In November 1980, Witness Lee, William Freeman, and the Church in Anaheim, Inc. filed suit against Neil Duddy, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP), and Schwengeler-Verlag over the The God-Men by Neil Duddy and the SCP1 and Die Sonderlehre, a German translation of the book, published by the Swiss publisher Schwengeler-Verlag. This action not only became a landmark libel case, but also an effective exposure of the abuses of the Christian countercult movement.
For a general background of the events leading up to the publishing of The God-men, see “Prelude to Conflict: Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), the New Covenant Apostolic Order (NCAO), Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) & the Local Churches.”
In 1977 SCP self-published the first edition of The God-Men: Witness Lee and the Local Church based on a manuscript commissioned by Jack Sparks and written by Alan Wallerstedt. SCP sought to promote its book through a consortium of campus evangelical and anti-cult ministries that had come together in November 1976 to discuss how to counteract the influence of certain groups on the college campuses, including the local churches.2 SCP ignored all appeals from members of the local churches concerning the book’s misrepresentations.
In 1979 a Swiss publisher, Schwengeler-Verlag, published a German translation of a revised, expanded edition of The God-Men by Neil Duddy and the SCP under the title Die Sonderlehre des Witness Lee und seiner Ortsgemeinde. Duddy’s manuscript contained even more outrageous distortions and outright falsehoods than the first edition. A slightly revised version of Duddy’s manuscript was published in English as The God-Men: An Inquiry into Witness Lee & the Local Church in 1981 by InterVarsity Press (IVP). Representatives of the local churches sent IVP over five hundred pages documenting the book’s distortions but received no response in return. When all such attempts to initiate dialogue were rebuffed and after a thorough consideration of the alternatives and the Scriptural basis for an appeal to the courts, the church in Anaheim, joined by Witness Lee and William Freeman, filed a libel suit against Neil Duddy, Schwengeler-Verlag, and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project on December 8, 1980. Because of the pending libel action over The Mindbenders, Lee v. Duddy, as the lawsuit over The God-Men came to be called, did not begin in earnest until August 1982.
In the meantime, Duddy and SCP had a serious falling out. Duddy claimed that money given to SCP for legal expenses was being funneled into other projects.3 When SCP’s leadership failed to address his concerns and in his mind retaliated against him, Duddy began to suspect that SCP was setting him up to take the fall for The God-Men.4 He fled to Denmark and withdrew from mutual defense with SCP.5
The discovery process generated over 17,000 pages of testimony, including extensive depositions taken by the defendants. For example, the defendants deposed Witness Lee in ten separate sessions. Depositions taken by the plaintiffs included Jack Buckley, the main author of the first edition; Neil Duddy, the principal author of the second edition; Brooks Alexander, the director of SCP and primary in-house editor of both editions; and James Sire, a senior editor at InterVarsity Press.
The testimony of those involved in producing the book repeatedly demonstrated a lack of proper standards in research, writing, and editing. Buckley testified that he had not checked Wallerstedt’s research and when shown the original context agreed that the book had taken Witness Lee’s statements out of context to create a false impression.6 Duddy admitted that he had not verified the accounts he gave in the book of many events and that he had intended to convey certain false impressions.7 Alexander admitted that he had not checked Duddy’s research even though he came to doubt Duddy’s competence as a researcher.8 James Sire’s notes and correspondence showed that he had pushed the book through to publication even though he knew it was potentially libelous, never having verified that Duddy’s accounts were true.9
During the course of the litigation the plaintiffs learned that The God-Men had been a major source of misinformation used in a book written by Tang Shou-lin and Ren Zhong-xiang in China to justify a nationwide sweep in which 2800 leaders among the local churches were arrested.10 SCP established communications with the authors of that book and sought to bolster its defense by appealing to reports originating from China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement, reports that SCP had ample reason to doubt.11 SCP even sought to coerce the plaintiffs into dropping their case by demanding the names of members of the local churches in China with the prospect that those people could, as a result, become objects of persecution.12
On the day the trial was to begin, SCP declared bankruptcy. Their bankruptcy attorney later explained that the declaration “was filed for the purpose of preventing the trial from going forward.”13 Neither Duddy, who had fled to Denmark, nor any representative of Schwengeler-Verlag attended the trial. Although there were reasons to question the SCP’s bankruptcy claim (donations to SCP were substantially higher in the pre-trial months than at any time in its history), the plaintiffs opted not to do so because of the additional time and expense. Instead, they presented the evidence accumulated to date to the judge along with the testimony of six highly qualified expert witnesses.
Judge Leon Seyranian’s Statement of Decision, documented from the testimony of the experts and the deposition testimony of the defendants themselves, clearly demonstrated the defendants’ reckless disregard for and intentional, knowing distortion of the truth regarding the local churches. Judge Seyranian ruled that The God-Men and Die Sonderlehre were “in all major respects false, defamatory and unprivileged, and, therefore, libelous” and awarded $11,900,000 in damages to the plaintiffs. In his decision, Judge Seyranian stated, “The damage to the plaintiffs cannot be erased by this action, but the following awards of punitive damages will vindicate the plaintiffs and deter others similarly situated from issuing further deliberate untruths about the plaintiffs.” In fact, the plaintiffs only received less than .3% of that award from SCP due to its bankruptcy filing. This was only a tiny fraction of the cost incurred for pursuing the litigation, but it did at least to a degree redeem the good name of the plaintiffs and opened the way for their service to the Lord to proceed.
