The Local Church movement of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee has been the source of much controversy over the last century, since the movement began in China, before the Communist revolution of Mao Zedong. Though there is room for improvements to the movement—as the Body of Christ remains an unfinished work of the Lord until His return—it offers significant insight into an understanding of healthy structure for many aspects of ministry function.
I have met with living witnesses who knew Nee and Lee very well. I have been given privileged information which I have been asked not to publish out of personal respect. While my sources shall remain anonymous, and while I will defend the credibility of my claims because that would compromise their anonymity, the reader must understand that I have had many talks and cups and cups of coffee with some of the oldest living Christians who were there in the beginning with Nee and Lee. This, again emphasizes the importance of fellowship and the need for the generation of today to learn from the generations whose wakes we enjoy.
Controversies from the movement seem to revolve around two different issues of teaching, from the two different leaders. While learning about this movement, it is absolutely vital to distinguish between their first two leaders, Watchman Nee and his successor, Witness Lee. It’s also important to distinguish the people in the movement from their literature. The fruits of their two leaders’ ministries are worlds apart.
While it’s true that Nee was an avid supporter of Lee, whom he hand-picked, a founder’s shoes are awfully big to fill, even when the founder chooses a good successor. Steve Jobs, for instance, hand-picked Tim Cook when he resigned from Apple. Cook was probably Apple’s best choice. And, though Cook replaced Jobs, Jobs was irreplaceable. Nee and Lee were friends, but they were different people.
Nee was a martyr whose books have gained attention all over the world. Nee was even recognized on the floor of the House by Congressman Christopher Smith, July 31, 2009. However, under Witness Lee, the American Church saw great controversy. Many within the movement split off and are still at odds with the movement today. There were other power struggles under Lee, as well as hot disagreement between Lee and leaders in the American Church. It took a lot of explanation from the Christian Research Institute for America to learn that the movement was not a cult. That demonstrates both the chronic trait of rush judgment in America, as well as the poor communicability from the Chinese movement. But that controversy did not relate to the teachings of Nee. Rather, as Hanegraaff explained in his closing remarks of that journal, Lee’s words were regrettably harsh, but America’s Church was wrong: the movement is not a cult.
Regardless of doctrine, Christians in the movement are highly respectable, dedicated, strong in Christ, sure in their faith, and filled with integrity that most of the Western Church wants. The good fruit, yielded in the lives of Christians in the LC movement today, makes the non-clerical leadership system, proposed by Watchman Nee, to be incontestable.
Two Different Leaders: Two Different Results
When reviewing the Local Church movement, one must understand that there were two main controversies. One surrounded Nee in his view of non-clerical “Local Church” and the other surrounded Lee in regards to terminology. The Lee controversy seems, on the surface, to be about theology. Actually, Lee has fundamental agreement with the rest of the Body of Christ, as the Christian Research Institute has reviewed and published. Lee has two main attributes that create problems, however.
First, his terminology was created in somewhat of a vacuum. He wasn’t raised with the four Church councils influencing his every day Christian fellowship. English was also his second language. So he uses terms to describe theology that describe the same Biblical truth, but seem alien to the West and are easily misunderstood as wrong doctrine.
Second, he was quite harsh in his critique of the Western Church. In Lee’s last public address, he apologized for being so harsh and creating so much controversy with his brash criticism of the West. Few people know about his apology. Though wrong, Lee’s squabbling should be considered as a well-intended mistake as he knew that the scandal of disunity in the Western Church is wrong, but his error was that he addressed it in the wrong way. But the West cannot rightly label Lee as a cult leader.
Lee was in a difficult position. When the Communists took over, Nee saw it coming and sent his family, along with Lee and as many as could leave to Taipei. The Hundson Taylor family and ministry also left for Taipei about the same time as the KMT Nationalists fled to Taiwan from the Communists. The Lee and the Nee family left in 1948. Nee stayed behind to work with over 400 local Christian groups that he had helped start. When Communism took over, Nee didn’t want them to be without leadership. Lee had to be Nee’s mouthpiece because Nee would be sent to prison.
