Nigel Tomes' "One, Unique 'Minister of the Age'?—
What Did Watchman Nee Teach?"—Analysis & Response
Recently, a number of articles have been circulated in periodicals and through the Internet that cast doubt on the leading and teaching of the ministry in the Lord's recovery today. Some of these articles are anonymous writings-plain works of darkness whose authors hide behind a skirt of obscurity lest they be exposed and put to shame when their deceptive propositions are shattered in the light of God's word. These writings do not deserve an inch of printed page in response. There are, however, a few dissonant writings whose authors have publicly identified themselves; these I feel deserve some consideration. One such writing is " One, Unique 'Minister of the Age'-What did Watchman Nee Teach?" written by Nigel Tomes, which was first published on a Web site and subsequently printed with some modification in a journal published by one of the churches under the title "On 'the Ministry of the Age' and 'the Minister of the Age'—What did Watchman Nee Teach?"
After reading through Tomes's article with equanimity, I was puzzled and disturbed regarding its contents and the way it was written. I felt unequal to the task of following what appeared to be convoluted theories advanced by a seemingly learned person writing with pompousness while invoking the ministry of Watchman Nee which I love and follow. While I realized that Tomes had missed the mark, I could not then directly and clearly pinpoint where he had gone astray. This prompted me to go back to the ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, which are particularly instructive regarding the subject matter.
I do not know Nigel Tomes and take no personal issue with him. I do not seek to censure anyone. My only interest is in the truth and its defense. I write simply so that the truth may shine to expose the unsavory, as well as to light a path through the darkness and confusion.
The ministry books provided me precious insight and spoke directly to the point in question. They put into words truths that lay dormant within me, which my spirit immediately echoed. I feel exceedingly blessed to be under the ministry in the Lord's recovery, and even more blessed that I can share the riches of the ministry with others. Mine is but a small voice, but I join the chorus to say, "The truth shall set us free."
As one who has reaped immense benefits from the research and investigation, I commend this writing to the Lord and pray that it will be useful for the clearing up of confusion, the inoculation of unsuspecting infected readers, and the building up of His dear Body.
I. Summary of the Article by Nigel Tomes:
The following is a summary of Tomes's article:
Recently, three topics-"the Vision of the Age", "the Ministry of the Age" and "the Minister of the Age" - have been emphasized in the Lord's recovery. By "Minister of the Age," we mean a particular servant of God, who accomplishes God's work in an era, like Noah or Moses in the Old Testament. These three matters - the Vision, Ministry and Minister of the Age-are conceptually distinct. There can be a unique vision and one ministry in an age, yet, they may not belong to a particular "Minister of the Age." Someone may agree that there are a vision and ministry in an epoch, yet reject the idea that these belong to a singular "Minister of the Age." A number of ministers, perhaps widely dispersed over the globe, may share the same vision and ministry in an era.
The concept of a unique "Minister of the Age," has been strongly promoted in recent years...What we wish to examine here is not mainly "the vision of the age," and the "the ministry of the age," but, more importantly, the unique person, the "minister of the age." We should ask, Is this teaching according to the New Testament? However, we defer that question to another occasion. Instead, at this time, we want to pose two questions: (1) Did Watchman Nee teach that there is one, unique "Minister of the Age"? (2) Did Brother Nee see himself as the unique "Minister of the Age"?
Clearly, Watchman Nee taught that there was a "Ministry (service) of the Age." But the question remains, Is there one particular person, a special servant of the Lord, who is the unique "Minister of that Age"?
Brother Nee does not teach (either explicitly or implicitly) that Luther was the unique "Minister of his Age." John N. Darby was not the Unique Minister in his Age. The concept of one unique minister of the age was not held by Watchman Nee. Hence, our answer to the question,- Did Watchman Nee teach that there is one, unique "Minister of the Age"? - is "No."
Would Brother Nee agree with this designation and accept the title, "Minister of the Age"? Did Brother Nee see himself as the unique "Minister of the Age"? Our answer to this question is also "No." He viewed himself, together with T. Austin-Sparks, F. B. Meyer, and others, as ministers (plural) of that age. His own writings suggest that Brother Nee would have rejected this designation because it did not match his view of God's recovery work throughout history and in his own era.
II. Analysis of the Article:
The article has three key points:
- The vision of the age, the ministry of the age, and the minister of the age are distinct concepts.
- Is the concept of a unique minister of the age in the New Testament?
- Watchman Nee held the view and taught that God's recovery work throughout history and in his own era was of many concurrent ministers of the age.
III. Critique of the Article:
Let us review and analyze the article based on the following:
- Was Tomes faithful in quoting from the ministry books?
- Is he a credible expositor of Watchman Nee's teachings?
- Is his teaching governed by the all-inheriting vision of the age?
