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Neil Duddy and The Peculiar Teachings of The Local Church - Johannes Aagaard; Thomas P. O´Connor

In 1979, Swiss publisher Schwengeler-Verlag published a short book on a movement of six hundred churches known as The Local Church. It's title "Die Sonderlehre des Witness Lee" translates in English as The Peculiar Teachings af Witness Lee. About 4,000 copies were sold to German-speaking Europeans.

This book was contested in Swiss court by the Stuttgart, West Germany, Local Church, but the suit and subsequent appeal were dismissed. In 1981 the Local Church took the suit to Oakland, California. Schwengeler, and the two co-authors Neil Duddy and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) were the defendants.

We present this interview and article about the teachings of the Local Church and its leader Witness Lee as a service to our readers who are interested in the many variations of new religious movements found in the world today. Some, as in the case of the Local Church, have their roots in the Christian faith and can be misidentified as orthodox denominations unless close scrutiny is made of the teachings and organizational methods.

We also present this article as a tribute to the former editor of UPDATE, Neil Duddy and his wife Linda. They no longer live in Europe, and hopefully will find peace in their new world far removed from the several years of anxiety and pain documented in this article. However, the verdict of the court in the United States, as well as harassment on the part of the Local Church, will follow them into the future. We commend them to the prayers and concern of our readers, and ask for your own reflections about the situation in your country.

Here in Denmark, the Local Church makes prominent use of the verdict of the trial. They have translated The decision of Judge Leon G. Seyranian of the Superior Court of the State of California into Danish and German. They have also widely disseminated a reflection on Duddy's book prepared by J. Gordon Melton. an American scholar who appeared in court on behalf of the plaintiff against Duddy and the SCP. The Local Church is appealing to those who recognize the authority and power of the courts to assert their correctness in this matter. Bul while making this assertion in the name of the Christian faith. and claiming the authority of a civil body as their grounds. they continue to crudely judge other Christian expressions of faith and judge the holiness of other Christian denominations.


Civil litigation concerning religious matters is increasingly a feature of our modern world. Because of a national fascination with the "religion of the courts", cases are particularly numerous in the United States, but by no means are limited to this country. For instance, in Japan, several cases have been heard recently with regard to the employment of Shinto priests in civic ceremonies, the inclusion of the spirits of believing Christian families in the Yasukuni shrine of Tokyo where the spirits of military victims are worshiped as the gods of the nation, and even a case where a pastor sued for the freedom for his daughter to be absent from "voluntary" school activities on Sunday mornings so that she could worship in her father's church.

Other cases often deal with issues of belief, but are presented from the aspect of the state protecting the rights of its citizens. For instance, the state has a duty to protect persons and so will restrain the faith of certain sects which prohibit blood transfusions. On other occasions, even though public order may be threatened by religious antagonism, the government declines intervention because of a greater, conflicting duty to protect the freedoms of economic enterprise, as when the Muslim community was unable to prevent the Philippine Airline Company from serving pork products as part of the inflight meals.

There are cases originated by believers seeking protection of their religious freedoms. There are also cases where religious groups seek to protect their own integrity against their detractors. In the long history of religious interaction these types of cases are not new, nor any less emotional than in past times. But, the source of legitimacy, and the place of appeal for justice is increasingly limited to courts of law. And, as one court rules in favor of a group's claims and assesses large fines against the guilty party in a law suit, a precedent is established for the next dispute. Religious bodies themselves are contributing to the central position of the civil courts.

The controversy which began with the publication of a book in German by Neil Duddy about Witness Lee and his denomination called the Local Church is another episode which demonstrates the central importance of the courts in deciding matters of religious conflict. In fact, because the book was judged to be libelous and fines of several million dollars levied against the defendant and the publisher, other authors who may wish to appeal to the reason of the public by writing about a group or their beliefs may be restricted by fear of similar action. When discussion of religion can be challenged in a court, and the terms for appearing on behalf of one's own defense are so extravagant, few will be so bold as to risk stating controversial opinions. The supremacy of the court and its civil authority even for deciding matters of religious doctrine was strengthened in this case.

