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Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China

Part of a continuing series of journal article summaries. You can also read my summaries on The regulation of religion in China and Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries.  

Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China                         By: Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (full text PDF)

Tom’s Summary:

The Little Flock Movement or Christian Assembly, was a loosely connected church movement that was started by Watchman Nee in the 1920’s as a wholly Chinese form of Christianity. It strove to be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-funded in accordance with three-“self” principles that were popular at the time, and quickly grew as the Chinese public turned more strongly against foreign imperialism.

Fundamentally the Little Flock modeled itself after the church depicted in Acts; they would be united as a community of believers, and there would be no hierarchy beyond the local church. They strongly promoted the idea of the “priesthood of believers.” They urged their congregations to break cleanly from western missionary movements and rejected the idea of denominational ties. This is somewhat ironic given that the Little Flock benefited greatly from theological training from earlier missionaries. The movement also promoted the idea that there should only be one church in each geographical region, so that there would not be competition between believers.

The Little Flock movement spread in two distinct ways. One way was for travelling evangelists (“apostles”) to make connections in a new place, and train local leaders who would form the core of the new church. Once established the evangelist would move to another region. The other method was to move several families from an existing congregation to a new area, where they would reach out to non-believers. By 1949 the Little Flock movement made up roughly 25% of China’s Christian population.

When the Communist Party came to power they initially claimed that religious institutions would be tolerated, and created the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which followed the same ideas mentioned above, but was directly overseen by the Party.  Initially the Little Flock worked alongside the TSPM and eventually endorsed the “Christian Manifesto,” which stated Christians’ loyalty to the Communist Party. While Watchman Nee was concerned about Mao’s atheistic views, he convinced himself that the movement would not be affected because it was both indigenous and apolitical.

In 1950 the Korean War broke out and all foreign missionaries were forced to leave the country. This meant that many foreign funded churches were suddenly understaffed and underfunded. The Little Flock quickly made connections with these congregations, and helped them to continue worshiping in accordance with the three-self principles.

Initially the Little Flock congregations urged their members to sacrifice material comfort and help the Party rebuild China. Later though they would resist collectivization and conscription. This dangerous position and their recent connection with foreigners, meant that many Christians suffered during Mao’s various campaigns.

In 1951 some church leaders turned against each other and publicly denounced other Christians and Watchman Nee. This led to the excommunication of all believers who were explicitly pro-government in ’52. In ’53 Little Flock leaders began to openly encourage congregations to leave the TSPM, and reaffirm that Christ was the only authority over the church.

Watchman Nee’s insistence on ideological autonomy eventually led to his own denouncement. In 1956 he was arrested and charged with being a counter-revolutionary and undermining the power of the State. He died while serving a 15 year sentence in a labor camp.

Despite persecution the Little Flock continued to grow and spread to every corner of China. Many believers infiltrated the Party and used their positions to spread the Gospel. On university campuses many of the professors were also believers because they had been trained on Christian campuses prior to ’49. Youth groups were also organized in an effort to counter anti-religious teachings promoted by the Party.

By the time the Cultural Revolution began, the Little Flock movement had become adept at surviving persecution, their theological view of the world reinforced the idea that this was a time when their faith would be tested, and that God would eventually deliver them. Ironically, during this time the movement grew due to the lack of supervision from State agencies that had collapsed in the chaos.

When China allowed religion to reemerge in ’78, the Little Flock became the template for many of China’s house churches.

Tom’s reaction:

In the article there is a quote which states that throughout China’s history there has never been a gov’t that has promoted freedom of religion. The goal of the State has always been to regulate, control, and exploit religion. Just this week the Party issued a message once again warning about the dangers of religion.

In a country where “change” is a word that is usually followed by “undermines stability” it can be difficult to imagine that things could ever be different. Religion offers a radically different view of society, and encourages submission to an authority higher than the Party. In many cases throughout Chinese history, people of faith have been the instigators of change.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that the Party has tried to control those who exist outside of socialist ideology, but given the power of religious ideals, it also isn’t surprising that the Little Flock survived decades of persecution in an effort to maintain the ideological autonomy necessary to pursue their beliefs.


8 Comments

  1. Joel says:

    throughout China’s history there has never been a gov’t that has promoted freedom of religion. The goal of the State has always been to regulate, control, and exploit religion.

    Traditionally and currently, hasn’t the gov’t/Emperor assumed something of a ‘religious’ role, in the sense of being the defining source and authority for virtue and morality? Any religion attempting to speak or operate in those areas would necessarily be entering or infringing on the gov’t’s turf, assuming the gov’t role. With the gov’t explicitly assuming a wider scope of authority and responsibility than we (N.Americans) typically assume it does/should, it seems many religions would necessarily be in potential competition with the gov’t in specific key cultural areas, hence the posture of the Chinese state toward religions as you described above.