A. Was Tomes faithful in quoting from the ministry books?
Did the writer present all that the ministry books have to say about the topic being investigated? A number of quotations were used by the author to lend support to his theory. Is this sufficient evidence? I think not. His writing is not well-referenced, and his research was not thorough. He showed selectivity in handling the word of the ministry. Only portions that fit the teaching he is promoting are cited. Over a dozen ministry books offering something to say about the vision of the age, the ministry of the age, and the minister of the age are readily available, yet strangely the author restricts himself to just two initially, namely, The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, volumes 11 and 57. In his revised article he expanded the list to three by adding volume 47. This negligence or misdeed stirs us to give the matter serious scrutiny.
Even in his quotation of Brother Nee, Tomes was conspicuously unfaithful. Did he show all that Watchman Nee had to say about the subject? No, he did not. Could he have been blissfully unaware of the other things Brother Nee said? No, unless he is deluded or is deluding others. He presented a veritable arcade of half truths to his readers by conveniently ignoring important things that Watchman Nee said in the same section that he quoted from, because they did not suit his purpose. There seems to be some dishonesty here. Consider, for example, the quotation taken from The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, vol. 57, pages 260-261, directly under the title "Concerning Following the Ministry of the Age." Brother Nee responded in this way to the question on how Jonathan should have chosen his way in the Old Testament:
In the Old Testament both Solomon and David represented the Lord. The two persons represented the one ministry in two separate ways. In the Old Testament there were many ministries. After Moses, the judges were raised up. After that, there was Solomon, the kings, and the prophets. After the Israelites were taken into captivity, the vessels for the recovery were raised up. The Old Testament is filled with different kinds of ministries. In every age there is the ministry of that age. These ministries of the ages are different from the local ministers. Luther was a minister of his age. Darby was also a minister of his age. In every age the Lord has special things that He wants to accomplish. He has His own recoveries and His own works to do. The particular recovery and work that He does in one age is the ministry of that age.
Jonathan stood between Saul and David. He was one man standing between two ministries. He should have followed the second ministry. However, because Jonathan's relationship with the first ministry was too deep, he could not disentangle himself. In order to catch up with the ministry of the age, there is the need for us to see the vision. Michal was married to David, yet she did not see anything. She only saw David's condition before God, and she could not tolerate it. As a result, she was left behind. (2 Sam. 6:16, 20-23) [emphasis added]
Clearly, from the examples given by Brother Nee in the Old Testament, we see that he held the view of a unique minister of the age. In his eyes, Jonathan was choosing between two ministries represented by two persons. David represented the one ministry of God in that age. Jonathan should have chosen the second ministry-referring to David. To Brother Nee, the ministry of the age equaled the ministry of David, and the ministry of the person was one with the person. Furthermore, Brother Nee made a distinction between the ministry of the age and the local ministers (which the author omitted for flagrantly self-serving reasons) and said that following the ministry of the age has much to do with forsaking the past ministries and seeing a vision. Failure to do so will cause one to be left behind.
To be in the ministry of the age, we need to see the vision of the age. This was further developed and clarified by Witness Lee in his many writings, which Tomes chose to disregard completely. Brother Lee referred to Tomes's practice as "deforming the truth."
To deform the truth is simply to change it a little or add something... Do not cut off anything from the truth, and do not add anything to it. Take the truth as it is. If you do not take the truth as it is, you may say that you are not twisting the Scriptures. Yes, you may not twist them, but you are deforming them. Concerning one whom you follow, you must check how he handles the truth. (A Word of Love to the Co-workers, Elders, Lovers, and Seekers of the Lord, p. 60)
B. Is Tomes a credible expositor of Watchman Nee's teachings?
Of course, we all agree that Watchman Nee's teachings are unassailable. Based on the way Tomes deforms what Watchman Nee said, it is his exposition of Brother Nee's words that is highly suspect.
Tomes quotes Watchman Nee to buttress his position: "In every age there is the ministry of that age," and later in the same place:
"Luther was a minister of his age. Darby was also a minister of his age" (The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, vol. 57, p.260).
Then he argues:
Note the indefinite article, " a minister of his age." The Chinese can also be rendered, "Luther was one minister of his age, Darby was also one minister of his age" When directly addressing this issue, Brother Nee does not refer to either Luther or Darby as the unique "minister of the age." We cannot find a statement by Watchman Nee affirming one, unique "Minister of the Age." [Tomes's emphasis]
Read in the context of the entire passage, we find that Brother Nee's use of "a minister of his age" does not necessarily negate the concept of a unique minister of the age.
