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Local Churches

Christian researchers Hank Hanegraaf and Gretchen Passantino Coburn, who once criticized the Local Churches of Watchman Nee and his successor, Witness Lee, have published a report that concludes: “If you are a parent, proud of your adult offspring’s seeming overnight spiritual blossoming but afraid that he or she is going to crash and burn in spiritual chaos, let me reassure you. The local churches are a legitimate, theologically orthodox, spiritually faithful involvement by means of which your offspring can develop genuine Christian commitment and maturity. They [the Local Churches] are not a dangerous ensnarement of the Devil.” [csr 8.1, 2009)

The Texas Supreme Court has let stand a Texas Court of Appeals decision to reject a $136 million libel action by The Local Church against Harvest House Publishers, whose book, the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, includes commentary on The Local Church. A coalition of groups headed by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which filed an amicus brief supporting Harvest House, reports the Appeals Court held that labeling a group a cult “is not actionable because the truth or falsity of the statement depends upon one’s religious beliefs, an ecclesiastical matter which cannot and should not be tried in a court of law.” The AAP brief referred to The Local Church’s “history of suing it’s critics,” and said that “the ‘chilling effect’ of meritless libel litigation occurs because publishers are deterred from engaging in truthful or non-defamatory speech by the enormous costs of defending defamation lawsuits. . . While they assume the role of victim, the transparent weakness of petitioners’ arguments reveals that their real aim is to punish speech they do not like.” If The Local Church’s argument is accepted, the AAP brief concluded, “authors of compendia and survey texts would be open to liability for general introductory commentary that no reasonable reader would take to apply to every person or group discussed in the book.” Defense of The Local Church’s case by prominent Christian apologetics personalities Hank Hanegraff and Gretchen Passantino brought protests from other Christian apologeticists, who objected to the Local Church’s move to have a court intervene in matters of doctrine. In addition, 60 evangelical Christian scholars and ministry leaders from seven countries signed an open letter asking Local Church leaders to withdraw unorthodox statements made by founder Witness Lee and renounce their longstanding practice of filing lawsuits and threatening litigation in response to criticism. [csr 6.1 2007]