Saturday, January 4, 2020

God As My Witness: The Local Church Movement Redux

[NOTE: This article originally appeared as a chapter in Counterfeit Religion: A Biblical Analysis of Cults, Sects, & False Religious Movements, (Torrington, CT: Church Militant Pub., 2019).]

The CRI Debacle

In 2009, the Christian Research Institute (CRI) published a special edition of the Christian Research Journal with the phrase “We Were Wrong” on the cover. In the feature article, president of CRI, Hank Hanegraaff, recanted on the previous position of his organization regarding the local churches (LC).[1] The late Walter Martin, founder of CRI, had concluded on theological grounds that Witness Lee and his local church movement constituted a cult. Martin cited a variety of theological problems present in the LC, chief among these was a modalistic conception of God which confused the persons of the Trinity. Hanegraaff’s article was a complete reversal of the position taken by Martin, as Hanegraaff insisted the LC affirmed the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.[2]

CRI’s reversal was a surprise to many who had come to respect the considerable scholarship and ministry of Martin. Additionally, it had become well known that the LC had initiated a number of lawsuits against evangelical ministries which had identified it as a cult. This decades long litigious behavior was consistent with a cultic disregard of the Bible’s clear prohibition of lawsuits among Christians.[3] Christian authors and publishers have been sued for millions by the LC, all for their assessment of the LC as a cult. The most notable of these lawsuits was issued against John Ankerberg, John Weldon, and Harvest House Publishers at the Supreme Court of Texas. Ankerberg and Weldon had rightly identified the LC as a cult within their Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, and subsequently, the LC sued them and lost.

In 2007, over sixty evangelical scholars signed an open letter outlining the considerable theological problems in the teaching of Witness Lee and the LC. The letter called the LC to refrain from further lawsuits against Christians and ministries, and to abandon its unorthodox teaching.[4] Seemingly in response, LC published a pamphlet featuring the testimony of Hanegraaff, Gretchen Passantino, and Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Theology, vouching for the alleged orthodoxy of LC. In this pamphlet Hanegraaff wrote, “The local churches are not a cult from a theological perspective… I stand shoulder to shoulder with the local churches when it comes to the essentials that define biblical orthodoxy.”[5] There is good reason to question what Hanegraaff means by “biblical orthodoxy,” both because LC doesn’t affirm the Bible’s teaching on a number of key doctrines, and because Hanegraaff left evangelical Protestantism for Eastern Orthodoxy in 2017.[6]

Marshaling Fuller Theological Seminary to vouch for your orthodoxy is akin to using Charles Manson as a character reference. Fuller, and then president Richard J. Mouw, left biblical Christianity long ago, trading biblical inerrancy and a variety of other central Christian doctrines for the wasteland of modernity.[7] Mouw is well known for his attempt to mainstream Mormonism among evangelicals.[8] If anything, Fuller’s lack of orthodoxy should detract from the credibility of LC’s claim to orthodoxy.

Not long after the CRI Journal published its defense of LC both in the aforementioned article by Hanegraaff and the full-length apologetic written by then editor-in-chief Elliot Miller, evangelical scholars Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes issued a blistering rebuke citing the obvious problems with CRI’s new perspective.[9] Geisler and Rhodes identified the mass of contradictory theological statements issued by the LC and their publishing organization Living Stream Ministry, and the continued theological error in LC’s understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. 

As for CRI’s evaluation, Miller’s article, to put it plainly, is a puff-piece. It is as though Miller published the arguments of LC on their behalf. To demonstrate the validity of my assessment, I have provided a fresh evaluation of the major theological error of the LC movement below. 

The “Trinitarian” Theology of the Local Churches

In 2017, I completed my doctoral work on the theology and Christology of Oneness Pentecostalism. In the course of that work, I read virtually every piece of extant literature published up to that time that was written on the subject. I spent years documenting and detailing the theology of Oneness Pentecostalism such that I could offer an evenhanded critique that properly represented the movement and its beliefs. I mention this because the expertise I gained in that study granted me a great familiarity with modalistic theology. I found that while there are various forms of modalism (e.g., the sequential modalism of Sabellianism, and the incarnational iteration espoused by groups like to UPCI), each form boils down to the belief that God is a single person who has revealed himself in three manifestations. Unitarianism is the presupposition of all modalistic religion. 

