Q&A: Watchman Nee

by Aaron

Question: I was hoping you could answer a quick question... Do you know anything about Watchman Nee? We are going to a new, very small church. The "what we believe” section looks good, but they are reading these Morning Revival books all together and the books give an almost cult vibe (95% seems biblical and 5% seems weird).

Answer: Sometimes when people ask about historical Christian figures, we tend to overlook the bad and only focus on what we perceive as the good. A.W. Tozer was a terrible husband who ignored his wife, yet his writings are quoted by the most devoted of husbands. David Livingston neglected his family and only met a couple of his children when they were older, yet he is still beloved by good fathers. Watchman Nee was a courageous man who taught the gospel as best he knew it…and yet his theology was not always the greatest.

This always becomes the problem when people fanatically follow any man other than Jesus Christ. Whatever “weeds” that idolized person got stuck in, those who follow too closely also get stuck in those weeds. Did Watchman Nee preach the Gospel? Yes, as he said in his book The Normal Christian Life, “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.” There it is…we are forgiven and restored by the work of Jesus Christ alone, yet other writings of his (even in the same book!) confuse the issue.

The problems emerge the deeper you look, and I think this probably goes for any man or woman today. I am sure if I went through some of my old sermons, I would be thinking, “What did I even mean by that?” When you get deeper into Watchman Nee’s work, you find that his views of the Holy Spirit, sanctification, baptism, and sin have some serious errors. He believed church denominations were sinful, interpreted scripture as allegorical where he should not have, and seemed to teach perfection can be achieved in this life in what we do.

Some of the issues may be cultural. As a Chinese man, born and raised, there will always be some cultural distinctions that will look odd to us. If we were trying to put a label on Watch Nee, I think he would be described as a Christian seeking some form of mysticism (which again, could be cultural). He doesn’t come out and say that faith can cure sickness, but he gets very close to it in The Normal Christian Life. Many of the things he says should give us pause…consider the following: “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.” What is a “new discovery” if the faith has been “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)? How is it “safe” to go around thinking that only true experiences of value come finding something new, rather than delving deeper into what has been revealed? The person who edits my blog posts before we post them even questioned me on this saying that as they (personally) grow in Christ their greatest moments are when something comes that is “new.” I think the difference, based on Nee’s writings, is that his “new” borders on new revelation and not illumination of the Spirit.

In terms of baptism, he wrote, “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.” It seems sometimes his gospel message became clouded if baptism is also required for salvation (in his opinion). He then goes to explain, in a bizarre way, repentance and baptism: “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.” Again, he seems to understand salvation from the quote earlier, but here muddies it with pointing to our works and a mystical union with the Holy Spirit.

Personally, I think there are better people to read in terms of discipleship than Watchman Nee. If the church you are attending uses his book(s) as tool to grow together, but realizes Nee was only a flawed man, it could be fine. If, on the other hand, they have a fanatic zeal for Nee that deifies him and won’t critically look at his life, that becomes an issue.

Hope that helped.