Eastern Lightning's ideas that deny the Trinity developed from Witness Lee's teachings concerning the Trinity. Witness Lee's teachings were twisted in the Mainland and eventually mutated into Eastern Lightning's modalistic doctrine that there is only one God who used different names in different dispensations.
Who was Witness Lee?
Witness Lee (李常受) was a follower of and co-worker with Watchman Nee. While Watchman Nee was an orthodox and influential Christian leader, he had some unusual views. His most famous unusual teaching was that denominations are wrong and that all believers in an area belong to the same local body. Churches in his group were known as Local Churches (地方教会) or Assembly Halls (聚会处). His group was also referred to as the Little Flock (小群).
Watchman Nee was arrested in China in 1955 and stayed in prison until his death in 1972.1
Witness Lee, however, wrote and lectured extensively outside of China. In 1949 he went to Taiwan and then moved to the United States in 1974. He helped promote the growth of Watchman Nee's Local Church movement outside of China and also founded Living Stream Ministry (水流職事站), the publishing arm of the Local Church movement.
Witness Lee died in 1997.
Witness Lee and the Trinity
Many of Witness Lee's teachings concerning the Trinity sound very much like modalismthe heresy that God was only one person who acted in different modes at different times.
Witness Lee denied that God was three persons.2 He considered the teaching that God is three persons to border on "tritheism." Witness Lee preferred the term "Triune God" (三一神) to the term "Trinity" (三位一体). He believed that the Father, the Son and the Spirit, though "distinct," were one person. He believed that Jesus was the "Triune God mingled with man."3 After Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus became the Spirit.4 Witness Lee denied that his teaching was modalism.5 Even if it is not modalism, some of it sounds very close to modalism.6 Whatever the case, Witness Lee's teachings and the changes they underwent in China were an important factor in the development of Eastern Lightning.
Witness Lee's teachings in China
In 1967 Witness Lee started the "Calling Out" (or "Shouting") Movement (呼喊运动). He said that the Age of the Word had ended, and now it was the Age of the Spirit. Witness Lee taught that believers must "eat the Lord" (吃主) and the way to do this was by calling out or shouting his name (呼喊主名). Calling out his name was the way to release the Spirit in this Age of the Spirit.7
After Deng Xiaoping's "opening up" of China in 1979, Witness Lee sent followers from overseas to Wenzhou (a city in Zhejiang Province) to contact believers from Watchman Nee's Local Church movement. They reportedly brought with them large amounts of Witness Lee's books, pamphlets and recordings. Within a few short years, their influence had spread throughout Zhejiang, Fujian, Henan, Guangdong and other places.8 During their meetings they would shout "Jesus is Lord!" in an attempt to practice Witness Lee's teaching about calling out the Lord's name. This is how they got the nickname "Shouters" (呼喊派).9
The Shouters (呼喊派) and the Local Churches (地方教会)
The term "Shouters" is not a precise term. The term "Shouters" covers many true believers. But some have used the term in a narrow sense to refer only to certain groups who have distorted the teachings of Witness Lee and have broken with the Local Churches.10 Not all Shouters accept Witness Lee's teachings, and not all followers of Witness Lee are Shouters.11 In particular, many Local Churches that follow Watchman Nee and Witness Lee are law-abiding groups that reject the term "Shouters."12
Some Shouters and the Trinity
Some (not all) Shouters took Witness Lee's questionable doctrine of the Trinity one step further and became complete modalists. These groups held that the Father became the Son and was no longer the Father; the Son became the Spirit and was no longer the Son.13 That is, the Father, the Son and the Spirit are modes by which God manifests himself in different eras. They are not distinct persons.
The "Lord Changshou" sect
One branch of the Shouters held Witness Lee in such high esteem that they began to regard his authority and status as greater than Christ's.14 They called Witness Lee "Lord Changshou" (常受主)15 ("Changshou" is Witness Lee's given name). This, of course, goes far beyond the actual teaching of Witness Lee, who never proposed to set himself above Christ. Witness Lee acknowledged the fact that some people had started to worship him and made some attempt to stop it.16
It has been reported that in 1995, this branch of the Shouters distributed 15 million tracts in 20 major cities in China declaring that Witness Lee was the living Christ and that he would become the new king of the universe.17
This "Lord Changshou" sect believed that you must call upon the Lord Changshou to be saved; that Jesus is someone of the past and will not return to save the world; and that Lord Changshou will return to save the world.18
One can easily see how this cult became a pattern for Eastern Lightning. Indeed, the founder of Eastern Lightning was first part of the "Lord Changshou" sect.
Continued at Where Did Eastern Lighning's Leaders Come From?
1 David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 238.
2 Though in places Witness Lee has referred to the "three persons" of the Godhead, his usual emphasis is that God is one person and that many in traditional Christianity separate the three too much and tend towards "tritheism." "The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not three separate persons or three Gods; they are one God, one reality, one person." Witness Lee, The Triune God to Be Life to the Tripartite Man (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1996) under "The Triune God Being Processed to Be the Life-Giving Spirit" in chap. 5, http://www.ministrybooks.org/alphabetical.cfm. According to the book's preface, the book is composed of messages given in Anaheim, California between February 1990 and June 1991.
3 Witness Lee, God's New Testament Economy (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1986), Kindle edition, under "God Manifest in the Flesh" in chap. 2. Online version available at http://www.ministrybooks.org/alphabetical.cfm.