In studying the materials published by the LC, I have no doubt that the LC espouse a form of modalism. While the movement may object to that categorization, it is evidently and objectively true. As Geisler and Rhodes have pointed out, there are many contradictory claims made in the literature of LC. LC claims the co-eternality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then explicitly confounds the persons of the Trinity. One could derive either orthodox trinitarianism or modalism from their teaching within the span of a single paragraph. Hence, the problem is not with LC’s orthodox statements, but their unorthodox statements. From the perspective of this author, CRI has capitalized on the orthodox statements of LC, while neglecting their evident heterodoxy. 

When the LC movement published A Confirmation of the Gospel: Concerning the Teaching of the Local Churches and Living Stream Ministry, a sixty-page doctrinal statement, it intended to clarify its doctrine such that it would convince evangelicalism of its orthodoxy. Despite the intention, this work is likely the greatest evidence of the LC’s modalism. The book dismisses historic trinitarian hermeneutics as “external theological con-structs”[10] which “obscure” “biblical facts concerning a deep reality that exists in the Godhead.”[11] Instead, while criticizing the claim that it affirms a form of modalism, LC embraces classic modalistic interpretations of the Bible, suggesting that Jesus is God the Father. In response to this apparent contradiction, LC invokes its belief in what it calls the doctrine of “coinherence:” 

Because of this marvelous reality of the coinherence of the three in the Trinity, we believe that frequently the Bible identifies the hypostases with one another, sometimes to the chagrin of less-nuanced systematic theologies.[12]

Coinherence, or what has been more popularly known as perichoresis, is a biblical doctrine which refers to the indwelling, interworking, and complementary function of the persons of the Trinity.[13] What this doctrine does not refer to is the confusion of the identity of one divine person with another; the precise error of LC. 

The example I will use to demonstrate LC’s modalism is its teaching concerning the phrase “Eternal Father” as it is used of the Son of God in Isa. 9:6. LC understands the phrase “Eternal Father” to be a reference to God the Father: 
The Father is eternal; this can be proven by Isaiah 9:6, which refers to the Father as the “Eternal Father.”[14]
LC concludes, “The Son is called the Father,”[15] and goes further to state, 
The Son given to us comes to us bearing in His every action the inseparable operation of the Eternal Father and thus can be called, as Isaiah predicts, the Eternal Father.[16]
Lest one think that the what the LC means by this is that Jesus is called “Eternal Father” in a metaphorical sense, it says, 
We do not need to relegate Isaiah’s prophecy to an Old Testament metaphor… Rather, we wish to afford the passage its full textual force, understanding that the Son who came to us in incarnation was in the Father and that His works were as well the operations of the Eternal Father.[17]
We may conclude therefore, that LC believes that Jesus is called “Father” in the sense of God the Father and that his action is inseparable to that of the Father. Witness Lee’s literature confirms this modalistic interpretation:
In Isaiah 9:6 there is a parallel line; that is, “A Son is given to us;... / And His name will be called... / Eternal Father.” It is abundantly clear that the Son mentioned here is Christ, yet the Son is called “Eternal Father.”…The Son is called the Father, so the Son must be the Father. We must realize this fact. There are some who say that He is called the Father, but He is not really the Father. But how could He be called the Father and yet not be the Father? If I am called a brother, I must be a brother. The Son is called the Father; therefore, He must be the Father. Can we drop Isaiah 9:6 from the Scriptures? It clearly tells not only that a child, the very one born at Bethlehem, is called “Mighty God” but also that a Son given to us is called “Eternal Father.”[18]
The Son is the eternal Father. It is indeed difficult to fully explain this matter, yet this is the word of the Scriptures. “A Son is given...and His name will be called...Eternal Father.” Does this not plainly say that the Son is the Father? If the Son is not the Father, how could the Son be called the Father? If we acknowledge that the child of whom this verse speaks is the mighty God, then we must also acknowledge that the Son of whom this verse speaks is also the eternal Father; otherwise, we are not believing the clearly stated revelation of the Scriptures. However, we deeply believe that according to the words here, the Lord Jesus who became the child is the mighty God, and the Lord Jesus who is the Son is also the eternal Father. Our Lord is the Son, and He is also the Father. Hallelujah![19]

