February 26, 2013

Beware the writings of the Watchman

by Tommy Clayton

Watchman_NeeWatchman Nee was a Chinese pastor, theologian, and author. He was born in 1903, and was martyred for his faith at the age of 69. Communists arrested Nee in 1952, and he spent the next twenty years imprisoned in a Chinese Labor Camp. Although offered release if he promised to leave the country, Nee refused and died in prison in 1972. Some accounts say he died after authorities had cut out his tongue in an attempt to stop his preaching.

Watchman was not his birth name, but was what he called himself after his ordination to pastoral ministry. His grandfather was a pastor, and Nee saw himself as a guardian of the truth of the Chinese church, which he primarily did through his teaching and writing.

Nee’s name is attached to at least forty different books. Ranging from daily devotionals to complex theology, he was certainly a prolific writer. Yet it is very difficult to know with confidence what he actually penned. One can read his works and legitimately conclude that they were penned by different authors—not only did Nee rarely have an unexpressed thought, but it is said that many of his books were actually pieced together by his disciples from his oral teaching.

As with much of his life, it is very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction with Nee. After his death, stories began to circulate describing how Communist authorities had chopped off his hands to stop his writing effort. But their tactics proved futile. Nee supposedly penned book-after-book from behind bars and in the face of intense physical persecution.

Are the stories true? That depends on who you ask. One thing is certain: they add to the mystery and intrigue surrounding his life and elevate interest in his teachings.

wakeWith that said, it is also clear that Nee did not allow theological certainty or clarity to stand in the way of his preaching and writing efforts. He learned as he went, and left a trail of confusing literature in his wake. I think of him as an Asian Karl Barth—intelligent, well versed in Scripture, but often (especially on critical points) Nee was simply unclear.

Nee appeals to his readers through a warm, conversational style of writing, pregnant with personal anecdotes and intriguing illustrations from his Eastern culture.  Add to those factors the easy accessibility of his books—you can find most of them online free of charge—and you see the results of a theological supply-and-demand law. Interest + Appeal + Accessibility = Influence.

To be fair, Nee has contributed some helpful material in areas of basic Christian doctrine such as authority and salvation. His most well-known book is The Normal Christian Life, and there Nee writes: “Righteousness, the forgiveness of our sins, and peace with God are all ours by faith, and without faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ none can possess them.”

Obviously, Nee got the gospel right. Yet his views on sanctification, the Holy Spirit, hermeneutics, baptism, the church and sin contain significant error. He had a flawed view of man, practiced an allegorical approach to interpreting Scripture, believed denominations were sinful, and frequently called others to join him in his perpetual quest for the deeper spiritual life—a quest that smacks of perfectionism.

Lack of clarity

Perhaps the best way to describe Nee is to label him a confused Christian mystic. Here’s one lengthy but insightful example. I chose this example because it is indicative of his writing style, as well as an excellent example of his lack of clarity:

Some years ago I was ill. For six nights I had high fever and could find no sleep. Then at length God gave me from the Scripture a personal word of healing, and because of this I expected all symptoms of sickness to vanish at once. Instead of that, not a wink of sleep could I get, and I was not only sleepless but more restless than ever. My temperature rose higher, my pulse beat faster and my head ached more severely than before. The enemy asked, ‘Where is God’s promise? Where is your faith? What about all your prayers?’ So I was tempted to thrash the whole matter out in prayer again, but was rebuked, and this Scripture came to mind: “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). If God’s Word is truth, I thought, then what are these symptoms? They must all be lies! So I declared to the enemy, ‘This sleeplessness is a lie, this headache is a lie, this fever is a lie, this high pulse is a lie. In view of what God has said to me, all these symptoms of sickness are just your lies, and God’s Word to me is truth.’ In five minutes I was asleep, and I awoke the following morning perfectly well” (The Normal Christian Life, 33-34).