4 "The Son who became flesh died and resurrected and became the life-giving Spirit." Ibid., under "The Spirit, as the Son, with the Fatherthe Consummation of the Triune God" in chap.1.
5 Witness Lee, The Crucial Points of the Major Items of the Lord's Recovery Today (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1993) under "NoteWhat Is the Heresy of Modalism?" under "I. The Triune God," http://www.ministrybooks.org/alphabetical.cfm.
6 There are different views among evangelicals about the orthodoxy of Witness Lee's teachings. See, e.g., Elliot Miller, "Cultic, Aberrant or (Unconventionally) Orthodox? A Reassessment of the 'Local Church' Movement," in "We Were Wrong: A Reassessment of the 'Local Church' Movement of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee," special issue, Christian Research Journal 32, no. 6 (2009): 7, http://www.equip.org/localchurch/. While Elliot Miller seems to imply that part of our difficulty with understanding Witness Lee is because we approach his teachings with a Western mindset, it is clear that a significant number of Easterners (those Shouters who have fallen into the error of complete modalism) have also been confused by Witness Lee's teachings. For a rebuttal of Elliot Miller's arguments, see Norm Geisler and Ron Rhodes, "A Response to the Christian Research Journal's Recent Defense of the 'Local Church' Movement," accessed June 21, 2013, http://www.open-letter.org/. For a full statement from the Local Churches explaining why they believe Witness Lee's views are orthodox, see "A Statement Concerning the Teachings of the Local Churches and Living Stream Ministry in Response to Dialogue with Fuller Theological Seminary," January 20, 2007, http://lctestimony.org/StatementOfTeachings.html.
7 Leung Ka-lun 梁家麟, Gaige kaifang yilai de Zhongguo nongcun jiaohui 改革開放以來的中國農村教會 [The Rural Churches of Mainland China Since 1978] (English title provided on copyright page) Jidujiao yu Zhongguo wenhua yanjiu congshu 基督教與中國文化研究叢書 [Christianity and Chinese culture research series] 4 (Hong Kong: Alliance Bible Seminary, 1999), 168, 168n36.
8 See Leung, Zhongguo nongcun jiaohui 中國農村教會 [The Rural Churches of Mainland China], 170-71 and Zhang Dakai 张大开, Pouxi xiejiao zuzhi "Dongfang shandian" 剖析邪教组织“东方闪电[Analyzing the cult "Eastern Lightning"] (China?: 2006), 6. No publisher is identified.
9 Aikman, Jesus in Beijing, 89.
10 Miller, "Cultic, Aberrant or (Unconventionally) Orthodox?," 7n1.
11 Chinese Ministries USA, Campus Crusade International , "Xinyang wenda huibian: Yiduan yu xinyang (gengxin ban) (si); Huhanpai" 信仰問答彙編：異端與信仰 （更新版）（四）；呼喊派[Collection of Q&A on religion: Cults and religion (updated version) (4); The Shouters], accessed June 24, 2013, http://www.chineseministries.com/books/Frameset-qa.htm.
12 See "Jiepo duliu" 解剖毒瘤 [Dissecting the traces of poison], Contending for the Faith 真理辯正(website), http://www.cftfc.com/com_chinese/apologetics/reading.asp?title_no=4-10&chap_no=4-10-01. This website is apparently run by the Witness Lee groups Living Stream Ministry (水流职事站) and the Taiwan Gospel Book Room (台湾福音书房).
13 Chinese Ministries USA, Campus Crusade International, "Huhanpai" 呼喊派 [The Shouters], http://www.chineseministries.com/books/Frameset-qa.htm.
14 Leung, Zhongguo nongcun jiaohui 中國農村教會 [The Rural Churches of Mainland China], 169.
15 Chinese Ministries USA, Campus Crusade International, 華人事工國際學園傳道會 "Xinyang wenda huibian: Yiduan yu xinyang (gengxin ban) (qi); 'Changshouzhu' pai" 信仰問答彙編：異端與信仰 （更新版）（七）；“常受主”派 [Collection of Q&A on religion: Cults and religion (updated version) (7); The "Lord Changshou" sect], accessed June 24, 2013, http://www.chineseministries.com/books/Frameset-qa.htm.
16 There is an interesting undated audio clip in which you can hear Witness Lee telling some "brothers and sisters" to stop worshipping him. "Li dixiong lunji changshouzhu pai de luyin" 李弟兄論及常受主派的錄音 [Recording of Brother Lee speaking about the Lord Changshou sect], audio, around 4 minutes, posted on Contending for the Faith 真理辩正 (website), accessed on June 31, 2013, http://www.cftfc.com/com_chinese/apologetics/reading.asp. My own feeling about Witness Lee is that he had wrong teachings about the Trinity and he perhaps did promote his own personality and authority more than he should have.
17 It has been suggested that perhaps these tracts were not distributed by Shouters but by enemies of the Shouters to get them in trouble. See Leung, Zhongguo nongcun jiaohui 中國農村教會 [The Rural Churches of Mainland China], 173, 173n51.
18 Chinese Ministries USA, Campus Crusade International, "'Changshouzhu' pai" “常受主”派 [The "Lord Changshou" sect], http://www.chineseministries.com/books/Frameset-qa.htm.