Author: Watchman Nee was a Chinese church leader and teacher. In addition to serving tirelessly in the Chinese church, he was an extremely prolific translator, and a huge quantity of his talks were transcribed into books.
Spiritual Authority (1972) is a series of twenty messages originally delivered in Chinese in 1948 in Guling (Kuling), China, for the training of Christian workers. The book has been translated into Korean, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Finnish. The first half of the book was reprinted from 1988 as Authority and Submission.
Spiritual Authority begins with a famed quotation from Romans, which is integral to the book:
Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God . . .Romans 13:1, King James Version
Nee establishes authority first and foremost as an attribute of God (ch. 1), and then reviews a series of instances of rebellion against God’s authority (ch. 2–3). He finds godly submission exemplified in King David (ch. 4), in Jesus to the Father (ch. 5), and in our obedience (ch. 6). God’s kingdom is established by obedience (ch. 6). God’s authority has three types (ch. 7), all of which believers are called to obey. Nee later goes over rebellion in even more detail (ch. 8–9). The second half of the book (ch. 11–20) goes over qualifications of delegated (spiritual) authority and is essentially an extension of what is found in the first half; at some point, the book gets quite repetitive once you have accepted its main premise that we are called to (almost unconditionally) obey both “God’s authority” and “delegated authority”.
The conceptual problems with this book, as I see it, fall into three groups:
- The conflation of different types of authority;
- The contradiction of different types of authority;
- The conditions of human authority.
All Authorities Lumped Together
The crux of the book is the wholesale conflation of various different types of authority. In chapter 7, he explains the concept of “delegated authority” or “representative authority”. He says that delegated authority falls into three types:
- Authorities in the world (i.e. civil authorities)
“God is the source of all authorities in the universe. Now since all governing authorities are instituted by Him, then all authorities are delegated by Him and represent His authority. God Himself has established this system of authority in order to manifest Himself. Wherever people encounter authority they meet God.” (p.59)
- Authorities in the family (i.e. husbands over wives, parents over children)
“God has set the husband as the delegated authority of Christ, with the wife as representative of the church.” (p. 63)
- Authorities in the church (i.e. elders, and men generally)
“God sets in the church authorities [i.e., elders, ministers]. . . They are the ones whom everyone should obey. The younger ones in age must also learn to be subject to the older ones.” (p. 65)
There is no recognition by Nee that different authorities obtain in different areas of life—though God supersedes all of them. Throughout the book, Nee toggles freely between God, parents, priests, prophets, kings, magistrates, and others as broadly comparable examples of “authority”. This painting with a broad brush is highly problematic—surely obeying civic authority should not be viewed as equal to obeying your priest or pastor. Look at his list of examples of rebellion from chapters 2 and 3:
- The fall of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3)—against divine authority
- The rebellion of Ham (Gen. 9)—against parental authority
- Strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10)—against divine authority
- The reviling of Aaron and Miriam (Num. 12)—against Moses
- The rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16)—against Moses and Aaron
You may notice two things: first, these rebellions are against several different types of authority; second, they all take place under the Old Covenant.
Obviously, disobeying God’s own words may be viewed as rebellion (Adam and Eve, Nadab and Abihu). Moses carries multiple types of authority and had a very special status in the entire Old Covenant, as the giver of the Covenant of the Law itself. It is no surprise that disobeying Moses carries divine wrath; he was to be “as God” to Pharaoh. I’m not sure “rebellion” is the right category for the sin of Ham, however shameful. It is difficult to draw a direct line from any of these stories to my own position relative to my pastor.
It is no coincidence that all Nee’s examples of rebellion take place in the Old Testament. Nee is formulating principles towards church practice in respecting ministers, but he’s using examples that have little to do with delegated authority in the New Testament church. This is rather out of place, since Nee and his movement put so much stock in making their church just like the New Testament.
When Authorities Contradict: Righteous Disobedience
The entire argument also unravels when one type of authority is in contradiction of another. The prophets routinely preached against kings and went to spiritual battle against civic authorities and even wicked priests, at great danger to themselves (e.g., Jer. 1:18, 26:12, Ezek. 21:25–26). Were they in “rebellion”, too, since they disobeyed delegated authority?
Moreover, why would God himself set up these wicked kings and priests? And why does he call his prophets to prophesy against “his delegated authority”? Why does one God-given authority contradict another God-given authority? Nee offers no answers here. And it is not only relevant for long-dead prophets: Nee barely touches righteous civil disobedience such as that enacted repeatedly by Brother Andrew.
There are only two passages in Spiritual Authority where Nee mentions instances of righteous disobedience:
“The whole New Testament stands behind delegated authority. The only exception is found in Acts 5:29 when Peter and the apostles answered the Jewish council which forbade them to teach in the name of the Lord Jesus. Peter answered by saying, ‘We must obey God rather [than] men.’ This was due to the fact that the delegated authority here had distinctly violated God’s command and trespassed against the Person of the Lord.” (p. 72)
“Now was it right for Martin Luther to stand up and speak for the fundamental principle of justification by faith? Yes, for he was obeying God in standing for the truth.” (p. 109)
The first passage merely begs the question: how do we determine whether an authority has “distinctly violated God’s command”? Nee offers us no guidance there. He assumes that we can all agree on what “God’s command” is—whereas, respectfully, I would say that God’s Word needs to be interpreted, and it can be interpreted wrongly.