While Nee places heavy stock in personal “spiritual” experiences of that kind, the more significant danger prevalent throughout his books is his consistent lack of clarity. Nee does not come right out and say that faith can cure physical illness, nor does he claim outright that he receives direct revelation from the Lord. He doesn’t hold his experience up as an example to follow, but simply relates it as it happened, and then passes it along to us. Consider another example from The Normal Christian Life:

“The fact of the matter is that, while Christians may enter into the deeper life by different ways, we need not regard the experiences or doctrines they stress as mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. One thing is certain, that any true experience of value in the sight of God must have been reached by way of a new discovery of the meaning of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus. That is a crucial test and a safe one” (25).

That’s the kind of ambiguity you’ll find in much of Nee’s writing. What does he mean by “the deeper life?” What is a “true experience of value?” How does one reach “a new discovery of the meaning of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus?” He never really defines those terms. And yet because he uses phrases like “the higher life,” he appeals to the growing number of American Christians who believe that the key to sanctification is to arrive at a place where one stops striving for it. Is that what Nee taught? Even after reading many of his books multiple times, I can’t really tell.

Life Subsumed in the Divine

Several other authors have pointed out that when Nee was young, he was mentored by British missionary Margaret E. Barber, who held to Keswick theology. It was the philosophy that claimed that the key to sanctification was to surrender your life to the power of Christ in you, and to cease from striving for sanctification. It put forward the idea of a “higher spiritual life” that some Christians obtained when they finally learned what it means to let go, and let Jesus live your Christian life for you.

Durring Nee’s life, that approach to sanctification was called quietism. Simply put, it is the teaching that the best way to lead the Christian life was to have your earthly soul subsumed in the divine. It’s a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about the Christian life and a dangerous approach to sanctification. And it appears to have been taught by Nee as well:

“Broadly speaking, a Christian who has not yet experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit is rather vague about the reality of the spiritual realm. He is like the servant of Elisha whose eyes were closed to that sphere. He may receive instructions from the Bible, yet his understanding is confined to the mind because he still lacks revelation in his spirit. But upon experiencing the baptism his intuition becomes acutely sensitive and he discovers in his spirit a spiritual world opening before him. By the experience of the baptism in the Holy Spirit he not only touches the supernatural power of God but contacts God’s Person as well” (The Spiritual Man, Part III, “The Soul”).

In The Normal Christian Life, Nee wrote that in salvation, “It is not our own life that has been changed, but rather the life of God has been imparted to us. Do you realize that we have the same life today that God does?” (121).

But again, it is hard to know what exactly Nee wrote, and what was inserted into his writings by his disciples. For that reason, it is helpful to remember that we need to be cautious about his works, without feeling like we are judging the man. The two certainly stand (or fall) independently of each other.

Two-stages of Christian life:

The approach to sanctification presented in Nee’s works closely mirrors the two-stage Christian life that quietism grew to represent. It is the concept that a person comes to faith at one moment, and then later has a different Christian experience that makes them a true disciple, and gives them ultimate spiritual victory.

Nee’s writings show that he adopted this two-tiered system of believers: there are those that are being sanctified by letting Christ live in them, and those that are still carnal (he uses the term “ripened” vs. “unripened”). He also developed one of the first “partial-rapture” views, where only the sanctified believers would be raptured. This then leads to his strange view of the New Jerusalem as a place where unripened believers receive chastisement through the millennial kingdom, so that they will be ripened for eternity. Those secondary eschatological issues are just that: secondary. But they bear mentioning because the higher life approach to Christianity is often his main point, and is very misleading.

In many ways Nee’s writings feed the false distinction that many American Christians embrace: that there is a difference between being a believer and being a disciple. This is a false dichotomy that often arises in conversations about Lordship salvation. Obviously that debate would have been foolish to Nee, and regardless, it began a decade after his death. But much of his writing can be adopted into that two-stage approach to Christian living, and wrongly fuel the quest for the higher spiritual life.

Nee and Baptism

In at least one place, Nee seems to veer toward advocating baptismal regeneration. Nee asks,

“What are the conditions to be fulfilled if we are to have forgiveness of sins? According to the Word they are two: repentance and baptism.”

