WATCHING OUT FOR WATCHMAN NEE
by G. Richard Fisher
Many Christians uncritically accept the writings of Watchman Nee even
though few know anything about his background. Many are impressed by the
volume of his work and the dogmatism and feeling of deep spirituality
that characterize his writings. His ideas and books still influence
charismatics, fundamentalists and people in between.
But one need not be a theologian to discover that his teachings call
for scrutiny and caution by Christians. Much can be learned about Nee
from a cursory reading of some of his books and the writings of others
who were around him. These show that his theology developed through
encounters with four different people and it was from these that he
“borrowed” ideas extensively. Each new book seemed to develop from
“discoveries” received from these teachers.
Nee’s basic writings cover over 40 volumes and have been researched by
Dana Roberts. His findings are not flattering to Nee and are presented
in his book Understanding Watchman Nee. This writer is indebted to
Roberts for much of the material in this article.
Nee was born Nee Shi-Tsu in November 1903. His mother, a Methodist
mission convert, later changed his name to “Bell ringer,” or Watchman,
with all the Christian connotations. He claimed conversion to
Christianity in April 1920. At a Bible school in Shanghai, he came under
the influence of a female teacher, Miss Yu. Under her instruction he
seriously sought a “second blessing.” He later said he felt he had
“recovered” truth for the church and taught four subsequent experiences
Miss Yu directed Nee to Miss M.E. Barber, who taught him in the
Keswick concept of the filling of the Spirit. In February 1922, Nee
claimed, he was “baptized in the Spirit” and put himself under the
continuing instruction of Barber. Barber then was responsible for the
development of Nee’s perfectionistic theology. Barber also convinced Nee
of the truth of the “partial rapture” theory assigning carnal believers
to a kind of Protestant purgatory. Nee admitted that in his writings on
the book of Revelation, he depended on a book from Barber’s library by
Robert Gonett that teaches a partial rapture. Thus we see how he got
these new “insights” that became the basis for new books.
Later, Barber allowed Nee to read the works of Jesse Penn Lewis when
she thought he was “mature enough,” Roberts says. Penn Lewis, a mystic
with a Welsh Methodist background, saw many parts to man’s inner nature.
Her literature, considered “holiness literature,” is the main source for
Nee’s Spiritual Man series, in which he developed a gnostic view of man,
Roberts says. Nee also got doses of Catholic mysticism through the
writings of Madame Jeanne Guyon, as published in Penn Lewis’ magazine.
Nee continued to read widely and when Barber exposed him to the
writings of John Darby, he found the basis for his ecclesiology, or
thoughts on the church. From that point, everything Nee wrote on the
church is easily identified with the teachings of the Plymouth Brethren.
He rejected clergy as unscriptural.
During this time Nee also professed to be led by inner leadings. He
justified this subjective means of revelation by saying that the ways of
God are not known by external means but by “internal registrations.”
Again, he was rejecting external authority.
Nee had his own eclectic system developed when he encountered another
woman in 1935. Elizabeth Fischbacker introduced him to Pentecostal
theology and speaking in tongues. Nee did not regard tongues as
unbiblical but never spoke in tongues himself.
In 1942, Nee took over the running of his brother George’s chemical
factory. He consigned all the property to the church and sought to have
the church members as the factory workers. As a result he contradicted
previous positions he had taken regarding disassociation of the church
and business. In 1949, Mao-Tse Tung came to power and Communist China
was born. Nee, a factory owner, was seen as an imperialist and
eventually was jailed. He remained in prison until his death in 1972.
The teachings that developed over Nee’s lifetime and out of his
encounters with these women and the teachings they directed him to are
dangerous to Christians seeking clear guidelines to follow. Space allows
a listing of only a few of the problems in Nee’s teachings.
* Nee outlines no method of Bible study and interpretation and appears
to deny evangelical hermeneutics. In his book Spiritual Authority, he
sets himself and his elders up as the unquestionable authorities. By all
appearances, Nee saw himself not as a servant but as a guru.
One gets the impression from Nee that the Bible was not nearly as
important as Christians generally consider it. In his book The Ministry
of God’s Word, Nee says, “Words alone cannot be considered God’s Word.”
In this book, Nee becomes very philosophical, mystical and incoherent.
He says that only as we deliver the Word in terms of the “reality behind
it,” using what he calls “Holy Spirit memory” and “presenting the
pictures as well as speaking the words” will the words be correct;
otherwise they are not real.
* Nee overemphasizes emotions. In The Ministry of God’s Word, he claims
that the effectiveness of a preacher’s delivery is a product of his
emotions. If a preacher does not feel emotionally charged in delivery,
“the Spirit is stuck” and the “Spirit is inevitably arrested,” Nee says.
He continues, “The Spirit flows through the channel of emotion.” Then he
arrives at a strange conclusion: “Nose in the Scripture stands for
feeling. Smelling is a most delicate act, man’s feeling is most
delicate.” Therefore, Nee says, a preacher in speaking needs to “mix
feelings with the words spoken, else his words are dead. If our feeling
lags behind, our words are stripped of the spirit.” To say as Nee does,
on page 210, that the Holy Spirit only rides on feeling is dangerous.
* Nee uses terms imprecisely. One example is his writing about a
minister’s receiving “revelations” in his “Holy Spirit memory” and those
revelations being remembered in us by the Holy Spirit. This sort of
metaphysical mumbo jumbo is impossible to understand, since there is no
direct scriptural reference to a “Holy Spirit memory.”
When a Christian begins to see Nee as a guide in determining the value
of other Christian writers, or sees Nee’s writings as a key to
spirituality, that person is headed for trouble. Nee’s presuppositions
are suspect in light of the Word of God. His books provide grist for
cult groups such as The Way, The Alamo Foundation, the Children of God
and other groups. The astute believer should watch out for Watchman Nee.