Local churches (affiliation)
|The local churches|
|Orientation||New Testament, Nondenominational|
|Associations||Living Stream Ministry|
The local churches are a Christian group which was started in China in the 1920s and have spread globally. The basic organizing principle of the local churches is that there should be only one Christian church in each city, a principle that was first articulated by Watchman Nee in a 1926 exposition of the seven churches in Asia in Revelation 1:11. The local churches do not take a name, but some outsiders referred to the group as the "Little Flock" as they sang from a hymnal entitled Hymns for the Little Flock. From early on, members of this group emphasized a personal experience of Christ and the establishment of a pattern of church practice according to the New Testament. Though assemblies identifying as "local churches" can be found worldwide, there are no definitive statistics available on membership, partly because the largest number of members are in China. Estimates range from five hundred thousand to two million members worldwide.
The development of the local churches can be traced to the conversion of Watchman Nee in Fuzhou, China. Nee began to meet outside of denominations with a small group of believers in 1922. At an early age, Nee committed his life to Christian ministry and began to publish his works on the Christian faith and on church practice after moving to Shanghai in 1927.
Nee appreciated the teachings of the Plymouth Brethren, especially John Nelson Darby, and many of Nee's teachings, including not taking a name, plural eldership, disavowal of a clergy-laity distinction, and worship centered around the Lord's Supper, mirror that source. From 1930 to 1935, there was communication internationally between the local churches and the branch of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church associated with James Taylor, Sr. The Taylor group of Exclusive Brethren saw the churches in China as a parallel work of God. However, Nee and other Chinese leaders disagreed with their prohibition of celebrating The Lord's Supper with Christians outside of their own meetings. Matters came to a head when Exclusive Brethren leaders discovered that Nee had broken bread with non-Brethren Christians, including T. Austin-Sparks in London and Thornton Stearns in Hartford, during a 1933 visit to the United Kingdom and North America. After a series of letters exchanged between leaders in New York, London, and Shanghai over a two-year period, on 31 August 1935, the Exclusive Brethren in London wrote to Shanghai terminating their fellowship.
Nee's seminal works expounding his view of local churches—The Assembly Life and Concerning Our Missions—were written against the background of his experience with the Exclusive Brethren. Nee taught that there should only be one church in every city, that Christians should meet together simply as believers living in the same city regardless of differences in doctrine or practice. Nee believed that this would eliminate divisions between Christians and provide the broadest basis upon which all believers could meet. Both Nee and Lee emphasized the New Testament's references to churches by the name of the city (for example, in Acts, the Christians in Jerusalem being referred to as "the church which was at Jerusalem" (NKJV), as well as other verses with the same convention, including 1 Corinthians 1:2; Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7 and 14). Since Nee and Lee taught that there should only be one church in each city, and that that city was the extent of a church's jurisdiction, members of the local churches usually refer to their congregations as "the church in (city name)." According to Nee, this means that "the church in her locality must be inclusive, not exclusive,” that is, it “must include all the children of God in the whole spectrum of Christian faith and practice."
Though Nee took the lead among the local churches in China, it was through one of his co-workers—Witness Lee —that the local churches spread worldwide. The two men first met in Lee's hometown of Yantai in 1932. Two years later, Lee moved to Shanghai to work with Nee. One of Lee's responsibilities there was the editing of some of Nee's publications. In the following years, Nee published many works and held regular conferences and trainings for church workers. Nee, Lee and other workers established over seven hundred local churches throughout China before the Communist Revolution resulted in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Near the end of the Communist Revolution, Nee sent Witness Lee to Taiwan to ensure that their work would survive the political turmoil.