His answer goes on to solidify that in his mind, a person cannot have their sins forgiven unless the receive water baptism. He elaborates on what he means by these two “conditions”:

“The first condition is repentance, which means a change of mind. Formerly I thought sin a pleasant thing, but now I have changed my mind about it; formerly I thought the world an attractive place, but now I know better; formerly I regarded it a miserable business to be a Christian, but now I think differently. Once I thought certain things delightful, now I think them vile; once I thought other things utterly worthless, now I think them most precious. That is a change of mind, and that is repentance. No life can be truly changed apart from such a change of mind.”

Nee’s understanding of repentance is quite helpful, and certainly speaks to conversion. But then he describes how baptism is a “condition” of salvation:

“The second condition is baptism. Baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith. When in my heart I truly believe that I have died with Christ, have been buried and have risen with Him, then I ask for baptism. I thereby declare publicly what I believe privately. Baptism is faith in action.”

That is very troublesome, and it is immediately followed by Nee’s own explanation, which takes away any ambiguity about his meaning:

“Here then are two divinely appointed conditions of forgiveness—repentance, and faith publicly expressed. Have you repented? Have you testified publicly to your union with your Lord? …If you have fulfilled the conditions you are entitled to two gifts, not just one. You have already taken the one; why not just come and take the other now? Say to the Lord, ‘Lord, I have complied with the conditions for receiving remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, but I have foolishly only taken the former. Now I have come back to take the gift of the Holy Ghost, and I praise Thee for it.” (131-32).

Although Nee has produced some material that could build up and instruct the body of Christ, others have written more clearly, more accurately and–consequently–more biblically. There are safer places to find cheese than in a mousetrap. This is why I warn people to beware the writings of Watchman.

Tommy Clayton

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Tommy is an Associate Pastor at Riverbend Community Church, in Ormond Beach, FL.
  • JEAN BEAUDRY

    …also add, beware of all the writings of men and espescially those of Tommy Clayton and myself included. Let the Body be led by the spirit as sons of God.

  • An anonymous apostle of Jesus

    Personally I disagree with your analysis of these sample writings of Mr. Nee. To me he makes complete sense (except for his rapture doctrine) and I hear him being very specific about the Spirit led life. I believe that you must be an evangelical because you seem to miss his points and all of the evangelicals that I have known would probably do the same.

    He believes in “Rhema” and you obviously do not which is unfortunate for you because I Cor 3 tells us to carefully build up our faith upon the foundation of faith in Jesus with doctrines and works of gold and silver and precious stones or we will suffer loss at the judgement. To me that is where I see you headed with this wood, hay and stubble unbelief in most of his Holy Spirit teachings.

    I will pray that you will be moved to reconsider these opinions and open yourself up to direct communication with God through the gifts of His Holy Spirit, just as Mr. Nee did all of his life. He was not perfect just as none of us are perfect but he glorified God in his prison death and moreso if they cut out his tongue or cut off his hands as has been reported.

    Hebrews 11:35 – Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.

    After all brother you need to become correctly informed from God about spiritual gifts (plural) because the Scripture says in I Cor 12:1 – Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      I contemplated deleting this comment, but decided to leave it, as it is a great picture of the kind of confusion that can come from Nee’s writing.

      • John_D_11

        LOL.

    • http://www.wholereason.com Daniel G. Sinclair

      i agree, those outside the pentecostal/charismatic movements have little experience in the matters that Nee is discussing. Like the unsaved trying to understand scripture, it all seems unclear and confusing. While Nee may be ambiguous and unsystematic with some of his teaching, that does not invalidate the truths he is trying to communicate. While i agree that followers of Nee, and Lee, are cultlike, and perhaps Nee did stray into the Arminian/Wesleyan/Charismatic mistakes regarding perfection of sanctification, his works on the tripartite man (Release of the Spirit, The Spiritual Man) are a couple of my favorite books.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Chester/1409987409 John Chester

        Experiential understanding is exactly what must be guarded against. Any time experience is allowed to be authoritative, error is soon to follow (and often full blown heresy). Nee is ambiguous and unsystematic because he is trying to communicate things other than the truth of scripture. It is no coincidence that Word of Faith, Oneness and myriad of other heresies have sprung from the pentecostal movement, because experience has been elevated above scripture. Nee often does exactly that.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709103781 Daniel Sinclair

