Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Alan Knox, Watchman Nee & "Assembling Together"

One of the blogs I read regularly is Alan Knox’s Assembling of the Church. I can’t remember exactly how I first discovered Alan’s blog. I think I kind of stumbled upon it. In any case, Alan, on his blog, is continually analyzing, bit by bit, what the Bible has to say about the church. He is refreshingly biblical, seeking as much as possible to be thoroughly consistent and objective in modern-day application of what the text of Scripture actually says. He is also a student at Southeastern Seminary (working on a doctorate, if I am not mistaken), and, from what I have been able to pick up, has a pretty good command of New Testament Greek.

As a missionary and church planter, I think the topics Alan writes about are very relevant. On the comment string of a recent post entitled Messy Meetings, I engaged Alan in a conversation (in which some other commenters jumped in) on the usefulness of both large and small-group meetings in the church.

This conversation jogged my memory about a book I read quite a few years back entitled Assembling Together, by Watchman Nee. One of the main theses of Nee’s book is that in the New Testament we find various types of church meetings which helped to serve various functions in the life of the church. I have promised Alan that in the next few days I am going to reread over Nee’s book, and report back any relevant insights it has for the discussion related to large and small-group meetings.

I have long been a fan of Watchman Nee’s writings. As far back as my adolescent years, I can remember picking up and reading through several of Nee’s books I found in my father’s library. Books of a devotional nature, such as The Normal Christian Life and Spiritual Authority, have deservedly become well-known evangelical classics.

Nee’s writings on ecclesiology (a topic to which he dedicated quite a bit of space) are a bit more controversial, and not quite so universally accepted. Witness Lee, a disciple of Nee, took some of his more controversial teachings to a next step, converting them into virtual “dogma,” founding what has come to be known as The Local Church movement, which, despite claims to the contrary, is considered by many to be border-line sectarian, and even by some to be a cult. It is my understanding, as well, that the teaching and influence of Nee have been significant elements underlying the massive growth of the house church movement in China.

I personally find Nee’s writings, even on ecclesiology, valuable, because he almost always interacts directly with the biblical text, and has a keen ability for drawing out insights from Scripture that most others pass over. At the same time, I find his hermeneutics, at times, to be a bit rigid, tending to discount differences of cultural and historical context in his application of biblical teachings drawn from specific situations reported in the New Testament.

Interestingly enough, I see some parallels to Nee’s hermeneutical model both in Landmarkism and Pentecostalism. Landmarkists (as I understand them), and many Baptists who are influenced by Landmarkism, tend to take historical references from the book of Acts, or other contextually-specific elements from the epistles, and make them normative for the local church throughout history and all cultural contexts. Pentecostals (and many Charismatics) tend to do the same things with reference to supernatural manifestations recorded in Acts.

I personally prefer the ecclesiological model described by John Reisinger here, here, here, here and here, in which it is recognized that, although the New Testament has much to teach us about the functions of the church, many of the actual forms a local church takes will vary, on a pragmatic basis, according to the cultural and historical context.

In any case, this is sort of a long and rambling introduction to a quote I found as I was beginning to reread Nee’s Assembling Together. I believe this quote captures the essence of what Love Each Stone is all about. As indicated in the heading, my inspiration for the name “Love Each Stone” comes from the Contemporary English Version’s rendering of Psalm 102.14, which says, referring to “Zion”: We, your servants, love each stone in the city, and we are sad to see them lying in the dirt.

On this post and this post, I have already written a bit about some implications of this for us, as Christian workers, as we join hands with the Master Builder, in helping to rebuild the fallen ruins of the spiritual city of Zion, which I understand to be the Body of Christ, the Universal Church, which expresses itself visibly around the world in different locations in individual congregations. It is my hope that everything I write and discuss together with you who read and leave comments here may indeed help to further the purpose of building up “Zion,” and contributing toward the unity of the Body of Christ.