Eventually, two things developed from the separation that happened with the conflict between the Communists and the KMT Nationalists (in Taiwan to this day). First, Nee’s idea was actually adopted by the Communists, creating the Three Self Church. Bear in mind that this is a Chinese idea, not an English idea. Nee wrote about the “three self’s” in his early books: Self-funded, self-administered, and self-propagated. In other words, Nee didn’t want the Church of China to be fueled by the West, but to stand on its own as a Local Church. Communist China soon adopted these “three self’s” and the “Three Self Church” idea was born in China, the basic idea being, as Mike Bickle comically commented, (not being critical) “China kicked out the American missionaries and revival broke out.”
The second result of this split brought with the Communist revolution was Lee’s writing. The Chinese Church did not want any part of the history of division. So, they had to write their own theology books. This resulted in the Truth Lessons and the Life Lessons by Witness Lee. It is somewhat of a catachism of the Church of China that sprang up in a Bible-centered vacuum, not having any communication or influence from the West. On the one hand, this is worth studying and learning from. On the other hand, theology terms should be created in community and communication with the rest of the Church. This ensures that we all understand each other. While Lee gave a fantastic collection of teaching worth the time of Western Bible students’ review, Lee’s writing cannot be the basis for critiquing the West since the West was never involved with Lee nor Lee involved with the West beforehand.
In a sense, the same doctrinal problem exists between Christian denominations. Just like Lee and Martin had fellowship and found agreement, so would may American leaders from different denominations. America’s scandal of disunity comes from the same problem as the Lee-West controversy: If you don’t have a history of fellowship, then you can’t point the finger. The same could also be said of Chinese and American governments. We’d all be better off, Communist, Nationalist, Western Republic, Christian, Local, Denominational—if we stopped pointing fingers and shook more hands in face-to-face fellowship.
Lee’s “ministry” is still haunted by an enormous wake of conflict, controversy, mutiny, schisms, and dispute. They continue to fear rejection today, but few in their fellowship considers the fundamental difference between Lee and Nee: fruit. That’s the standard all Christians should be measured by. Jesus even said so. Even with Lee’s humble apology in his last public speech, his younger followers today have not learned from Lee in what he taught. Nor have they listened to their older leaders who want local Christians in the Nee-Lee circles to have more, regular fellowship with Christians in “the denominational sector”. This brings us to the challenges of today.
When Nee-Lee Christians use terms like “the denominations” so frequently and “Local Church” as if is a brand, they have created their own de facto denomination and gone against the original ideas of their older generations, who were there in the days when they first started. This is a sad state of things today. And this issue of listening to their own leaders should be the top priority of Western leaders who interact with LC-Nee-Lee, not debating supposed “differences” in theology that merely boil down to semantic differences known only to those who are fluent in “Chinglish”.
Repairing the damage and progressing toward unity between American Christians and the LC movement from China came from other leaders explaining for—and apologizing for—Lee. It is in spite of divisive Christian leaders, not because of them, that the dedicated Christians in both America and China—or any divided Christians, for that matter—can come together. Thank you, Hank Hanegraaff, for being a force of unity, peacemaking, and understanding. And thank you, Nee, posthumously, for the many Christian leaders, still snared in the clerical system, who are fascinated with your writings as well as your fruits of unity. Now, let’s all learn, drop anything that hinders, assemble together, and pray that the Lord would give us the grace to fulfill the Great Commission.
Nee’s teaching, offers fresh perspective on how the local Church might function in Biblical simplicity and unity. His ideas almost spark “unifying disagreements”, which begin with debate, but end in greater agreement. For example, his treatment of the term “apostle” should be much more useful to Pentecostals, and much more palatable to Baptists, if they are both willing to lay down their clerical systems. Seeing how well Nee uses the word “apostle”, the two denominations just might be willing to come together on the common ground Nee provides.