          Actually, experience and tradition (doctrine) work together. As I like to say, “Experience without doctrine leads to heresy, doctrine without experience leads to Pharisee.” An even better model of the relationship between scripture, reason, experience, and tradition is the Wesleyan Quadrangle, which I’ve discussed here: http://www.wholereason.com/2011/01/the-wesleyan-quadrangle.html

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709103781 Daniel Sinclair

          Regarding bad doctrine in Pentacostalism, you are correct that the emphasis on experience has led to some doctrinal heresies, but it has also led to spiritual life, which is often missing from the mainline denominations – massive growth in evangelism, the birth of contemporary worship and christian music, and many other good things have come from the same imperfect stream. I prefer a little wildfire to no fire at all, and unfortunately, anti-charismatic evangelicals practice a safe form of faith, but they rarely innovate, but rather imitate (I often marvel at the relatively tepid contemporary worship in non-charismatic churches – they want the freedom and joy of the Pentecostal experience, but don’t want the Spirit that gives such freedoms). I appreciate both evangelical and charismatic contributions to Christianity, and recognize the faults of each.

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      This would be a good post to peruse to get an understanding of the Scriptural reasons why we do not believe in the present-day operation of the miraculous / revelatory Spiritual gifts.

  • Dan Rolfe

    Good stuff, Tommy.

  • NSBeal

    When I was 18 a friend gave me The Victorious Christian Life by Nee. I consider it the book God used to “kickstart” my sanctification. So while I have a personally affinity for the writings of Nee, I would have to agree that his writings can be confusing and unclear, and though I tried to use his writings for study purposes when I was younger, I found his hermeneutic to be questionable. I appreciate Nee and his ministry and believe he loved the Lord and was used by Him in the persecuted Chinese Church, and his writings have helped me along in the Christian life. I can leave it at that.

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      That is the response I think a lot of people will have to this post–which is why I am thankful Tommy wrote it. Nee’s works have been so helpful to so many Christians, especially those younger in the faith. That being said, I think a lot of people grow in their concern for some of the details of his theology as they grow in the faith.

      • Marty Crabtree

        read Sit Walk Stand, his work on Ephesians when I was a new believer. It was very helpful to help me learn about my position in Christ and how to live with that reality.

    • Tommy_Clayton

      Well said. I’m thankful the Lord gave you the discernment to see Nee’s questionable hermeneutic and lack of clarity early in your Christian life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bibchr Dan Phillips

    Crisis-upgrade doctrine, two-tierism and muzzy mysticism are indeed deadly problems calling for a full-orbed Gospel response.

  • Fred

    Regrettably, mainstream apologetic ministries like CRI and Bible Answer Man have endorsed the movement as being orthodox; even apologizing for past pronouncements of heresy.

  • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

    Reading through the (sample) writings of Watchman Nee, I’m struck by how much it
    parrots the language of the Charismatic movement. If that is indeed the case, I think there are many other theologian/pastors who would be more profitable to read.

    Great article, Tommy! I’m used to seeing
    you over at the GTY blog.

    • Tommy_Clayton

      Good to hear from you, Mary! Good insight.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709103781 Daniel Sinclair

      Since he preceeds the charismatic movement, perhaps they are parroting him?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mudmask Adam James Howard

    I’ve had several run ins with the “Living Streams Ministry” in the past, around the time I was saved. God was gracious in allowing me to discern that something wasn’t quite right. It was a movement started by Witness Lee, who was some-what of a disciple of Watchman Nee. Their big push in growing the scope of their ministry revolved around pushing a version of the Bible known as the Recover Version. While I still can’t be so sure, I’m more confident that proponents of this movement are dramatically misguided at best, but the movement had a lot of the marking of a Judeo-Christian cult. There were certainly some key verses that were translated very poorly, and much of their doctrine was built around these translations.

    John 3:16, for example, is rendered as such: “16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that every one who believes into Him would not perish, but would have eternal life.”