From Assembling Together, by Watchman Nee, Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1973, pp. 4-6…

The Bible reveals to us a most wonderful thing when it shows us that the church is the habitation of God. This is found in Ephesians 2. All the revelations in Ephesians are of tremendous dimensions and this one in chapter 2 is one of them. We must know that God has a dwelling place, a habitation on earth. The thought in the Bible of a habitation for God starts with the tabernacle and continues right on up to the present. In the past God dwelt in a magnificent house, the temple of Solomon. Now He dwells in the church, for today the church is God’s habitation. We, the many, are joined together to be God’s habitation. As individuals, though, we are not so. It takes many of God’s children to be the house of God in the Spirit. This agrees with what 1 Peter 1:5 says, “Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house….”

How is this spiritual house built? It is with living stones, not dead ones. Solomon’s temple was built with dead stones, but today God’s house is made with living stones. Peter was a living stone, for this is the meaning of his name. By putting these living stones together, God gets His temple. Can one believer alone be a house? If there are not stones built on other stones, it is not a good sign, for it expresses the idea of ruin. It speaks of the desolation that comes after judgment when no stone is left standing on another stone. If a house is to be constructed, stones must be built on stones and stones must be joined to stones. Thank God, you are saved, you have trusted in the Lord Jesus, you are now a stone. Don’t then just hide your stone away some place by itself. Let your stone be built together with the other stones and you will have a house. For the stones to be left scattered and independent is not only useless but also can become a cause of stumbling.

As soon as one believes in the Lord, he becomes one of the stones in God’s habitation. He is a stone, but until he is related to other stones, he is useless. It is like the parts of an automobile. The car can run only when the many parts are put together. What use does one have if he remains alone? He will lose out on the riches of God. We dare not say that living stones standing alone become dead stones, but it is certainly true that a stone, though living, will lose its usefulness and miss out on spiritual riches if it is not joined to other stones to become God’s habitation. We can contain God’s richness only when we are joined together with other living stones; then God can dwell in our midst. That is why there should be a conviction in our hearts that we must be in the church.

17 comments:

Geoff Baggett said...

Interesting thought on how the Landmarkists and Pentecostals both seem to look for accounts in the Acts (whit fit their beliefs) and try to make them normative for the church at large.

I never thought of that! :)

GuyMuse said...

I read with interest today's post on one of my own all-time favorites, Watchman Nee. I was introduced to Nee's writing back in my college years and through the years have found myself going back over and again to his Spirit-led insights. The most recent of his writings that have impacted me has been "The Normal Christian Church Life: The New Testament Pattern of the Churches, the Ministry, and the Work". I too have been leary of Witness Lee's writings and the way he elevates them to indisputable doctrine, but if one reads Nee's own words as originally spoken/taught and written down by others, there is a wealth of valuable help for those of us involved in apostolic church planting--much more so than is commonly found in contemporary Christian bookstores on the subject. As with all writers outside of Scripture, it behooves us to follow Paul's words "Examinadlo todo; retened lo bueno." There is plenty of "bueno" in Nee's writings.

Grosey's Messages said...

G'day David,
One of Nee's books that was eye opening to me was
"the Latent Power of The Soul"
which may well introduce some areas that PhD students may wish to research.
Steve

Alan Knox said...

David,

Thank you for the kind words about my blog. To me, the best part of my blog is the interaction with other brothers and sisters in Christ.

I'm looking forward to what you find in Nee's book. I'm especially interested in how he interacts with Scripture.

-Alan

Trey Atkins said...

David, thanks for writing once again a challenging and encouraging post. You are meeting your purpose of loving each stone!

I wonder if you would expand your descriptive/prescriptive view of the epistles? It seems all of us, not only Lanmarkists and Pentecostals, pick and choose there as well. In light of current dicussions on gender issues, this seems particularly relevant to me.

Following your quote, "in helping to rebuild the fallen ruins of the spiritual city of Zion, which I understand to be the Body of Christ, the Universal Church, which expresses itself visibly around the world in different locations in individual congregations," I have to ask about the BWA and SBC decision.

One of my dreams after journeyman service in Scotland from 1985 - 87 was to come back to Europe and help foster relationships with some European Baptist Union. I love the differences and thrive in the environment of finding the unity of Christ within our diversity.