In response to Geisler and Rhodes, LC published four books defending its orthodoxy. In the second of these books, LC produced one of the most damning confirmations of its modalistic theology. So clear is the modalism in this book, that any claim to the contrary must be rejected until it is fully retracted. This book criticizes Geisler and Rhodes for rejecting the plain reading of Isa. 9:6.[20] “Witness Lee, on the other hand, affirms what the Bible affirms.”[21] Just what does that mean? It means that Witness Lee believed that Jesus is the Father:
When the Bible says that the Son is called the everlasting Father, I say, “Amen, the Son is the Father.”[22]
Lest anyone doubt the clarity of that statement, LC confirmed and clarified just what Lee meant. So that the charge of taking Lee out of context cannot be substantiated, I have provided the entire quote below:
Furthermore, Isaiah 63:16 says, “Thou, O Lord, art our Father; our Redeemer from eternity is thy name” (Heb.). And Isaiah 64:8 says, “O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we are the work of thy hand.” The prophet Isaiah used these two verses as a further development of what he prophesied concerning Christ as the Father of eter-nity in Isaiah 9:6. In 64:8 Isaiah tells us that the Father of eternity in 9:6 is our Creator, and in 63:16 he tells us that the Father of eternity is our Redeemer. In the whole Bible, Christ is revealed as our Creator and especially as our Redeemer (John 1:3; Heb. 1:10; Rom. 3:24; Titus 2:14). The Father of eternity being both our Creator and our Redeemer not only confirms but also strengthens the understanding that the Redeemer, Christ, is the Father of eternity, the holy Father in the Godhead. Hence, to say that the everlasting Father, or the Father of eternity, in Isaiah 9:6 is some kind of Father, other than the Father in the Godhead, is not according to the context of the whole book of Isaiah.[23]
Amazingly, LC went on in to spin Lee’s teaching to comply with that of Benjamin B. Warfield, the great defender of trinitarian orthodoxy.[24] This is the same tactic utilized by other cults, especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Neither Warfield nor the rest of orthodox Christianity has ever affirmed that Christ is “the Father in the Godhead.” 

Lee consistently described God in modalistic terms: 

Why is it so important to understand that the Holy Spirit dwells in man’s innermost depth, deeper within than his organs of thought, feeling and decision? 
Therefore, the Bible clearly reveals to us that the Son is the Father, and the Son is also the Spirit. Otherwise, how could these three be one God?[25]
When addressing the problem of communication with modalistic theology, Lee explains:
If you say that the Son is the Father, then how could the Son pray to the Father? This is not difficult to explain… We have previously pointed out that in relation to the God of Abraham, the main emphasis is that He is the Father; with the God of Isaac, the main emphasis is that He is the Son; and with the God of Jacob, the main emphasis is that He is the Spirit. So He is not only the second person of the Triune God; He is also the whole God. He is the first person, the Father; He is the second person, the Son; and He is also the third person, the Spirit.[26]
Why could it not be that the Lord is the Son who prays and also the Father who listens to the praying? The Father who listens to the praying is the Son who prays, and the Son who prays is also the Father who listens to the prayer.[27]
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not three separate persons or three Gods; they are one God, one reality, one person. Hence, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are denoted by one name. The name denotes the person, and the person is the reality of the name. The name of the divine Trinity is the sum total of the divine Being, equivalent to his person. God is triune; that is He is three-one. In some theological writings, the preposition in is added between three and one to make three-in-one. However, it is more accurate to say that God is three-one. Being three-one, He is one God, with the Father, the Son and the Spirit as his reality, his person. Thus the name of the Triune God is Father, Son, and Spirit. Father, Son and Spirit are not three different names; they are the unique name of the divine Trinity. Such a name is a compound title…The compound name in Matthew 28:19 is composed of three parts—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[28]
Lee provided his own analogy to explain his modalistic conception of God:
The electricity in the lights in the meeting hall is, on one hand, in the meeting hall; on the other hand, it is also in the generator; it is in both places. These are not two different electricities but one. At the end in the power plant, electricity is generated, while at the end in the meeting hall, it illuminates. Thank the Lord, He also has two ends: at the end in heaven, He is the Father, and at the end on the earth, He is the Son; at the end in heaven, He is the One who listens to the prayer, and at the end on earth, He is the One who prays. He is both the One who prays on earth and the One who listens in heaven.[29]
LC’s modalism is even seen in its hymnody. Consider Nee’s hymn Experience of Christ In the Spirit:
Lord, when the Father ne’er was known,The Father came through Thee below,That we who lived in ignoranceMight through Thyself the Father know.But, Lord, when Thou wast here on earth,How scarce were those Thyself who knew;A veil there was ‘twixt Thee and them;They crowded ‘round, but saw not through.Now as the Spirit Thou hast comeE’en as the Father came in Thee;As we through Thee the Father know,Now through the Spirit we know Thee.Not with the flesh Thou now art clothed-Then must Thou walk with toil around;But as the Spirit in our heartThou dost supply Thyself unbound.Thou, Lord, the Father once wast called,But now the Holy Spirit art;The Spirit is Thine other form,Thyself to dwell within our heart.By knowing Thee as Spirit, Lord,We realize Thy life’s outflow,Thy glory and Thy character,And all Thy being’s wonders know.Praise to Thy Name now floods our heart;There is no one as dear as Thee;For since we know how real Thou art,No other one could lovelier be.[30]
Nee’s theology was not unlike Lee:
Because unless the child of God perceives this, invariably he shall seek His guidance in his soul…The Holy Spirit lives in the remotest recess of our being; there and only there may we expect His working and obtain His guidance. Our prayers are directed to “our Father who art in heaven,” but the heavenly Father guides from within us. If our Counsellor, our Paraclete, resides in our spirit then His guidance must come from within.[31] 
The singular glory of this dispensation of grace is that God’s Spirit indwells believers in order to manifest the Father and the Son.[32]
Clear As Mud

