The Once and Normal Church

A summary of The Normal Christian Church Life by Watchmen Nee

(Note: this article was originally printed in The Gathering, A publication of the Summit Fellowships of Portland, Oregon)

It is death to have a wineskin without wine, but it is loss to have wine without a wineskin. We must have the wineskin after we have the wine.

Ninety million Christians! Imagine that. A staggering number, considering persecution by the communist regime that did everything possible to crush the church in China. Yet in 1996 the church lives on. In spite of repression, economic sanction, and hostility, the church of Jesus Christ goes about the business of the kingdom. Behind closed doors, sometimes literally underground, the church gathers for worship and teaching. Then the doors to these house churches open and the 'church gathered' becomes the 'church scattered', as the gospel goes forth in power.

Behind this legacy are countless missionaries and workers. Among them is Watchman Nee who has inspired and challenged Christians throughout the world with his writings, including the classic study of personal faith, The Normal Christian Life. Many are not aware that he also penned his thoughts on the nature of the church. The Normal Christian Church Life, which was taken from a series of talks given before workers in Shanghai and Hankow in the mid 1930's, has much to say to the church in general, but even more to say to the church that gathers in homes New Testament fashion--and to The Summit Fellowships.

The work and the Local Church

Here is the chief point to observe in the relationship between the church and the work-- the worker must leave the believer to initiate and conduct their own meetings in their own meeting place.

The author makes several points quite clear as he systematically challenges nearly every notion in the traditional understanding of church life. The first is that there is a distinct difference between the "work" and "local church."

The work is the labor of an apostle. Such a worker is a planter of churches, one sent out for the purpose of establishing local expressions of the body of Christ. Although there are those who would debate the point, Nee observes that "apostles are not primarily men of special gifts; they are men of special commission."

That takes the loftiness out of the term, doesn't it? An apostle functions, not on the basis of gifting as much as assignment; miracles and signs are not God's signature upon the worker, but on the work. The apostle is 'one sent out' to plant churches, then move on, leaving the church to function under the care of elders and the Holy Spirit.

The pattern within the Body (the church universal), then, recognizes parallel, but separate activities: the activity of the workers, and the activity of the local churches.

Arguably, the most strident point that Nee makes throughout the book is that scriptural churches are always based upon their locality, not upon other distinctives. Where a church is located defines it. It is not defined by what it believes; who its leader is; its ethnic composition; or its national origin. The author even insists that defining a church on the basis of being nonsectarian in itself violates the principle of locality as the basis for a church.

All exclusiveness is wrong. All inclusiveness (of true children of God) is right. Denominations are not scriptural, and we ought to have no part in them, but if we adopt an attitude of criticism and think, "They are denominational; I am undenominational. They belong to sects; I belong to Christ alone" --such differentiating is definitely sectarian.

Ironically, Witness Lee, a contemporary and coworker with Watchman Nee, began an organization called "the Local Church" which became sectarian in its exclusiveness.

(Editors note: While many may agree with above statement, our personal contact with this movement in our area has not confirmed it thus far. May the Lord cleanse His Church from every trace of sectarianism and exclusivity -- wherever it is found! And may we be the first to submit ourselves to His cleansing!)

Finally, with respect to the distinction between the work and the local church, Nee asserts a condition of independence between the local church and the workers that planted and established it, as well as a distinction between it and other local churches. Churches, once established, are to be under the training and nurture of the Holy Spirit, not under the control of a single leader. Says Nee, "the work of God belongs to the worker, but the church of God belongs to the locality."

Of course, this doesn't mean that there is to be no accountability among local churches (or among workers for that matter). That relationship, however, is not to be described by a hierarchical control, but by a mutual desire to be privy to the full counsel of God by His Spirit and through His people. "Individualism and human organization alike are out of line with the will of God. We should seek to know His will, not independently, but in conjunction with the other ministering members of the Body."

Life in the Church

We need to show the new converts that such duties as reading praying, witnessing, giving, and assembling together are the minimum requirement of Christians. We should teach them to have their own meetings in their own meeting place.

The author makes a clear distinction between two kinds of meetings. The first, he calls "apostolic," which is the pulpit/pew style of gathering, officiated by one person. This is the style with which many of us were raised. The other he terms, "a church meeting" in which all those present are free to take part. Of the two, he suggests that the first kind should be a rarity, the second ought to be commonplace.

In the local church the role of elder corresponds to the role of the apostle in the broader work of planting. "Apostles," says Watchman Nee, "do not bear responsibility either for the spiritual or material side of affairs in any church; the elders are responsible for the local management, and the prophets and other ministers for the local ministry."

Interestingly, elders are not regarded as necessary leaders of the meetings, only as authoritative resources, unless they are also gifted as prophets and teachers.

Happily, most of the Summits find themselves already practicing the kinds of activities that Nee contends are normal for the gathering of the church: prayer, the reading of scripture, the breaking of bread, and the exercise of spiritual gifts. These things are the responsibility of every believer that is present at the gathering.

Spiritual gifts include both those given through believers and the gifts that are believers (prophets, teachers, pastors, etc.) and are exercised for the purpose of building up the group in maturity.

Relative to the place of meeting, the author claims, "God wants the intimacy of the upper room to mark the gatherings of His children, not the stiff formality of an imposing public edifice. That is why in the Word of God we find His children meeting in the family atmosphere of a private home." According to Nee, this is "Normal."

The Body Grows as the Churches Grow

The church is the life of the Body in miniature; the ministry is the functioning of the Body in service, the work is the reaching out of the Body in growth. Neither church, ministry, nor work can exist as a thing' by itself: Each has to derive its existence from, find its place in, and work for, the good of the Body. All three are from the Body in the Body and for the Body.

Though The Summit Fellowships did not derive from the teachings of Watchman Nee - - after all this book only came to our attention a few weeks ago -- the resemblance between The Normal Christian Church Life, and our general direction is striking. If one substitutes the concept of the city wide local church for home fellowships in various neighborhoods, each functionally autonomous, but voluntarily interdependent, many of the comments found in the book become not only relevant, but practical.

That is not to say that we fit all the qualities outlined--in truth, some of the things discussed touch the outer limits of our faith. Still, the description hands us some ideas that challenge, intrigue, and encourage us on an outward journey. The final chapter of the book includes this summation:

Do you not see here the relationship between the churches, the ministry, and the work? (I) God establishes a church in a locality (2) He raises up gifted men in the church for the ministry. (3) He sends some of these specially equipped men out into the work. (4) These men establish churches in different places. (5) God raises up other gifted men among these churches for the ministry of building them up. (6) Some of these in turn are thrust forth to work in other fields. Thus, the work directly produces the churches, and the churches indirectly produce the work. So the churches and the work progress, moving in an ever-recurring cycle--the work always resulting directly in the founding of churches, and the churches always resulting indirectly in further work.

Intrigued? We hope so. Get the book, if for no other reason than to ponder the scripture references from which the themes of the book are derived. It will stretch you. Here are the details.

The Normal Christian Church Life, by Watchman Nee. Living Stream Ministry, Anaheim California, 1980.

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