Dr. J. Gordon Melton’s Open Letter

“I suggest, that we accept the confession of faith of the Local Church, a confession which is perfectly orthodox on essentials…”

After the conclusion of libel case involving the book The God-Men (Witness Lee, et al. v. Neil T. Duddy, et al.), one of the expert witnesses, Dr. J. Gordon Melton, Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions and author of the Encyclopedia of American Religions, wrote and published An Open Letter Concerning the Local Church, Witness Lee and The God-Men Controversy. In his letter Dr. Melton demonstrated how The God-Men had completely misrepresented Witness Lee’s teaching by divorcing his words from their original context. Dr. Melton called on Christians to discard The God-Men and all writings based on it.

An Open Letter Concerning the Local Church, Witness Lee and “The God-Men” Controversy

During the past year, I, like many of you have become concerned about the lawsuit between the Local Church led by Witness Lee and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP), Neil T. Duddy and the publisher of their book, The God-Men. I was at first concerned that a Christian body, i.e., the Local Church, would take fellow Christians to court, until I discovered that the leaders in the Church had exhausted all less severe means to have the book withdrawn and its errors acknowledged.

Recently, I was asked by the Local Church to begin a more rigorous investigation of its life and belief than I had been able to in previous years while working on my Encyclopedia of American Religions. I commenced that investigation in 1984, and some of the findings are embodied in the enclosed paper which I offer for your consideration.

Part of my study of the Local Church involved the reading of most of the published writings of Witness Lee and the lengthy depositions of Neil T. Duddy and Brooks Alexander (of SCP). The experience proved among the more painful of my Christian life. As I began to check the quotes of Witness Lee used in Duddy’s book, I found that The God-Men had consistently taken sentences from Lee’s writings and, by placing them in a foreign context, made them to say just the opposite of what Lee intended. This was done while ignoring the plain teachings and affirmations concerning the great truths of the Christian faith found throughout Lee’s writings. I also took note of the ludicrous attempt to equate the Local Church’s practice of pray-reading with the use of mantras in Eastern religions. They bear no resemblance whatsoever.

As I read the depositions, especially that of Duddy, I was appalled to discover the number of substantive and libelous charges made against Lee in The God-Men which were based entirely upon the unconfirmed account of but a single hostile ex-member. Time and again, taking the word of a former member, Duddy did not seek any independent verification of alleged incidents before making serious charges of financial mismanagement, psychological disturbances among Local Church members, and illegal acts by the Local Church attempting to harass former members.

Having been a supporter of SCP, especially of its attempt to provide the Christian community with quality material on alternative religions, I was genuinely shaken as my research proceeded. I was concerned that such a parody on the life of a group of fellow Christians had been written, that it had been sponsored by such an organization as SCP, and then published by such a reputable publisher as InterVarsity Press. I was more shaken, however, by the obvious implications of the ethics involved in the production of such a book. The mistakes and misrepresentations in the book are so frequent and so consistent that it strains credulity to suggest that The God-Men is merely the product of poor scholarship.

It was my unhappy task to have to present these findings to the court in Oakland, California, on May 28 during the trial against Duddy and the German publisher.

From the massive amount of material presented at that trial, only a small, though representative, portion could be mentioned in the enclosed paper. However, in light of that material, I can but conclude that we in the evangelical Christian community have done the Local Church a great wrong and should set about immediately to try and undo as much of the damage as we can. We should begin with our public renunciation of The God-Men and our withdrawal from use of all the articles and pamphlets which we have written based upon it. We can also begin anew to consider the teachings of the Local Church. I personally have been unable to find a single point upon which it deviates on any essential doctrine of the Christian faith, though it has a number of differences on matters all of us would consider nonessential, i.e., doctrinal concerns upon which Christians can disagree without reading each other out of the Christian community, in particular, ecclesiology and piety.

I hope that you will give the matter of the Local Church your prayerful consideration. In the near future, I hope that a full transcript of the trial will be published so that you will have access to all the material upon which I and others reached our conclusion about the complete inaccuracy and defamatory nature of The God-Men.

Yours in Christ,

J. Gordon Melton

P.S. It may be that the continued controversy between SCP and the Local Church has raised doubts in your mind about the adequacy of the other work of Spiritual Counterfeits Project. I would hope to allay some of those concerns, as I still believe that The God-Men is atypical of SCP’s work. I have recently co-authored a book with one of SCP’s board members, Ronald Enroth. In the appendix, written in the midst of my discoveries about The God-Men, I could still commend their overall work to the Church. I hope to remain able to recommend them in the future.

