Watchman Nee was a Christian leader of the Church in China and founder of the Local Church movement, which began in China. Much has been said about Watchman, including a statement made by Congressman Christopher Smith (NJ-04) on July 30, 2009 in the first session of the 111th Congress.
As Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute explains in the video, the Local Church movement has some of the most exemplary Christians in the world. I personally can attest to this statement since I, too, have traveled and seen Christians in several locations in this movement and held regular fellowship with them.
The controversial, yet beautiful, truth about Watchman Nee is that his view of Church administration is entirely Biblical. By “Biblical” I mean that the leadership structure mimics the Local Church structure and identity of the New Testament, with particular attention to Paul’s letters to Timothy…
They are led by a peer group of elders, under the advice and counsel—but not direction—of any apostles God may raise up, and those elders have no chairman among them. Employees of the Local Church are often called church workers or deacons. Clergy aren’t seen anywhere. Pastors, apostles, evangelists, and prophets have an informal, yet important, function, are understood to be spiritually called by God alone, and are therefore not selected by the Local Church. The Local Church derives its name from the immediate city and affixes no other name to the Body of Christ.
For his non-clerical understanding of Scripture, Watchman Nee was cast out by some of the first people he preached the gospel to, after they met with clergy in China. Nonetheless, he was extremely focused on being purely-Biblical in his direction of the Local Church—not so much in choosing musical instruments or curtain colors, but in administration. He wrote more about this in his book, Church Affairs.
The main controversy surrounding the Local Church movement was not Watchman Nee, however, but his successor, Witness Lee. Lee’s teachings, many of which are in print, re-open old and settled questions of basic Church doctrine, not disagreeing in essence, but altering nomenclature to have an appearance similar to Mormonism.
Lee’s alteration of fundamentally recognized Church terminology, however unintentional and innocent it was, considering that English was Lee’s second language, was an unnecessary change which raised red flags in the American Church. In my opinion, the American Church over-reacted, just as Hanegraaff says Lee’s overly harsh words against the American Church were “regrettable”. Lee wasn’t unbiblical in his intentions, only in his divisive results, and only in the appearance of unnecessary and strange terms he refused to lay down.
Having ESL experience in East Asia, I am fluent in “Chinglish”—a distant cousin of America’s “Spanglish”. So, at the LC fellowship when we read Lee’s teaching about man “becoming God”, I knew exactly what he meant… just like I know what my ESL students meant when they made similar grammatical errors. English was not Lee’s first language, regardless of how fluent he was. I would never accuse a student of being in a cult for speaking “Chinglish” and the West shouldn’t have accused Lee of leading a cult on the same basis. On the other hand, my ESL students were always expected to correct their “Chinglish”; the same should be expected of theologians.
Even with the undesirable fruits of division that came from Lee’s methods, most of the Local Church movement still reads Witness Lee teachings at their meetings and they are unlikely to lay down the writings of their founder’s great successor. Not Nee, but Lee may be the stumbling block which keeps the administrations of Lee-reading Local Churches from having more Christian fellowship and accurate understanding with the American Church. I explain more in my article on Local Church movement.
Nonetheless, Nee continues to gain posthumous respect from the Western Church, from the Chinese government because of his non-centralized and law-abiding methods, as well as from the very pastors whom Nee gently taught operate unbiblically.
In the wake of continually depressing statistics about the American Church, as well as the frustration of Christians at every level of leadership in Protestant-Christian America, the relationship between non-clerical administration of the Local Church movement and their strength in Christ can no longer be ignored by the West. The Local Church can’t be accused of being a cult because that already happened and CRI retracted any such statements and have issued corrective publications as seen and described by Hank Hanegraaff of the CRI in the video (above).
Having held regular fellowship with Christians in the Local Church movement of Asia myself, as well as having diverse knowledge and experience in the American Church as I have written about in my books, I am unquestionably convinced that the clerical system is the “last shackle” on the Western Church today. It’s the cause of division, stagnation, falling-away, hypocrisy, and other forms of burnout. Now, with the Local Church movement on America’s Christian horizon, we know the truth about the clerical system. “Necessary evil” no longer defends ineffective administrative systems of the American Church. Now, we’ve seen demonstrated, among the healthiest and fastest growing Church in the world, that the clerical system may, in fact, be evil, but it is certainly not necessary.
We know the non-clerical system of the Local Church movement is Biblical, just as “clergy” are never seen as the working-definition of a “pastor” in the New Testament. We know it’s not a cult, just as the movement has been thoroughly reviewed and scrutinized and such research has been documented and published. And, we know that the non-clerical system actually works and has gained recognition in the West, both in the Church and in government.
Where do we go from here? Will we allow our old systems to have preference over Biblical administration, Christian salt, light, and fruit? Will we become angry with the good leaders God has called as pastors, but not clergy? Or will we lock arms, understand each other, and move together into they only solution to global unity: the Body of Christ led by no one but Christ Himself?
…where we go from here will be determined… locally.
Here is a brief summary of my best understanding, as I see the differences between Lee and Nee…
Nee was imprisoned and died there, as a martyr; Lee did neither.
Nee’s shining contribution as an author addressed Ecclesiology and matters of Church administration, emphasising locality, organic-nature, and simple-Biblical. Lee’s well-known contributions addressed matters more relating to Theology Proper and its relation to Anthropology and Soteriology, approaching doctrines related to The Trinity, humanity, and what happens to humans after the resurrection.
Nee’s more famous teachings were akin to Biblical Theology while Lee’s more famous teachings were akin to Systematic Theology.
Nee’s famous writings address topics that the Church has more-or-less avoided or neglected through the centuries, while remaining traditional without the aura of a “new discovery” of truth. In this way, Nee was more of a renaissance writer, getting back to the Bible in a refreshing way of simplicity. Lee, however, addressed topics that have been supersaturated by Christian tradition, doctrine, and publications. His quality seems neither as sophisticated nor as applicable-beneficial as his contemporaries, such as Millard J. Erickson and James Montgomery Boice. Lee’s writings easily seem and are touted by his following as being more enlightening, illuminating, and progressive in their tone. Nee, being more renaissance-like, never had such overtones.
Nee’s teachings, though unconventional, are Biblical, and should seem more-or-less palatable to the different ends of denominational extremes in the Western Church. In this way, Nee offers fresh reminders and fuel for thought that could help Western Christian leaders find reconciliation through common ground. Lee, however, used and defended terminology resemblant of, and in some cases coterminous with, Luciferian doctrine, Mormonism, and Freemasonry. Of course, it must me noted, again, that these resemblances are only found in the terminology Lee defended and used, not in the longer explanations and definitions he gave for the use of Luciferian terms. In this way, his use of terms was easily misunderstood by the Western Body of Christ and caused much division, as CRI can explain more thoroughly.
Posthumously, leaders today, both in Christian fellowships and the political world, recognize Nee for his positive contributions in many areas of society, including and through the Church. Posthumous discussion and publication surrounding Lee, however, when coming from the West, seems more likely to address topics of his controversy, clarifying where Lee was misunderstood, yet regrettably harsh with his words.
And these publications, when discussing Lee, typically attempt to repair damage done in his living years. Posthumous recognition of Nee, on the other hand, typically celebrates the constructive effects established in his living years.
These opinions are based on things acknowledged by CRI and the movement’s own publications of and about Lee.
“16 Ye shall know them by their fruits…
…Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”