AN EXAMINATION OF WATCHMAN NEE,
WITNESS LEE AND THE LOCAL CHURCH
Before I got saved in 2002, my father had attended a public meeting in London, arranged by "the local church" (a term which the followers of Watchman Nee have adopted for themselves.) What had whetted his appetite were their presentations on Bible prophecy and other assorted subjects.
In fact, I can recall both of us, shortly after my salvation, attending a church meeting, this time held by the Christadelphians, which had advertised their meeting in a local newspaper, to preach on eschatology. Needless to say, we were both interested and rather surprisingly, turnout was pretty decent. (Of course for both groups such public meetings are their sole way of proselytising.)
All those that had attended "the local churches" meeting were given a free Living Stream Ministry, Recovery Version, New Testament. I later became the recipient of this and used it on and off during my early months of being a newly saved Bible-believing Christian.
(My original Recovery Version, New Testament)
Before I move on, however, please allow me to say this. Had we known today what we knew then, chances are we would not have attended such meetings, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, is it not?
You see, for those of us that have left organized religion, one normally has to deal with chaos, during the first few months or even years after being saved. And groups like these, especially the Christadelphians and even the Seventh-day Adventists, are rather successful at reaching out to potential new members, with their vague and illusive advertisements, especially via the secular printing press.
Thankfully, both my father's one-off attendance to "the local church" and our joint trip to a Christadelphian meeting have only given us an even greater hunger and desire to grow in grace and be better at apologetically articulating the true plan of salvation to unsaved people, regardless of whether they are in false religions or not.
On one other occasion, we happened to come across a man standing outside a library with a sign, which was advertising a Bible study later that day. After we had finished our Saturday outreach, we attended and listened as another man gave a message from the book of Revelation. However, I become rather uncomfortable in my spirit, when he started to try and claim how Satan is not a literal person and, in fact, has been pretty much 'misunderstood' by most of Christendom. We challenged both him and the man with the sign, and before rebuking them for their false teachings, we promptly left. Had we known they were Christadelphian, we would not have attended, but again, such groups are deliberately vague when it comes to their proselytising.
So it is my sincere and genuine intention to quite simply offer this article to those that have either had some direct or indirect involvement with Watchman Nee's writings and beliefs, and, God willing, I pray it will be beneficial to all those that love the Lord and His word.
Watchman Nee was born in Fuzhou, China on the 4th November 1903. His actual name was Nee Shu-tsu. He was born into a middle-class Methodist family, and at the age of 17, he confessed to being saved. Along with his grandfather, he too would become a full-time preacher and go on to be a prolific writer, with many crediting him with China's explosions of conversions and creations of "local churches" all over the land.
Nee, much like the Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, who spent three years in solitary confinement in Soviet-run Romania, also fell foul of his communist masters, and went on to be incarcerated for twenty long and very hard years.
Incidentally, just one year prior to Nee's birth, China also witnessed the birth of Eric Liddell. This Calvinist would later be raised in Scotland and go on to be one of their finest sons, not only for winning a gold medal in the Paris 1924 Olympic Games, but also for his shunning the western limelight and returning to his native land, where he continued on in his parents' footsteps as a missionary.
He was successful in combining his world-class skills as an Olympian and, therefore, along with running and competing in China, he also was able to win souls to the Lord and disciple them too. However, by 1943, and with the Japanese invading and conquering vast areas in China, it was only inevitable that Liddell, with his unashamed and very public Christian testimony, would be detained and held until his premature death in 1945.
It wasn't commonly known until rather recently, however–when the Chinese authorities released information just prior to the 2008 Chinese Olympic Games–that Liddell had been given an opportunity to leave his death camp under a prisoner-of-war exchange agreement drawn up between Britain and Japan, but declined, and instead, gave his freedom pass to a fellow prisoner, a pregnant lady. Even his family members of today weren't aware of this incredible act of selflessness.