The commandment of God may frequently cause us to be in direct contravention of civic laws. Even today, as Nee himself experienced, millions of Christian believers live in areas where churches are illegal. Is there a “distinct command” to go to church on Sunday? How are these believers to obey both authorities, that of God and that of the government?
I should add, Acts 5:29 is far from the only case of Christian disobedience in the New Testament. We also have, before that, Peter and John to the rulers, elders and scribes (Acts 4:19–20). Jesus disobeyed the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3).The martyrs of John’s Revelation certainly do not obey the “authority” of the beast (Rev. 13:7, 15). In the Old Testament, we also have the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:17) and Daniel’s prayer (Daniel 6:13). I’ve already mentioned the prophets who preached against wicked leadership. Finally, I can’t see a reason why Nee cherry-picks his examples of righteous rebellion from the New Testament and his examples of wicked rebellion from the Old Testament.
When Authorities Contradict: Wicked Obedience
Many passages in the book point to a dangerous concept of obedience that is static and unthinking, and for Nee, this includes delegated authority, meaning our pastors and Christian leaders.
“All who serve God must categorically refrain from making decisions on the basis of their own thoughts; rather, they are to execute the will of God.”Spiritual Authority, p. 102
Such statements become rather extreme when the thrust of the argument is taken as a whole. 1) All authorities, including my pastor, are delegated authority. 2) I am never to rebel or talk back. 3) I should not even think about making decisions before obeying. This pattern obviously leads to a slippery slope of cult-like obedience.
He even goes on to thoroughly discourage believers from ever criticizing anyone in authority, since they would then be in the beginning stages of rebellion:
“He who is truly obedient will find God’s authority in every circumstance, in the home, and in other institutions. . . . Special attention must be paid each time words of reviling are uttered. Such words should not be idly spoken. Reviling proves that there is a rebellious spirit within; it is the germination of rebellion.”Spiritual Authority, p. 32
This should certainly raise the hackles of many American readers, who are raised to believe that we can criticize even our our commander-in-chief with great freedom. There are principles here that are correct—in general, we should respect leadership, inside and outside the church—but Nee’s principles are given with no moderation whatsoever. This extreme position is what makes this book a dangerous form of teaching, and one that I cannot commend to any Christian disciple. We should not revile our pastors or leaders, but we are not under a yoke of law in which we can never disagree with them or speak ill of them. Pastors are human.
Conclusion: Authority Is Conditional
At its best, Spiritual Authority teaches Christians to respect established authority, including our church leaders and government leaders. At its worst, it has the power to prop up abusive, exploitative, pseudo-Christian leaders with an insidious double command to obey what they ask and not to complain or gossip against them. I remind all my readers that all Christian discipleship has an element of disobedience in it—”against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). Choosing to obey God at all costs often necessitates disobeying worldly systems and wicked leaders; this sometimes even includes Christian leaders, when they have gone astray.
The end of the matter is that all obedience to human authority should be considered as conditional. In general, I obey civic authority and follow the law; but if it contravenes my Christian convictions, I do not hesitate to disobey, especially in core matters of devotional life, Christian community, and preaching the gospel. Likewise, in general, I obey church authority and respect my church leadership. There are several issues in which I disagree with my church leadership, and these are open for discussion, but I do not constantly press the issue or work against my own pastor, like a mutineer. While we are working together for the gospel, I maintain a bond of peace and trust between us. But Nee rightly points out, if anyone in authority rebels against the authority that is above them, then by their action, that person loses my respect, and may lose his good standing or even position—and hopefully this would be proportionate to the disobedience. No one is above accountability, and that has never been the correct understanding of spiritual authority. May we rightly understand the conditions of spiritual authority.
Afterword: The Influence of Nee’s Culture
Though it does not fit with the rest of my review, something needs to be said about how Nee’s home culture influenced his biblical interpretation in this regard. China is known as being a culture that values honor and thinks somewhat collectively. In fact, these values have been measured by Geert Hofstede in his important work on cross-cultural communication. In Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions, China ranks very high for power distance (80/100), and very low for individualism (20/100). The United States is somewhat opposite, ranking low for power distance (40/100) and very high for individualism (91/100). “Power distance” is a dimension for how cultures differentially honor and obey leadership. It also correlates with appreciation of hierarchies. China’s very high rank means that Nee’s enforcement of hierarchies is following the stream of thought of his upbringing.
It stands to reason, then, that Watchman Nee wrote so strongly about authority because of his Chinese upbringing. His writings, though they are mostly good, plain teaching, are severely lacking in any cultural awareness, breadth of opinion, or tact. Or, as a friend once said, “Nee is great, but with him, everything is ‘my way or the highway’.”