If "in every age there is the ministry of that age," then as we consider the various ministers across the ages (as Brother Nee does in the context), we could naturally refer to each as a minister of his age. If I say, "Luther was the minister of his age," and "Darby was the minister of his age"; I could easily say in the same breath that each was a minister of his age: "Luther was a minister of his age. Darby was also a minister of his age." The ambiguity of the English indefinite article in this context should prevent Tomes from wresting his particular meaning from Brother Nee's words..." (Kerry Robichaux, " No Unique Minister of the Age? Is That What Watchman Nee Taught?," February 2006)
Obviously, Tomes was playing with ambiguous semantics. His conclusion was decidedly premature. By his admission, the article "a" is indefinite. My assessment regarding two separate and possibly opposite conclusions is that the prudential solution to the textual ambiguity cannot be found in unempirical or partisan conjectures that may not illumine but only heighten the uncertainty. Thus, we are forced to look for clarification elsewhere, and where better to seek clarification than in the context of the whole passage from which the quote was lifted?
The premise of Brother Nee is correct, but Tomes' interpretation is flawed. Brother Nee's words were wrenched out of context. The fact that other people saw what Luther and Darby saw and taught what they taught in the same age does not make these two men less the ministers of their respective ages. In fact, Luther and Darby were representatives of God's recovery work during their own eras much in the same way that Noah was in his-Noah had the blueprint and built the ark, but he had help from his family. Moses was the minister of his age, but he was balanced by Aaron and others of his time. Paul took the lead, but there were other apostles and workers in his day who complemented him in carrying out the New Testament ministry.
Consider the order of Brother Nee's words in the references cited by the author. In The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, vol. 11, in the chapter entitled "What Are We?" we see Brother Nee's presentation of the Lord's recovery of the truth from the sixteenth century forward. On pages 856-858 it is clear that Brother Nee was standing on the foundation of all the past recovered truths and declaring to all God's children what the "present truth" was at that time (1934). On pages 856 and 857 he gives credit to both F. B. Meyer and T. Austin-Sparks.
In volume 57, chapter 6, Brother Nee again speaks of God's recovery work, beginning from Luther and continuing up to the recovery at the time of Brother Nee's writing (1948). According to Brother Nee, the ultimate recovery that God was seeking to carry out at that time was the recovery of the reality of the Body of Christ. On page 59 Brother Nee credits Austin-Sparks with seeing the Body in 1930 and speaking much on this matter. Then he says, "Yet what he released were only teachings; the reality had not yet appeared." On page 60 Brother Nee says, "Today the responsibility of the recovery is on our shoulders. All the questions related to the recovery have to do with us. God's work in the world, and in China in particular, depends entirely on us. The responsibility has fallen on us."
Brother Nee went on to say, "Today it seems as if there is nothing more to be recovered. The recovery has reached the stage of the Body. Perhaps this will be the last recovery. There may be other items of recovery, but as far as we know, when we reach the recovery of the coordination of the Body and the manifestation of authority, we have reached the final recovery."
Although Brother Austin-Sparks may have seen the matter of the Body and ministered on it, it is clear that he never entered into the reality of the Body. It is also very possible that he never saw the reality of the Body, based on his later attempt to tear down the ground of the church in Taiwan in 1957.
There is no doubt that what Brother Nee saw was higher than what Brother Austin-Sparks saw. T. Austin-Sparks was like Peter—unable to catch up with the vision of the age, which God was bringing to His people through Brother Nee. Based on his own words, Brother Nee was well aware of what God was doing through him and his ministry. He realized that the vision God had given him was the vision of the age. Tomes's advancing of his opinion ad hoc by putting words in the mouth of Watchman Nee makes us doubt his reliability as an expositor of Brother Nee.
Furthermore, there are other aids, particularly in the numerous writings of Witness Lee, that help us determine the meaning of Brother Nee's words as quoted by Tomes. Tomes may be convinced in his own mind that Brother Nee and Brother Lee were not one in their views regarding the vision of the age, the ministry of the age, and the minister of the age. However, Brother Lee was physically present in that co-workers' meeting in Hardoon Road, Shanghai, on April 30, 1948, as proven by the fact that the very book which Tomes quoted from shows that Brother Lee posed a question directly after Watchman Nee finished answering the query regarding Jonathan. Could Brother Lee have had a misimpression of Brother Nee's view on the matter, or could Brother Lee have intentionally taught us something different from Brother Nee?
We know that Witness Lee was the closest co-worker of Watchman Nee and was entrusted by him to carry on the work of the Lord's recovery. Witness Lee's own testimony bears out that he was absolutely one with Brother Nee and carried on his charge faithfully:
Actually, if there is anyone on this earth who knows Brother Nee, I must be that one. He fellowshipped with me all that he had seen, and I received tremendous help from him. If anyone says that my work is different from Brother Nee's, he is an outsider with regard to the vision. Of course, because of the lack of opportunity on his part, Brother Nee did not develop the vision as far as I have...If anyone thinks that I am different from Brother Nee, it is because such a person has not come up to the standard of the vision of the age! (The Vision of the Age, p. 80)
Since Brother Lee stood squarely on the shoulders of Brother Nee in his teaching, at this point it is imperative for us to check what Brother Lee had to say on the matter we are studying. Of the vision of the age, he lucidly taught that:
- In every age there is a vision of that age, and
God gives the vision of the age to one man.