Some years after his death, Nee was himself arrested on the bogus claims of being a spy. This was probably due to his trips to Britain and America. And this time another prisoner swap was being planned, not between Japan and Britain but between China and America. Regrettably for Nee, the Americans and other outside forces were unable to successfully negotiate his safe passage, and sadly Nee went the way of Liddell, dying a few months after being released from his Shanghai prison cell.
My only unanswered question is, did Nee ever meet Liddell? In fact, did either man even know of one another?
With the death of Nee, at the age of 69, the baton was now passed to his life-long disciple, Witness Lee. Only a few years earlier, Lee had decided to re-locate to California, where he lived and preached until his death in 1997, at the age of 91.
Under Lee's directorship, Living Streams Ministry was successfully launched. With the message of Nee passing from east to west, from Nee to Lee, the teachings of the man from Fuzhou, China, went global. Unfortunately, Lee seriously erred on the Trinity of God and in essence embraced the heretical Oneness view (Witness Lee, The Triune God To Be Life To The Tripartite Man, 1970, p. 48.)
He also made the unimaginable blunder of teaching how the entire Godhead became flesh, not just the Lord Jesus (Witness Lee, God's New Testament Economy, 1986, p. 230.)
An Ecumenical Endorsement
I wish to offer some thoughts to a booklet that was published in 2008 by the "defenders of the New Testament Ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee and the practice of the local churches." They are based in Fullerton, California and appear to be a subsidiary of Living Stream Ministries in Anaheim, California.
What intrigued me, when reading this 32-page booklet, was how eager Hank Hanegraaff, "The Bible Answer Man" from "The Christian Research Institute," and Gretchen Passantino, co-founder and director of "Answers in Action" and Fuller Theological Seminary, were when it came to their endorsement of "the local church." In fact, I would say, even bending over backwards to do so. And equally intriguing was why "the local church" would even want a public endorsement, especially from the ecumenical Hank Hanegraaff. Of course the answer is rather simple: recognition, status and money.
You see, organized religion-and yes, even "the local church," with all their books, CDs and DVDs, needs to survive, especially in a hostile post-Christian world. So to successfully achieve this, it makes perfect business sense for them to hold hands, with pretty much anyone and everyone, and jump on to the ecumenical bandwagon's, one-world church.
On page 6, Hanegraaff is quoted as saying, "the local churches are an authentic expression of New Testament Christianity and I stand shoulder to shoulder with the local churches when it comes to the essentials that define biblical orthodoxy."
He takes a strong position, however, against their correct view of the Lord's one Thousand-Year Reign on the earth. In fact, Hanegraaff, the long-time opponent to the King James Bible, has recently become rather critical, if not down-right hostile to the pre-trib rapture and millennial reign, while on the other hand, happily telling his radio audience how there are many "good, saved Catholics" in the church of Rome.
(Walter Martin, the founder of "The Christian Research Institute" also shared an unfortunate 'blind spot' when it came to speaking out explicitly against the Catholic church. His renowned "Kingdom of the Cults" book, mysteriously omitted any reference to the Roman Catholic church, so it comes as no surprise that Hanegraaff also has continued to follow this lucrative trend.)
On page 10, Hanegraaff says the following: "With respect to the Trinity, for example, we are united in the reality that there is one God revealed in three persons who are eternally distinct."
(More on their teachings on the Trinity later.)
On page 15, Gretchen Passantino, the co-director of "Answers in Action" ministry, commences her endorsement by saying, "My friends thought I had gone crazy. I prayed in tongues instead of using drugs and drinking. I read the Bible instead of going to movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. I invited my friends to church instead of to test lab alcohol binges in Upper Newport Bay."
While most of this statement is certainly commendable, especially for a self-confessed former hippie-era "Jesus Freak" of the late 1960s and a very bright academic young woman of her generation, as she also describes herself as being, what concerns me, however, is her statement about speaking in tongues, something not supported in Scripture. (Only men spoke in tongues in the New Testament.)
Maybe in her naïve youth, she got innocently caught up with all this hysteria and learned behaviour, that sadly was endemic then and also now to some extent, but that was fifty years ago. Surely by now, she would have matured and realized that this carnal experience isn't something to be writing about in one's testimony.