The BWA decision has seriously eroded my ability to help build upon the concept you shared. I am slowly making progress through personal relationships.

While I don't like the decision, I respect my convention and will certainly support them and follow their leadership; however, I also have to work on that building of unity. Are you finding the same barriers where you are? If so, how do overcome that "default" I find here, which is: these people don't like us, have seperated from us, and have ulterior motives? While I am overcoming that through relating and time, it is the beginning point.

David Rogers said...

Guy,

Once I get the time, I would like to do a more thorough study of Nee and Lee's ecclesiology, and how it relates to the current house church movement a la Wolfgang Simson, et al.

If I understand Simson correctly (and I have heard him personally on several occasions), the house church model he espouses pretty much rises or falls on a corresponding city-church, that seems to me to be quite close to what both Nee and Lee taught.

I personally think there is probably a lot there that is reflective of true New Testament ecclesiology that we as Baptists (and other denominational groups) have neglected. At the same time, what concerns me most about this model is the tendency to separate from and look down on (despite claims to the contrary) denominational and "traditional" churches and believers.

I don't see the New Testament as being so dogmatic on ecclesiological forms. What is more important are the functions. In each generation and cultural context, I believe, as believers we must search for the best forms to fulfill those functions in a way that works best in that particular context.

I do believe the New Testament is quite clear about the essential unity of the Body of Christ, and thus, view with suspicion any movement or ecclesiological model that tends to alienate or exclude authentic New Testament churches made up of genuine born-again believers.

10:30 AM

David Rogers said...

Steve,

I agree "The Latent Power of the Soul" is a very interesting book with some very interesting theses. It's been awhile since I read it, but if I remember correctly, it does give what seem to me to be some plausible theories on how to explain much of the paranormal phenomena we are able to observe around us. I don't remember that Nee did a "slam dunk" on convincing me of the biblical confirmation of what he proposes, though. Interesting stuff to think about, and keep on the "spiritual shelf" as possibilities, but not enough to bank on, if something really important was up for grabs. I'll need to go back and read it again. I do think it is interesting, though, while we're on the topic, that Nee, in spite of what he wrote in "The Latent Power of the Soul," believed in (and practiced, if I am not mistaken) the continuation of the gift of tongues.

David Rogers said...

Alan,

I look forward to continuing to dialogue with you (and the other commenters) as we join together to seek God's truth regarding something so important as the church.

David Rogers said...

Trey,

You ask some excellent questions for which it would be hard to give a good answer in one blog comment. Regarding gender questions, there is much more to discuss, and many people have done so extensively in other places, but I think it is significant that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14.34 refers back not to culture, but to the "Law," and seems to indicate in 14.36 that the instructions he was giving were not contextually specific. Something similar occurs in 1 Timothy 2.11-15, in which Paul supports his instruction on "creation order." Also, 1 Corinthians 11.16, where Paul says "we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God." How we apply the principles taught in these passages to our context today is a different question. I believe, for instance, that the "head covering" in 1 Corinthians 11 must certainly have a different application for today, though the principle behind it still holds true.

Regarding the BWA, in Spain, our relations with the Baptist Union were set back a bit due to this decision as well. Also, some of the ways the changes brought about by New Directions were communicated caused some misunderstanding and tension. I have found, however, that if I am consistent in working towards unity in a practical basis with my brethren in the Spanish Baptist Union, most have been quite open and responsive. I think open dialogue is especially important in the European context. Also, in my opinion, we must not, by the way we communicate our missiology and church planting vision, look down on or ignore, the value of the existing churches and their faithfulness in preaching the Gospel in difficult circumstances. We must communicate in our words and attitudes that we consider them to be not only valuable, but essential, members of the team, and that we are in their country, in order to join hands with them, and be their servants, as we seek to win their fellow countrymen to Christ.

Ben Stratton said...

David,

You wrote: "many Baptists who are influenced by Landmarkism, tend to take historical references from the book of Acts, or other contextually-specific elements from the epistles, and make them normative for the local church throughout history and all cultural contexts."

Could you please share some particular examples of where Landmarkers do this?

David Rogers said...