We must be clear that in every age there is the vision of that age. We have to serve God according to the vision of the age. (The Vision of the Age, p. 13)
The Bible shows clearly that in every age God gives only one vision to man. We cannot find in the Bible that there were two visions in any age. (The Vision of the Age, p. 23) [emphasis added]
If you were born in the age of Abel, you would have had to take the way of Abel; otherwise, you would have been off from the vision and in the way of Cain... In the same way, at the time of Noah there were more than eight people who feared God; there might have been a hundred or even a thousand people who feared God. They might not have sinned as others did; they might even have been serving in some way. Yet their service was not governed by a vision. Noah's family of eight people, by serving according to Noah's pattern, became servants who served according to a vision. What Noah saw became what they saw. (The Vision of the Age, pp. 21-22)
The Ministry of the Old Testament
Throughout the generations there has been the work of the Lord's move. In the Old Testament, during Noah's age, the Lord's move was the building of the ark. This work of building the ark was the ministry in Noah's age. Noah was the chief minister in that ministry. However, just by Noah alone, there was no way to build the ark. At that time, there must have been some who built the ark together with Noah. The work of building the ark was the ministry in that age. Do you think that in that ministry there were two or more different works, or two or more groups of different people, or two or more different leaderships? Certainly not; otherwise, the ark could never have been built....
The Bible shows us very clearly that in Noah's age there was only one ministry; yet many ministers were there together building the ark. This does not mean that every minister was a master builder. Only Noah was the leader in the ministry of building the ark.
During the age of Moses, God desired to build the tabernacle with its furniture, the most important of which was the ark. Moses himself alone could not have built all those things, but he had the ministry of building the tabernacle, which was the work to fulfill God's unique purpose. In this ministry, there was not only Moses himself; Moses was one of the ministers, and, undeniably, he was the leading one in that ministry. If there had been other leaders besides Moses, there would have been confusion in that situation.
During the age of David and Solomon, God desired to build the temple. The building of the temple was not merely a work, but a ministry. At that time, there were not two different ministries building the temple; hence, there were not two different leaderships. In David's age, it was David who has taking the lead. After David passed away, Solomon was the one taking the lead. However, anyone who had a part in the ministry of building the temple, including the stone-cutters and stone-movers, was a minister in that ministry. (Words of Training for the New Way, Vol. 1, pp. 21-22)
Did Brother Lee derive his teaching on the subject matter only from the Old Testament? The following passages show clearly that his teaching was based on the New Testament and on church history as well. Let us continue by considering the following teachings of Brother Lee:
- Paul was the one wise master builder who had the blueprint, and other workers needed to be one
The Ministry of the New Testament
In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus came and He said, "On this rock I will build My church" (Matt. 16:18). The first one who participated in the ministry of building the church was the Lord Jesus. The Lord's ministry was to build up the Body of Christ. For this, He chose twelve apostles and brought them into the ministry of building the church. Afterward, He also brought in other apostles, among whom the most prominent was Paul. (Words of Training for the New Way, Vol. 1, p. 22)
A Wise Master Builder
On the one hand, we are an army, and with the army there should be a commander in chief. (Elders' Training, Book 7: One Accord for the Lord's Move, p. 95)
It is clear in the New Testament that Paul was taking the lead in the Lord's New Testament ministry on the earth at that time. (Elders' Training, Book 7: One Accord for the Lord's Move, p. 87)
"According to the grace of God given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid a foundation, and another builds upon it... For another foundation no one is able to lay besides that which is laid" (1 Cor. 3:10-11). This means that anyone who does not build upon Paul's foundation is not serving according to the vision. In the eyes of man, this is too presumptuous, but Paul was not apologetic at all. He said that he was a wise master builder. He had given everyone the blueprint of the building, and he was supervising the building work. The phrase master builder here is architekton in Greek. It denotes a person who has the blueprint and builds and supervises the building according to the blueprint. The anglicized form of this world is architect. We know that in construction, the only person whose word counts is the architect's. This was Paul's position. No one else's word counts; only Paul's word counts because he had the blueprint. (The Vision of the Age, p. 29)
With this building work there must be an architect who gives us the proper design. To lay the foundation is to give the design. These two things are one. (Elders' Training, Book 7: One Accord for the Lord's Move, p. 104)
An architect is one who designs the building and superintends its construction. In chapter five we saw who the apostles are, but not all the apostles are master builders. With a building, there cannot be two master builders. That would bring in confusion. A master builder may have a helper, though... Not all the apostles are wise master builders. Paul said that according to the grace of God given to him, he was a wise master builder (3:10). (Elders' Training, Book 7: One Accord for the Lord's Move, p. 96)
Leadership Depending upon Teaching
Paul's leadership was based upon his divine revelation, which is the real design of God's building. (Elders' Training, Book 7: One Accord for the Lord's Move, p. 116)
There is only one blueprint and one master builder in the proper, correct building. The only master builder is the architect who has the blueprint in his hand. This is true in every age. The Lord issues the blueprint, the revelation, and the utterance, and through one man He supervises and completes the building work. All those who do not build, speak, or serve according to the blueprint released by the Lord through that man are void of light and revelation and are not serving according to the vision. Today in the Lord's recovery, some are preaching and publishing messages. The portions in their messages that impart light, revelation, and the life supply invariably derive their source from this ministry in the Lord's recovery. Other than those portions, there is no revelation or vision in their writings.