The Local Church: A Reflection Upon Its Teachings

During the past several years, the Local Church and its most prominent teacher have become the focus of an intense controversy generated by several books critical of the Church’s beliefs and practices. The most serious charges against Lee and the Church were leveled in The God-Men (1981) by Neil T. Duddy and the SCP (Spiritual Counterfeits Project) [1], who challenged the status of the Local Church as a fundamental Bible-believing and orthodox Christian body. These charges are so serious and so broad in scope, touching almost every aspect of the Local Church’s life, that they have become the matter of a major lawsuit and a concern of the larger Christian community.

My own interest in the Local Church began in the early-1970s, after purchasing several of Watchman Nee’s books, which, in spite of disagreeing with a number of specifics, I found congenial reading. In the mid-1970s, I discovered the Church in Chicago and attended several of their meetings where I obtained some of Witness Lee’s books. These visits, which occurred over a period of several years, provided the background for the entry on the Local Church in the Encyclopedia of American Religions (1979). [2] Since that time, I have periodically visited the bookstore of the Church in Chicago, which carries a wide selection of Christian literature, especially some titles from hard to find British evangelical publishers. In more recent years I have intensified my study of the Local Church, partly because of the controversy surrounding the attacks upon it and partly because of an increased mobility which has allowed me to visit Local Church assemblies in other cities and observe and participate in their worship. Though an outsider (I am a United Methodist minister), Local Church members and elders have always welcomed me into their services and freely answered all my questions.

At the same time, in my capacity as the Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, I was also writing extensively on alternative religions in America and became familiar with the publications of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP), one of over a hundred Christian ministries to people in non-Christian and heretical Christian religions. I was impressed with its literature which was, as a whole, of a higher quality than most which the several ministries were producing on the newer religions.

But my experiences with the Local Church left me somewhat surprised when I began to see it associated with other controversial alternative religions and classified as a “cult-like group,” particularly in SCP literature. [3] I had been led to believe that the Local Church was quite orthodox, having derived most of its doctrine directly from the Plymouth Brethren, whose orthodoxy none doubted. It seemed to differ only in its advocacy of the principle of “one church to a local community,” a few distinctive (but nonetheless acceptable) pietistic practices (pray-reading Scripture), and its use of some archaic jargon, which had been previously used in the theology of the Greek Church fathers, in its God-talk (i.e., mingling).

As the controversy heated, I began to read the anti-Local Church literature in some depth, which led me to the many books of Witness Lee and the several items published by the Local Church in response to the attacks. As a result of that study, I became convinced that my original appraisal of the Local Church was true, and that the critics, particularly Neil Duddy, had severely misjudged and misrepresented the Local Church and Witness Lee to the Christian community. I became convinced that, while there are probably a number of issues which could use some clarification and others some critique, that overall, the beliefs and practices of the Local Church were well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

Duddy’s critique of the Local Church is so extensive that a volume twice as long as his would be required to evaluate his many charges. Hence, I have chosen to focus upon one important set of criticisms concerning the Local Church’s view of biblical authority. Witness Lee’s understanding of the Bible is a substantive issue in evaluating the Local Church’s claim to be an evangelical Christian body. Equally important, Duddy’s attack upon the legitimacy of that understanding is illustrative of his method of approaching all of Lee’s writings, and, I believe, call into question the adequacy of both the method and content of his work.

Preliminary Considerations

In turning to the primary topic, two considerations will provide some perspective on the controversy. First, the nature of the controversy is twofold. The God-Men made two separate kinds of accusations against Lee and the Local Church. One set was theological. Duddy accused Lee of a number of significant doctrinal deviations from Christian faith and thought. However, there was also a second set of accusations which dealt with substantive nontheological issues. Duddy’s book accused Lee and the Local Church of, to mention a few, (1) questionable financial manipulations, (2) violent encounters with other Christian groups, (3) a lack of candor in its presentations to prospective members, (4) vandalizing the homes of ex-members, and (5) teaching people to disregard the moral law. It is with these second set of accusations that the lawsuit between the Local Church and Duddy, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, and the book’s publisher is concerned.

The characterization of the suit as essentially a heresy trial [4] is simply not substantiated by reference to the court documents. The case has in no way affected our privilege of making theological evaluations and negative theological reflections upon the writings and teachings of non-Christian or heretical Christian groups. However, the suit does demand that such critical writing be done within the bounds of civilized discourse and the laws against personal libel and slander. The God-Men made a number of accusations about the character of Witness Lee and the leaders of the Local Church. These characterizations, which went far beyond any theological issues, were both defamatory and libelous. The suit brought by the Local Church questioned the truthfulness of a number of Duddy’s claims, and Duddy has admitted, under oath, that he did not verify their legitimacy and cannot do so at present.