Ben,

Some examples that come to mind are the demand for majority votes for church business, because that apparently took place on one or two occasions in the New Testament (not that I am opposed, in many situations, to democratic church government... I just don't see it mandated in the New Testament); the practice of "closed communion" based upon the New Testament church context of all (or practically all) believers having been baptized by immersion as believers; and reading into the New Testament "city-church," i.e. the church at Corinth, the church at Thessalonica, etc. (in my opinion, embracing all true believers in a given locality) the equivalent of modern-day Baptist congregations.

bryan riley said...

I look forward to reading more, David, and I really have enjoyed stumbling upon Alan's blog recently.

Ben Stratton said...

David,

I think you are confused about what Landmarkism really is.

Landmarkism not about democratic church government. There are multitudes of Baptist churches that believe this that are not Landmark in their beliefs.

Strict Communion is not a tenet of Landmarkism. The vast majority of all Baptists have believed the Lord's Supper should be closed to only properly baptized believers. Even R.B.C. Howell, who are a great oppenent of J.R. Graves, wrote a book defending a closed Lord's Supper.

I think you will be hard pressed to find anyone in Baptist history who has believed that the church at Corinth, referred to anything but a local assembly of baptized believers. If they were not able to come together in one location, they would not have been called an "ekklesia" = a church, a congregation, an assembly.

I am an unashamed Landmark Southern Baptist pastor, but none of the things you mentioned are tenets of Landmarkism.

David Rogers said...

Ben,

Although many Baptists who would not answer to the name "Landmarkist" may indeed embrace the various views I mentioned before, you would not disagree that virtually all "Landmarkists" accept these views as well, would you? That's why I added in the phrase "Baptists influenced by Landmarkism." Perhaps I should have added in those pre-Landmarkist Baptists who also held similar views.

My point regarding all of the above, however, is the tendency to read in an established model of church and church polity in the biblical record that transcends all times and cultural contexts. I think the following quotes represent how such an idea is specifically applicable to Landmarkers...

J.R. Graves:

"1st. Can Baptists, consistently with their principles or the Scriptures, recognize those societies not organized according to the pattern of the Jerusalem Church, but possessing different governments, different officers, a different class of members, different ordinances, doctrines and practices, as churches of Christ?"

"There is no misunderstanding these statements. It is the conviction of Bishop Doggett: 1. That Christ did leave a church as a model of church building to the apostles, and for all subsequent ages. 2. That the marks or features of this divine pattern are so particularly described by the inspired writers that no intelligent inquirer need mistake it. 3. a a body of ministers and members, all Christians, congregated for worship, and organized, should not be called a church of Christ unless they are organized upon the apostolic model. I most heartily indorse these statements."

J.M. Pendleton:

"What is an evangelical church? A church formed according to the New Testament model. Pedobaptist denominations, therefore, are not evangelical."

Robert Baker (writing about Graves) in "Southern Baptist Convention and Its People,"

"Of course he (Graves) identified a New Testament congregation as a Baptist church only, since Baptists alone were admittedly reproducing the total primitive pattern described in the Scriptures."

Anonymous said...

Watchman Nee's teaching about the local church was applied & developed by his "disciple" Witness Lee. When w Lee passed away in 1997 his disciples, the "blended brothers" related to W Lee's publishing house ("Living Stream Ministry" LSM) took his teachings & extrapolated them even further, beyond the Bible. These issues are addressed on the "concernedbrothers.com" website which can be acessed at:
http://www.concernedbrothers.com/English.html

David Rogers said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for the link. That appears to be quite a bit of information to wade through, especially for someone who is such a novice to the "Local Church," "Living Stream Ministries," etc. as I am. Would you happen to have any recommendation for a "primer" to be brought up to speed on the issues involved? I have read "The Normal Christian Church Life," but hardly anything actually written by Witness Lee as of yet.

dean said...

just wanted to put my 2 cents in-i have read most all of nee's and lee's books and books from who inspired them and i have to say with humility that outside the BIBLE these men and women changed my life all to the greatest good and highly recommend them to get at the essence of what the SPIRIT was saying in the HOLY SCRIPTURES.