Some have criticized us for not reading anything by outsiders or the denominations. But I would ask, why do so many enjoy reading the messages put out by this ministry? This ministry produces nothing but gold and diamonds. You can compare and see. For this reason, my dear brothers and sisters, today we are fighting the good fight for the truth. We are bearing on our shoulders the commission of this age. This is our vision. We need to be clear about this, and we need to serve God according to this vision. (The Vision of the Age, p.30)
...This vision was given to Paul. For this reason, once Paul came on the scene, Peter's ministry faded away. When Peter was old, he said, "Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them concerning these things, in which some things are hard to understand, which the unlearned and unstable twist, as also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:15-16)....
Based on this, the names of all those who did not join themselves to Paul's vision were eventually dropped from the record of the Bible. For example, Barnabas was the one who initiated Paul into the service, but because he contented with Paul, his name was eventually dropped from the Bible. Apollos was very capable at expounding the Bible, but 1 Corinthians 16 records that he told Paul that it was not at all his desire to go to Corinth and that he would go when he had opportunity. After this, the Bible no longer mentions anything concerning him. Barnabas was zealous in his service, and Apollos was capable in his exposition of the Bible, but God did not use them anymore because their service was no longer under the vision. This is a very sober matter. (The Vision of the Age, pp. 22-23)
- Luther and Darby were ministers of the age.
The Lord's Recovery Being Under the Vision of the Divine Revelation
...At the time of the Reformation in the 1520s, when Luther was raised up, anyone who wanted to serve under a vision had to join himself to Luther. In the seventeenth century, anyone who wanted to serve under a vision had to join himself to Madam Guyon. In the eighteenth century, anyone who wanted to serve under a vision had to join himself to Zinzendorf. Even John Wesley received help from Zinzendorf. In the nineteenth century, J.N. Darby took the lead among the Brethren, and the vision was with him. In the twentieth century, the vision came to us. (The Vision of the Age, p. 27) [emphasis added]
- F.B. Meyer and T. Austin-Sparks did not share the ministry of the age concurrently with Watchman
Nee, because they did not have the same vision, contrary to the author's allegations.
Of F. B. Meyer, Brother Lee said:
...During his time with us here, at least a few times our Brother Austin-Sparks has highly recommended Dr. F. B. Meyer. I have read Dr. Meyer's books and have received some help from him. But all of us know that Brother Meyer is still in the denominations, that is, in the so-called "organized Christianity" that our Brother Austin-Sparks condemns in his messages. Since Dr. Meyer still remains in organized Christianity, the very organization which Brother Austin-Sparks condemns, can we say that he is right in the matter of the church merely because his spiritual stature is high? (The Vision of the Age, p. 72)
Of T. Austin-Sparks, Brother Lee said:
...At that time we saw that the church ground cannot be separated from church practice. Without the ground there can be no practice. In order to have the practice, there must be the ground. However, he did not agree with the matter of the church ground, and he did not agree with that kind of church practice...