Second, in order to properly evaluate Witness Lee’s thought, one must understand the nature of his writings. Lee is not a systematic theologian. He is above all a teacher who speaks extemporaneously to public audiences from prepared notes. His books and other writings consist almost entirely of typed and edited transcripts of his lectures. As such, they resemble homiletical and devotional material. Lee has never written a theological treatise, beyond brief pamphlets to state a position on a particular issue, nor has a systematic theologian as yet appeared in the Local Church, which has only been in America approximately twenty years. The most systematic presentations of his thought can be found in such works as Gospel Outlines [5] and the four volume Outlines for Training, [6] neither of which unfortunately had appeared before Duddy completed his book. These, however, merely state what is apparent from a reading of a selection of Lee’s books. The basic affirmations which Lee makes and which are taught broadly throughout the Local Church reappear regularly in his books and other Local Church literature.

The homiletic intent is also quite apparent in all of Lee’s writings. True to his central purpose of teaching the gospel to what is basically a lay audience, Lee concentrates upon the more practical aspects of Christian teachings. His books, most of which are commentaries on Scripture, would be classified as exposition not exegesis. Though exegetical work stands behind the expository, it is not readily visible. He also gives little space to formal theological issues. For example, he rarely discusses the more abstract doctrines concerning God, choosing rather to emphasize the work of God in the human community. This does not mean that he does not affirm the more abstract affirmations about God, but it does show that he has different priorities and immediate concerns from those of a theological professor. His position is summed up, and his style so clearly illustrated, in a passage from his Life-Study of Genesis:

Genesis 1:26 reveals that there was a conference held by the Godhead and among the Godhead. We say “among” because God is triune. Using human terms, we may say that there are three Persons in the Godhead, one God with three Persons. I can’t explain this. I can only say that God is triune, that we have one God with three Persons. There was a conference held by these three Persons of the Godhead, and a decision was made….” and he continues with his discussion of creation. [7]

Duddy recognizes and comments upon the homiletical nature of Lee’s writings, but then proceeds to impose both a set of theological and metaphysical assumptions, assumptions quite foreign to Lee’s thought world, upon them. Lee has specifically repudiated the theological and metaphysical speculations which Duddy made, and denied the conclusions which Duddy drew from them. Duddy frequently criticized Lee from the perspective of this imposed structure, while ignoring Lee’s writings which directly contradicted his conclusions. While Lee has never written systematically, an ordering of his central affirmations about the faith can be easily made from his writings. Also, the Local Church has published a formal statement of its beliefs and practices, which can be checked for consistency against the teachings of its most prominent spokesperson.

It should also be noted, that like most public speakers (including most preachers), Lee is prone to use hyperboles, over-statements to emphasize a specific point upon which he is preaching. Such hyperbolic statements, wrenched from their context, can occasionally convey ideas totally opposite from Lee’s thought. A major flaw in Duddy’s treatment is to present such hyperbolic statements out of context, while ignoring Lee’s straightforward statement on a given topic. Examples will be quoted below.

The Background of the Local Church

Duddy begins his presentation of the Local Church movement in the 1920s with Watchman Nee, who in 1922 formed a Plymouth Brethren type home church. Subsequently he was introduced to the writings of John Nelson Darby, Andrew Murray, and Jessie Penn-Lewis. In the late 20s, Nee finished his first important book, The Spiritual Man, [8] moved to Shanghai, and began his independent movement. This brief truncated historical review effectively divorced the Local Churches from their roots in evangelical Christian history, a history and identification both Nee and Lee clearly acknowledge. Later Duddy criticized Lee for holding ideas taken directly from the thought of writers at the heart of the evangelical tradition.

In like measure, the Local Church sees itself as part of a history of the recovery (or restoration) of biblical Christianity which began in the Reformation and continued through George Fox and the Quakers, Zinzendorf and the Moravians, Wesley and the Methodists to John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren. Each prior movement recovered something which was lost during the years of Roman Catholic dominance of the Church and yet each remained partially flawed. Each represented the movement of God in history at a particular moment, yet each lost the spiritual substance of its first generation, and/or deviated from what Nee and Lee viewed as a dear witness to the truth. One major theme in the restoration was the movement away from Catholic episcopal church government and the leadership of bishops and priests toward a biblical form of local church government in the hands of elders.

Darby and the Brethren represent a major step in the recovery. Rejecting denominationalism and clericalism, Darby opted for a fellowship of local assemblies, each headed by unordained elders, who taught and led in the Lord’s supper. Within the fellowship as a whole, Darby was among the first of a group of workers who traveled from church to church, acting as an overseer and evangelist for the church as whole. Like his contemporaries who founded the Disciples of Christ Church in America, Darby saw God rejecting the scandalous divisions of Christianity and called upon Christians to come out of denominationalism (and denominations) into the one fellowship of the Brethren (or the Disciples, as the case may be). Darby did not see himself as forming a new sect, rather he was reformulating the one true church of Christ on its biblical basis and calling Christians into the organized expression of it.

