Watchman Nee: A Red Letter Christian

Nee
When I was thirteen years old, I attended the Christian music festival Creation, held in the Appalachian Mountains. I was mesmerized as Tony Campolo preached about our call to love and serve God and also to respond to the needs of the world’s poor. Campolo’s message was the first time I heard about how critical it is to live out the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). Other than the Newsboys entering the main field by helicopter, Campolo’s message is the one that I remember most from that festival.

As followers of Christ, we must take the whole of the gospel seriously: the passages that speak of a call to conversion and also the ones that instruct us to pay attention to the poor, the widows, and the oppressed. The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his racial, countercultural teachings as set forth in Scripture and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. The twentieth-century Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee is one example of a Red Letter Christian: a person committed to the study of God’s Word and to living it out through evangelism and ministry to the poor.

Nee was born into a third-generation Christian family in China. His personal conversion happened when he was seventeen years old, upon which he took the name “Watchman To-sheng,” which means “watchman’s rattle,” because he felt that God was calling him to be a voice inviting people into relationship with Jesus.[1] Nee emphasized the power of the gospel within believing Christians.[2] This power provided a source for evangelism and an invitation for others to join in relationship with Christ and the body of believers.

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Nee was deeply committed to the study of God’s Word. Over time he became one of the most influential evangelists and church planters in the early twentieth century. His passion came from his love and depth of knowledge of the Scriptures.[3] Nee had more than twenty different methods for studying the Bible. He was known as a man “consumed by God’s Word.”[4]  Nee’s ministry encountered many obstacles including personal health problems, financial hardships, and opposition by both some people within the church and from the communist government of China.  Ultimately, Nee was arrested and sentenced to prison where he would ultimately die. However, during his 20 years in prison his faith in the word of God and his emphasis on evangelism continued. Nee’s life and ministry was a great inspiration to the Jesus Movement that swept through the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.  Nee emphasized that good works are not based on human merit but in dependence upon Christ. God was the source of all good works and positive change in the world. Reading Scripture was the faith practice by which someone could become the most connected to God. His goal was brining honor and glory to God while drawing others toward relationship with him.

The Word of God is powerful and effective. The diligent and purposeful study of Scripture is an important component of the Christian life. For spiritual leaders like Watchman Nee, the study of Scripture provides pillars for life and ministry. Nee’s passion for evangelism and the spreading of the gospel was ignited by his love for the Word of God. Nee reminded his followers that the decision to follow Christ was not enough and that discipleship is a critical component of walking with the Lord. We should remember that, historically, men and women have sometimes used the Scriptures to justify acts of oppression and violence. Thus, Christians must take the interpretation of Scripture seriously, prayerfully seeking wisdom and discernment in our understanding of the Word of God. Study is a critical discipline. As we increasingly become inspired by the Scriptures, Christians are empowered to serve as witnesses and evangelists of the good news of Christ, who came to be the light of the world.

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Mae Elise Cannon is the author of Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP, 2013). This entry is adapted from the chapter three. She is also the author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (IVP, 2009).


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[1] Bob Laurent, Watchman Nee: Man of Suffering (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 18.

[2] Watchman Nee, Changed into His Likeness (Racine, Wis: Treasures Media Inc., 2006), Kindle edition, Kindle locations 381-87.

[3] Laurent, Watchman Nee, p. 85.

[4] Ibid., p. 39.

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About the Author

Mae Elise Cannon

Mae Elise CannonMae Elise Cannon is the author of Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP, 2013). This entry is adapted from the chapter three. She is also the author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (IVP, 2009).View all posts by Mae Elise Cannon →

  • bgilman45

    Major typo — you wrote “The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his racial, countercultural teachings as set forth in Scripture and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.” I believe you meant to write “radical, countercultural”…. probably want to fix that.
    Otherwise, wonderful essay.

  • Mike

    The RLC movement has so few followers that now that have to conscript the dead into their army.

    • Frank

      The problem is how many people who define themselves as RLC would agree with the Nee quote up top? From the body of postings, very few it seems.

    • SamHamilton

      Yeah… As much as I really don’t like the appellation “Red Letter Christian” and would never apply it to myself, I would definitely never apply it to someone else, much less posthumously.

  • jonathan starkey

    Thank you RLC more articles like this please. I couldn’t believe an article on here talking about loving scripture, and taking it seriously. Elevating a Christian hero like Watchmen Nee.

    I believe Watchmen Nee is a true RLC, despite the fact “The Normal Christian Life” by Watchmen, is all about unpacking Romans.

    But, I believe he would be critical of the RLC movement. He makes this statement in his pamphlet “Ministering to the House Or to God:”
    “What I fear most in my heart is that many will come out to preach the
    gospel to help men, save sinners, and perfect the believers, yet not
    minister to the Lord!”
    - Watchmen Nee
    pg 13

    • jonathan starkey

      We must see clearly that outwardly there may not be much difference between ministering to the house and ministering to the Lord. You may try your best to render help to brothers, to diligently save the sinners, and labor much in the service to manage the church. On top of these, you may do your best to admonish others to read the Bible and pray. You may have suffered much and have been persecuted. You may do everything. But there is a basic question: What is your motivation for doing this? The question hinges on whether or not the Lord occupies the first place in your heart. When you rise up early in the morning to minister to the brothers and sisters, do you say, “O Lord, today I am doing this once again for your sake?” Or do you first remember that this is your duty, and you do it because this is what you should do? If this is the case, it is altogether out of necessity, and it is not for the Lord. You only saw your brothers; you did not see the Lord. ….

      Oh, that we may see that much of the labor before God is not ministering to Him.

      - Watchmen Nee

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