After we heard Brother Nee's fellowship, we asked why we should not invite Brother Austin-Sparks to come and visit us, since Brother Nee spoke so highly of him. Brother Nee answered in a wise way: "The time has not come." At that time we did not quite understand what he meant. (The Vision of the Age, pp. 66-67)
Although Brother Austin-Sparks was spiritual, he limited himself to the scope of his vision. His problem was that he was unwilling to see more. (The Vision of the Age, p. 78)
Also, on the island of Taiwan I wrote a letter of invitation to T. Austin-Sparks in London and he came to visit us twice. We stopped inviting him, however, because in his second visit he tried to tear down the ground of our work, which is the unique ground of the oneness of the church practice. (Elders' Training, Book 4: Other Crucial Matters Concerning the Practice of the Lord's Recovery, p. 128)
About ten young co-workers, some of whom were brought to the Lord and trained by me, were influenced by Austin-Sparks' concept to tear down, to overthrow, the church ground. (Elders' Training, Book 7: One Accord for the Lord's Move, p. 123)
Then I told them that for many years we had learned a certain thing before the Lord: In knowing a person we should not look at the big matters but at the small matters. It is not very easy for a person to expose his flaws in the big things; the problems are always with the small things. Brother Austin-Sparks published a bimonthly magazine called A Witness and a Testimony. In January 1955 issue there was a column acknowledging the Christmas cards that he had received from readers... From this small matter I could tell that there must still be some distance between him and us... I then suggested that if we were to invite him, it would be better not to bring up the subject of church practice, because Brother Nee had discussed this matter in detail with Brother Austin-Sparks already and had not been able to get through. (The Vision of the Age, pp. 67-68)
These were traces that gave us a hint that his way and our way could not be reconciled because what we saw was different. (The Vision of the Age, p. 70, emphasis added)
In the nineteenth century, Hudson Taylor saw a vision. He felt that he should go to China to preach the gospel. We cannot say that his vision was wrong. We can only say that his vision was not up to the standard of the age. During the past three decades, we lost the one accord a number of times in Taiwan. The case with Brother Austin-Sparks was one example of such a time. Can we say that he did not love the Lord or that he was not spiritual? Even today I still recommend his books. Some of them are certainly worthwhile reading. However, he did not see what Brother Nee led us to see in the Lord's recovery. Needless to say, all our differences were not caused by the flesh but by the difference in our visions. (The Vision of the Age, p. 77-78)
Brother Lee's Personal Testimony
When I was saved over sixty years ago, there were Christians all around me; yet I had no knowledge of God's move on the earth. I thank God that He gave me a heart that loves the Bible. I read it continually and even collected many reference books. Afterward, I became very clear that as a human being, I must be a Christian, and as a Christian, I must be in God's move. Therefore, I dropped everything and dove into the Lord's recovery. At that time, although I could not speak the message that I am giving this morning, the vision within me was very clear. I saw that there was the Lord's commission upon Brother Nee, which is the ministry. I also knew that Brother Nee was the one chosen, commissioned by the Lord in this age to bring in His recovery. I therefore recognized him as the leader in this work. (Words of Training for the New Way, Vol. 1, pp. 23-24)
I can go on and on quoting many more passages that support the same view, but I think I have sufficiently made my point and shall stop here and leave it to readers to plumb the ministry books and mine the riches from God's word for themselves.
Here lies Tomes's vulnerability: he alleges that Watchman Nee taught in a certain way, but an examination of Witness Lee's writings shows patently that Brother Lee's and Brother Nee's teaching are the polar opposite of what Tomes claims. I am very interested to know (and I suspect that many readers of Tomes's article are interested as well): Does Tomes want to take exception with Brother Lee's teaching? I surmise that he is not so bold to challenge Brother Lee; therefore, he simply sidesteps Brother Lee's writings. It seems that a more credible witness testifying to the contrary has cast a shadow on Tomes's trustworthiness as an expositor of Watchman Nee. Are we to believe Witness Lee or Nigel Tomes?
C. Is Tomes's teaching governed by the all-inheriting vision of the age?
In the previous sections we have seen that Watchman Nee and Witness Lee taught us that to be in the ministry of the age, we must have the vision of the age. Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint (Prov. 29:18). We must serve with a vision, and the vision must be one that matches the age. Furthermore, it must be an all-inheriting vision, a vision that is complete and inherits all the previous visions. This vision is the one blueprint for God's unique building.
The one ministry is progressive. As God works, he builds upon what He has already accomplished. His work does not tear down what He built up in the past, but goes on by adding to the building. God's truths are cumulative. Later truths do not contradict earlier truths, because they have the same source and foundation. This is an important principle in the divine revelation and the building work of God. God works by His speaking. The old creation was brought forth by the word of God. In the Old Testament, God spoke in many portions and in many ways to the fathers through the prophets. In the New Testament, God continues to speak in the Son. Whenever the word of the Lord is rare, the testimony of God is bleak. Whenever the word of the Lord multiplies, God's testimony becomes strong.
The apostles' teaching and fellowship is the content of God's New Testament economy. It is God's speaking to carry out His divine economy in the New Testament age. All our speaking should be restricted by this-we should speak no more and no less. We need to take heed to our teachings and the teachings that we follow. A person's teaching is his ministry. It is important for us to ensure that the teachings we follow are according to the all-inheriting vision that matches this age.
Brother Lee gave us an exhortative warning related to the ministry as the work of the Lord's move on the earth:
In the Bible, there are these two words-ministry and minister. These two are not the same. "Ministry" refers to the work of the Lord's move on the earth, whereas "minister" refers to one who bears responsibility in the Lord's work. (Words of Training for the New Way, Vol. 1, p. 21)
The problems of Christianity in the past two thousand years have been due to too many "ministries"...This is the crucial point of all the problems. (Words of Training for the New Way, Vol. 1, p. 21)
A ministry is mainly a teaching. We must realize that the teaching which a Christian teaches ministers something. It may minister something right, something wrong, something high, or something low. A teaching always issues in something. Based upon the issue of your teaching, your teaching may be considered as a ministry. Ministry in the biblical usage means to serve people with something, just as a waiter in a restaurant serves people with the courses of food. To serve others with something is to minister. To minister is not to preach, teach, or speak without serving anyone with anything. We may say that a certain minister who speaks for an hour ministers nothing to people. This means that according to Christ he ministered nothing, but according to the facts that minister did minister something. He ministered something wrong, something bad, or something low to people. I hope we can see that ministry produces problems, ministry produces division, and ministry produces confusion. (Elders' Training, Book 3: The Way to Carry Out the Vision, p. 42)
Furthermore, it is important who we are and whom we follow. We must follow those who have the vision of the age. To follow those who have the vision of the age is to serve under the vision. The degree of the vision we see should also be accurate. In Brother Lee's conversation with a senior co-worker, he pointed out that even though they were co-workers, yet they were very different with regard to their vision of the work. How serious this is! If our vision is off by even a little, we may still carry out a work but be out of the New Testament ministry.