Developments after 1949
The Denunciation Movement that began in 1951 after China entered the Korean War aimed at severing Christian groups in China from foreign influence, including expelling all foreign missionaries. As a side effect of the disbanding of mission churches, the local churches experienced "a spectacular rise in membership." The Denunciation Movement turned to leading Chinese Christians who would not join the Three-Self Reform Movement. Nee, who managed his family's pharmaceutical company, was imprisoned in 1952 during the Five-Anti Campaign and died in a labor camp 20 years later. Meanwhile, the work in Taiwan led by Witness Lee had grown to more than twenty thousand members in sixty-five churches. Witness Lee visited the United States in 1958 and moved there in 1962, settling first in Los Angeles. Today there are 250 local churches in the United States with approximately 30,000 members, and local churches can be found on all six inhabited continents.
The local churches practice mutuality in their meetings based on verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:26 ("Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up."). Participants are encouraged to request hymns, offer brief comments, or pray at will. This is particularly evident in "prophesying meetings" in which members speak one after another usually based on what they studied throughout the previous week from the Recovery Version, the books of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, and the periodical Holy Word for Morning Revival all published by Living Stream Ministry.
The local churches believe that:
- The Bible is the Word of God, written under His inspiration word by word (2 Tim. 3:16), and is the complete and only written divine revelation of God to man (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5-6; Rev. 22:18-19).
- There is one God (Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:4b; Isa. 45:5a), who is triune—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (Matt. 28:19)—coexisting (Matt. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 13:14) and coinhering (John 14:10-11) in three persons, or hypostases, distinct but never separate, from eternity to eternity.
- Christ, the only begotten Son of God (John 1:18; 3:16), even God Himself (John 1:1), became a genuine man through incarnation (John 1:14), having both the divine and human natures (Rom. 9:5; 1 Tim. 2:5), the two natures being combined in one person and being preserved distinctly without confusion or change and without forming a third nature.
- Christ died for our sins and was raised bodily from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3-4; Acts 4:10; Rom. 8:34), has been exalted to the right hand of God as Lord of all (Acts 5:31; 10:36), and will return as the Bridegroom for His bride, the church (John 3:29; Rev. 19:7), and as the King of kings to rule over the nations (Rev. 11:15; 19:16).
- Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph. 2:5, 8) and in His completed work, resulting in our justification before God (Rom. 3:24, 28; Gal. 2:16) and in our being born of God to be His children (John 1:12-13).
- The church as the unique Body of Christ, the issue of the work of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23), is composed of all genuine believers in Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12) and, according to the New Testament revelation, is manifested in time and space in local churches, each of which includes all the believers in a given city, regardless of where they meet or how they may otherwise identify themselves (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Thes. 1:1; Rev. 1:11).
- All the believers in Christ will participate in the divine blessings in the New Jerusalem in the new heaven and new earth for eternity (Rev. 21:1—22:5).
In the first decade of the 2000s, the local churches were the subject of two extensive evaluations. These evaluations were performed against the backdrop of decades of controversy (see Local Church controversies). The first was conducted by a faculty panel at Fuller Theological Seminary. After a two-year study, the Fuller panel stated, "It is the conclusion of Fuller Theological Seminary that the teachings and practices of the local churches and its members represent the genuine, historical, biblical Christian faith in every essential aspect." After a six-year study, the Christian Research Institute published a 2009 special issue of their journal in December 2009 with the words "We Were Wrong" on the cover. In it Hank Hanegraaff, Elliot Miller, and Gretchen Passantino published their findings, which resulted in a complete reversal of earlier criticisms.
- Local Church controversies
- Living Stream Ministry
- Bibles for America
- Recovery Version of the Bible
- The Lord's Recovery
- Olson, Roger E.; Atwood, Craig D.; Mead, Frank S.; Hill, Samuel S. (2018). Handbook of Denominations in the United States (14 ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. p. 328. ISBN 9781501822513. OCLC 966194680.
- Nee, Watchman (February 1926). "The Things Which You Have Seen". The Christian. No. 4. p. 4. Published in an English translation in The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, Volume 4: The Christian (2). Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry. 1992. pp. 194–195. ISBN 0870835890.
