According to an article posted online two days ago at Christianity Today, “Two notable critics have changed their minds on the controversial ‘local churches’ movement that follow the teachings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.” The two critics are Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), and Gretchen Passantino Coburn, director of Answers in Action (AIA). The article refers to a booklet to which Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn contributed and that the Defense and Confirmation Project, a pro-Local Churches group, published in November 2007. Entitled The Local Churches: “Genuine Believers and Fellow Members of the Body of Christ”, the booklet includes “Testimonies” (as the title page quite correctly calls them) from Hanegraaff, Passantino Coburn, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller’s contribution is a statement representing the assessment of Richard Mouw, the school’s president, and two other Fuller professors.
I have been quite reluctant to enter the fray of this debate, which has actually been going on for several years, but have decided now to say something.
An Aside about Past Associations
Before I begin, in the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I have a past history with all three of these organizations (which will explain my reluctance). I graduated from Fuller Seminary with a Master’s in biblical studies and theology in 1981. Mouw was not the president at the time, and I have met him only once, when I talked with him later in his president’s office at the seminary. In 1984, I went to work at CRI under Walter Martin, and continued on staff after Martin’s passing and his succession by Hanegraaff in 1989. In January 1992, CRI terminated my employment, fraudulently claiming they were laying me off. (In truth, they got rid of me after I quietly protested Hanegraaff’s attempts to have me ghostwrite books for him.) Over the next several years, I participated in efforts to bring various accountability issues to the attention of CRI and its board, including playing a leading role in an ad hoc group of former employees and volunteers called the Group for CRI Accountability. In 1996, Gretchen Passantino (now Coburn, having remarried after the passing of her first husband in 2003) posted an article on the AIA web site (no longer there) that accused me, among others, of having made “false accusations” against Hanegraaff and of being a deceiver whom other Christians should avoid. The Passantinos never identified what these allegedly false accusations were and never retracted their statement (although they did eventually remove the offending web page). My last communication with both Hanegraaff and Passantino took place in June 2001, when I wrote letters to them (to which neither ever responded) regarding their public statements concerning D. James Kennedy and Hanegraaff’s plagiarism of Kennedy’s famous manual Evangelism Explosion. Those letters were also the last time I have written or said anything publicly concerning Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn, until now.
None of this has anything to do with the Local Churches. However, if anyone is inclined to dismiss what I have to say here in an ad hominem fashion, there is plenty of grist for that mill.
Recent Events Concerning the Local Churches
The main point of the Christianity Today article (“Cult Watchers Reconsider: Former detractors of Nee and Lee now endorse ‘local churches’”) is that the November 2008 booklet marks a recent change in the view taken by Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn of the Local Churches. It asserts that Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn “each published their new support in a November booklet by the Defense and Confirmation Project, founded to rebut criticism of Nee and Lee.” However, the article’s claim that this is a new position is false. Two and a half years earlier, in August 2006, Hanegraaff filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on behalf of the Local Churches in its failed attempt to sue Harvest House for $136 million over the inclusion of the Local Churches in its book The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions. Gretchen Passantino also filed a letter to the court supporting Hanegraaff’s brief. Although the Christianity Today article mentions the lawsuit, it neglects to mention the role that Hanegraaff and Passantino played in it in 2006.
Numerous evangelical scholars and countercult ministry workers were appalled. In January 2007, over 60 such scholars and ministry leaders signed an “Open Letter” asking the Local Churches to demonstrate their theological orthodoxy by specifically retracting or disavowing various statements in the published writings of Witness Lee. The Open Letter also asked the Local Churches to agree to stop using litigation to silence theological criticism from Christian writers and publishers. The signatories to this letter included the presidents or deans of eight evangelical seminaries, IRR’s Luke Wilson, former CRI researchers Craig Hawkins and Paul Carden, other countercult scholars and leaders such as James Bjornstad and Don Veinot, and E. Calvin Beisner—another former CRI researcher who also happens to be Gretchen Passantino’s brother. The following month, in February 2007—almost two years ago—Passantino posted an article on her web site saying much the same thing as her testimony in the November 2008 booklet. The article, “Apologetics Conclusions Reconsidered . . . . A Case in Point: The Local Churches & Living Stream Ministry,” announced that Passantino and Hanegraaff had completed a three-year reassessment of the Local Churches and concluded they were theologically orthodox. Passantino neither acknowledged nor attempted to address any of the criticisms of her support for the Local Churches’ lawsuit or the issues raised in the Open Letter.
With this background in place, I want to offer a response to the DCP booklet, focusing on the contribution of Passantino Coburn. (All parenthetical page references are to this booklet.) Let me make clear that my focus here is not on the salvation, spiritual condition, or even the theological orthodoxy of the people in the Local Churches. I am responding to the “testimonies” of the authors as they appear in the booklet. I am quite open to new information and reasoned reassessments of old conclusions. Unfortunately, the testimonies of Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn offered neither new information nor reasoned reassessments.
Should We Trust Passantino Coburn?