Prior to LC’s attempt to defend itself from evangelicalism, there was plenty of evidence suggesting that LC affirmed a form of modalism. Any doubt, however, should have been eradicated by the defenses published since 2009. No credible denial of Lee’s modalism has ever been established because the evidence to the contrary is enormous and unrelenting. I have provided but a small fraction of the available evidence. Much more could be said about LC’s interpretation of John 14:10, 2 Cor. 3:17 and other passages.[33] Both the argumentation and conclusions Lee drew were consistently modalistic, confusing the persons of the Trinity.

The claim that the charge of modalism is due to a contextual and linguistic difference doesn’t survive the evidence. Lee had lived in the United States since 1962 and become a prodigious writer with a sound grasp of English.[34] He routinely interacted with orthodox writers in his own volumes and yet insisted upon rejecting orthodox trinitarianism. 

It is only until relatively recently, when LC came under the scrutiny of evangelical counter-cult specialists, that it transparently coopted the doctrine of perichoresis (i.e., coinherence) to account for its modalism. LC’s attempt at portraying itself as orthodox is betrayed by its vast publications both during its many failed lawsuits and now. Much the same can be said about LC’s doctrine of deification, and its repudiation of Christian denominations. 

Recovery of What?

Living Steam Ministry publishes the The Holy Bible Recovery Version. The Recovery Version is alleged to have been translated from both the Nestle-Aland 26th Edition of the Greek New Testament and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia Revised Edition. I scoured both my own copy of the Recovery Version as well as the publisher’s literature and website in order to find our who is responsible for this translation. The only name I was able to find was that of “The Editorial Section Living Steam Ministry” and Witness Lee. Given Lee’s lack of training and exegetical and interpretive abilities, I found that claim dubious. I called Living Stream Ministry to inquire who was actually responsible to the Recovery Version, and other than insisting Lee’s responsibility and that of “others,” the representative of Living Stream Ministry refused to say. The representative advised me to email Living Stream Ministry and she told me that someone would promptly send me a list of translators and their credentials. As of the writing of this work, I have yet to receive that list. 

The Recovery Version is a study Bible that is filled with LC’s commentary. It contains a few bizarre readings that seem to betray the claim of professional translation. For instance, the Recovery Version renders John 1:14 as follows:
And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us (and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only Begotten from the Father), full of grace and reality.
The term that is translated in every other English translation as “truth” (Grk. alētheia) at John 1:14 is translated by the Recovery Version as “reality.” While alētheia can refer to a real state,[35] there is absolutely no exegetical or translational ground for this rendering, except that of LC’s theology. That the Recovery Version translates alētheia “reality” and “truth” intermittently betrays its claim of translational accuracy.[36]

In its New World Translation, the Watchtower has resorted to changing the Bible to fit its doctrine. LC uses the Recovery Version’s copious footnotes to accomplish that task. LC’s modalism is throughout this commentary. For example:
To be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus is the equivalent to being baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, because the Lord Jesus is the Triune God…[37] 
The Holy Spirit is a general title of the Spirit of God in the New Testament; the Spirit of Jesus is a particular expression concerning the Spirit of God and refers to the Spirit of the incarnated Savior who, as Jesus in His humanity, passed through human living and death on the cross. This indicates that in the Spirit Jesus there is not only the divine element of God but also the human element…[38]
The LC’s claim that all other churches are illegitimate is also made plain in these footnotes:
Without the local churches, the universal church has no practicality or actuality. The universal church is realized in the local churches.[39 
Since the reformed Protestant churches are dead, they will be unaware of the Lord’s coming…[40]
Just as the reformed church, prefigured by the church in Sardis, was a reaction to the apostate Catholic Church, prefigured by the church in Thyatira, so the church of brotherly love was a reaction to the dead reformed church. This reaction will continue as an anti-testimony to both apostate Catholicism and degraded Protestantism until the Lord comes back.[41]
To the recovered church, the Lord is also the One who has the key of David, the key of the kingdom, with authority to open and to shut. The Lord uses this key to deal with the recovered church.[42]
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 Lutheran, 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.[43]
“Confusion” or Truth?