In my opinion, this dents her credibility and, as a sister in the Lord asked me, "Why do women take on positions of leadership (like she does), when the word of God only knows of men in leadership roles?" "Money," was my reply. "It's the scourge of organized religion," and she understood perfectly well my reply.
Gretchen also goes on to offer her own endorsement, from page 14: "The local churches are a legitimate, theologically orthodox, spiritually faithful involvement by means of which your offspring can develop genuine Christian commitment and maturity."
One of her statements, which I found rather snobbish, is from page 23, where I happen to be in part agreement with "the local church" on:
"Local church worship is derived from their understanding of worship in the New Testament, and looks more "primitive" [her emphasis] of the nineteenth century Plymouth Brethren background which the Chinese local churches first emulated, than it does contemporary American evangelical denominational or community based churches. Because they do not have a clergy/laity authority structure, services are very plain, have components contributed by a variety of brothers and sisters worshipping together, and typically have more prayer, simple hymn singing, and vocal worship than formal orders of service or pastor-directed sermons."
To be fair to "the local church," their rejection of the one-man paid pastor (or as I call it, "the protestant priest") is totally correct and Scriptural. But saying that, please allow me to say this: where this organization appears to err is in their failure to allow only their most gifted and godly men into the pulpit to teach and preach.
I also feel that their prayers and simple hymn singing appears more in-line with Quakerism than it does with Biblical Christianity; so for this part of her quote, I am in agreement with her.
At this stage I must say that Nee was very much influenced by the Catholic mystic, Madame Guyon. According to information I have read on this French mystic, even Charles Spurgeon, the moderate Calvinist, was inspired by her writings, especially those on prayer and consecration. Therefore, one must always filter and check everything one reads, no matter how popular or educated the writer is, with God's word as final authority.
What "the local church" and all Bible-believing Christians should be doing is ordaining godly men to preach and teach the word of God from within their own churches, and then these unpaid men become the elders of local assemblies, and that way the church gets properly fed, error is almost non-existent and everything is done decently and in order.
For the remainder of this article, I will be quoting from their booklet "The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches," written by Living Stream Ministries in 1978, later re-published in 2006, which pretty much outlines most of what they believe and teach today.
From page 3 they state their belief in the Triune God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit co-existing equally, from eternity to eternity.
They also list their belief in the deity of Christ; His Virgin birth; Him being the Redeemer and Saviour of the world; dying on the cross and being resurrected on the third day, both physically and spiritually.
My first concern, is however, their belief in Jesus' "spiritual resurrection." The Jehovah's Witnesses also hold to this and, therefore, one needs to tread carefully and delicately when approaching the Biblical and physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Also they go on speak about Jesus being "the life-giving Spirit to impart Himself into us as our life and our everything." This appears to suggest that Jesus is the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit here is spelt with a capital S. And if this is what Living Stream Ministries mean, then they are in the heretical camp of the Oneness movement, a belief that holds to Jesus being the Father and the Holy Spirit.
On page 4 they say that, "the Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of Christ..." Again, this refers to their erroneous teaching that the Holy Ghost is the Father and He is also the Son. This is not the correct and historical doctrine of the Trinity, but a poor mix of Oneness and possibly Modalism too.
The Bible tells us that Jesus is a person, the Father is a person and the Holy Spirit is a person. They don't ever appear as one person, but three separate persons. This is something that every Bible-believing Christian must understand, adhere too and uphold.
Page 4 offers a vague and yet inclusive view on church unity: "We stand on the genuine unity of the Body of Christ. We are not sectarian, nor denominational, nor nondenominational, nor interdenominational."
This statement doesn't really help the diligent Bible believer in ascertaining exactly what type of church fellowship "the local church" is.
Page 5 goes on to say: "We stand on the ground of the oneness of all believers in each locality; we recognize all the blood-redeemed and Spirit-regenerated believers in Christ as members of the one church in each city."
