An article 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 after conversion.
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 Govett 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.
The book Understanding Watchman Nee, which this article refers to, is out of print. However, second-hand copies become available from time to time.
Faith Misguided: Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism. An excerpt of Arthur L. Johnson’s book, Faith Misguided. Helps to understand the mystical influence Watchman Nee had upon Witness Lee, and subsequently, upon Witness Lee’s entire Local Church movement
About the Author
This article was written by G. Richard Fisher, a member of the Board of Directors of Personal Freedom Outreach (PFO) — a ministry that educates Christians about the dangers and heretical doctrines of religious cults.
Fisher is the senior researcher/writer for PFO’s The Quarterly Journal. Pastor Fisher served as pastor of Laurelton Park Baptist Church in Bricktown, N.J., for over 40 years, from 1968 until his retirement in June 2009. He also was part of the teaching staff at Central Jersey Bible Institute for over three decades, where he had served as Dean of the school.