Nee was raised in a Christian family and experienced both Congregational and Methodist churches in his childhood. Early in his life he experienced a variety of independent British evangelical traditions and eventually became associated with one branch of the exclusive Plymouth Brethren. His break with the Plymouth Brethren came after he “broke bread” with another group, that led by T. Austin-Sparks. Lee was also a member of the Plymouth Brethren before joining with Nee in the Local Church movement. They share with the exclusive Brethren, some often harsh ideas about denominations, denominationalism, and other churches.

One cannot understand the Local Church apart from its roots and continued participation in the movement begun by Darby and his colleagues. It has taken from the Brethren most of its beliefs (for example, dispensationalism), organization, and practices. The most popular non-Local Church authors read by members of the movement are Brethren and evangelical writers heavily influenced by the Brethren, the same people who deeply influenced Nee and Lee.

The history of the recovery as understood and experienced by Lee and the Local Church has a twofold effect. It places the Local Church in the center of the flow of Christian history. It sees itself as connected to and a part of the larger Christian story. Members acknowledge the contribution of the great Christian authors and leaders past and present, and their oneness with Christians throughout the Churches of Christendom. Upon this basis the Local Church members can and do fellowship with believers in denominations.

It is also true, however, that the Local Church affirms that God’s primary thrust in this day is in and through the Local Church movement. While taking much from the previous stages of the recovery, it has added the further truth, the unity of the church based upon the principle of one church in each city. This single notion most clearly differentiates the Local Church from the Brethren, with whom it shares a similar form of church government.

On a practical level, this single doctrine has limited, at least on one level, their relations with denominational churches. God is, they believe, leading the Church Universal into a visible expression of its unity based upon locality. Since denominational divisions are wrong, the Local Church does not cooperate with denominational structures. However, since the unity of the Church is inclusive of all Christians, and since the Local Church recognizes brother and sister Christians in spite of their participation in a denominational church, members of the Local Church see no barriers to their fellowship with individual Christians of all denominations. Thus, the Local Church welcomes non-members to its communion table, and members of the Local Church retain strong personal ties with Christians outside of the group even though cooperation on a group level is not pursued.

Biblical Authority in the Local Church

Some sense of the historical roots of the Local Church provides a starting point for a consideration of Witness Lee’s understanding of the Bible and biblical authority. The Brethren and the related evangelical groups were primarily Bible students. Both Nee and Lee followed in this pattern, though Nee was more prone to topical writings. Lee has emerged as primarily a biblical expositor, and typically has concentrated his teaching upon a chapter-by-chapter presentation of the Scripture. However, it is Duddy’s contention that, in fact, Lee holds a very questionable view of Scripture. According to The God-Men, Lee downgrades Scripture and its authority to a point unacceptable to evangelical Christians. Among other charges, it accuses Lee of (1) denying propositional revelation, (2) disdaining any necessity in the keeping of the moral law (specifically the Ten Commandments) and, in effect, leading people away from biblical ethics, and (3) depreciating thinking, study, and the role of the mind in reading the Bible. And (4) in the place of biblical authority, Lee has placed himself as a oracle of new revelation. Each of these charges shall be considered below.

Propositional Revelation

According to Duddy, Lee denies propositional revelation. As his main example of such degradation of Scriptural authority, Duddy quotes (p. 41) three sentences from Lee’s book, Christ Versus Religion. The entire section from which Duddy lifted the sentences are quoted below with the portion quoted by Duddy italicized:

Romans 7:6 says, “But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that wherein we were held; so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter.” Now we know what the word ‘letter’ here refers to—it is the written Bible. Today we must serve the living Lord with newness in the spirit, not according to the oldness of the written Bible. I can say this boldly, because I am a little follower of this most bold one, the Apostle Paul. Now we serve not according to the oldness of the written code, the written Bible, but according to the newness of the spirit. Why? Because in the spirit is Christ, while in the written code is religion. This is Christ versus religion.

What is it to be religious? To be religious is simply to be sound, scriptural and fundamental, yet without the presence of Christ. If we lack His presence, regardless of how scriptural we are, we are simply religious. Paul in these two verses of Romans laid a solid foundation for Christ versus religion. Today our service, our work, and even our life must be altogether in the spirit, not merely according to the letters of the written Bible. I know that when I say this I run a risk. I will be charged with the heresy of turning people away from the Bible. But I simply refer you to these two passages of Scripture, Romans 2:29 and Romans 7:6. Everyone must admit that the word “letter” in these passages refers to the written Scriptures. There can be no argument. Christ is versus religion; Christ is versus the written code. We may have the right quotation from the written code, yet miss Christ, just as the Pharisees and scribes in ancient times. We must be alert not to pay that much attention to the written code. If we do, it is altogether possible and extremely probable that we will miss Christ. The only way of safety is to behold “with unveiled face the glory of the Lord” (II Cor. 3:18). [9]

While the two sentences, taken alone, would appear to downgrade Scripture, they do not stand alone. In Lee’s text they become a part not of a disparagement of Scripture but an attack upon idolatry, the idolatry which places a written code between ourselves and God, of missing God because we follow man-made religion — be it the Old Testament law or a more modern Christian tradition. In his excising the two sentences from the midst of Lee’s paragraphs, Duddy completely distorts Lee’s import and his hyperbole is made to mean the opposite of what Lee intended.

