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 third concern raised in the Open Letter pertains to Witness Lee’s statements concerning evangelical churches and denominations. Unlike the previous two sections, it opens and closes with brief commentary by the drafters:
We decry as inconsistent and unjustifiable the attempts by Living Stream and the “local churches” to gain membership in associations of evangelical churches and ministries while continuing to promote Witness Lee’s denigrating characterizations of such churches and ministries as follows:
“The Lord is not building His church in Christendom, which is composed of the apostate Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations. This prophecy is being fulfilled through the Lord’s recovery, in which the building of the genuine church is being accomplished.”
Witness Lee in The New Testament Recovery Version, note 184 (Matthew 16:18)
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1991), p. 99
“The apostate church has deviated from the Lord’s word and become heretical. The reformed church, though recovered to the Lord’s word to some extent, has denied the Lord’s name by denominating herself, taking many other names, such as Lutherans, Wesleyan, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc. … To deviate from the Lord’s word is apostasy, and to denominate the church by taking any name other than the Lord’s is spiritual fornication.”
Witness Lee in The New Testament Recovery Version, note 83 (Revelation 3:8)
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1991), p. 1256
“I am afraid that a number of us are still under the negative influence of Christendom. We all have to realize that today the Lord is going on and on to fully recover us and bring us fully out of Christendom.”
Witness Lee, The History of the Church and the Local Churches
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1991), p. 132
“In every denomination, including the Roman Catholic Church, there are real, saved Christians. They are God’s people belonging to the Lord. But the organization of the denominations in which they are is not of God. The denominational organizations have been utilized by Satan to set up his satanic system to destroy God’s economy of the proper church life.”
Witness Lee, “Message Thirty-Four” in
The Life-Study of Genesis (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1987), Vol. 1, p. 464
“We do not care for Christianity, we do not care for Christendom, we do not care for the Roman Catholic church, and we do not care for all the denominations, because in the Bible it says that the great Babylon is fallen. This is a declaration. Christianity is fallen, Christendom is fallen, Catholicism is fallen, and all the denominations are fallen. Hallelujah!”
Witness Lee, The Seven Spirits for the Local Churches
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1989), p. 97
“To know God is not adequate. To know Christ is also not adequate. Even to know the church is not adequate. We must go on to know the churches which are local. If we are up-to-date in following the Lord, we will realize that today is the day of the local churches.”
Ibid., p. 23
We respectfully call on the leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the “local churches” to disavow and cease to publish these and similar declarations.
As a researcher of cults for nearly forty years I certainly can appreciate the response many Christians would have to Lee’s references to “Babylon” and “Christendom,” and to his even naming “Christianity” as though it is an entity separate from the LC. However, it would be a mistake with a group such as the LC—which even most critics acknowledge is composed of genuine Christians, and which affirms orthodox theology—to read into such statements all of the meanings those terms have within the kingdom of the cults. Bearing in mind the pattern we’ve already seen of Lee’s using certain hot button words associated in our minds with heresy or cultism, but employing them in nonheretical ways, we should all the more diligently seek a contextual understanding of the LC’s use of these terms. As one of the LSM leaders told me, “We are not out to proclaim that the denominations are Babylon.” They state that when Lee did make use of these terms the emphasis was more often on an inward application. In other words, denominationalism and sectarianism were not supposed to be condemned out of elitism, judgmentalism, and divisiveness, but rather because they were understood to produce elitism, judgmentalism, and divisiveness, and these were attitudes LC members needed to avoid.
Understanding Lee in His Context
In seeking such a contextual understanding of the above quotations, it first of all needs to be observed that none of them amount to heresy. Lee even allows that there are “real, saved Christians” not only within the Protestant denominations but also within the Roman Catholic Church. His statements regarding Roman Catholicism reflect the views of a great many evangelicals today.1 Lee also differentiates between Roman Catholicism and Protestant denominations and reserves his harshest words for the former. He also is far from the first leader of a Protestant group to question the legitimacy of other Protestant groups, since such polemics have been virtually a Protestant tradition going back to the infancy of the Reformation, when Lutheran and Reformed leaders excoriated not only the Arminians and Anabaptists but often each other. How many Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Reformed church members, not to mention members of more recently formed denominations, have been called on to renounce the divisive statements of their founders?
The question remains, however: do the quotations in the Open Letter provide the full picture of where the LC stands regarding other Christian traditions besides their own? To understand these statements in the larger context of LC teaching is to understand that what Lee was denouncing was denominationalism per se, and he did this because he believed that all the Christians in a given locality are members of the same church and should organize and meet accordingly. He believed this as a general principle, regardless of whether his movement was represented in that locality.
Please note (as this point is typically missed by evangelicals who come across Lee’s teachings on this subject): it was not the Christians within the denominations that Lee spoke against, nor was it everything they believed, preached, and did in the name of Christ. Indeed, Lee often commended other Christian leaders and groups for their teaching, evangelism, and good works,2 and nothing he taught would preclude LC members from making common cause with other Christians in areas unrelated to the furtherance of denominationalism. Hence, it certainly presents no conflict with their basic beliefs for LSM to seek membership in various evangelical trade groups, as they have done.
