Living Stream Ministry has kindly kept Watchman Nee’s entire written works available online, barring three or four in which copyright belongs to the publisher.
I was going to just post a list of his books, but I thought it would be better to put down some thoughts about his life, suffering, and theology, since these are so much less known than his books, which are sold everywhere.
Watchman Nee’s Life and Suffering
Watchman Nee (Chinese name: Ni Tuosheng) was a Chinese pastor who was considered a key pioneer in a Chinese church-planting movement from 1922. His parents baptized him as a Methodist; from age 13 he was educated at a CMS (i.e. Church of England) school; and he was profoundly impacted by the writings of the Plymouth Brethren. He was a great lover of the works of T. Austin-Sparks and helped to keep them in print. You can see how, theologically, he was not just connected to one stream, though the Brethren probably had the largest influence on him.
Nee suffered ongoing persecution for much of his lifetime. Churches in China came under great pressure from the government after the 1949 Communist Revolution under the infamous Mao Zedong. Watchman Nee was arrested in 1952 under trumped-up charges, and had to undergo “re-education.” Many of his co-workers were arrested or coerced into bringing accusations against him. His scheduled release date in 1967 came and went, and the years continued to roll by. Nee’s wife, Charity, died during his last year in prison, but he was not allowed to attend her funeral. Finally, in 1972, Watchman Nee himself died after twenty years in prison.
His Theology and Writing Style
Because of his orthodox preaching, his voluminous writings, and his endurance under pressure, he is regarded as one of the treasures of the Chinese church.
His treatment of Scripture is always accessible and written in simple language. Perhaps because he is not European, his illustrations rarely come from expected directions; but they are always homely, brief, and straightforward.
Theologically, he was orthodox, but never dull. On the central topics, like soteriology or Christology, his stance would be utterly orthodox; he approaches other topics in ways that are more speculative.
Essential Books By Watchman Nee
His most popular books are those where he talks about the basic elements of walking with Christ:
- Sit, Walk, Stand is my personal favorite, where he pulls the titular metaphor for Christian life from Ephesians;
- The Normal Christian Life deals with topics like Christ’s blood, sin, and “the flesh” and “the spirit”;
- Several of his books, like The Messenger of the Cross, Spiritual Knowledge and The Release of the Spirit, have been deeply challenging to me as they focus on the meaning of being conformed to Christ in his death and resurrection.
Other books include straightforward, devotional Bible studies. Three that come to mind are:
- The Practical Issues of This Life (on various topics);
- Changed into His Likeness (on the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and
- Love Not the World (1 John 2:15).
On some topics he takes more of an independent or speculative line—usually with great confidence. In some places, he is following the ideas of Brethren writers, but in other places his thought processes are quite novel. I can think of four books that I have read with mixed enjoyment, where he is (for good or for ill!) definitely outside of mainstream evangelical thought:
- Mystery of Creation promotes gap theory, an idea which had several prominent Brethren advocates, but is definitely not in the main stream;
- His book on The Song of Songs is mainly allegorical, a mode of interpretation roundly criticized in Western seminaries;
- The Latent Power of the Soul is not exactly recommended for family devotions, as it deals with the occult;
- Lastly, whatever your pastor says, Nee’s ideas on Authority and Submission (or Spiritual Authority) were undoubtedly influenced by East Asian culture!
The “Local Churches”
Before I conclude, Watchman Nee’s connection to the local church movement needs to be mentioned. The “local churches” are a global movement that grew out of the church-planting movement with which Nee was connected. Some sources say that he founded the movement, but this is probably a little misleading, since the movement has obviously metamorphosed over the decades since his death. “Local church” leaders say that, according to a strict interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3, adopting a name (or denomination, which is just a fancy word for a name) or organization other than the name of Christ is heresy——and, I might add, I have argued elsewhere that this kind of exclusion itself is exactly what Scripture means by ‘heresy’! “Local churches” only take names like “the church of Jesus in Owensville,” and they typically can be found handing out their “approved” Recovery Version of the Bible, another sign of their cultish tendencies.
It is not easy to trace Nee’s connection to the “local church” movement, but it didn’t spread to the West until Nee had already been imprisoned for many years. Apparently, Witness Lee—whose books are also online—is the one who more or less codified their mode of worship and ecclesiology, following off of Nee’s principles. And it is not all wrong. I sympathize with their point that denominations can be unhelpful. But I find it to be an utter abomination to cast off the billions of Christians who accept a church orientation or a theological name like “Protestant,” “Baptist,” or “Calvinist.” These names are only powerful inasmuch as we believe what they entail; and they are only divisive inasmuch as we empower them to be so. In a rare inversion, I believe the “local church” movement is actually right about what’s right but they’re wrong about what’s wrong.
Watchman Nee’s life speaks for itself. China was known for many years as one of the places of dire need in evangelical missions; now it is known for its vast networks of underground churches, often functioning, as far as we can tell, without any institutional backing (like in Korea), or any British colonial influence (like in Uganda and Fiji), or any unscriptural prosperity preaching (as is disappointingly widespread in Kenya and much of subsaharan Africa). In terms of both Nee’s writings and the Chinese underground church, “great is the company that has published” the word, and it would be as unjust to give all the credit to a simple preacher like Watchman Nee as it would to give him none.