But what does Lee teach about the Bible as a revelation from God? He claims to adhere to the statement of beliefs of the Local Church, “We believe the Holy Bible is the complete divine revelation verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit.” [10] But does he follow that position in his lectures? Duddy says no, “To Witness Lee, we are released from obligations to revere the written Bible because of its shadowy inferiority.” [11]

One immediately is made to wonder about Duddy’s assertion after merely a cursory examination of Lee’s writings. Almost all of his voluminous works are expository lectures on the books of the Bible. Lee has spent his entire life lecturing and teaching upon the Scripture. Is that the activity of a person for whom the Bible has assumed a subsidiary position, for whom the written word possesses merely a shadowy inferiority? If so, Lee would be truly unique. He would be the only person I know of to follow such a course. But upon closer examination, what did he teach about the Bible? Do his teachings conform to the Local Church’s statement of belief or to Duddy’s appraisal? For example, in his exposition of Genesis, he taught:

Do not despise any line in the Bible, for the Bible proceeded out of the mouth of God. Every word, phrase, clause, and sentence proceeded out of His mouth. It is a serious matter to read a phrase in the Bible. You may prove this by reading Genesis 2:5-6 again and again with a praying spirit. If you pray and read these verses in such a way, you will be nourished. However, if you do the same thing with some lines from the Los Angeles Times or the Santa Ana Register you will be killed. There is a great difference between secular writings and the Holy Bible. Every word in the Bible is holy; it is something of God. [12]

Then he says in his discussion of Noah:

After Noah received the revelation, he immediately believed in the Word of God (Heb. 11:7). According to the Bible, to believe always means to believe through the Word. In Romans 10:14 Paul asked, “And how shall they believe in Him of Whom they have not heard?” Without the preaching of the Word, it is difficult for people to believe. Believing comes about by listening to the Word. Thus Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes out of hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Undoubtedly, Noah heard the Word of God and believed in the Word that he heard. Do not say that you have no faith. Do not say that you cannot believe…. [13]

His words are most consistent with his opening words of the study:

Praise the Lord for the Bible! Praise the Lord for the life, the divine life, the eternal life, which is contained in this Book! And praise the Lord that He has afforded us this opportunity to have a life-study of His divine Word with such a large congregation!…

What is the Bible? We know that the word “Bible” means “the Book.” But what is this book? The Bible itself says, “all scripture” or “every scripture is God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16 Gk.). The Bible is the breath of God. It is not merely the word or the thought of God, but the very breath of God. Whatever we breathe out is our breath, and this breath proceeds out of our being. So the Bible as the breath of God is something breathed out of the being of God. The Bible contains the very element of God. Whatever God is, is contained in this divine book. God is light, life, love, power, wisdom and many other items. All these items of what God is have been breathed out into the Bible. Whenever we come to this book with an open heart and an open spirit, we can immediately touch something divine: not just thoughts, concepts, knowledge, words or sentences, but something deeper than all these things. We touch God Himself. [14]

Still later he tells the people:

“The Bible is a divine book composed with the divine concepts.” [15 ]

“The Bible is a complete revelation.” [16]

Lest we think these Genesis lectures, which occurred over several years of Lee’s life in the early 1970s are unique, compare them with this quote. In the midst of a discussion of Local Church worship practices, Lee says,

Some may charge us with being too liberal [for having no opinion of many matters of what may happen during worship]; they may call us “liberal Christians.” But be careful: this term “liberal Christian” refers to the modernists who do not believe that the Bible is the divine revelation, nor that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who accomplished redemption, was resurrected, and ascended to the heavens. They are the liberal ones; we are not. We would die for the Bible. We believe that the Bible is God’s divine Word, and we believe that our Lord Jesus is the very God incarnated to be a man, who died on the cross for our sins, and was resurrected physically, spiritually, and literally. [17]