    I don’t know how accurate that is, but it makes sense with what (little) I understand about the traditional and current role of gov’t authority in China. Thoughts?

    • Vam says:

      One major reason why the ccp is leery of religious groups is that it knows its chinese history. Daoism, buddhism and christianity have all been sources of revolutionary movements and insurgencies in china’s past. Civil society has a reforming effect; religion can have a batshit crazy ballstothewall revolutionary effect. The french revolution, with its orgy of violence, was based on a kind of postchristian stab at paganism.

  2. Vam says:

    Watchman nee’s movement spread overseas where it, or branches thereof, turned a little cultish. One problem with movements that try to base themselves on the early church is that they get a bit purist and elitist. Watchman nee wrote a bunch of books, including ‘sit walk stand’ and ‘the normal christian life’ . They reflect a brilliant mind – theyre packed with original insights into human nature and biblical texts – but on the other hand its also clear that he didnt have much chance to discuss his ideas with others while in prison, where he did a lot of writing on the sly. Some of his thinking lacks moderation. He’s well known in some protestant circles, likely due to a mix of his fresh thinking and his back story.

    • dan says:

      I’m a non-denominational Christian (agree with Watchman Nee in this denomination issue) and, although having heard of Nee many times over the years, I’m just finishing “The Normal Christian Life” which is my first intro to his writings. You say “He’s well known…likely due to a mix of his fresh thinking and his back story” and I want to give a big amen to that! Nee had no type of theological degree or pastoral certificate of any kind. His knowledge of the Bible and theological issues came from a voracious appetite to read (estimates of 3,000 books) other Christian authors and theologians. His “fresh thinking” is, for me, finally a pragmatic and useable blueprint for living the joyful, powerful Christian life Jesus’ sacrifice deserves (and very clear understanding of why most Christians, myself included, are not living it). As you say, his “back story” is also a reason for his popularity. Because his ideas were so powerful to me I also wanted to see how they played out in his life, especially the last 20 years of imprisonment. I found an article written by a man who had spent a total of around 7 yrs. with Nee several of those years in a 5′ x 6′ cell with no window, no furniture and an iron door that let in enough light for nee to write. This man was not a Christian before , is now, and his testimony was enough for me to believe that Watchman Nee had found a way to live the real deal…living a life of joy in total surrender to God’s spirit regardless of life’s circumstances. I’m going to spend more time with Mr. Nee.

      • Tom says:

        I hadn’t thought about Watchman Nee for several weeks, but he just came up in Bible study the other night. We were discussing the section of 1 John 3 about how we understand love through Christ’s example of laying down his life for us. The discussion led to Nee’s example, of fighting for his beliefs for years before finally being imprisoned, and that the act of laying one’s life down does not actually require death, but taking action regardless of the risks.
        I think you would enjoy reading “God is Red” (http://seeingredinchina.com/2012/02/28/god-is-red-book-review/) as it also focuses on Christians in the early days of communism.

      • sunlightandrainbows says:

        “This man was not a Christian before , is now, and his testimony was enough for me to believe that Watchman Nee had found a way to live the real deal…living a life of joy in total surrender to God’s spirit regardless of life’s circumstances. I’m going to spend more time with Mr. Nee.”

        Me too!! I’m thankful to God for a man like Watchman Nee, although having lived so many decades ago, he is a true example that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and that He is in, control and Christ is building His church.

  3. […] ~ A brief introduction to Watchman Nee & the Little Flock Movement By Joel 大江 ~ var postDate = new Date(ConvertDateToClientTimeZone("Dec 29, 2011 13:44:51", "8")); /* change "8" as needed to adjust timezone offset */ document.write(postDate.format("DDDD, MMMM D, YYYY") + " ~ " + postDate.format("h:mm tt") + ""); | Atheism/Materialism | China web debris | Chinese history | Christianity | Cultural Revolution | Liberation | Meta-narratives | You’ve maybe heard the name “Watchman Nee” before. That’s because he founded one of the largest Christian groups in Chinese history before dying in a Chinese labour camp. Here’s a summary of a longer article on him and his work, with a link to the PDF of the original article: Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China […]

  4. […] China, or that those who joined did it out of cowardice and fear. I know from Chinese friends, that all Christians shared in misfortune during the Cultural Revolution. To the Red Guard it didn’t matter which church you went to, you believed in something […]

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