The Local Church
[This movement is collectively known as the Local Church, but each congregation is identified by the name of the community in which it resides, eg., the Church in Anaheim, the Church in Milwaukee, etc. The group was known in China by the name “The Little Flock” before the communist revolution.
Founder: Watchman Nee, born Ni Shutsu
Dates of Birth and Death: 1903 – 1972
Place of Birth: China
Founded: 1920’s in Shanghai, China
Sacred or Revered Texts: The Bible. Watchman Nee wrote several theological treatises, but none is considered sacred.
Size of Group: Membership is estimated at 150,000.
Nee, who was raised in a Christian setting, became involved at a young age with a branch of the Plymouth Brethren Church founded by John Nelson Darby. Deeply influenced by the Brethren Church’s beliefs, especially its harsh criticism of denominationalism, Nee broke from the exclusive Plymouth Brethren and began what would eventually be known as the Local Church Movement. Through the Local Church Movement, Watchman Nee sought to end denominational divisions and bring about the unification of the church. Nee was succeeded in the late forties by Chinese-born Witness Lee, who serves as the church’s leader today. Lee began to extend the movement throughout the East in 1948. The church was imported to the United States in 1962 when Lee established residence in Anaheim, California. The movement continues to expand world-wide, with the goal of establishment of one Christian fellowship in each incorporated city.
The Local Church movement was founded on the belief that a unified Christian Church must be organized geographically, rather than by denomination, with only one center of worship in every city. It rejects denominationalism and advocates a Universal Church in which church fellowships in every city participate in a simplified form of worship. The church considers itself to be part of a tradition of recovery of Biblical Christianity that dates back to the Reformation, the rejection of denominationalism being God’s latest instruction for the recovery of the True Church. In beliefs, practice and organization, the local churches are similar to many liberal protestant groups. The local Church shares with the Plymouth Brethren an adherence to dispensationism, in addition touts criticism of denominationalism. The local Church rejects clericalism, encouraging equal participation of all members in local assemblies. The church’s theology includes belief in a Triune God, that is, the unification of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in one being. Its fairly orthodox scriptural interpretation holds that Christ was born a God-man, ie. composed of both human and divine attributes. Man is characterized as a tripartite union of body, soul and spirit, and also possesses the potential for divine nature. In their practice, local churches place great emphasis on prayer-reading of scripture and baptismal regeneration.
Remarks: Witness Lee is the founder of the movement in America and is held in esteem both as a leader and as a teacher. However, he does not claim to be the sole or authoritative mediator of the word of God. He holds no formal position of leadership or authority within the movement, but is an active speaker and instructor. His written works are published by Living Stream Ministry, an independent teaching organization of which he is the official head.
Issues and Challenges
In 1985, after multiple attempts to get two authors to revise or retract statements about Witness Lee and the Local Church, the organization filed a lawsuit (Lee v. Dudley et al) against the author and sponsor of a 1977 publication that portrayed Lee as a cult leader. The Spiritual Counterfeits Project, the group sponsoring the book, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The author, Neil Dudley, left the country. The trial went forward without defendants present and the judge ruled that the book, entitled The God-Men was in fact libelous and awarded a large sum to Witness Lee and the Local Churches. They, of course, never collected, but the legal judgment against these counter-culturists in some measure reestablished the legitimacy of the Local Church.
Laurent, Bob. 1997. Watchman Nee: Man of Suffering. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing.
Living Stream Ministry. 1978. The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches . Anaheim, CA
Living Stream Ministry. 1978. T he Co-Workers in the Lord’s Recovery:The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches . Anaheim, CA:
Living Stream Ministry. 1995. The Experts Speak . Anaheim, CA:
[This publication presents the testimony of the expert witnesses in the Lee v. Dudley et al trial. The expert witnesses included are well established scholars of religious movements: Edwin S. Gaustad, H. Hewton Malony, J. Gordon Melton, John A. Saliba, and Rodney Stark. The full text of The Experts Speak transcript may be accessed from the web site of the Amana Christian Bookstore. See also: Lee V. Duddy et al. Statement of Decision . Superior court of the State of California in and for the County of Alameda. June 26, 1985].
Melton, J. Gordon. 1985. “An Open Letter Concerning the Local Chruch, Witness Lee and the God-Men Controversy,” Santa Barbara, CA: Institute for the Study of American Religion.
Melton, J. Gordon. 1996. The Encyclopedia of American Religions . Detroit: Gale Research Inc. Fifth Edition. pp. 500-501.
Duddy, Neil T. and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. 1981. The God-Men . Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Sparks, Jack. 1977. The Mind Benders . Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Prepared by Lisa E. Brooks
New Religious Movements student, Fall 1996
Last modified: 04/24/01