    Rendering “in” as “into” seems very, very subtle, but was really drawn out as more of a deeper salvation than people outside of the movement wouldn’t be able to understand apart from, really, sitting under the teachings of this movement. However, I never got a clear explanation of the differences between being believing “in” versus believing “into.” If I understand the originally meaning of the Greek preposition, εἰς can actually be rendered a number of ways, INCLUDING “into,” which at the time made their argument a little more compelling.

    I did also get a sense of ambiguity, flavors of the described quietess movement, with both Watchman Nee and Witness Lee thrown around quite a bit. It was enough to make me wary of the names as I pressed on in the faith.

    For anyone interested, the New Testament can be found here, riddled with what I would consider problematic re-renderings: http://online.recoveryversion.org/

    Can anyone comment on the Living Streams Ministry, Watchman Nee’s disciple Witness Lee, or the Recovery Version? Are any of the Cripplegate Authors familiar at all with this movement?

    • http://www.facebook.com/mudmask Adam James Howard

      BTW thank you for exposing these problematic teachings.

  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com/ Rational νεόφυτος

    This was very helpful and informative. Thanks for posting this. Up until now, I’ve known very little about Watchman Nee, other that a passing reference that Bono made to him. That probably should have been a red flag…

  • Paul Stewart

    I needed this review Tommy. Thanks so much for your faithfulness to the work of our Lord.

    • Tommy_Clayton

      Thanks, Paul. I miss the Stewart clan! Precious memories, brother.

  • John_D_11

    Have you read his book Spiritual Authority by any chance? I thought that book was tremendously insightful, with powerful logic and some great biblical insights; it’s actually one of the most marked up books I own! I have had a number of great conversation (and debates) with Christian friends about a few of its claims, specifically (practically) in regard to how we respond to our church leaders when we don’t agree. Our church has been going through some very significant challenges with our leadership recently, and I have brought the teachings of this book up on a number of occasions. Without getting into the details of our situation or the claims of the book, do you have any cautions about this book? I sometimes get a yellow flag on my discernment detector with him, that he was a cult leader, and this book could have been used powerfully to establish his authority with in a cult type situation, but this too seems to be part of the myth. I read your post hoping you might address some of those type concerns, but I didn’t catch any of that in your cautions?

    • Tommy_Clayton

      One of the pastors on our staff found that particular book helpful. I’ve not read the entire book, but it seems to be one of his better (safer) works. But frankly, I cannot endorse any of Nee’s material because I don’t trust his interpretation of Scripture. Get that wrong, and as Dan Philips says, a train wreck is coming.

    • http://wholereason.com Daniel G. Sinclair

      Probably one of the top 10 influential books for me.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    At least he got the Gospel right.

    So with that “minimum”, he’s probably in Heaven.

  • Rad

    You can do this kind of “warning” for every Christian author. Most don’t tell you “how” they just tell you the where you should be with no remedy.

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  • Mike Halpin

    Watchman Nee remains one of my spiritual heroes. He was a man of distinct faith who throughout his life and to the point of death was seeking to die to self in order that
    Christ might be manifest. He is in fact, one of the outstanding examples of a life devoted to Christ, whatever the cost.

    With that said, Nee had feet of clay, and don’t we all. I wouldn’t defend deficient theology and did appreciate you saying “it is helpful to remember that we need to be cautious about his works, without feeling like we are judging the man”. I don’t think many of us would compare favorably to Nee in his dedication to Christ and willingness to pay any price in his endeavor to proclaim and live the gospel, however refined our doctrine is compared to his.

    I confess an emotional kind of loyalty to Nee as “Sit, Walk,Stand” and “The Normal Christian Life” were some of my first books as a new Christian. They had a profound impact on my life 30 plus years ago and fanned a fire to see myself in Christ, a new
    creature no longer defined by my old life.

    We’re happy today to quote Augustine when we agree w/ his theology, while simultaneously rejecting his views of Mary, a priesthood/laity, etc.; ditto Aquinas, et al. I hope we can do the same with Nee.

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