"Local Churches" Movement Reassessed
InfoTwo notable critics have changed their minds on the controversial "local churches" movement that follow the teachings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee. Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute, and Gretchen Passantino Coburn, director of Answers in Action, each published their new support in a November booklet by the Defense and Confirmation Project, founded to rebut criticism of Nee and Lee. Hanegraaff says the local churches fit neither the theological or sociological definition of cultic activity. (CRI published critiques in the 1970s that influenced other watchdog groups.) Passantino Coburn, who coauthored The New Cults with Walter Martin, writes passionately and personally about the reassessment. "The local churches are a legitimate, theologically orthodox, spiritually faithful involvement by means of which you offspring can develop genuine Christian commitment and maturity." Fuller Theological Seminary has issued a new statement saying its faculty and administration "unreservedly recommend that all Christian believers likewise extend to them the right hand of fellowship." Watchman Nee founded the movement in China in the 1920s which subsequently spread to the West. After Nee died in 1972, Lee became the group's most prominent teacher. The local churches claim more than 30,000 U.S. adherents and over 800,000 in China. Two of the group's traits immediately strike many evangelicals as strange—first, churches affiliated with this movement take no name except a geographical marker, such as "the local church in Chicago." Second, the group has no authority structure. Passantino Coburn says the group's remaining critics should engage in deeper research. She adds, "This does not mean that I agree with every local church teaching, nor does it mean that I do theology like the local churches. But it does mean that I can more fully understand and appreciate that theology, and can be confident that while different, it is not heretical."
Christianity Today 01/26/2009