With the growing trend to re-evaluate systems of Church structure, such as Willow Creek Association and the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, along with literature coming from Saddleback and many more—it’s interesting that re-evaluating local Church strategy seems to bring the Church together more than any other round table. In this, Watchman Nee may have been one of the most reconciling forces in the global Church—posthumously. I view Nee as a predecessor to the unifying Church leaders we have today, including the Promise Keepers revival, the prayer movement, and many more.
Overview of the Two Controversies
The first area of controversy comes from Watchman Nee. It addresses functional matters of Ecclesiology. His ideas and terms are quite Biblical and have compelling defense from Scripture. However, he tends to poke holes in sacred cows of the Western Church traditions, such as names, titles, and administration. This mostly is about a non-clerical system of local Church governance. Nee’s ideas are well put in his book Church Affairs.
The second area of controversey, and more unexplained as to the motive, revolves around issues of Theology Proper in relation to Systematic Anthropology. It began with Witness Lee, who led after Watchman Nee’s was imprisoned in China, when Lee began addressing matters already defined in Ecumenical Doctrine from the Early Church. This bred confusion of fundamental jargon concerning Anthropology as pertaining to Theology, Soteriology, Pneupatology, and Christology. Lee did seem to contribute the idea of mingling of the Holy Spirit with the Human spirit as a more detailed definition of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which does not seem to have been reviewed by the Western Church at large. While Lee’s confusion—and the persecution which followed—of semantics is sketchy, his concept of mingling could provide some common ground for an understanding of Baptism of the Holy Spirit, for those who debate some sequences and indicators surrounding that issue.
History of the Movement
The movement began under Watchman Nee who was in China with nothing but a Bible. Unlike nearly every other reformation or schism of the Western Church, Watchman Nee’s movement had no heritage and no baggage to go with it. It’s as if the teaching of Christ were plopped in the midst of an untouched region and a “second Church” (if the reader may pardon the strange term) appeared. Of course, there is only one Universal Body of Christ, which is the purpose of the phrase as if, to express that there is no heritage in the movement.
As a result of this, one of the major advantages that the LC movement had, is their lack of splits in their heritage. In their isolation from the West, even with the confusion that expectedly followed, they have learned to function in a fresh, New Testament manner. And this is the biggest gift they have to offer to the Western Church.
Watchman Nee began his ministry when, after studying Scripture, he shared the gospel with two men in China. Soon after, those men spoke with some Christian pastors, who emphasized the importance of a clerical system. The two men met with Watchman, disagreed with his Biblical model of an elder-led local church, as well as the use of names of “churches” other than by locality. This was a very important matter to Watchman because the Church belongs to Christ alone, so it should not have another name.
Nee explains many things of value in his book Church Affairs, which addresses local administration with a broad brush, similar to the US Constitution in its generic treatment of organization. At best it would guide the Church to healthier function and, at worst, it would stimulate much needed discussion.
Nee’s Controversial Benefit to the Church
There are two basic topics of controversy surrounding Nee: the non-clerical system of elder-led assembly and the identity of the Church as being local.
Generally speaking, when considering the language of Ephesians 4:11, with consideration to Kittel’s comments about shepherd and teacher being the last item in a list of four items, not a five-item list, a pastor is defined by Jesus’ ministry with the twelve and the seventy. Somewhere along the line, the Western Church assumed that shepherd meant clergy and, by default, we more or less assume today that an apostle is a bishop. Protestants redefined a priest from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran systems, watered down their function (mainly that they are not agents of prayer), but have mostly given lip service to the ministerial priesthood of all believers. Non-Catholic clergy still think they are more qualified for some duties of ministry than lay Christians, and that’s not Biblical. Church counsels, however, should be assemblies of apostles or elders and such, not clergy. The definition of pastor is mostly assumed the Western Church and is never defined as clergy in the Ecumenical Councils, nor is a clerical system juxtaposed against an elder system in the statements of faith of most Christian organizations. At most, they may say something like God called pastors and leaders, but then never define what those terms mean.