The Bible and Morality

Duddy’s failure to consider the central role of Scripture and scriptural authority in Lee’s writings leads him to misrepresent Lee’s understanding of the Bible’s role in guiding Christians and setting moral standards. He says, “Lee considers the ethical standards found in the Bible as possibly helpful hints, but never definitive guidelines.” [18] He adds, “Consequently, Witness Lee’s counsel steers parishioners away from biblical ethics regarding behavior and away from teachings which encourage responsibility and positive action,” [19] and later he asserts, “Lee reasons that because Christians, too, are divine, they should not be bound by external moral laws.” [20] To illustrate this position, Duddy refers to the fourth chapter of Lee’s Christ and the Church Revealed and Typified in the Psalms. [21] Lee hypothesizes that a spiritual progression is shown in the Psalms, and includes a diagram to illustrate his position. On page 42 of The God-Men, Duddy reproduces what he says is the diagram on page 40 of Lee’s book, but upon examination, the diagram in Duddy’s book is seen to be significantly altered from the one Lee published. First, part of Lee’s diagram has been removed. More importantly, words have been added to imply that Lee divided the Psalms into those which were humanly inspired and those which were divinely inspired. However, nowhere, in this book or in his other writings, does Lee draw such a distinction. Lee does draw a distinction between various Psalms, the same distinction which Christians draw broadly between the Old Testament and the New—those which take the law as their center and base and those which point toward Christ, i.e., God’s anointed one, as their base. Each are God inspired, but Christ is greater than the law. Lee is simply reiterating what dispensationalism has taught since Darby, that the dispensation of the law was followed by the dispensation of grace, and that latter dispensation was better for us.

But when Lee is discussing morality, not the typology of Christ in the Old Testament, what does he say about a Christian’s responsibility vis à vis the moral law. That issue, as one might expect, arises continually in his comments upon the Gospel of Matthew. For example, in his discussion of Matthew 5:17, he says:

Before Christ came, there was the law with the strengthening through the prophets. Why then was there still the need for the law of the kingdom of the heavens? The reason is that the demands of the old law were not high enough. The requirements of the old law were not complete. Take the example of murder. The old law commanded us not to murder (Exo. 20:13), but it did not say a word about anger. If you killed someone, you would be condemned by the law of Moses. But no matter how angry you were with someone, as long as you did not murder, you would not be condemned by Moses’ law. According to the law of the kingdom of the heavens, we are forbidden to be angry with our brothers. In verses 21 and 22 the Lord said, “You have heard that it was said to the ancients, You shall not murder, and whoever murders shall be liable to the judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to the judgment.” Hence, the law of the kingdom of the heavens is higher that the law of the old dispensation. [22]

The points are reiterated in the Knowledge of Life:

The law of God is composed of the statutes of God, and its nature is holy, righteous, and good. This law, being outside of us, enables us to know what God condemns, and what He justifies; it requires us to reject what God condemns and do what God justifies in order to comply with God’s holy, righteous and good statutes. [23]

And adds to it in The Economy of God:

Let us consider the Old Testament with the law and the prophets. In a sense the Old Testament was even called the law and the prophets (Matt. 7:12; 22:40). What is the difference between the two? The law is a set of fixed rules which cannot be changed. For instance, one item of the law requires everyone to honor his parents. This is a changeless rule, and everyone must keep it. There is no need to seek guidance about honoring one’s parents; this law is fixed. Another rule is, “Thou shalt not steal.” It is also an established, fixed rule. There is no need to pray: “Lord, tell me whether or not it is in Your mind to steal. Give me guidance about stealing.” There is no need to seek such guidance. This same principle applies to the rest of the ten commandments. Thus, the law is a set of fixed rules which everyone must keep. It does not alter with each individual. Regardless of whether a person is a man or a woman, old or young, rich or poor, he is compelled to keep the rules. [24]

In contrast to Duddy’s assertions, Lee consistently holds the law before the people for whom he speaks and writes as a standard of behavior and a definitive guideline of conduct.

Rationality and the Use of the Mind

Again Duddy attacks Lee for teaching that Scripture is spiritual and hence beyond rational understanding. Duddy quotes a number of sentences from Lee to indicate what he purports to be Lee’s position. Most of these quotes, however, come from chapter seven of Christ Versus Religion, where Lee is not discussing the use of the mind, but the role of Scripture in leading us to a relationship with Christ. Lee often encountered Christians who never moved beyond the written Word to the reality which the Scriptures revealed. They knew the Scriptures but not the Lord spoken of within its pages. Hence he encourages the devotional use of Scriptures in prayer. “We must not take the Word of God by merely reading, but by prayer, and by all prayer.” [25]

However, when he turns to discuss the issues of study, the use of the mind, education and related issues, what did he tell the members of the Local Church? In The Experience of Life, for example, he states:

The second means of knowing God’s will is the Bible. God’s creation [the first means] is only a piece of God’s work; it is not sufficiently clear in revealing His will. The Bible as God’s Word tells us thoroughly and clearly what God desires to do in the universe and what His purpose is. Therefore, the Bible is the clearest revelation regarding God’s will. We should study the Bible and be familiar with the Bible in order to understand His will. [26]

A few pages later he begins to speak of the need to train the mind in order to understand and be able to interpret God’s will for our life, and criticizes those who seem to leave their mental acuity at the church door. He notes,

It is regrettable that with many brothers and sisters there is a serious lack of training of the mind in the spiritual realm. Some brothers, when predicting the fluctuations in the stock market and calculating profits and loss, have very clever minds. In addition some of the sisters, when chatting with their neighbors, display a very active mind. But when they sit in a meeting and listen to a message, they are incapable of understanding it. [27]

He closes by noting the responsibility of Christians to exercise their mind on spiritual matters as well as worldly ones.