In this post-modern and ecumenical world, such a statement as this would clearly be welcomed by pretty much everyone. However, its wording is too vague for me. Yes, I am sure there are saved men and women all over the world, some even in dead and apostate churches, but shouldn't they be calling such men and women out from these harlot churches? They then go on to offer the following, concerning their mission: "To establish the church in each city that the believers may become a local corporate expression of Christ in practicality."
In my opinion, their definition of "the church," simply refers to their own four walls, which is their sole existence here on earth. Also the term "corporate" sounds more like a business than a typical congregation of redeemed sinners, meeting to worship and praise Jesus. What I feel they are actually saying is, 'If you really want to be effective and express Christ in a real and practical way, join our church. For we are the real thing.'
Sadly, this 'elitism' and self-righteous belief in one's church is found in all churches today. As Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun."
The Bible tells us, however, that the moment a man or woman believes on the Lord, they are automatically baptized into the universal body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) and, therefore, are already in the true Church of Christ.
So if one expects or hopes by joining them, or any other organization for that matter, will somehow give them 'extra-power,' 'standing' and 'credibility,' think again!
Also from page 5, they make the following statement, which sounds rather Calvinistic to me: "We hope that as many as are ordained by God to eternal life will believe in the Lord Jesus."
This is a rather confused statement to make. For according to Calvinism, those whom the Lord chooses not only will believe on Him, but will faithfully persevere until the end of their lives. So why do they hope that such will believe in Jesus, when God has already ordained it to occur?!?
And incidentally nobody is ordained to do anything for the Lord, until they have believed on Him and been born again.
And before I conclude their section on the oneness of believers, they say the following, on page 6: "We hope that all seeking Christians will see the vision of the church and come into the practical church life in their locality."
For me, this actually means, once again, 'join Living Stream Ministries!'
The Lord's Recovery
This term appears in many of their publications. Like most large and successful ministries, "the local church" on the one hand consider themselves to be pretty unique, if not 'special' in their existence, commission and proclamation of the gospel, whilst on the other hand, looking around and noting the apostasy and decline of pretty much all of professing Christendom, yet doing very little about it.
They do rightly credit, however, the Protestant Reformation and the later arrival of the Plymouth Brethren as being faithful beacons to a post-papal world, but the fact remains that Christ's true Church has always existed, even before Constantine, through the crusades, the inquisition; the rise and fall of revolutions, communism, fascism and now post-modernism.
When Jesus promised that even the gates of Hell could not prevail against His Church, He meant it. But sadly, some ministries and their ministers become too puffed up and fall into the same condemnation as the devil of old, pride.
On pages 8 and 9 they correctly hold to one being saved by the finished work of Christ and eternal security. They do, however, lean towards the problematic areas of lordship salvation and double separation.
They seem to get a little muddled over the difference between Justification and Sanctification, and in the process, create a doctrine not found in Scripture, that of "Transformation."
On page 13, they offer the following: "Many Christians know of the regeneration of the spirit and the transfiguration of the body, but they neglect the crucial matter of the transformation of the soul. Nevertheless the Bible says, 'Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Rom. 12.2). Therefore, we recognize the need to be dispositionally transformed in our souls by the inward working of the Spirit of life. As we are transformed, an inward change takes place in our very being. As our soul is permeated with the element of God, it is purified and sanctified. It can thereby fulfil its God-created function to express the Lord who dwells in our regenerated spirit. This transformation of the soul is intimately related to our readiness to meet the Lord at His coming. Those who would dwell in His holy and glorious presence must not merely be positionally sanctified, but be dispositionally transformed. This transformation requires the operation of the cross negatively and the working of the Spirit of life positively."
So it appears faith and faith alone in the finished work of Christ on the cross is not sufficient, if one ever hopes to be "worthy enough" to meet the Lord in the air. (This is what some call "a split rapture." It's a false and flawed view that only the 'best' saints will go up to meet the Lord in the rapture.)
Also of interest is how they subtly cite Rom. 12, not from their own translation, but from the King James Bible. This is normally done by questionable groups, to give themselves and their argument some level of 'credibility.'
When a sinner gets saved, they are instantaneously Justified, meaning exonerated, totally forgiven and pardoned of all of their past, present and future sins.
