Unity in the Chinese Church
The Chinese church, like all churches around the world, has struggled with unity for many years. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1 provide encouragement and hope for any church in its fight against conflict and disunity.
Several years ago, I met a young lady who had been saved in a traditional Chinese church. After encountering Charismatic practices in my ministry, she opened herself to speaking in tongues, signs and wonders. In need of personal healing, she participated in some special meetings associated with supernatural healing. Her church tried to persuade her not to participate in these activities, saying that she was church shopping. They told her she should only attend gatherings at their church instead of running around.
However, this lady has a different opinion. She has noticed that praying in tongues has benefitted her spiritually. I agree. I’ve watched her fear diminish and her faith grow stronger. She believes that if pastors omit these vital teachings from God’s word, believers will become spiritually malnourished over time.
In addition, she noticed that her evangelical church struggles with legalism. The church asks believers to recite the Bible and teaches them to condemn themselves for not confessing and repenting enough. Over the years, this Christian lady has beat herself up and condemned herself many times. Now, she realizes she has freedom in Christ. She sighs, “All these years, I have unnecessarily condemned myself so many times.”
I was saved in the Local Church Movement (LCM) and have attended its gatherings for many years. When I met this lady, I was still in the LCM and had no contact with the Pentecostal Movement. At that time, some members and I tried to persuade her to join our church, but she refused. One of the reasons she gave was that she could not accept Brother Watchman Nee.
Most Chinese churches outside of the LCM generally support Brother Watchman Nee and oppose Brother Witness Lee. The church that the lady was in was influenced by Pastor Stephen Tong, who is also against Watchman Nee. I read some of Pastor Stephen Tong’s criticisms of Watchman Nee online. He discusses theological disagreements and differing theological views.
This lady mentioned a book to me – My Uncle Watchman Nee by Pastor Stephen C.T. Chan, Watchman Nee’s nephew. She recommended this book because the book points out some of Watchman Nee’s shortcomings, remind us that Watchman Nee is not perfect. The LCM speaks highly of Watchman Nee, overlooking his shortcomings. Many outsiders criticize the LCM for idolizing Watchman Nee and putting him on pedestal.
At that time, I chose not to read the book. I have read a lot of Watchman Nee’s books and found them to be very helpful. Personally, I don’t think the LCM idolizes Watchman Nee. They are simply valuing and appreciating the spiritual riches he has to offer. However, it is true that people in the LCM generally do not criticize Watchman Nee or mention his shortcomings. When teaching spiritual truths, they find it difficult to break through the teaching of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee; they don’t dare criticize these great men.
Recently, I skimmed the first dozen pages of the book, My Uncle Watchman Nee, on the Internet. In the book, Pastor Stephen C.T. Chan affirms his uncle Watchman Nee’s spiritual achievements, but disagrees with Watchman Nee’s belief about local churches. Watchman Nee has a strong belief that each city should have only one church, so that everyone in that city can be unified in the same local body. Pastor Stephen believes that this overly strict local church belief leads to a closed denomination that does not come into contact with other Christian groups. When I was in the LCM, I learned that it attaches great importance to the concept of having only one church in each locality.
In 2015, God led me to the Pentecostal Movement. I was determined to learn from the Pentecostal Movement, but I dealt with a lot of struggles. In the end, I obeyed God’s leading. I overcame emotional attachments and the principles accepted in the LCM (including one church for each locality), and gradually left the LCM. Many elders and friends in the LCM disagreed with my choice. But most of them were loving and understanding and didn’t condemn me.
After that, the Lord appeared to me in a prophetic dream. There were two rivers behind Him. The Lord told me that these two rivers would converge, but He did not tell me specifically which two rivers they were. As I pondered this question, I began to see that it represents the convergence of spiritual life and spiritual gifts. The LCM values spiritual growth, but do not learn about spiritual gifts. Charismatic churches focus more heavily on gifts, but they need to maintain a balance of seeking spiritual growth as well. Spiritual maturity and spiritual gifts cannot be separated, and they can both be maintained simultaneously. For example, Paul not only advocates for spiritual growth, but also for spiritual gifts.
God gave me a burden for the Chinese churches to become unified. A prophet prophesied that God would use me to bring together groups that would never otherwise come together. God has also given me prophetic dreams many times, telling me that the LCM will accept spiritual gifts and will be filled with the Holy Spirit in the future. These prophecies and prophetic dreams have not yet been fulfilled, but they have directed my prayers.
Today, Chinese churches are not unified. Pastor Stephen Tong is strongly against Charismatic churches in addition to the LCM. He has been a big influence among Chinese Christians, leading many believers to form a negative attitude towards the LCM and the Charismatics. Although both the LCM and the Charismatics are worthy of criticism, I think Pastor Stephen Tong’s criticism is too harsh and negative, preventing many believers from learning and understanding the richness of the LCM and the Charismatics. My personal experience in these two groups shows that they each have a lot of richness worth learning about by the evangelical churches, especially Christians and church groups influenced by Pastor Stephen Tong.