The issue was libel. But the tactics used by the Local Church during the pre-trial preparations, and the witnesses called at the trial to testify about doctrine, denominational legitimacy and interpretation of difficult church teachings obscure the issue. Not only was a book on trial, but a serious and calculated defense of a religious body was undertaken in court. All attempts at extra-legal arbitration and out of court settlement were rejected by the Local Church. The defendant was pushed into bankruptcy by expenses incurred in preparation for the trial. Expert witnesses for the plaintiff included scholars of religion and clergymen of several faiths who argued about interpretation of scriptures and homiletic practices. Because a book printed in German was being tried in English, and conclusions about what had been written were argued only in the English language, discussion of the author's intention was hindered at several critical points. And, in a default trial (without the presence of the defendant) the court ruled that the Local Church and Witness Lee had suffered damages which cannot be erased but can be eased with the payment of several million dollars.

While courts are necessary for the protection of the rights of citizens, and have become the arena for disputes of all types between citizens with grievances against each other, they have also inadvertently become a tool in the hands of those who know how to skillfully employ the protections of the law. Courts have become an expensive arena beyond the access of many people who have serious grievances. They have become expensive propositions for people drawn into a dispute by another party. The time and money consumed by this most recent trial demonstrate this unfortunate aspect of modern legal institutions.

This interview does not intend to vindicate Duddy, Schwengeler-Verlag, or the Spiritual Counterfeit Projects. It returns to a discussion of religious doctrine and faith which was obscured in three intense years of emotional and economic ruin. This interview attempts to refocus the discussion of new religious movements on topics which are of a concern for Christians, questions of teaching, interpretation and authority.

No appeal is possible to the good will of the Local Church. The Local Church is intent, it seems, to use legal proceedings against any who criticize their teachings. The Local Church has initiated or threatened legal action in over twenty-five instances strike. Each court appearance, and each verdict resulting in financial reward strengthens this conviction to appeal to a civil authority rather than to dialogue with other Christians. Another book with sales of 80,000 copies in America was challenged, but the courts awarded only $150,000 in punitive damages. Now with an award of at least $4,400,000, the Local Church is firm in its conviction to ignore the reasoning of Christian critics and continue to appeal to the business of law.

We are concerned, however, that dialogue must continue with certain guaranteed freedoms. These cannot be argued for or defended only with teams of experts costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are also concerned with the current tendency to sue one's neighbor rather than to reason with him, to disagree, to have conflict and to suffer the pain of separation over irresolvable differences. To make a charge of libel about it something written from a particular religious viewpoint, and then to create obstacles preventing a fair trial by means of exorbitant legal expenses, emotional harassment and bevies of expert witnesses certainly impedes the process of dialogue between religions which seeks truth.


Update: You are hesitant to respect the claims of the Local Church that they are a legitimate Christian denomination. Would you please comment on this.

Duddy: Witness Lee's association with Southern Baptists and Plymouth Brethren (1904 to late 1920s) is used to identify him as a mainline Protestant Christian. But he is not consistent about this identity at all. On the one hand, he speaks with great reverence for his mother and recalls that she taught Bible stories every night. She was a third generation Christian, and was educated in a Southern Baptist mission school.

But Lee speaks of her in an exegesis of Matthew in quite a different way. Not only his mother, but millions of Christians are not real believers. They are tares among the wheat. They are "for Christianity, but they are not Christians." And, he claims that they are so numerous that it is difficult to find the wheat.

Update: Many Christian denominations tend toward an exclusivism, however. Only those who have received their particular baptism, and adhere to their particular scripture interpretations are to be saved. Why do you challenge Witness Lee on this point when there are other Christian bodies displaying the same tendency?

Duddy: As I said, there is a lack of consistency on this point. He is mainline Protestant when it serves his purposes, but he is condemning all Christian sects when he is speaking only to his Local Church members. For this reason it is difficult to relate to him as a fellow Christian.

For instance, Witness Lee was a disciple of Watchman Nee who started a Plymouth Brethren type of house church in Foochow in 1922. Nee was disenchanted with the formalism of his previous Christian education. But over the years Witness Lee has rejected even the Protestantism of the Plymouth Brethren for social and theological reasons. He has repudiated his own association with them. He says Brethren influence should be "washed off like salt." That's a rather strong, clear image, I think.

