BACKGROUND IN THE EAST
A promising start in China and a changing world situation
IN THE EARLY DAYS of the Lord’s recovery in mainland China, Watchman Nee and his co-workers, including Witness Lee, had no thought of carrying out a move to the Western World. Still less did they have any thought to spread the Lord’s recovery to the United States. Watchman Nee had visited the U.S. in 1933 and suffered racial discrimination, observed doctrinal close-mindedness, and was condescended to by other Christian teachers. Moreover, he viewed the United States as being worldly and superficial and worried the Lord’s testimony would struggle to take root there.
The co-workers in Mainland China felt that the sphere of work God had apportioned to them was, principally, China. The truths of the Lord’s recovery might someday reach the West, but that would have to come through the spread of ministry publications or by returning Western missionaries who had had contact with the Lord’s recovery, not through migration of co-workers. In Witness Lee’s words, “I had no thought of ever coming to [the United States]. Nor did Brother Watchman Nee. Before 1950 none of us thought that our work would be in the Western World. We thought China was the field God had appointed to us. But God thought differently.”
In 1948, after a six-year turmoil among the churches in China that paused Nee’s ministry, a resumption of his ministry sparked a period of revival. More than eighty workers from around the country attended a six-month training at Kuling. The training resulted in a rapid change in the condition of the churches that Witness Lee described as a “spiritual explosion,” “an unprecedented golden age,” and “the biggest, most powerful, and most prevailing revival among us.” The spirit of the gospel and the zeal for service, according to Lee, resulted in some ten thousand people saved every month. A thousand full-time workers carried out the gospel and raised up churches, which by 1949, just a year later, numbered 70,000 saints meeting in hundreds of churches in nearly every one of China’s thirty-three provinces. The work in the Lord’s recovery was on the verge of fulfilling Brother Nee’s dream: To establish a local church in every city in China.
But the rapid spread of the churches soon came to an abrupt halt. At the conclusion of World War II, the civil war between the Nationalist Kuomintang Party and the Chinese Communist Party resumed, and by the late 1940s the tide had turned decisively in favor of the Communists. The president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, had no intention to intervene, but a hope existed in China that if Truman were defeated in his reelection bid, the U.S. might back the Nationalists. After Truman’s reelection in 1948, however, a Communist victory appeared inevitable.
Watchman Nee, aware of the implications for the churches, called a series of urgent meetings in Shanghai. A decision was made that the co-workers would remain in the country, even at the risk of martyrdom. But Nee felt differently concerning Lee’s future: “…regardless of Brother Lee’s personal feelings, we must ask him to leave the country.” Nee’s reasoning for sending Lee out of China was that if the Communists wiped out the co-workers and churches in China, through Lee, “we will still have something left.”
In April, 1949, Brother Lee made arrangements for his family to escape to Taiwan by boat. On October 1, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the last Nationalist forces withdrew to Taiwan by the end of the year. In early 1950, Nee and Lee labored side by side in British-controlled Hong Kong, putting the church services in order and making arrangements for the publication work. Watchman Nee, unwilling to abandon the churches on the mainland, left Hong Kong in secret in March, 1950. He was arrested by the Communist government two years later on fabricated charges and imprisoned in labor camps for the final twenty years of his life until his martyrdom in 1972.
John Kan recalls the changing political situation in China and leaving Nanjing.
Moses Kuo shares about his childhood in the church life, fleeing to Hong Kong, and Watchman Nee's return to China.
Caleb Zia describes his family history in Swatow, coming to know the Lord through hardship, and learning about his human spirit in L.A.
Moses Kuo decribes Watchman Nee and the impact of his sharing with Witness Lee in Hong Kong in 1950.
A new start in Taiwan
Witness Lee spent much of his first year in Taiwan in dejection. It seemed that everything the co-workers had labored for in China had been lost. And now he found himself in Taiwan, an underdeveloped island. “The streets,” he said, “were paved with pebbles, and instead of wearing shoes and socks, most people wore wooden clogs.” The Lee family lived in a one-room, 280 square-foot dwelling. There, Witness Lee often lay on his bed in sorrow, growing more dejected with each click of clogs on the street. “What are we doing here?”
Eventually, Lee began to travel the island to visit saints scattered among the major cities of Taiwan. What he found was promising. He was encouraged by the spiritual condition of the approximately 500 brothers and sisters meeting in the church life, as well as by the country’s population density and developing infrastructure. Perhaps it was time to begin a new work in Taiwan.
