Article Summary:

A general overview of the three cases in which various local churches and church members appealed to the courts for relief from libelous accusations (Timeline)

A General History

In the 1960s and early 1970s many young seeking Christians throughout the United States were privileged to hear a fresh speaking of the gospel of Christ through the ministry of Witness Lee, a co-worker of Watchman Nee. Witness Lee had been Watchman Nee’s closest co-worker in mainland China before being sent to Taiwan in 1949; he subsequently immigrated to the United States in 1962. Their ministry announced the good news that the Son of God is not a religion but a living Person to be enjoyed and experienced (Gal. 1:15-16; 2 Cor. 3:18). In their ministry they labored to equip every believer to be a living and functioning member of the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12). They taught that the oneness of the Body of Christ is not a theory. To Watchman Nee and Witness Lee the Body of Christ was not just an abstract, impractical reality, but something that should have a practical expression (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:1-3; Rev. 1:11). Many responded to this speaking and began to meet in local churches, seeking to express the oneness of the Body of Christ, in many parts of the country.

Sadly, a few Christians opposed this speaking for various reasons. Some held a strictly objective and doctrinal concept of the Christian faith. Uncomfortable with the entirely Biblical stress on the need to experience the indwelling Christ, they labeled it as an un-Christian and even an “Eastern mystical teaching.” Others desired to maintain some level of prominence in Christian work. They felt threatened by a teaching that opposed the hierarchical clergy-laity system of today’s Christianity, encouraged all of God’s people to learn to speak for and serve God as priests, and presented a simple way for believers to meet together in the oneness of the Body of Christ. Issues related to biblical truth raised during that time are dealt with in the Responses section of this website.

Reckless Accusations

If issues concerning biblical truths had been the extent of the criticisms made by those opposing the local churches, this website would be limited to answering those issues. However, writers from one particular source—a group of former Campus Crusade staff members who left Crusade and sought to bring evangelicalism into Eastern orthodoxy—made reckless accusations of a more serious nature. They saw Witness Lee’s work as an obstacle to their own work, which produced the New Covenant Apostolic Order (NCAO) and Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC), so they declared “war” on the local churches. They sowed their antipathy toward Witness Lee and the local churches into a group of young believers in the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), a group formed in 1969 to reach radical youth at UC Berkeley. Three CWLF members formed the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) to combat religious groups that originated in the Far East. The collective enmity of NCAO/EOC and CWLF/SCP toward the local churches led to two books that falsely accused Witness Lee and the local churches of cultic practices including financial improprieties, deceitful recruiting, and autocratic control of members. The two books were:

Seeking Relief from Libel

Many members of the local churches made phone calls and wrote letters to the authors and publishers protesting the falsity of the books’ serious allegations. The authors and publishers ignored all such appeals. In addition, Witness Lee and the local churches also published booklets and articles to refute the books’ misrepresentations and accusations. After unsuccessfully pleading with the authors and publishers of these books to retract their libelous content, second editions of both books were published that were even more damaging.

Because the local churches took no legal action to protest the first editions of these books, other sources picked up and repeated the misinformation they contained. Ultimately, the false accusations in The Mindbenders and The God-Men were repeated almost three hundred times in various other books, articles, and broadcasts. After enduring defamation for years, suffering immense damages, and exhausting all less aggressive means of reconciliation, Witness Lee and the local churches followed the Apostle Paul’s precedent of appealing to Caesar, that is, to the current legal system, for protection from unlawful acts by unrighteous men (Acts 25:11).

A few self-styled anti-cultists have tried to label the local churches a litigious group because of these appeals to the court system. Those who do so have never looked into the facts of the cases, including the testimony of the witnesses or the findings of the court. Nor have they ever condemned those who made false accusations of immoral and criminal actions. They seem to feel that their companions in their crusade should not be held accountable for libelous statements, no matter how reckless, damaging, or inaccurate those statements are.

Three Libelous Books from the Same Source

The Mindbenders and The God-Men

The facts do not support the charge that the local churches are litigious. In the decades since Witness Lee began ministering in the United States in 1962, only three libel actions have been undertaken by any of the local churches. All three books that were litigated against came from a common source. The first two were developed using the same base manuscript, written by a staff member of the CWLF based on talks given to CWLF by its director, Jack Sparks, and an associate, Jon Braun. When CWLF dissolved because members objected to the direction Sparks wanted to take the group, Sparks took a copy of that manuscript, which he gave to Braun. Braun then used it in writing the chapter on the local churches in The Mindbenders. SCP, an offshoot of the CWLF, wrote The God-Men based on the same manuscript.

Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR)

John Weldon, the main author of the third book, the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, had a long-term relationship with SCP. Weldon’s early drafts of his chapter on the local churches are based extensively on The God-Men. He totally rejected the judge’s findings in the case concerning it, even though by his own admission he had not read that decision or researched any of the facts of the case or the reasons behind the judge’s decision. In fact, neither Weldon nor his co-author John Ankerberg nor their publisher Harvest House performed any research to evaluate The God-Men case, even after a copy of the judge’s decision had been sent to each of them. Thus, this Defense against Libel section of the Contending for the Faith website documents the local churches’ struggles for relief from reckless accusations that were propagated from one common source.

Salient Points

Several points merit emphasis. First, all of these actions were filed in response to false and defamatory accusations of criminal, immoral, and anti-social misbehavior, not doctrinal issues, although all three books distorted the beliefs and practices of Witness Lee and the local churches. Second, all were filed after taking the biblical way of appealing to the authors and publishers as brothers in Christ, in accordance with Matthew 18. In all three cases the local churches and their members made numerous appeals to both the authors and the publishers before taking any legal action. Third, the actions were filed only after suffering substantial damages with the prospect of ongoing harm not only to the members of the local churches, but also to seekers of the Lord who would otherwise benefit from the ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee. In addition, it should be remembered that in an era in which both the local churches and modes of communication span the entire earth, libel published in America has even graver consequences in other parts of the world. Fourth, before initiating any of these actions, there was a thorough consideration of the Scriptural basis of an appeal to the law courts.

The outcomes of these libel actions have vindicated the churches’ decision to appeal to the courts. The Mindbenders case resulted in a retraction and apology by the publisher. The God-Men case resulted in a strongly worded decision by the Superior Court of the County of Alameda in the State of California in favor of the plaintiffs. Judge Seyranian’s decision ushered in an era of relative peace in which the local churches were able to carry out their mission of propagating the gospel and building up the Body of Christ. In the Harvest House case, the District Court repeatedly ruled in favor of the local churches. However, the Texas Court of Appeals dismissed the case when it overturned the District Court’s denial of a summary judgment motion filed by Harvest House and its authors. The Appeals Court based its reasoning on a flawed interpretation of the nature and language of the book and an errant application of standing libel law. Nevertheless, it is significant that no court ever ruled that the local churches are a cult or that any of the heinous practices the book associates with cults are true as regards the local churches. Unexpectedly dialogues initiated through contacts made during the Harvest House litigation resulted in significant reassessments leading to affirmations that the local churches are, in fact, orthodox and that the ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee has significant value for all believers .

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