Elsewhere, when commenting on his early formation, Lee speaks of how he was "killed" by the teachings he was trained in. He repents of those teachings. By inference it is clear that he is speaking of his time in association with the Plymouth Brethren when he says, "After I was saved, I was brought in to an assembly of Christians to learn the good teachings of the Bible. I received teachings on prophecy and typology; but after seven and a half years, I discovered I had been killed by the teachings of the dead letter. I repented and came into the matters of the inner life."

Update: It sounds metaphorical to me, as if he is speaking of some inner transformation with veiled references...

Duddy: If it were only that, I suppose we could ask what he means in clear speech. But, at the same moment he is speaking of being killed by the Brethren, and criticizing the Brethren to the members of the Local Church, he testifies in court before Judge Seyranian that he himself is Plymouth Brethren. He also allowed for the testimony of expert witnesses as to his affiliation with the legitimate tradition of the Plymouth Brethren. This is the puzzling inconsistency that is disturbing.

He is also vitriolic in his criticism of other Christian denominations. This is more than symbolic language, I believe, because he is teaching members of the Local Church what they should believe about other religious expressions of faith. This teaching is motivated by his convictions that the Local Church, and here I emphasize he is not speaking about the Plymouth Brethren but is speaking exclusively about his own denomination, that it alone possesses the true faith.

He testified in court that denominationalism is not important. Millions of Christians are saved, he said to the judge, and they are all saved with different ways of church life. Whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, the Brethren, they are all saved.

But, again, I can point to the opposite statements when he is educating his own people. It is one thing to speak in public to defend one's interests in a court of law. But quite another to speak before members of one's church and define the doctrines of faith. In this context he says something quite different, quite exclusive: "it is absolutely unnecessary to consider which kind of church to join. {Whether) Presbyterian, Baptist, Nazarene, Lutheran, Methodist or Episcopalian, there is only one church. That one church is the Local Church. Besides the Local Church there is no other church. The universal church is the ultimate consummation of the composite of all the local churches."

He is also in print declaring that practicing Roman Catholics are not to be saved. He teaches his members in classic anti-Catholic apocalyptic images, describing the Catholic Church as the eschatological whore of Babylon which, in the end, is cast in to the lake of fire.

Update: That's pretty strong imagery, but I am sure you know it is not original with Witness Lee. He sounds in the mainstream of a long tradition of anti-Catholicism. By extension, I suppose he can also be critical of other Christian denominations too. Isn't that a mark of exclusivist theology?

Duddy: Yes, but he goes further than most because in court he denies that this is what he teaches. In other words, when threatened he flees. But then he weaves theological explanations for what he means which raise deeper questions about his own integrity as a Biblical Christian.

Update: What do you mean?

Duddy: For instance, when questioned by the court about the meaning of his claim that the Local Church is the only church in the universe, he denied it. But his denial used language peculiar to the Local Church teachings, and so ought to be interpreted according to the use of the language in his own published teachings. This is where the problems begin for a Christian.

In court, he answered the charge of exclusivism by saying, "we never taught this way. The Bible teaches that all the believers of Christ are his members. So all the believers of Christ universally are the Body of Christ, in a universal sense. Then the believers are living in different localities throughout all centuries. Wherever they are they, as fellow Christians, should come together to worship God. That gathering is considered by the Bible as a local church.

But, with his teachings about the validity of other Christian bodies for salvation, it is doubtful that he means just any other Christian gathering. He is referring to the gathering of people who believe in his teaching and organize within his Local Church. The universalism he speaks of is not a general universalism of Christian faith, but the universal domination of the Local Church. He has said that the universal church is realized in the local churches. In this context he can speak critically of all other denominations, and teach that the salvation they offer is not really salvation. But, it seems, he can also defend himself from any criticism because the language he uses sounds Christian. Without a deep knowledge of what he means with his words, one can facilely assume he is consistent with the general Christian understanding of the same words. But he's got his own interpretation of so many doctrines, that I doubt if he shares much with other Christian bodies.