As a first step, the leading brothers reached out to the many Christian refugees in Taipei. In an opening meeting, Witness Lee adjusted their expectations. The ministry in the Lord’s recovery, he told them frankly, was quite unlike what they might be used to in Christianity. Whereas various denominations might serve an array of “attractive cuisine,” the churches in the Lord’s recovery served only “white rice” and “steamed buns.” In other words, it served nothing more than the pure Word of God, the pursuit of the growth in life, and the simple worship of God. As a result, Lee observed, all those who “wanted to eat ‘Hunan chili,’ ‘Szechuan noodles,’ and ‘Shanghai vegetable rice’ were gone.”
In the following days, the church in Taipei focused on preaching the gospel in the community, canvassing the city with gospel banners. More than 700,000 gospel tracts were printed—enough for every resident of the city. Brothers and sisters were divided into gospel teams and sent out into the city, zone by zone. They led gospel marches on streets and in parks, and held gospel meetings in stadiums.
By February 1950, 1200 people had been saved and baptized and over the course of the year the rate of increase in the church in Taipei multiplied thirty-fold. A brother of means in the Philippines supplied the church with funds to build a meeting hall. The funds also allowed for the purchase of land for three additional meeting halls in Taipei and one in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.
Witness Lee, heartened by the Lord’s blessing, carried out trainings to perfect full-time workers. Small group meetings sprung up within the churches, where new believers received instruction and perfecting. By 1955, under showers of blessing, the number of people meeting in the churches in Taiwan had grown to 40,000.
Witness Lee, Taiwan, 1950s.
John Kan shares his impressions of various Christian groups in Taiwan, hearing the gospel, and being baptized.
Witness Lee, Taiwan, 1950s.
Gospel march in Taiwan covered by Time Magazine, 1950.
Gospel march, 1950s.
John Kan describes a life-study training held by Witness Lee in 1954.
Witness Lee, Taiwan, 1950s.
The ground of the church challenged and the resulting dissension
In 1955, two leading brothers in Taipei proposed that the church invite T. Austin-Sparks to Taiwan to hold a conference. The proposal came after a brother named Stephen Kaung, having met Austin-Sparks in the United Kingdom, had written glowing letters concerning him to the churches in Hong Kong, Manila, and Taipei. Austin-Sparks was a British minister respected by Watchman Nee and someone whom Nee had spent several months with in England in 1938.
Brother Lee had reservations. There was little question that Austin-Sparks’ ministry was profound. Indeed, his ministry concerning the inner life and the resurrection of Christ was quite rich and helpful. Nevertheless, Lee recalled Brother Nee’s response to a similar proposal made years earlier to invite Austin-Sparks to China. “The time has not yet come,” Nee had said. This was based, perhaps, on a visit from a group of Brethren teachers to China in 1932 that had been disastrous, resulting in the Closed Brethren effectively excommunicating all the churches in the Lord’s recovery.
Lee suspected that Austin-Sparks and Nee had not seen eye-to-eye concerning the ground of the church. From the 1930s, Brother Nee had taught that the genuine church life must be practiced on the “ground of locality,” which held that in every locality or city there should be only one church. As was practiced in the first century, such churches should hold no special name other than the simple descriptor of “the church” in that locality. Austin-Sparks, however, viewed the teaching of the ground of locality as “legal” and “technical.”
As it related to the burgeoning work in Taiwan and the growth of the churches on the ground of locality, Lee told the brothers that it would be best not to invite Austin-Sparks. Nevertheless, after repeated entreaties from the brothers, Lee relented and drafted a letter of invitation.
T. Austin-Sparks visited Taiwan for three weeks in the fall of 1955. In his conference messages, he restricted himself to spiritual matters and refrained from touching the ground of the church. Witness Lee and the co-workers felt that the visit was, on the whole, positive. Austin-Sparks, for his part, was deeply impressed by the condition of the churches in Taipei, particularly the enthusiasm and spiritual hunger of the brothers and sisters, which contrasted sharply with the apathy toward deeper spiritual things found in the West.
A second visit, early in 1957, did not go as well. During a meeting between the co-workers in Taiwan and overseas guests, a brother asked Austin-Sparks a hypothetical question about multiple assemblies meeting in a single city. “Which one is right and which one is wrong, or are they all wrong?” Austin-Sparks responded, “None is right and none is wrong; everything is relative…Those who have a greater measure of Christ are more right, those who have a lesser measure of Christ are less right, and those who do not have any measure of Christ are not right.” Seeing that his answer directly contradicted the Biblical teaching of the ground of locality, Brother Lee pointed out that although Daniel was a very spiritual Old Testament person, he lived in Babylon and not on the proper ground of Jerusalem. He also noted that brothers admired by Austin-Sparks, such as F.B. Meyer, possessed a significant measure of Christ while still remaining in “organized Christianity,” something Austin-Sparks long condemned. The following morning, while speaking in a training meeting, Austin-Sparks doubled down on his position, claiming that holding the ground of locality makes Christ and His Church small and excludes Christians who have not seen the ground.