The testimony of the experts at the trial was later published in the book The Experts Speak. One of those experts, Dr. J. Gordon Melton, director of The Institute for the Study of American Religion, was so distressed at how The God-Men had misrepresented the teachings of the local churches that he wrote and published An Open Letter Concerning the Local Church, Witness Lee and The God-Men Controversy.
SCP criticized the judge’s findings on the grounds that the defendants had not had the opportunity to present their evidence in court. This was not true. Even if one were to accept the validity of the SCP’s bankruptcy claim, the incontrovertible fact is that there were two other defendants, neither of whom chose to appear for the trial. Furthermore, the judge’s written decision was largely documented using the defendants’ own testimony under oath.
The year after the case ended, SCP published a special issue of its Newsletter in which it criticized the qualifications of the plaintiffs’ experts, in spite of the fact that they were generally considered among the most knowledgeable in their respective fields and far more qualified than anyone on the SCP staff. It is important to note that SCP did not refute the findings of fact on which the judge’s decision was based, including the deposition testimony of SCP’s own staff. The expert testimony simply framed what the defendants themselves had admitted—that the book was based on inadequate research, that statements of Witness Lee were intentionally quoted out of context, etc. Further, SCP did not address the qualifications of plaintiff experts such as Dr. Rodney Stark, co-developer of the Loughlin-Stark model, which Duddy claimed to use as the basis for analyzing the “Local Church” approach to recruiting and conversion. Of Duddy’s treatment of this model, Dr. Stark testified, “If a student had ever given me that, a freshman, I’d have flunked him,” and, “He misses the entire point.” Nor, for example, did the SCP rebut the points made in Dr. Melton’s Open Letter, in which he demonstrated that Duddy and SCP had, as he testified in the trial, taken “sentences from the middle of the paragraph out of context and made them appear to say things they were not talking about.”
SCP’s friends in the countercult were outraged that one of their own would be called to account. They accused the local churches of being litigious and uncritically accepted SCP’s claim that the local churches intentionally drove SCP into bankruptcy by the lawsuit. In fact, there was ample evidence that the libel action was justified and that SCP’s financial woes were due to mismanagement. SCP’s friends also ignored the fact that SCP had greatly increased its costs and the costs to the plaintiffs by failing repeatedly to discharge their legal responsibilities, eventually leading to sanctions against them for noncompliance in the discovery process. Nevertheless, the local churches would enjoy a time of peace until the bitterness of SCP’s associates resurfaced at the end of the 1990s with Harvest House’s publication of the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions by John Ankerberg and John Weldon.
1 At the time the lawsuit was filed, The God-Men was in manuscript form. A revised version of the manuscript was subsequently published as the second edition of The God-Men. Judge Seyranian’s Statement of Decision incorporated both editions of The God-Men in ruling that the book was defamatory.
2 James Bjornstad, “Project Sonlight: ‘Dispelling Darkness with the Light of God’s Son’,” Contemporary Christianity 7:1, May-June 1977:4; Letter from Bill Squires to Project Sonlight participants, March 29, 1977; Letter from Bill Squires to Project Sonlight participants, May 27, 1977.
3 Neil Duddy, “Financial Management,” outline accompanying memo of resignation, October 27, 1981; Neil Duddy, letter to Stanley Dokupil, June 6, 1982; Neil Duddy, letter to David Brooks and Michael Woodruff, July 15, 1982.
4 Interview with Neil Duddy, February 28, 1983.
5 Neil Duddy, letter to Michael Woodruff, October 18, 1982; Duddy, letter to Woodruff, November 24, 1982.
10 This figure was given by Tang Shou-lin to Lin San-gang (Bellman Lin), September 1983 and related in an interview with Lin San-gang, in February 1985; widespread arrests of leaders in the local churches was confirmed in China News and Church Report 8, June 10, 1983; and China News and Church Report 23, September 23, 1983.
11 Arne Søvik (head of the Department of Studies of the Lutheran World Federation and coordinator of the Ecumenical China Study Liaison Group), letter to Bill Squires, written February 26, 1983, typed March 7, 1983; Søvik, letter to Squires, June 7, 1983; “The Lord in China: The Dongyang Yiwu Persecution—Another View,” translated by Tony Lambert, December 1982; Don’t Forget About China, December 1982; China and the Church 26, January/February 1983.
12 Bill Squires, SCP Director of Special Projects (i.e., The God-Men litigation), wrote to Tang Shou-lin on September 13, 1983, seeking assistance. Tang Shou-lin promised to send SCP some material and informed them of the arrests of lcoal church leaders. SCP filed an interrogatory demanding that Witness Lee identify by name people following his ministry in China. According to a November 13, 2013, report from Dr. J. Gordon Melton, a staff member at SCP asked him if he would consider it ethical for SCP to turn over names gathered by such means to authorities in China. Melton responded that it was not only unethical, but that he would not do that to his worst enemy. When Witness Lee sought protection due to the potential damage to church members in China, SCP rejected those concerns. In oral arguments their attorney, Michael Woodruff, said, “I can’t assume responsibility for people in Mainland China” (“Reporters’ Transcript of Proceedings,” February 17, 1984.).
13 Iain Macdonald, quoted in Karen Hoyt, letter to “Friends of SCP,” April 10, 1985.