Update: Can you give some examples from his theology that would in form us about this point?

Duddy: In my doctoral dissertation prepared for the Theology Faculty of Aarhus University, Denmark, I was concerned with Lee's understanding of salvation as presented in his writings and sermons. Even though a man can appear in court and in a few sentences answer yes or no to questions prepared by his attorneys, a thorough understanding of what he teaches, and the effect of those teachings upon future generations of members of his church, should be culled from more extensive sources. I do not accept his testimony in court, but that is a private matter. However, to demonstrate why I do not accept it, I have investigated his own works.

There are certain elements in his writings that cannot be merely passed over as symbolic. For instance, Lee teaches that the church is God, or is a part of the "organism of the triune God". He constantly teaches that the whole of God becomes the local church and the local church becomes God.

This is more than symbolic expression. His right to say this can be defended in court, but his ability to teach this, and what it implies, within the community of orthodox Christian churches cannot be defended. No Christian tradition, even given the leeway of poetry and artistic imagery, claims that the church is God, or that God comes into being through the church. God is. And the church, even in fundamental formulations of narrow sects of Christianity, is a body which results when sinful people turn to God through Jesus Christ. But no claim of similarity or equality can be defended according to Christian orthodoxy.

Update: Your point is clear, but why does this become such a concern for you? Many groups teach doctrines which differ from orthodox Christian teachings.

Duddy: Yes, but they do not claim to be Christian and non-Christian at the same time. They do not attack the churches on one occasion, and then sue for libel on another. But I don't want to speak af the particular legal situation which has affected me personally. There are more important implications for other Christian groups.

The formulations of creed and conciliar proclamations of the church fathers define the orthodoxy of the Christian faith. Lee's teachings are beyond that which is recognized by most churches. But, because his teaching asserts the uniqueness and eventual supremacy of the Local Church, and even goes so far as to elevate the teaching to a position equal to God, he can then turn toward the other Christian churches with harsh judgement. There is a social problem which results from his theological proclamations.


This problem has been experienced by the Christian bodies with some contact with the local churches. They seek to recruit members from already established denominations, influence members of established communions and seminaries, Bible colleges and fellowships. No ecumenical fellowship or respect for another Christian's faith seems possible for their general activity in society.

Update: What other theological differences have you found?

Duddy: One of the more interesting innovations is Lee's teaching that God should be eaten. This is curious because there are numerous Eucharistic denominations in which sacramental communion with God is highly esteemed But, Lee's teaching can be summarized by his own Americanism, "you become what you eat!"

In his writings Lee says that God is desirous of being eaten by us. If we tell God that we want to eat him he will be very happy. We are his eating and his assimilating vessels. Eventually, God will become us. Praise the Lord!

The only permissable conclusion is that if you eat God, you become God. This follows not only from this analogy, but in his teachings on regeneration, faith, transformation and glorification, Lee consistently points his listeners in this direction. Man becomes God. This is not only unorthodox for a Biblical Christian, but beginning with the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies of eucharistic participation in God's life, it is unorthodox for even eucharistic Christian denominations.

Update: Perhaps you are overlooking the influence of Chinese religions or private revelations in the development of the Local Church teachings? There seems to be influences of personalistic spiritualism characteristic of animism.

Duddy: That's my contention. Lee is claiming Christian orthodoxy, but there are elements in his teaching that are clearly unorthodox and unfamiliar to other Christians. There are methods he uses in developing his doctrine that are quite unlike methods of other Christian groups. And, these differences influence his teachings and his ecclesiology.

If it were only a matter of unorthodox theology and inspired preaching I suppose it would not be a matter of importance for Christians. Just another religion appearing on the horizon. But, the Local Church is claiming to be a part of the orthodox Christian tradition without clearly establishing the claim to orthodoxy according to traditional Christian definitions. And, they challenge their critics not with theological discussion, but with legal actions.

Even their definition of Jesus is so different from what Christians mean when they speak of Jesus, that it is hard to understand how they can claim membership in the Christian body. Hard to understand, that is, until one balances that claim with their disdain for all other Christian churches, and their teaching that so many of those who are called Christian are really tares among the wheat, the true fruit of Christ being only the members of the Local Church.

