Harvest House in Defamation Suit for $136 Million

Publisher's Weekly/February 19, 2003
By Dale Buss

Mum' s the word from all sides after The Local Church filed suit against Harvest House Publishers for $136 million over critical treatment of the ministry in the publisher 's "Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions," published in 1999. Painting any self-professed evangelical Christian organization with the brush of heresy is a significant act, and the book by John Ankerberg and John Weldo n noted that certain beliefs of The Local Church placed it outside the bounds of traditional Christian theology.

A spokeman for Harvest House, based in Eugene, Ore., told BookLine, "We are currently limited in the comments we can offer on this matter at the advice of our attorneys." The publisher itself sued The Local Church in 2001, asking an Oregon court to declare that the book "has not defamed" the group. Early last year, a judge dismissed the suit because the court didn 't have jurisdiction over the ministry. Officials of The Local Church, a movement begun by Chinese Christian patriarch Watchman Nee in the 1920s in China and now based in Anaheim, Calif. , declined to comment for this story.

The chill of litigation surrounding their dispute has prompted others to run for cover. K. Calvin Beisner, a theologian who has been critical of The Local Church 's orthodoxy after studying the organization since the 1970s, also declined to comment for this story. So did Doug Ross, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, which counts Harvest House as a founding member but which also has accepted as a member Living Stream Ministry, the not-for-profit arm of The Local Church.

The Local Church spread to Europe and North America and now claims about 25,000 adherents in the U.S. and about a quarter-million worldwide. Nee died in 1972 in a Chinese prison, but his disciple Witness Lee resettled in Anaheim and led The Local Church until his death in 1997. The group long has used its own English translation of the Bible, the Recovery Version, and has argued against the proliferation of Protestant denominations as being divisive within the church.

But where The Local Church has drawn fire from cult-watcher critics like Ankerberg is in claims such as that made by Lee in a 1994 video message that still is quoted by The Local Church: "God became man that man may become God." The "Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions" calls this a "mystical approach" and a claim of a "new revelation," giving the group "occult potential." The Local Church began demonstrating its willingness to use the courts to help uphold its reputation in the late 1970s, when it sued Thomas Nelson Publishers over a book called "The Mind Benders." Nelson settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and published a retraction in 1983.

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