Libel Litigation Actions Filed by the Local Churches

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 co-labored with Watchman Nee in mainland China before being sent to Taiwan in 1952; he subsequently immigrated to the United States in 1962. The good news their ministry announced was that the Son of God is not a religion but a living Person to be enjoyed and experienced. They also taught that the oneness of the Body of Christ is not a theory. To them the Body of Christ was not just an abstract, impractical reality, but something that should have a practical expression. Their ministry taught that all believers should be living and functioning members of the Body of Christ. 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, there were a few Christians who for various reasons opposed this speaking. Some held a concept of the Christian faith that was strictly objective and doctrinal. Uncomfortable with the entirely Biblical stress on the need to experience the indwelling Christ, they labeled it as an un-Christian and even as Eastern mystical teaching. Others were motivated by a desire 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. The doctrinal issues raised during that time are dealt with in the Responses section of this Web site.

Had issues concerning differences in understanding of the truths of the Bible been the extent of the accusations made by those opposing the local churches, this Web site would be limited to answering those issues. However, writers from one particular source, the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), a group formed in Berkeley to reach radical youth on the 1970s college campus, went further to falsely accuse Witness Lee and the local churches of cultic practices including financial improprieties, deceitful recruiting, autocratic control of members, etc. Their accusations formed the basis of two books:

Many of the members of the local churches made phone calls and wrote letters to the authors and publishers protesting the falsity of these books’ serious allegations. The authors and publishers ignored these appeals from the Christians meeting in the local churches. In addition, Witness Lee and the local churches also published booklets and articles to refute these opposers’ misrepresentations and accusations. After unsuccessfully pleading with the authors and publishers of these books to retract their libelous content, second, more damaging editions of both books, as well as a third book entitled The New Cults, were published.

Because no legal action was taken by the local churches to protest the first editions of these books, a second generation of books and articles were published by others based almost entirely on the misinformation in the initial few books. After suffering defamation for almost a decade, and having exhausted all less aggressive means of reconciliation, Witness Lee and the local churches followed the Apostle Paul’s precedent of appealing to Caesar, that is, the legal system, for protection from his religious opponents (Acts 25:11).

A few self-styled anti-cultists have tried to label the local churches a litigious group because of this appeal 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. They have never 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 they are.

The facts do not support their charge. In the more than 40 years since Witness Lee began ministering in the United States, only three libel actions have been undertaken by any of the local churches, and all three books that were litigated came from a common source. The first two were developed out of the same base manuscript, written by a staff member of the CWLF. Jack Sparks, one of the co-founders of the CWLF, took a copy of that manuscript when he left CWLF. He then used it in writing the chapter in The Mindbenders on the local churches. The God-Men, which was also based on the same manuscript, was written under the auspices of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, an offshoot of the CWLF. John Weldon, the main author of the third book, the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, also has had a long-term relationship with the SCP, including receiving payments from SCP while The God-Men was being litigated. 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 or researched any of the facts of the case or the reasons behind the judge’s decision. Thus, the Libel Litigation section of the Contending for the Faith Web site documents the local churches’ struggles to get out from under the accusations that have been propagated from this common source.

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 on doctrinal issues, although all three books distorted the beliefs and practices of Witness Lee and the local churches as well. 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 numerous appeals were made to both the authors and the publishers before any legal action was taken. Third, the actions were filed only after suffering substantive and substantial damages with the prospect of ongoing harm not only to the members of the local churches, but also to the seekers of the Lord who would otherwise benefit from our ministry. In addition, it should be remembered that in an era in which both the local churches and communications 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.

To date the courts have vindicated the churches’ decision to appeal to them. The Mindbenders case resulted in a retraction 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 courts declined to hear our case on its merits, stating that the court system was not the place to decide theological disputes. The courts never ruled that we are a cult; instead, they declined to address the question. This Web site includes many public documents that show that case’s development.