This is what the Chinese mean by "off by a fraction of an inch, missed by a thousand miles." (The Vision of the Age, p. 81)
In this light, let us review the main theses of Tomes and compare them against the words of the ministry:
- Tomes says that the vision of the age, the ministry of the age, and the minister of the age are separable concepts, but words from the ministry indicate otherwise.
- Tomes asks if the teaching concerning the minister of the age is according to the New Testament, but he defers the question to another time. Words from the ministry answer the question in the affirmative.
- Tomes claims that Luther and Darby were not the ministers of their respective ages and that Brother Watchman Nee did not teach that there was a unique minister of the age. Words from the ministry do not agree.
- Tomes proposes that there are many ministers of an age, citing as examples T. Austin-Sparks, Watchman Nee, Jesse Penn-Lewis, F.B. Meyer and other ministers who functioned concurrently, and that the concept of a unique minister of the age does not match Brother Watchman Nee's view of God's recovery work throughout history and in his own era. Words from the ministry show clearly that he has a problem with his vision.
Since the author has demonstrably been shown to teach in an eccentric way contrary to the healthy words we have received from the ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, could his be a vision that matches the age? Is it safe for us to follow him?
IV. A Response to the Article:
Tomes's writing raises a number of questions: Why does he steer clear of Brother Lee's teaching, although on other occasions he quoted from Brother Lee numerous times? Could it be because he is ignorant of Brother Lee's teaching, or because he does not subscribe to Brother Lee's teaching on the subject at hand, or because he believes that Watchman Nee and Witness Lee taught differently on the subject, or because he simply wants to mislead his readers into thinking that he presented all that the ministry has to say about the matter?
A more important question is: What is the underlying point in Tomes's writings? This is not the first article written by him. It is one of his more recent ones. After reading his many articles, one perceives from his rhetoric an underlying theme of dissension from the present leadership in the Lord's recovery and a twofold aim of disparaging the ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee while at the same time justifying separate works within the Lord's recovery that are not accountable to the Body and are not consistent with the Body as the governing principle. In addition, in putting forth his dissenting thoughts, Tomes has ignored a critical principle by undercutting the oneness and the one accord in the Lord's recovery.
The source of his deviant writings appears to be a wrong-headed idea based on the perception that one can see several different ministries working separately in the New Testament in a way of peaceful co-existence and cooperation. Tomes limited his vision to include the matter of oneness apart from the genuine one accord. He insists on the speciality and generality of the church without regard for its practicality. He fails to see the forest while looking at the trees. In other words, he has an incomplete vision.
This is history tragically repeated. Tomes is not the first to teach the matter of many ministries working separately and peacefully side by side. Dissenters who left the recovery in the past championed the same teaching. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Brother Lee forewarned us very clearly that divisions come out of different ministries:
Why is it that there were divisions even from the time while the apostles, including Paul and John, were still here on this earth? Divisions began to take place from the last part of the first century and have continued to take place until the present century. There have been divisions after divisions, which have caused all kinds of confusion. What is the reason for all these divisions? They all came about simply because of different so-called ministries...
We need to be very clear that the foundation of all the denominations and the factor that produces each denomination are their different ministries. If all the Christians today would be willing for the Lord to take away their different ministries, they would all be one. The basic factor of all the divisions, their very root, is different ministries. (Elders' Training, Book 1: The Ministry of the New Testament, p. 14)
We need to see this principle throughout the entire Christian era. All the troubles, divisions, and confusions came from the one source of the tolerance of different ministries. Many Christian teachers have known the peril of different ministries; nevertheless, they have tolerated them. There has been a tolerance of different ministries. In the Lord's recovery, for the long run, we should not believe that this kind of creeping in of the different ministries would never take place. Rather, we must be on the alert. Such a peril is ahead of us. If we are not watchful, if we are careless, in one way or another the enemy would creepingly use some means, some ways, to bring in different ministries. Such a thing would end the Lord's recovery. (Elders' Training, Book 1: The Ministry of the New Testament, p. 16)
Tomes's writing subverts the realization of the uniqueness of the ministry in the Lord's recovery, which Brother Lee's words emphasize:
The knowledge and discovery of divine revelation develop and advance with the ages. Today we are not in the age of Martin Luther. We are not in the age of Zinzendorf or the age of John Wesley. At the time of the Reformation in the 1520s, when Luther was raised up, anyone who wanted to serve under a vision had to join himself to Luther. In the seventeenth century, anyone who wanted to serve under a vision had to join himself to Madame Guyon. In the eighteenth century, anyone who wanted to serve under a vision had to join himself to Zinzendorf. Even John Wesley received help from Zinzendorf. In the nineteenth century, J. N. Darby took the lead among the Brethren, and the vision was with him. In the twentieth century, the vision came to us. (The Vision of the Age, p. 27)
Since in every age there has been the work of ministry, it stands to reason that in this age also there should be the continuation of the Lord's ministry. We cannot deny that on the earth today there is the Lord's building. The Lord has been building throughout the generations, and He will continue to build until His building work is fully completed, when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven.