The Surprising Inclusivism of the LC
As previously noted, this stand against denominationalism may seem divisive, elitist, and exclusivistic, but its purpose is actually quite the opposite. Throughout the teachings of both Watchman Nee and Witness Lee an attitude of unity with, humility toward, and acceptance of other Christians is encouraged, and this is the attitude one normally will encounter in the “local churches.” For example, Lee wrote:
Today there are many different backgrounds of the saints. Some have a Presbyterian background, some a Baptist background, and some have other kinds of background. But regardless of the background, if they are saved, they all have the same faith, for they all believe in the same Lord Jesus Christ. They all have been redeemed by the same blood; therefore, they all have the same life within. We all are one in this all-comprehensive faith.
Fellowship is based upon this oneness. We have fellowship with one another because we all have the same divine life, we all have the same Lord, and we all have the same redemption. Do not ask what kind of baptism others have had. Do not talk about all those doctrines. As long as they are saints who are not sinful according to 1 Corinthians 5, we must recognize all of them as dear brothers and sisters.…
We may be quite different from other Christians in background and in many other things. They may not believe in partial rapture, and we may be for it. But regardless in which kind of rapture we believe, as long as we believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who was incarnated as a man, died on the cross for our sins, and resurrected from the dead, we are all redeemed, justified, regenerated and saved. And we all have the divine life within us. Therefore, we are all of one Body. It is based upon this that we have fellowship with one another. We may speak somewhat regarding certain things, but we must not go too far, and we must not argue. We must base our fellowship only on the Lord Himself.3
In their paper prepared for Fuller Seminary the LC makes their position quite clear:
We acknowledge that our understanding of the scriptural teaching on the practical oneness calls into question the standing of every other Christian congregation. But this view of the local church as the proper expression of the church does not in any way question or minimize the intrinsic aspect of the universal church as the Body of Christ, which encompasses all Christ’s believers throughout time and throughout the world at any time. While the gathering of the believers according to the principle of “one church, one city” is the proper expression of the church, this principle in no way annuls the membership of all the believers in the one church of God in the Body of Christ; it does not define Christian salvation or determine who is or is not a genuine believer. When we declare that the local church, so defined, is the only genuine and proper expression of the one universal church, some have leapt to the conclusion that we also teach that our local churches are the only true church and, by extension, that we are the only true Christians, everyone else in Christianity being unsaved and doomed to eternal perdition. This is simply not true and not what we believe. We hold every person who confesses Christ as a genuine believer and as our genuine brother or sister regardless of how they choose to meet with other Christians. It would be counter to our own convictions concerning the practical oneness of the church if we denied that all the believers in the Christian denominations are God’s genuinely redeemed people. Our stand is that Christianity today is divided, wrongly, but not that the Christians themselves are anything less than God’s precious redeemed people. Further, our practice in all the local churches is to receive all the believers into fellowship with us simply because they believe in Christ. We boldly invite everyone to test us on this one matter and see if it is not so: attend any meeting of any of the local churches anywhere and see if you are refused fellowship, see if you are refused participation in our Lord’s table there, see if you are not welcomed based only on your faith in Christ. We have no catechism that you must learn, no creed that you must declare, no practice that you must adopt, no natural characteristic that you must possess. You must only be able to declare that Christ is God come in the flesh and is the very God who saved you from your sins through His death on the cross and through His resurrection from the dead. That alone makes you a member of the church in the city where you live and qualifies you to participate fully in the fellowship of the local church in that city. Contrary to what others have said about us, in vision and in practice we are not exclusive at all but include all Christ’s believers in our estimation of who they are in Christ and in how we practically receive them.4
In their own response to the Open Letter, the LC frankly acknowledge that their members have sometimes not behaved consistently with these principles, but they stress that such behavior was not condoned by Lee. Indeed, in our dialogue LC leaders assured us that Lee often scolded and corrected them when members of the “local churches” behaved in a sectarian manner toward Christians outside their movement—“for about six months one time”!
“While our doors and hearts are open to all genuine believers, we understand that many Christians are content and satisfied in their denominational congregations. Such choices belong in the realm of individual conscience. As Paul writes in Romans 14, in these matters we feel to “let each be fully persuaded in his own mind” (v. 5). Notwithstanding our earnest efforts at orthopraxy, we recognize the tendency of some immature ones, even among us, to overstep in their zeal and to try to bring others into their experiences. Perhaps in an effort to preempt this tendency, Witness Lee made the following emphatic points in a series of messages on having a proper attitude toward other Christians:
‘We stand before the Lord whom we serve, and we have no intention of drawing anyone to be with us…I have said, ‘You can meet wherever you choose as long as it is beneficial to you’…I especially beseech the brothers never to say to anyone, ‘It is best that you come here to meet with us.’ (Three Aspects of the Church: The Course of the Church, 81)
We should not reject Christians from other Christian groups, but we do not need to seek them out. I do not believe that the Lord wants us to seek out believers from other Christian groups. I believe that the Lord wants us to take the gospel to every place and to minister life to His many children. The Lord wants a situation among us that can influence His children.