Hanegraaff’s piece is essentially, as he rightly calls it, a “preface” to the lengthy testimony of Gretchen Passantino Coburn. According to Hanegraaff, “Gretchen is the quintessential example of a brilliant yet humble servant of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (9). This is the sort of effusive praise of a fellow believer in Christ with which I am loathe to disagree publicly, no matter what the evidence. I could and ordinarily would simply let it pass, but Passantino Coburn herself insists on making her résumé and her personal story and values an issue.
Passantino Coburn devotes several pages to her own spiritual journey and credentials (13-18). She declares, “Over the last 37 years I have become one of the leading Christian evangelical apologists determining whether spiritual movements that claim to represent biblical Christianity are orthodox or heretical” (14). Speaking of her conversion to the Christian faith, she reports, “My professors were profoundly disappointed that one of their brightest, most articulate young scholars had thrown her mind away on hysterical religion” (15). Her career path in apologetics, she says, “paired my voracious thirst for knowledge with my deep devotion to Christian truth” (16). “Over the years,” she tells us, she and her first husband Bob “became trusted as well-reasoned, empathetic, accurate, theologically conservative Christian apologists” (17). In her concluding “About the Author” she claims that AIA is “one of the oldest and most respected apologetics organizations” and that she “is a respected author of books and articles on apologetics, world religions, and theology” (28).
Her lack of humility aside, Passantino Coburn’s point in offering these self-descriptions is to encourage the reader to trust her judgment on the question of the orthodoxy and soundness of the Local Churches. Ironically, this is precisely what a good apologist and trustworthy scholar never does. The job of an apologist and scholar is to present the facts, along with a reasoned interpretation of those facts, to support the conclusion. Our job is to share the evidence with others in such a way that they are equipped to reach that same conclusion, not based on our trustworthiness or integrity or years of experience or brilliance or devotion to truth, but based on their own perception of the evidence and their own grasp of the arguments. Apologists gain respect not by asserting their reliability or assuring us they are respected but by doing reliable work that deserves respect. When an apologist says, “Trust me,” that apologist has just lost the argument.
Passantino Coburn claims that she has performed a much more thorough, complete, and cogent assessment of the Local Churches than the one she and Bob Passantino did in the 1970s, and therefore that we should accept her current assessment in place of her earlier work:
“Other apologetics colleagues continue to insist that the teachings and practices of the local churches are heretical and outside Christian orthodoxy. Surprisingly, they base their insistence on the very same incomplete work Bob and I produced between 1975 and 1980, despite the fact that I can demonstrate the insufficiency in breadth, depth, and analysis of that former research base. My current assessment should carry much greater weight than did that first endeavor. Unless and until any of my dissenting colleagues are willing to engage in the much larger body of documentation—enhanced by a much deeper application of the study of the wider Christian church not only in its diversity around the world, but also in its diversity through the centuries, and augmented by a much greater number of personal interactions and direct conversations with leading and ordinary members—their continuing denunciation is untenable.”
The problem here is twofold. First, not everyone who thinks the Local Churches are heretical base their view on the Passantinos’ earlier work. At least some of the critics of the Local Churches have done their own research, reading primary sources and talking directly to members in the Local Churches.
Second, in reality Passantino Coburn is asking her readers to accept her current testimony over the evidence she had earlier documented. She asserts that she “can demonstrate the insufficiency in breadth, depth, and analysis of that former research base.” Unfortunately, up to now she has not offered any such demonstration. She also claims that her new assessment is based on a “much larger body of documentation,” but so far—two years after first announcing her reassessment—she has not presented any of this alleged documentation. In the case of the earlier work, the Passantinos backed up their conclusions regarding the Local Churches with a heavily documented analysis of the movement’s teachings from its primary sources. Their appendix “The Local Church of Witness Lee” in the book The New Cults (by Walter Martin with Gretchen Passantino [Santa Ana, CA: Vision House, 1980], 379-406) contained quotation after quotation from Witness Lee and other Local Church publications to document the assessment offered there. Although the number of citations does not tell the whole story (quality of selection and interpretation is at least as important as quantity), it is worth observing that the 1980 appendix contained 56 endnotes, 43 of which referred to Living Stream publications. The body of the appendix included well over a hundred sentences of direct quotations from Living Streams publications that the reader could read for himself and from which he could reach an informed opinion as to the soundness of the Passantinos’ critical assessment of the Local Churches’ teachings. By contrast, Passantino Coburn’s 16-page testimony in the 2008 DCP booklet contains not a single sentence from any Living Stream publication, not a single sentence from Witness Lee, and not a single footnote, endnote, or other citation. In place of such documented evidence, she merely asks readers to trust her new assessment.
In her concluding “About the Author,” Passantino Coburn states that she is contributing to a forthcoming “multi-part reevaluation of local churches’ teachings and practices for The Christian Research Journal” (28). Apparently this reevaluation has been in the works for some time. In her February 2007 web article announcing her new assessment of the Local Churches as completely orthodox, she had likewise referred to such a forthcoming article: “AIA & CRI will publish their analysis of local church teachings in the Christian Research Journal later this year.” Two years later, the article has yet to appear. If and when it does, evangelical apologists should carefully and fairly consider whatever substantive arguments the publication presents for its reassessment of the Local Churches. In the meantime, however, Passantino Coburn would do well to desist from asking us to trust her judgment in the matter. Gretchen, we’re interested in your research, not your résumé.