A Christian Needing to be in the Lord's Ministry in this Age
Now we have already seen clearly that the ministry spoken of in the Bible does not refer to a person, but to God's building work. Moreover, in God's building ministry, there are those who take the lead in that ministry in every age. May the Lord open our eyes to see that as long as we are human beings, we should be Christians; as long as we are Christians, we should enter into the Lord's ministry in this age.
Today there are thousands of people who believe in the Lord Jesus and are saved, but not many have entered into the Lord's ministry of building the church. It is just like the situation in Noah's age. There were thousands of people on the earth, but only a small number were building the ark with Noah. This is why Philippians 2:12 says, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." What Noah and those who built the ark with him were doing was to work out their own salvation. Yes, it was God who had saved them, but the ark that delivered them was built with their own hands by God's grace. Today, we also need to be in God's building ministry to work out our own salvation, that is, to bring our salvation to its ultimate conclusion so that we can be exalted by God in glory as the Lord Jesus was. (Words of Training for the New Way, Vol. 1, p. 22-23)
One difference, perhaps, between the dissenting ones in the past and those in the present is that those of the past directly broke ties with and attacked Brother Nee and/or Brother Lee and proceeded to actively do a work of overthrowing the recovery from without, while those of the present continue to quote from Brother Nee and Brother Lee while undermining their ministry insidiously from within.
I do not have a problem with Tomes having his personal beliefs; he is certainly entitled to them. My problem is that what he aggressively espouses extra-locally is inconsistent with the apostles' teaching, and that while teaching differently from the ministry, he persists in quoting deceitfully from the ministry to support his dissenting views, which is the real "double whammy."
As a cautionary footnote, Tomes's writing is a grim warning and an affirmation that we need to keep to the principle of one publication that Brother Lee led us to practice. In so doing, we will preserve the oneness and one accord among us by keeping different teachings and ministries from coming in to deceive the innocent and unprepared saints. If there is any lesson the current furor has to teach us, it is that the saints at large must be careful not to read just any writing that comes along, but must expend their time and effort to dive into the ministry books so that they can be equipped with the truth. I grant that some materials published outside the principle of one publication may render some spiritual supply, but germs may also come in along with the nourishment that will make us sick. The dangers and disadvantages far outweigh the advantages.
Brother Lee admonished us by saying:
I do not like to see that the Lord's recovery is being brought backward to the old writings. I also do not like to see that the young generation would be brought back to the old things to occupy them. We must realize that we only have one life to live. Even with two or three lives, you cannot exhaust the reading of the Christian books. I do not like to see people misdirected in reading things that will waste their time. (Elders' Training, Book 4: Other Crucial Matters Concerning the Practice of the Lord's Recovery, p. 14)
Thank the Lord for His precious words spoken to us through our brothers Watchman Nee and Witness Lee! Let us take refuge in the words of the ministry, and let us refuse to be dragged into a limbo of suspicion, doubt, discontent, mistrust, and instability.
I am not a person given to long discourses, and I apologize to my readers for what has turned out to be quite a lengthy dissertation. However, I deemed it to be both reasonable and necessary so that through many words and quotations from the ministry I may cement my position squarely: I know what we have received from the ministry, and Tomes's article is not part of it. We utterly reject and will not swallow these different teachings that produce problems and divisions.
We in the Lord's recovery have a taste for the ministry, which conveys to us life and truth. Nigel Tomes teaches in conflict with Watchman Nee and Witness Lee and the New Testament ministry they have brought to us; therefore, his teachings may be considered different teachings in the light of the one ministry in God's New Testament economy. There are compelling reasons that make this conclusion unavoidable, namely, his apparent unfaithfulness in quoting from the words of the ministry, his lack of credibility as an expositor of Watchman Nee, and the evident disparity in the vision he has seen and is working under from that which we have inherited from the ministry of Brothers Nee and Lee.
—Robert Sun, Manila, Philippines, April 2006