Lee teaches that Jesus is God the Father, that Jesus is the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus is the triune God. If you don't believe this you cannot be saved. He makes it more explicit in a pamphlet en titled What a Heresy--Two Divine Fathers, Two Life-Giving Spirits, and Three Gods that if you don't believe that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father, you are a heretic and don't believe the Bible.

Undoubtedly, Lee is expressing here his own frustration with the divisions between Christian denominations that he experienced from his youth in China up until the present time. He is trying to contribute to an understanding of grace and the Trinity that creates unity, not division. But he does so simplistically. When he claims that those who hold the traditional concept of the Trinity "in actuality have three gods," he may attempt to clarify some confusing theology but he also moves beyond the basic faith of Christianity.

Update: His writings are voluminous, and his writings are actually based on his preaching. How do you suggest that one even approach some of the questions you raise? It seems like years of careful sifting of material would be necessary, not to mention the theological task of interpreting his position.

Duddy: There are many difficulties in understanding Lee's literature. Perhaps the most difficult of all is that one must first of all be in the "spirit" which Lee speaks of to understand anything at all. How you read the Bible, how you think about God, how you behave, all this is directed by being in the "spirit". But, this "spirit" is a creation of Lee himself, so he is putting forth the hermeneutical instrument at the same time he is criticizing any conclusion not consistent with his own method. It's a closed circle that doesn't allow for much discussion, dissent or critique.

This is Lee's anthropological contribution. There are three parts to human being--body, soul and spirit. This tri-partite division is not uncommon, but Lee assigns the three parts specific roles. As his theology evolved in the 60s and 70s, Lee taught that the spirit can replace the role of the soul, thereby replacing human thought and understanding among real Christians. The mind is in the soul, and it follows impulses and intuitions from the spirit, which is fused to God. By this time Lee was characterizing human thought as satanic, so if you miss the emphasis of spirit over and against soul and body, you miss the heart of his teaching. God is fused to the spirit, and the spirit conducts all aspects of Christian life, morality and social behavior, not the soul. But, anyone unfamiliar with this anthropology (or questioning its facticity) would be relating to Lee, and also trying to understand Christianity and the Bible with human thought. This is behavior which comes from the soul, not the spirit, so is discounted. Again, we meet the circular construction of Lee's teachings.

Conversion to his teachings is necessary for understanding them. Criticism of them amounts to a challenge by mere human thought, which is satanic, so is to be discounted. In this way discussion and criticism are impossible with the Local Church.

Update: It is curious that although you mention the local churches, you constantly refer to Witness Lee himself. Are the churches autonomous, or is he their actual leader?

Duddy: Anthropologists Morris Fred and Shih-Ming Tu argue that Lee is the charismatic leader of the movement known as the Local Church. The local church and the expert witnesses of the trial argue that he is not. I say he clearly is. Lee presents himself to the members of the churches as vox Dei, a medium through whom God speaks. The Local Church appears to agree, because they treat his own words in a fashion reserved for the Bible. That is, they use a method known as "pray-read" to hear his messages. "Pray-read" is a ritual in which the members shout or chant the Bible so that they can absorb the Spirit of God into their own spirits. They pray-read Lee's own words, and I conclude that similarly they seek to take his spirit into their own. However, the court disagrees with this conclusion.

To disagree with the court is not a small matter, but again, I believe it is a problem of words being manipulated without a full knowledge of specific sectarian meanings. To deny his charismatic leadership, Lee uses a self-effacing description of himself as "just a little man." This sound humble and admirable. But it is also his teaching, without any historical basis, that Jesus was "a little man." I firmly believe that this expression has religious significance to his listeners that we do not hear. He is not asserting only his humility; he is putting himself forward according to an image he created for reference to Jesus.

Update: Neil, you didn't appear at the trial. Could you explain the circumstances briefly that led to your decision to accept a default judgement?