Where people meet and how they serve the Lord are entirely between them and the Lord; we cannot intervene in these things. In this age we must minister life to others. When people contact us, they should touch something in us that is unforgettable. The way they take or where they meet does not matter; we should not consider that our meetings are better than those in Christianity or that our meetings have the greatest number of people.'”(Ibid., 217-218)5
Return of the Double Standard
It’s true that the LC’s view has negative implications for all of us who are members of denominational churches; indeed, for anyone who is not meeting on the local ground. But so what? Many evangelical traditions hold beliefs that are unflattering to those outside their tradition. Classical Pentecostals believe that those who do not speak in tongues have not been baptized in the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, cessationists deny that Pentecostals and charismatics are genuinely receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit and speculate that they are rather experiencing phenomena generated by their own minds or even by demons. Some Calvinists do not consider the gospel preached by Arminians to be the true gospel and some Arminians do not consider the God believed in by Calvinists to be the true God. Dispensationalists believe that covenant theologians misunderstand much of the Old Testament and therefore deny a central aspect of God’s redemption plan: His covenant with the physical nation of Israel. Covenant Christians likewise believe that dispensationalists misunderstand much of the Old Testament and therefore are holding on to the Old Covenant in ways that compromise the New.
No doubt many of the drafters and signers of the Open Letter are on one or the other side of these and other divides in the body of Christ and take a dim view of some of the beliefs of some of the other signers. Yet in all of these cases these individuals are able to take a mature view of their differences, are not offended by the rejection of some of their beliefs and practices by other Christians, and are still able to come together with such Christians, accentuate the essential doctrines they hold in common, and join common cause for the Kingdom of God wherever they can, whether it is through membership in the Evangelical Theological Society, Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, or some other transdenominational association of believers.
How then, does the situation differ with Living Stream Ministry? As we’ve seen, LSM accepts the members of associations such as the ECPA and the CBA as Christians and does not deny that they do legitimate works for Christ. Note that it is LSM, a publishing entity, and not the “local churches,” that has joined Christian associations. Contrary to what the Open Letter stresses as one of its main points, the “local churches” are not members of any “associations of evangelical churches.” They recognize that such membership would present a conflict both for them and for the association members.
It seems to me that it is the signers of the Open Letter who have adamantly rejected the legitimacy of the LC and LSM’s profession of orthodox Christian faith on issues such as the Trinity and the deification of believers. It is not the LC and LSM who have rejected the legitimacy of the signers’ orthodox profession. All that the LC and the LSM have rejected is the organizational basis and structure of denominationalism. And this rejection goes hand in hand with what the LC believes to be perhaps the greatest contribution their movement has to make to the larger body of Christ: the recovery of the “local ground” as the biblical basis for organizing a church.
Were the words Lee used to reject denominationalism harsh? Yes, and I would add regrettable. By employing such loaded terminology as “Babylon,” “spiritual fornication,” and “satanic system,” he made it easier for people wrongly to conclude that he was rejecting everything about their Christian experience, and he repelled people he might other -wise have drawn to his teachings on the New Testament church. Nonetheless, the LC could not renounce Lee’s statements as the Open Letter requests without also implying that they have changed their underlying belief in the local ground, and such a change in belief has not occurred. It is therefore, once again, both unreasonable and unrealistic to call on them to renounce these statements by their late leader.
- We know this from experience at CRI. Any time we publish what we consider to be a nuanced article, which does not at every point condemn Catholicism in the strongest possible terms, we hear from them!
- Examples are numerous, including commendations of Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, the Plymouth Brethren, Charles Spurgeon, G. Campbell Morgan, A. J. Gordon, Andrew Murray, D. L. Moody, and special praise for Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission and also for Billy Graham. (See Witness Lee, Elder’s Training, Book 4: Other Crucial Matters concerning the Practice of the Lord’s Recovery [Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1985], 22–23; Witness Lee, Elder’s Training, Book 5: Fellowship concerning the Lord’s Up-to-Date Move [Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1985], 19–20; and Witness Lee, Elder’s Training, Book 7: One Accord for the Lord’s Move [Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1986], 29.)
- Witness Lee, The Practical Expression of the Church (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1970), 97–98.
- A Statement Concerning the Teachings of Living Stream Ministry Prepared for Fuller Theological Seminary, January 20, 2007, 25. (This document is posted at http://www.lctestimony.org/StatementOfTeachings.pdf.)
- Living Stream Ministry, “A Longer Response to ‘An Open Letter to the Leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the “Local Churches,”’”27, http://lctestimony.org/LongerResponse.html.