But the exercise of the mind is important in all matters, Lee reiterates. Addressing himself to the youth in the church he notes,

We are not like the children of Israel, for we cannot literally work on the good land. Instead, the young people today must study and acquire a good education. Studying is equal to tilling the ground, and graduating from college is equal to reaping a harvest. Young people, studying is your duty, and you must do it. [28]

Then, for those who missed the point, he covers the ground again,

Under God’s sovereignty, the young people today must study and finish school. If we are to have the proper church life, all our young people must finish college. Failing to finish college is like sowing without having a harvest. [29]

The Authority of Witness Lee Versus the Authority of the Bible

Duddy’s image of the Local Church’s depreciation of the Scripture’s authority works in tandem with his understanding of Witness Lee’s authority, “Although the Local Church denies that Lee is an autocratic ‘pope’ and claims that Scripture is their paramount authority, there is some reason for skepticism.” [30] Not only is Lee the leading teacher of the Local Church, but Duddy goes further and accuses the Local Church of believing that Lee is God’s sole living oracle today. Then, contending that Lee supports their belief, Duddy quotes Lee as saying:

When I command in my spirit, the Lord commands with me, for I am one spirit with the Lord.” “…Is this my teaching? No! This is the revelation of God in the Bible. It was buried, it was covered for centuries, but by His mercy it has been discovered. [31]

These quotes, which have been lifted out of Lee’s book, How to Meet, are among the most irresponsible misquotes of Lee in The God-Men. Placed within the context of Duddy’s discussion of Lee’s authority in the Local Church, they seem to have Lee bragging about his role as an oracle and even claiming biblical backing for it. However, when read in the chapters from whence they come, they mean something far removed. We shall take the two quotes in reverse order, for that is the order of their appearance in Lee’s writing.

The second quote appears on page 94 of How to Meet and begins the last paragraph of chapter nine. Lee has just spent nine pages explaining chapters 12, 13 and 14 of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians in which he is discussing the greater gift of the Spirit (prophecy) and the more excellent way (love). He summarizes his discussion by saying, “Is this [Paul’s teaching on prophecy and love] my [i.e., Lee’s] teaching. No! This is the revelation of God in the Bible. It was buried, it was covered for centuries, but by his mercy it has been discovered. This book of I Corinthians is so open to us today….” It is not Lee’s teaching that is being identified as God’s teachings but the words of Paul’s letter, i.e., the Bible. [32]

The other quote appears at the end of a paragraph on page 97. Lee is explaining I Corinthians 7:10, “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord.” Notice that the “I” in this verse is Paul. So Lee concludes his discussion, “He [Paul] was one with the Lord in his spirit; when he commanded in his spirit, he could say ‘yet not I, but the Lord.’ When I command in my spirit, the Lord commands with me, for I am one spirit with the Lord.” Returned to its context, Lee is shown clearly making an attempt to paraphrase Paul rather than claim any prophetic status for himself. [33]

Lee, of course, holds an honored leadership position in the Local Church movement. He was the founder of the movement in America and has been its most talented speaker-teacher. As with many first generation movements, he has dominated its life much as Wesley dominated early Methodism and other founder-leaders dominated new denominations in their first decades. However, he claims no more for himself than the role of a biblical teacher. (Lee, of course, has a formal position as head of Living Stream Ministry, an independent teaching organization associated with the Local Church, but his administrative role is another topic related to the Church’s total organization, and beyond the scope of this paper.


While this paper has selected only one narrow set of topics discussed by Duddy in The God-Men, it has, I believe, been clearly demonstrated that Duddy regularly presented Witness Lee in such a way as to make him appear to teach the opposite of that which he consistently has taught over the years. Lee has consistently taught that (1) the Scripture is the verbally inspired Word of God, that (2) the moral laws of the Old and New Testament are binding upon Christians today and that (3) the mental rational faculties are to be used and developed both inside and outside the Church and in the regular study of Scripture. And in like measure (4) Lee has not claimed for himself any special role as a prophet or oracle of God.

It has also been demonstrated that Duddy consistently quoted Lee out of context while ignoring Lee’s straightforward statements on the topics under discussion. That Duddy repeatedly did it on this set of topics suggests that he has done similarly throughout his book. In fact, limits of time and space have been the only barriers to demonstrating that observation. Duddy has shown himself to be an inadequate interpreter of Witness Lee’s writings and The God-Men, at best, a very flawed presentation of Lee’s thought. The overall effect of Duddy’s work is to present a false picture, a harmful misrepresentation, of the Local Church and Witness Lee to the Christian community.