Concerning the names of the local Church, along with its distinction from its peers, a basic, Biblical model set by the nomenclature used by the New Testament authors, as well as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself in Revelation 1-3, sets a precedent that local gatherings of Christians should bear the name of the locality in which they meet. Departure from this precedent is also something that is not adopted by the Ecumenical Councils, nor is it adopted by statements of faith in most Christian organizations today.
The larger matter with a Local Church system of identity and nomenclature is its contrast to a diocese system. When there is a city with Christians from every corner of the city meeting with one gathering, and another group of Christians from every corner of the same city meeting in another gathering, identifying themselves as different “churches”, whether they make their distinction in names or post-council doctrine, they have established their own de facto diocese. This is also seen nowhere in the New Testament.
If local Christians would rather hear one speaker or meet with a fellowship with similar demographics other than location—if this alone was what distinguished different gatherings—then that would not establish a diocese. Of course, whether different preachers should compete for time raises other questions about local Church unity, which should be addressed by the elders of that Local Church.
Because of the disastrous plague of disunity in the Western Church, the LC movement wanted to remain as far from the West as possible, in terms of influence. That’s fully understandable. Of course, just like any Western Church leader will tell you, “If you don’t have fellowship with the body, you’ll get off course.” While that happened, as will be explored with the confusion that happened after Watchman Nee was imprisoned by the Communists, it seems that LC’s choice to remain separate, just as they began separate, was worth the cost. Now, the global Church has a laboratory, stemming from Asia, with a Biblical New Testament Church administration. The wisdom of Watchman Nee has the potential to shed insight on the predicament of the West and light the way to Church unity in the world and empowerment of Believers which we have not known since the passing of the New Testament apostles.
Essentially, this means that the Western Church should consider the Biblical grounds for adopting Nee’s two theses, summarized as: The Church is Local, not clerical, (meaning that it is led by elders and managed by deacons, who do not appoint an executive leader to manage the affairs and teachings of local Body, and a pastor leads like Jesus led the disciples, which is different from clergy) and Names of the Church are by locality, not by diocese or parish.
Dealing with Controversies Responsibly
Where did the confusion begin after Nee was imprisoned? There are some “sacred grounds” in Church history that the Church does not tread on. Those typically stem from the first four Ecumenical Councils, with some qualification needed for Ephesus and teachings about Jesus’ mother. Because the LC movement was so new, it has an alibi: It wasn’t aware of these. They did their homework very well, but, without learning from Western theologians, they didn’t fully understand the Western use of semantics of the Church Councils—but they sounded like they did. They misspoke, they didn’t know they misspoke, the West didn’t know they misspoke, the West called them out on the carpet, then they reacted in an Asian-culture fashion of accusation, and that convinced the West that they were a cult—it was one of the biggest misunderstandings of Church history, especially in the last century. When Western Christians are questioned for heresy by other Western Christians, there is a certain culture of reaction. Lee’s reaction, which included lawsuits, demonstrated his ignorance of Western culture, not his alleged heresy, though the West didn’t pick that up until the Christian Research Institute intervened.
One teaching in Witness Lee’s wake is the notion that humans have a divine nature. This is borrowed language from 2 Peter 1:4, but is also identical to the language used in the Chalcedon Definition (Hypstatic Union of divine nature and human nature both being in one person, Jesus Christ). Rather than using this to refute Eutyches and Monophysitism, as the semantics were intended and have been used for one and a half millennia, Lee used these as new terms for the already defined issues of regeneration, glorification, justification, imputed righteousness, and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Witness Lee did clearly reiterate that, while we are “partakers in the divine nature” that we do not partake in the godhead. Why he did this without clarifying that he was quoting 2 Peter 1:4, and not referring to Chalcedon, remains unknown. However, given the isolated background of the movement, perhaps they were trying to address matters of essential doctrine, just as the Western Church did in its early years, but wasn’t aware of the influence Chalcedon had on Western Systematic Theology nomenclature. I suspect he simply didn’t do his homework, but his reason for that was probably from the movement’s desire to avoid any influence from the divisiveness of Western denominationalism. For that, I can’t blame them. So, while their ignorance can be reasonably explained and ethically defended, that ignorance, though innocent, still exists and should be acknowledged by all sides of any serious discussion about the movement and its relationship to the West.