- Nee, Watchman (1928). "The Dawn of Revival". The Present Testimony. Published in an English translation in The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, Volume 8: The Present Testimony (1). Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry. 1992. p. 23. ISBN 0870835890.
- Miller, Elliot (2009). "We Were Wrong". Christian Research Journal. 32 (6): 10–11.
- Liu, Yi (2016). "Globalization of Chinese Christianity: A Study of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee's Ministry". Asia Journal of Theology. 30 (1): 110.
- Pitts, Hon. Joseph R. (29 April 2014). "Watchman Nee and Witness Lee" (PDF). Congressional Record. 160 (62): E621.
- Liu 2016, p. 99.
- Lee, Joseph Tse-Hei (2005). "Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China". Church History. 74 (1): 72. doi:10.1017/S0009640700109667. S2CID 202318215.
- Woodbridge, David (2019). Missionary Primitivism and Chinese Modernity: The Brethren in Twentieth-Century China. Boston: Brill. pp. 57–58. ISBN 9789004336759. OCLC 1055568760.
- Miller 2009, p. 10.
- Gardiner, A. J. (1951). The Recovery and Maintenance of the Truth. London: Stow Hill Bible and Tract Society. p. 216. OCLC 559074464.
- Woodbridge 2019, pp. 49-75.
- Buntain, William E. (2019). Dickson, Neil (ed.). "The Exclusive Brethren, Watchman Nee, and the Local Churches in China". Brethren Historical Review. 15: 40–72. ISSN 1755-9383.
- Nee, Watchman (1995). The Assembly Life. Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry. ISBN 9780870838552. OCLC 46477411.
- Nee, Watchman (1939). Concerning Our Missions. London: Witness and Testimony Publishers. pp. 112–113, 128–129. OCLC 9902598. Republished as The Normal Christian Church Life. Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry. 1980. pp. 97–98, 111. OCLC 461709259.
- Buntain 2019, pp. 60, 68
- Lee 2005, p. 75.
- Nee 1939, pp. 112-113, 128-129; 1980, pp. 97-98, 111.
- Piepkorn, Arthur C (1979), Profiles in Belief, II–IV, San Francisco: Harper & Row, pp. 78, 79
- Lu, Luke Pei-Yuan (1992). Watchman Nee's Doctrine of the Church with Special Reference to Its Contribution to the Local Church Movement (PhD). Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Theological Seminary. p. 257.
- Pitts 2014, p. E621.
- Liu 2016, p. 101
- Jones, Francis Price (1962). The Church in Communist China: A Protestant Appraisal. New York: Friendship Press. p. 17. OCLC 550843.
- Liu 2016, 102.
- Patterson, George (1969). Christianity in Communist China. Waco, TX: Word Books. p. 73. OCLC 11903.
- Lee 2005, 87-88
- Lee, Joseph Tse-Hei (October 2008). "Política y fe: patrones de las relaciones iglesia-estado en la China Maoísta (1949-1976)". Historia Actual Online: 132.
- Miller 2009, p. 10
- Olson 2018, p. 328
- Liu 2016, p. 110.
- Lee, Witness (2012). The Proper Way for Believers to Meet and to Serve. Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry. pp. 94–100. ISBN 9780736362542.
- Hanegraaff, Hank (2009). "We Were Wrong". Christian Research Journal. 32 (6): 62.
- Lee, Witness (1996). The Practice of the Church Life according to the God-ordained Way. Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry. p. 108. ISBN 9780870839689.
- Our Faith, Testimony, and History: A Brief Introduction to the Local Churches and the Ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee (PDF). Fullerton, CA: DCP Press. 2019. pp. 4–5.
- Mouw, Richard J.; Loewen, Howard J.; Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti (5 January 2006), Statement (PDF), Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary
- Hanegraaff, Hank; Miller, Elliot; Passantino, Gretchen (2009), "We Were Wrong", Christian Research Journal, 32 (6)