In light of the manner in which this book treated Lee, I can only suggest that The God-Men, and the other attacks upon the Local Church derived from it, be discarded, and that some other more capable and responsible Christian scholars set themselves the task of reviewing and examining Lee’s teachings. Lee may have absorbed some questionable emphases in his teachings, as his critics have suggested.He may even, though I have been unable to detect any, have presented an heretical notion or two. However, Duddy has failed to demonstrate either. Further, he has proved himself such an inept interpreter of Lee’s writings, that no negative judgment based upon The God-Men can be or should be accepted at face value.

Meanwhile, I suggest, that we accept the confession of faith of the Local Church, a confession which is perfectly orthodox on essentials, and that we allow them the same privilege to disagree on nonessential points of belief and practice which we allow each other. If in the future, more competent observers of the Local Church find questionable aspects to its theology, then at that time let it become a matter of further discussion, and let that discussion proceed without the rancor which has accompanied the Local Church controversy to date.


  1. Neil T. Duddy and the SCP, The God-Men (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981). (Hereafter, “Duddy”)
  2. (Wilmington, NC: McGrath, 1979).
  3. Other attacks upon the Local Church include Robert and Gretchen Passantino, Witness Lee and the Local Church (San Juan Capistrano, CA: Christian Research Institute, n.d.); Walter Martin, The New Cults (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House, 1980); and Jack Sparks, The Mind Benders (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977).
  4. A letter to the “Friends of SCP” dated April 10, 1985, said, “At issue [in the lawsuit] is the freedom of Christians to say that another person’s teachings are heretical without the response . . an issue we feel very right and very confident in defending.” To the contrary, heresy is not involved in the lawsuit at all. The issue is libel.
  5. Witness Lee, Gospel Outlines (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1980).
  6. Outlines for Training (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1979-80).
  7. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Genesis (Living Stream Ministry, 1974) #6, p. 61. (Hereafter, “Genesis”)
  8. (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1968).
  9. Witness Lee, Christ Versus Religion (Taipei: The Gospel Book Room, 1971) 152-3.
  10. The Co-Workers in the Lord’s Recovery, The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1978) p. 3.
  11. Duddy, p. 42.
  12. Genesis, #10, p. 123.
  13. Genesis, #28, pp. 383-4.
  14. Genesis, #1, pp. 1-2.
  15. Genesis, #61, p. 799.
  16. Genesis, #62, p. 813.
  17. Christ Versus Religion, p.155.
  18. Duddy, p. 71.
  19. Duddy, p. 46.
  20. Duddy, p. 72.
  21. Witness Lee, Christ and the Church Revealed and Typified in the Psalms (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1972) p. 40ff.
  22. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Matthew (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1977) #17, p. 211. (Hereafter, “Matthew”)
  23. Witness Lee, The Knowledge of Life (Anaheim, CA: The Stream, 1973) p. 97.
  24. Witness Lee, The Economy of God (Anaheim, CA: The Stream Publishers, 1968) p. 139.
  25. Christ Versus Religion, p. 104.
  26. Witness Lee, The Experience of Life (Anaheim, CA: The Stream, 1973) p. 170.
  27. Ibid., p. 183.
  28. Matthew, #22, p. 277.
  29. Matthew, #22, p. 277-8.
  30. Duddy, p. 39.
  31. Duddy, p. 40.
  32. Witness Lee, How to Meet (Taipei: The Gospel Book Room, 1970) p. 94.
  33. Ibid., p. 97.

J. Gordon Melton is the Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and Visiting Scholar at the University of California—Santa Barbara. The Institute is the largest research facility in the United States engaged in scholarly research on the many different religious groups in North America. He is the author of over twelve books on American religious groups including the Encyclopedia of American Religions (3 vols, 1979-85), the standard reference work in its field. Among his other books are: The Dictionary of Religious Bodies in the United States (1978); The Cult Experience (1982); The Old Catholic Sourcebook (1983); Why Cults Succeed When Churches Fail (1985); The Biographical Dictionary of Sect and Cult Leaders (1985) and the Encyclopedia Handbook of the Cults (1985).

Dr Melton is also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and a member of its Northern Illinois Conference. He holds a Ph.D. in the History and Literature of Religion from Northwestern University (1975) and a Master of Divinity in Church History from Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary (1968). Versed in Methodist history, he served on the editorial board and wrote a number of articles for the Encyclopedia of World Methodism.

Dr. Melton resides in Santa Barbara with his wife Suzette and daughter Melanie.

Copyright © 1985 The Institute for the Study of American Religion. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.