Then they experience Sanctification. This gives the believer a new nature and the power and desire to live for God. But because the new believer still retains their old nature, i.e., original sin within, there is a perpetual battle between the new nature and the old nature, which leaves the new believer never sinless in this life and therefore never able to be "good enough" or "holy enough" to meet the Lord in the air, when it comes to his Christian behaviour.
By placing this unbiblical and even Pharisaical doctrine of "Transformation" on the believers' shoulders to bear, Nee's teachings, therefore, have levied an impossible goal for their members to achieve and as such, few (if any) will ever have any assurance of salvation. So, if they are not careful, they will end up as 'slaves' to this movement, much like the Jehovah's Witnesses are to their movement.
This further cripples the true saved man or woman and puts them under enormous pressure to be more "outwardly righteous" and in essence become "junior partners" with the Lord, when it comes to their own salvation.
From page 23 they have a rather odd and hyper-spiritual view of the devil: "Therefore, we may say that Satan as sin dwells in man's flesh."
That man has a sin nature is one thing, but to blame his sin nature/behaviour 'because of the devil living in him' is most certainly flawed, not to mention, totally incorrect.
Satan, the devil, is a very powerful entity, and while they seem to partially uphold this, I cannot help but feel that they have actually underestimated just how dangerous and substantial he is, and as a result, fall into a similar position to what the Christadelphians hold to.
Tax Exempt (501c3)
Tucked away at the bottom of page 23 is their confession to being "properly registered with the government as non-profit religious corporations." This means they don't pay tax and therefore are under the control and restrictions of the government(s) in their countries.
View on Roman Catholicism
"We recognize that in the Roman Catholic Church, in the denominations, and in the independent groups, there are many genuine blood-washed, Spirit-regenerated believers in Christ, and we receive them as our brothers and sisters in the Lord." (p. 24.)
To make this ignorant statement, especially when it refers to Roman Catholics, is a travesty. The church of Rome curses their members, should they even toy with the idea of being saved by faith in Christ alone.
So for Living Stream Ministries to make such a statement does more harm than good! And why don't they call on these "genuine blood-washed, Spirit-regenerated believers in Christ" to leave the Roman Catholic church and other apostate churches once they are saved? Because they can't. They are now ecumenical, therefore, part of the following condemnation from Isaiah 56:10 now applies to them, and others that either refuse or are too cowardly to speak out:
"His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber."
I believe Watchman Nee was a good and sincere man. He could so easily have embraced Confucianism or communism, but he correctly and very bravely embraced Christianity.
Those of us living in the west would do well to learn from him and others that lived and died under extreme persecution, in his case atheism. Nothing that I've read about him would indicate a loss of faith, on the contrary, like Liddell, he remained faithful in his belief in God, right up till the end.
Their refusal to install a one-man paid pastor/clergy system is rare and yet most certainly welcomed. Also, with each church being autonomous, this doesn't technically categorize them as being like the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Mormons, which are both very much under strict control from Brooklyn and Utah. Yet their worldwide churches, no doubt, are still heavily influenced by the writings and teachings of Nee and Lee, so in reality they are not as free as the New Testament would allow them to be.
However, this article isn't just about Nee, the man, or even his successor, Lee, but about their legacies and teachings, which continue to impact the lives of people all over the world.
"The local church" places a great emphasis on being faithful and loving to their members, similar to the Mormons, which have their Monday "family nights together," but "the local church" also seems rather sensitive to maintaining a strict control over their members, which results in them being guilty of heavy shepherding.
It was also regrettable to learn that they have a muddled understanding of the Trinity; a superficial view of Church unity; a nonsensical belief in faith and works for salvation, especially after they claim to hold to being saved by their faith in Christ alone, and then being eternally safe. In reality, they hold to conditional security.
Also of concern to me was Nee's acceptance of Jessie Penn-Lewis' teaching of saved people being 'possessed by unclean spirits.'
One Christian publication that I recall reading some years ago, said that Nee was a good man but should never have been a Bible teacher and writer. After examining the man and his beliefs, I must concur.
2012, updated 2014
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