The gospel was brought to China by Western missionaries. The missionaries came from various denominations in the West. The denominations’ thinking patterns also came from the West. When Western missionaries came to China to preach, they brought denominational division into China. As a result, a lot of conflicts formed among Chinese Christians.
Watchman Nee hoped to find a way to solve the denominations’ problems. In the end, he proposed that “one church for one locality” is a biblical principle, hoping that this method would solve the problem of division between denominations and churches. After 100 years, the LCM has still not achieved this ideal.
Moreover, many other Chinese and non-Chinese church groups still do not accept the LCM and its principle of one church for one locality. The LCM also does not accept the truths practiced by some other groups, such as the truths and practices of Charismatic churches.
The main cause of division is the disunity of truth. This disunity has two aspects. The first aspect is that some groups teach truths that other groups do not accept. For example, the truth about speaking in tongues, taught by the Charismatic movement, is not accepted by the LCM and other evangelical groups. The LCM teaches many truths and practices related to spiritual growth, but other groups condemn them as heretics and refuse to accept the light they received from the Lord.
Another aspect is that we know about truths, but we still don’t understand them well. We need more light from God so that we can understand the truth better. Once we reach a clear understanding of truth, we can shine that light to others as well. All the churches have room for growth in their understanding of truth.
I personally think that one of the reasons why the LCM’s “one church for one locality” principle has not been accepted by the Universal Church is that it is just a method. Though many criticize the methodology behind this principle, I don’t believe the problem lies with the method. Unity does not spring from a particular method, but from our knowledge of the truth and our maturity in Christ. If churches are still living in the flesh, they will lack unity—no matter how biblical their methodology may be. Unity is the result of reaching a certain degree of maturity. Aside from maturity, no method or human movement can bring oneness in the church.
Historically, the LCM has had many interactions with the Pentecostal Movement. But due to the Pentecostal Movement’s immaturity at that time, and the mistakes and false prophecies of some Pentecostal leaders, Witness Lee (one of the leaders of the LCM) rejected spiritual gifts. He himself studied speaking in tongues for two years, but gave it up because Watchman Nee objected.
After Witness Lee came to the United States, he visited the Charismatic Church. He had reservations about Charismatic prophecies such as, “Thus says the Lord.” He noticed that many prophecies made in the name of God do not come true, including predictions about the California earthquake. This reinforced his prejudice against the Pentecostal Movement.
However, he did not deny that the Pentecostal movement is from God. The main reason why he did not accept the Pentecostal movement is that he found that many people who pursue spiritual gifts were unwilling to pursue deeper spiritual growth. Therefore, he regarded the pursuit of spiritual gifts as a hindrance to believers’ pursuit of spiritual life and growth.
The Church in Los Angeles was the first LCM church in the United States. The church was formed from a group of evangelical Christians and a Charismatic group who was willing to accept the principle of one church for one locality. However, there was no agreement on the topic of speaking in tongues. In the end, the two groups separated. Brother Witness Lee seemed to adopt a neutral attitude towards this. He encouraged everyone to tolerate each other, but he did not achieve the beautiful ideal of encouraging everyone to gather in unity.
Is speaking in tongues a truth in the Bible? Paul said, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.” (ESV, 1 Corinthians 14:39). Nonetheless, the LCM and other evangelical groups never speak in tongues, which means that speaking in tongues is actually forbidden. This violates the teaching of the Bible. I’m not saying that everyone should speak in tongues, but Paul said, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (ESV, 1 Corinthians 14:26). Please take note that Paul said that each person has their own gift: one may have a tongue, one may have a song, or a lesson, or a teaching. He did not say that everyone should speak in tongues. Rather, it’s a gift given only to some. But in many evangelical churches, tongues are forbidden, despite the Bible’s teaching. In practice, many evangelical churches have violated the teachings of the Bible.
Through studying in the Pentecostal Movement, receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit and my experience of speaking in tongues, I have learned that speaking in tongues is definitely not as insignificant as many people thought. Speaking in tongues is a very important truth, and is very important for the spiritual growth of Christians. Because this gift is so important, Satan hates this truth and tries his best to stigmatize it. When I wrote my doctoral thesis, ” Pursuing Holiness and Gifts of the Holy Spirt: Combining Local Church Movement and Charismatic Practices to Prophesy,” I mentioned that if speaking in tongues is the least important gift, why is it that this insignificant gift causes the greatest division?