Duddy: The Local Church presented as the topic of their complaint 46 paragraphs of the book I wrote. Each paragraph is subject to a pre-trial discovery process and examination during the trial. The defense lawyer for the Spiritual Counterfeits Project was paid to attend sessions during which persons were called to give evidence regarding a particular paragraph in the complaint.

This process took 145 days and bankrupted the SCP. It cost more than $400,000 to provide legal representation at the depositions. It would have cost me an additional $150,000 to mount a defense during the trial. I simply could not afford this.

I had gone through the process of deposition at the request of the SCP, the co-defendant. But, when they declared bankruptcy on the first day of the trial I was left with the task of mounting my own defense. The Local Church was not interested in time or money, it seemed, but for me it was a formidable task to organize thousands of pages of witnesses' testimonies. All efforts for an out of court settlement were rejected by the Local Church, and mediation by the Christian Legal Society was out of the question for the Local Church.

Update: There is also the language problem, a German book being tried in an American court whose language is English. Isn't this unusual? What sort of problems did you encounter?

Duddy: The court judged three works. The manuscript entitled The God-Men, the book Die Sonderlehre des Witness Lee Und Seiner Ortsgemeinde, published in Europe, and the book The God-Men, An Inquiry Into Witness Lee and the Local Church, published in the United States and England by Inter-Varsity Press, were found in all major respects "false, defamatory and unprivileged, and therefore, libelous."

But language was twisted and abused in order to substantiate certain claims, and to suggest an attempt on the part of the authors to prejudice the minds of the readers.

An example of this is the use of the word "violent". The Local Church charged in one complaint that I said "...the Local Church is especially characterized by violent encounters with Christian communities." This description is also included in a booklet published by J. Gordon Melton and distributed in English, Danish, and German.

We said that the Local Church had "stormy relations with Christian churches," which is easily demonstrable from their own publications. Lee encourages his members to recruit from Christian schools and churches, and to trouble Christian organizations. This is especially clear in his work The Kingdom where he encourages the church to be violent against Christianity (although we'll fall into the same trap of asking what he really means when he uses these words if he doesn't mean what they say).

But, for purposes of the lawsuit, the German word stürmisch was translated as violent, whereas it is obviously the word for stormy. The Local Church knew this meaning, and they knew the difficulty of having a trial in a German-speaking country as the dismissal of the suit in Switzerland demonstrated. The tell-tale sign is to be found in the Local Church translation of Melton's pamphlet into German. There they translate this word as gewaltsam, violent, knowing that the credulity of the German people would be stretched to think that a word like "stormy" constituted a serious crime of libel. So, by insisting on the word gewaltsam they have fabricated language which never appeared in Die Sonderlehre. The word we used was stürmisch, not gewaltsam. That is a very important distinction.

Update: In conclusion, have you any final point you would like to emphasize for our readers?

Duddy: In The God-Men I wrote that we did not attempt to answer such questions as "Is Witness Lee a Christian?" Such a question is inappropriate. The nucleus of our book was to ask if the doctrine of Witness Lee and the Local Church present a picture of God, Christ, the human condition and Christian responsibility that is true to the content of biblical revelation. Now, drained of all resources and emotional strength af ter several years of battle with an uncompromising Local Church ideology, I still suggest that the question of whether Lee is a Christian or not is inappropriate. But I suggest that his own actions and the actions in court encouraged by his professional staff raise legitimate questions about his understanding of the compassion and mercy or God, and the forgiveness of Jesus Christ which is revealed in Scripture. He has avoided every possible avenue of negotiation and reconciliation in order to prove a point. And, he has used resources and experts beyond ordinary means to do so. What is he really protecting? What message is he really trying to speak in the world?


Rev. Thomas P. O'Connor, M.M. assumes the position of Associate Editor of UPDATE with this issue. Tom, as he is called informally, was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1981 for the Maryknoll Mission Society of the United States. From 1977-1985 he studied and worked in Japan, most recently as pastor of the Saiin Catholic Church, Kyoto. In Japan he was involved in dialogue with other religions, in particularly with the Japanese mountain sects of Buddhism known as Shugendo, "the way of the ascetic". He has also traveled extensively throughout Asia, India, South America and Egypt meeting with Christians engaged in dialogue with members of other religions.