LC has engaged in a disturbing tactic, attempting to prohibit people from quoting the literature made available on its website. Living Stream Ministry has placed the following note on many of the webpages which feature Lee’s and Nee’s writings:
For the sake of avoiding confusion, we ask that none of these materials be downloaded or copied and republished elsewhere, electronically or otherwise. Living Stream Ministry retains full copyright on all these materials and hopes that our visitors will respect this.[44]
It is the author’s opinion that this statement is an attempt to prevent evangelicals and other critics of the LC movement from letting the cat out of the bag regarding LC’s continued doctrinal problems. The only “confusion” that might result from quoting Lee or other LC author’s is that of doctrinal aberration and heresy. By law, a copyright cannot preclude fair use in a work of scholarship.[45]

[1] The Local Church movement is also called “The Lord’s Recovery.”
[2] Hank Hanegraaff, 2009, “We Were Wrong,” Christian Research Journal, Spec. Ed., 32.6, 4.
[3] 1 Cor. 6:1-8.
[4] 01/09/2007, An Open Letter: To the Leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the “Local Churches,” Accessed 05/03/2019.
[5] The Local Churches: Genuine Believers and Fellow Members of the Body of Christ, (Fullerton, CA: DCP Press, 2008), 10.
[6] Ben Hawkins, 04/17/2017, “’Bible Answer Man’ embraces Eastern Orthodoxy,” Baptist Press, Accessed 05/03/2019.
[7] See John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World, 3rd Ed., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 87, 118-9.
[8] See the resultant book Richard J. Mouw, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
[9] Norm Geisler and Ron Rhodes, A Response to the Christian Research Journal’s Recent Defense of the “Local Church” Movement, Accessed 05/03/2019.
[10] A Confirmation of the Gospel: Concerning the Teaching of the Local Churches and Living Stream Ministry, (Fullerton, CA: DCP Press, 2009), 15.
[11] Ibid., 16.
[12] Ibid., 18.
[13] For a helpful explanation see Vern S. Poythress, Knowing and Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity, (Philipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2018), 52-62.
[14] A Confirmation of the Gospel, 17.
[15] Ibid., 16.
[16] Ibid., 19.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Witness Lee, The All-Inclusive Spirit of Christ, (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Publishers, 1969), 4-5.
[19] Witness Lee, Concerning the Triune God: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 1.8, Accessed 05/03/2019.
[20] Brothers, Hear Our Defense: Concerning the Divine Trinity, (Fullerton, CA: DCP Press, 2011), 61.
[21] Ibid., 63.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., 64.
[24] Ibid., 66. 
[25] Lee, Concerning the Triune God, 1.10.
[26] Ibid., 1.12.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Witness Lee, The Triune God to Be Life to the Tripartite Man, (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1996), 48-9.
[29] Lee, Concerning the Triune God, 1.13.
[30] Watchman Nee, “Hymn 490,” Hymns by Watchman Nee & Witness Lee, Accessed 05/03/2019.
[31] Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man, (New York: Christian Fellowship Pub., 1968), 233.
[32] Ibid., 431.
[33] See pp. 83-4 of Burgos, Counterfeit Religion: A Biblical Analysis of Cults, Sects, & False Religious Movements. concerning John 14:10. For a consideration of 1 Cor. 3:17 see Michael R. Burgos, Against Oneness Pentecostalism: An Exegetical-Theological Critique, 2nd Ed., (Winchester, CT: Church Militant Pub., 2017), 140-7.
[34] See the 47 volume set Collected Works of Witness Lee, (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1985).
[35] BDAG, 42-3.
[36] Using John for example, John 3:21; 4:23-4; 5:33; 8:32, vv. 40, 44-6; 16:7; 17:17, v. 19; 18:37-8; 1 John 4:6 use “truth” while John 1:14, v. 17; 14:6, v. 17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 5:6 use “reality.”
[37] The New Testament Recovery Version, (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1991), 511, n. 16.
[38] Ibid., 547, n. 7.
[39] Ibid., 1234, n. 4.
[40] Ibid., 1254, n. 3.
[41] Ibid., 1255, n. 7.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid., 1256, n. 8.
[44] e.g., “Tables of Contents from Selected Titles
by Watchman Nee and Witness Lee,” Living Stream Ministry, Accessed 05/03/2019.
[45] See 17 U.S. Code § 107.