I was saved in the LCM, but I never received teaching about the truth of speaking in tongues. After 13 years, God used my wife’s ten-year infertility to force me to seek help from the Pentecostal Movement. God personally led me to experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. I have read a lot of books on this subject and have listened to many people’s teachings regarding this. I finally realized the importance of speaking in tongues and I started to practice it every day. I have recorded more than 30 episodes in Chinese to tell about my experience and insights. This can’t be explained in just a few words. Those who are interested in learning more can listen to my recordings. If you humbly pray for God’s help, He will enlighten you.
It is said that there are 600 million believers in the Pentecostal Movement. I don’t know whether this number is accurate or not. Many of them have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. You can’t simply dismiss all these experiences by saying they are all deceived by evil spirits. It is possible that people in the evangelical church and LCM simply do not know these truths. We need to be humble and not be dismissive of others’ beliefs and experiences. We need to acknowledge that we may not know everything.
No matter how much the LCM insists on “one church for each locality,” people will not attend gatherings with them because they are ignorant of the truth of speaking in tongues. At least 600 million Charismatic Christians will not give up the truth they know about speaking in tongues because of the so-called “one church for one locality” principle.
This example shows that true unity does not lie in our desires and methods, but in our lack of understanding of truth. Although all people in the Charismatic Movement know the truth about speaking in tongues, not all of them live in unity. True oneness in the church requires spiritual growth, not just outward agreement. Disagreements and different understandings of the truth are the first obstacles to oneness.
This is the picture Paul paints in 1 Corinthians 1. Paul opens his letter with words of greeting and encouragement. Then he jumps into a discussion of unity. In verses 10-17, Paul states that he has heard from Chloe’s household about disputes and divisions in the Corinthian church. Some Corinthian believers say, “I follow Paul”; others say, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (ESV, 1 Corinthians 1:12).
Throughout the ages, people have tried to achieve oneness through various wise teachings. Ultimately, they have been unsuccessful. But Paul states that wisdom is not enough to bring true salvation, healing, and unity. He explains, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18 ESV) In these two verses, Paul compared “words of wisdom” and “word of the cross“.
Paul goes on, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” (1 Corinthians 1:19, ESV) God wants to destroy man’s wisdom. When man’s wisdom finally reaches its limit, God will begin to release His wisdom to help us.
The verse that especially inspired me is 1 Corinthians 1:21: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (ESV) The church has attempted many times to achieve oneness through various types of wisdom, but it has not succeeded. The reason is because man’s wisdom cannot achieve oneness.
But one day, God will release His wisdom. God’s wisdom may seem foolish, but it is powerful enough to save believers. I was particularly inspired by the word “faith”, which is the basic principle of the Bible. Our salvation is not accomplished through human effort, but by our “faith” in God. What is true of our salvation is also true of our victory and oneness.
The main problem of the church is not its sin or worldliness, but its lack of faith. We need faith to please God and experience the truth of God’s word.
The same is true of unity. The degree of our faith determines the degree to which we can experience the truth of God’s promise of oneness. When our faith increases, our knowledge, understanding and experience of the truth will also increase. When our faith increases, our maturity in Christ will also increase. As our maturity grows, we will reach unity in Him (Ephesians 4:13).
When you are sick, an internal disease or infection manifests in many outward symptoms. If you just treat the external manifestations without finding the root cause of the disease, it will be difficult to cure the disease. Similarly, the division and disunity of Christians are just an outward manifestation of the church’s internal illness. The root cause is a lack of faith and spiritual growth. Therefore, when you just heal the symptoms without addressing the root problem, and when you seek oneness for the sake of oneness, you will never achieve true unity.
First Corinthians 1:22-25 says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (ESV) Christ is the power and wisdom of God. The foolishness of God is much greater than man’s wisdom. Paul goes on to mention that God chose many foolish people to shame the wise (vs. 26-29). Here Paul compares those foolish people who trust God with the so-called “wise” who do not trust God.
We must give up some of our wisdom, which may be the Bible teachings we think we know, or the Bible truths we think we see. In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each man was accessing a different part of the huge reality of the elephant. One church may understand one aspect of the spiritual life, just like the blind man who was touching the ear of the elephant. Another denomination may see another aspect of God, like the blind man who felt the legs of the elephant. None of us has the whole picture. We are bound to make mistakes when we try to describe the whole elephant without having the whole picture. This is man’s wisdom.
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (ESV, 1 Corinthians 1:30-31). Here, Paul is referring to Jeremiah 9:23-24. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.’” (ESV)
We need to know more about God before we can boast in the Lord. And Christ is the wisdom that God gives us. We must try our best to know Christ. As we do, the church will grow in maturity and achieve oneness. We must be willing to unlearn what we know and be humble enough to learn what others know. We must not insist on own ways of doing things since we don’t have the whole picture. If we are humble enough to learn from others, we take the first step towards true unity.