Choose Thy Words Wisely
Why is this so important? As CRI’s slogan goes, …because Truth matters™. So do the words we use to express the Truth.
Another more recent doctrine around the group is becoming God. This has been evaluated by the Christian Research Institute, after the movement was branded as a cult, and, under Hank Hanegraaff, the CRI published Christian Research Journal Vol 32 No 6, 2009 “We Were Wrong: A Reassessment of the ‘Local Church’ Movement of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.”
In that journal, the CRI evaluates the meaning of the phrase becoming God and finds that definition to be Biblical. The phrase left to itself, however, remains unbiblical. Perhaps LC says “man will become God” because they don’t know proper English grammar. But the West thought it sounded like Mormonism, though that was not LC’s intention. No human will ever become the same as the Ancient of Days. And the Ancient of Days did not begin as a mere man who achieved deification. Good Christian theology must use terms that are in agreement with their respective definitions. But young Church movements, and young Bible students alike, don’t know that. And we shouldn’t expect them to.
On the one hand, it is sad that the Western Church, basically, rebuked the LC movement for their semantics, without understanding of the definitions of their words. But, that same matter applies to most denominational disputes, since most debates among denominations stem from similar terms, with drastically different meanings, but debated as if the meanings are agreed to be the same.
However, this does not mean that it’s wise for the LC movement to continue to alter the long-standing definitions and semantics which were used to refute cults and heresies for the last two thousand years. Nor does it mean that there is any valid reason to use the phrase [humans] become God, an obvious phraseology borrowed from what the serpent said to Eve in Genesis 3—regardless of the fact that they are merely using Asian-Chinese thinking to express the unity of the Church with Christ as the Head of the Body. While their understanding is Biblical—something the West was wrong about—respect should be paid for the face-value meaning of words, lest the well-intended leaders of the Church lead people astray through alternate meanings and difficult to understand and mysterious meanings for words—which would resonate with late echoes from the Nicolaitans and Gnostics. Paul refused to teach with complex-sounding mysteries (1 Cor 2:1-6).
Another factor of choosing semantics is the size of the Church. While the two million Christians in the LC movement of Nee make a substantial statement about the Biblical fruits through their large footprint, their numbers pail in comparison to the rest of the worldwide Body of Christ. One of LC’s largest contentions against the Western Church is division. However, even with the division spread all through the West, nearly the entire global Church has found unity in the semantics of the first four Councils. LC-Lee’s definition of those basic doctrines is the same or fully compatible with those doctrines of the West (with due deference to CRI’s opinion.) The only difference is semantics.
Being only one hundred years old, much like the early Church of the fourth century, LC needed to address matters of basic doctrine. When they did in isolation, they incidentally stepped on the toes of the Western Church by re-defining terms for questions which had already been addressed. It was unintentional and understandable. So, the West needs to understand the LC movement in this, but if the West and East are to work together in the future, LC’s generation of today will need to accept the semantics for the same definitions they already agree to, which have already been adapted by the Western Church, and they will need to heed the advice of their original generation: to always increase communication with the denominational sector. What those specific terms and definitions are is not something that will be addressed in this article. It needs to be done before the movement will be widely accepted by the Western Church, and this is as it ought to be. Everyone must do their homework. And, as valuable as this “recovery work” (as LC views themselves, comparing themselves to the reformations of Church history) is, no reformation every messed with the semantics of Church doctrine proceeding from the first four Councils. This matter must be addressed with much patience and mutual understanding.
Heresy will always crop up in the Church. Just as terminology differences will be mistaken for heresy. It’s the responsibility of all Church leaders to accurately identify what, then, is actual heresy and what is a mere misunderstanding, and for all of us to seek the approval of terms from each other so we can use those terms in talking with each other, lest we become false accusers of our own brethren.