LC believers, since most of them have only experienced the Christian life in the local churches.)

Fifth, we misjudged the local churches because both we and they were immature, inexperienced, and sometimes insensitive. On our part, we only experienced evangelical American Protestantism; we studied primarily systematic theology; we developed our apologetics around rational, logical, and evidential paradigms; we judged issues more often as black or white, right or wrong rather than more carefully nuanced (not to be confused with relativism or subjectivism). For example, this meant we marginalized personal interaction as irrelevant to reading their materials. When written statements seemed to say that the local churches were the only true churches, we understood them as exclusivistic statements, whereas they were ambiguous and could have meant that, from God’s perspective, there is only one church not delineated by any distinguishing name such as “Presbyterian.” If we had engaged in personal interaction without presumed animosity, we would have discovered that the local churches’ behavior was inclusive, not exclusive, as we did discover over the last five years. Our youth meant that on both sides we sometimes were quick to anger, slow to reconcile, quick to conclude deception, slow to encourage openness, and so on.

These and other reasons raised by Elliot in his theological review help explain how we misjudged the local churches. I conclude with an appeal to my colleagues, especially my brother, E. Calvin Beisner. Walter Martin and Bob Passantino are dead. Hank Hanegraaff came to CRI after our initial research. The bulk of the “evidence” in the Open Letter is the same as the evidence we first used to make our mistaken judgments before 1981. Elliot and I have reexamined that evidence. More importantly, we interacted with the local church leaders and now better understand the context of their teachings. Most importantly, we examined a much larger body of material and interviewed a significantly greater number of local church members. Cal may have reexamined the original material. He has said he has not interacted directly with local church members and leaders. He has refused to examine any further material unless or until the leadership repudiates statements they made, but Elliot, and I believe are not inherently heretical and therefore don’t need repudiation. Among the three living apologists who are able to make this reexamination, two have done so and come to the conclusion that we were wrong and the local churches’ teachings are not heretical; they are not cultic or a cult. The third has admittedly not done the due diligence we have, but he remains convinced that the local churches’ teachings are heretical and cultic. Which conclusion appears to have the greatest credibility? Elliot and I have more to commend our reversal than Cal has to maintain his original position.

I know what kept me from reexamining this subject earlier. First, I’ve been preoccupied with other demands; second, I’ve rarely been wrong in my apologetics research and couldn’t statistically justify the commitment of time and effort for reexamination; third, it is easy to attribute the orthodox-sounding parts of local church teaching to counterfeiting, rather than genuine orthodoxy; fourth, it is incontrovertible that the local churches appear distinctive from common evangelical American Protestantism, and that can be a clue (but not a certainty) that the teaching is heretical; fifth, I’ve seen one cult (the Worldwide Church of God) recant its heresy and embrace orthodoxy, and it is more pleasurable to save a sinner than apologize to a wronged brother; sixth, it is embarrassing to admit I’ve been wrong; and seventh, a cult is at least as likely to protest its orthodoxy as is a mislabeled orthodox group.

The one factor that did not keep me from a new examination is one my brother Cal shares: we do not have to admit that our condemnation was based on what others had done rather than on our own research. Among the signers of the Open Letter are many apologists who did no more extensive research than what Bob, Walter, Elliot, Cal, and I did in the 1970s. Of the three of us who are still alive, two of us are telling the rest that we were wrong. Since we contend we were wrong then and right now, that should be sufficient for at least some signers to refrain from continuing to condemn the local churches, even if they don’t have the time or energy to conduct better research than we did then, and as good research as we did now.

My previous research (developed with and shared by Bob, Walter, Elliot, and Cal) was inadequate to the extent that my conclusion was wrong. My current research (developed with and shared by Hank and Elliot) is far deeper and wider than the previous, and is adequate to the extent that it has overturned my previous conclusion. No matter how many people sign the Open Letter and how many times the same inadequate sources are cited, the conclusion supported in this issue of the Journal prevails in the arena of truth. The local churches believe the essentials of orthodox Christian theology and should be embraced as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than opposed as believers in heresy. I pray other apologists will rescind their condemnation, if not reengage the issue to the same depth we have. We risk either being guilty of accusing a brother or of falsely embracing a heretic. What spiritual right do we have to refuse to revisit this issue?

Gretchen Passantino Coburn is the co-founder and director of Answers In Action (AIA) (www.answers.org), a prolific author, and an adjunct seminary professor. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of California (Irvine) and an M.Div. from Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary (Tacoma, WA).