This interpretation was a misunderstanding of the teaching concerning the ground of the church. “My heart chilled,” Lee later recalled. “At that moment I was extremely pained and grieved inwardly.” Concerned that this incident and the negative reaction it drew might undo the training, Lee spoke with Austin-Sparks over tea that afternoon. He noted that despite Austin-Sparks’ disapproval of the recovery’s emphasis on the ground of the church, he still respected him and esteemed his ministry. Austin-Sparks assured Lee that there was no problem between them.
For the remainder of the visit, both he and the co-workers avoided the topic of the ground of the church, except on one occasion, when, following a compliment from Austin-Sparks on the excellence of Taiwanese tea, Lee responded, “You enjoy our tea. However, it is regrettable that you are willing to break our teacups. If you break our teacups, we will have nothing to contain the tea.” In this, Lee illustrated the practical necessity of local churches as small vessels to contain the experience of the inexhaustibly rich Christ.
But the damage was done. A small group of ambitious young co-workers seized upon Austin-Sparks’ words. To Brother Lee’s perception, they had long chafed under the leadership of the older co-workers, and Austin-Sparks’ critique of the ground of the church armed them with a point of contention. In the wake of the 1957 visit, they began, surreptitiously, to undermine the work in Taiwan. They came to oppose the ground of the church, claiming that they had seen a glorious vision of “the full Christ”— that is, Christ without the limits of a local church.
The resulting dissension nullified the one accord, slowed what had been a promising rate of increase, and led to the abandoning of the practice of the small groups. The churches in Taiwan were thrown into a ten-year period of confusion, discouragement, and desolation. T. Austin-Sparks would later confide in Witness Lee that, as his airplane took off from Taipei in 1957, the flow of life within him stopped.
Jim Reetzke speaks about Austin-Sparks' visits to Taiwan and confusion about the ground of the church.
Lee and Austin-Sparks.
John Kan recounts Austin-Sparks' visits to Taiwan.
Witness Lee visits the West in 1958
In the following year, 1958, Witness Lee took a trip around the world, in part personal, in part to observe the situation among believers in various parts of the earth. Along the way, he visited saints who had migrated from Hong Kong to San Francisco, a group of believers meeting at Westmoreland Chapel in downtown Los Angeles, and a group of believers and former missionaries meeting in New York City.
He was also invited by T. Austin-Sparks to visit his conference center at Honor Oak, in a suburb of London, in return for Lee’s invitation to Taiwan three years prior. Lee felt warmly welcomed at Honor Oak, yet nevertheless found himself in the midst of a sea of considerable disharmony between the elders at Honor Oak and Austin-Sparks. The elders felt that Austin-Sparks was authoritarian, dominating the congregation with his strong personality. Austin-Sparks considered the elders to be insubordinate. Both parties confided in Lee, who did his best to stand apart from the conflict. Lee concluded, after four weeks at Honor Oak, that “there was no practical building” among the brothers there.
Following the visit, Lee accompanied Austin-Sparks to his retreat in the Scottish village of Kilcreggan. In daily conversations, Lee attempted to convince Austin-Sparks to accept the ground of the church, but to no avail. Lee described their final conversation at length:
The last time we talked, he took me to a large house with a quiet room upstairs. This time I began to speak first, and I asked, “Brother, when you go out to work, do you hope that people would be helped by your ministry?” When he said, “Yes,” I asked, “After they receive your help, where should they go?” When he did not reply, I asked, “If they cannot go someplace, how can they meet together?” He still did not reply. Then I asked, “Brother, can the light and the vision that we have seen concerning the Body of Christ be practiced in the denominations?” He replied, “Certainly not.” Then I asked, “If it cannot be practiced in the denominations, where can it be practiced?” He had no answer. Since I was shortly about to leave, I was quite burdened that he would face the consequences of his thinking.
Then he said, “Brother, please do not think that I do not care for the church. I care for the church, but the church must be one hundred percent out of the Spirit; it must be a work done by the Spirit in order for it to be absolutely out of the Spirit.” This was a serious matter to him, so I responded, “Brother, you have been in our midst twice. You have visited Taiwan from north to south, and you have seen over fifty churches among us. Is it possible that all these churches are of the flesh, having nothing of the Spirit?” He could not reply, because he had testified in Taiwan that he had never seen believers as good as the ones in Taiwan in his entire life of ministry and preaching.
–Witness Lee, Serving in the Flow of the Age, Anaheim, California: Living Stream Ministry
David Dong shares about Lee's 1958 trip to the West and his charge to the serving saints in Taiwan upon his return.
Witness Lee, 1958.
Felisa Sun recalls Lee's impressions from his trip, his burden for the building in the West, and the saints' response.