the weblog of Alan Knox

Assembling Together 1 – Joining the Church

Posted by on Mar 12, 2007 in books, definition, members | 12 comments

The first chapter of Watchman Nee’s book Assembling Together (chapter 14 of the Basic Lessons series) is called “Joining the Church”. This is a great chapter with which to begin to understand Nee’s ecclesiology.

The phrase “joining the church” is quite interesting. To Nee, this means something completely different to how I’ve seen this phrase used in contemporary churches in the United States. I think even Nee understands how this phrase is normally used. He says, “We do not like the phrase ‘joining the church,’ but use it temporarily to make the issue clear.” [1] So, what does Nee mean by “joining the church”? He first explains how believers immediately become part of God’s family upon salvation. He then specifies exactly what he means by “joining the church”:

A Christian therefore must join the church. Now this term, “joining the church,” is not a scriptural one. It is borrowed from the world. What we really mean is that no one can be a private Christian. He must be joined to all the children of God. For this reason, he needs to join the church. He cannot claim to be a believer all by himself. He is a Christian only by being subordinate to the others. [9]

Never once in the Bible do we find the phrase “join the church.” It cannot be found in Acts nor is it seen in the epistles. Why? Because no one can join the church… Rather, we are already in the church and therefore are joined to one another. [13]

When, by the mercy of God, a man is convicted of his sin and through the precious blood is redeemed and forgiven and receives new life, he is not only regenerated through resurrection life but is also put into the church by the power of God. It is God who has put him in; thus he already is in the church. [13]

Then why do we persuade you to join the church? We are only borrowing this term for the sake of convenience. You who have believed in the Lord are already in the church, but your brothers and sisters in the church may not know you. [14]

At this point, Nee remains close to Scripture. He is correct that “joining the church” is not a scriptural phrase, and is never commanded or exhorted in Scripture. Instead, we become part of the church when we are “born again” into the family of God. It is true that we may still need to seek out brothers and sisters with which to fellowship, but that is not the same as “joining the church”. Of course, the best place for a new believer to begin to find fellowship with other brothers and sisters is with the person or people who made the gospel available to him or her.

Next, Nee answers the question: which church should I join? Most believers today would probably disagree with his answer. First, Nee explains the rise of different churches and denominations based on time, area, human personalities, or a particular emphasis on one aspect of truth. He then says that all believers in a city form a city-church, and that is the church that a new believer should become part of. In fact, he argues that the only valid biblical definition for “church” (singular) is the city-wide church:

The Bible permits the church to be divided solely on the ground of locality… The smallest church takes a locality as its unity; so does the biggest church. Anything smaller than a locality may not be considered a church, nor can it be so recognized if it is bigger than a locality. [11]

This statement is problematic. Nee examines several passages to demonstrate that the singular “church” is used to represent all the believers in a given city. I do not have a problem with this analysis, except I think he left out a few key passages of Scripture. It is not true that the singular “church” is always used to represent all the believers in a city and that the singular “church” is only used to represent all the believers in a city. Here are a couple of passages that use the singular word for “church”, but may not represent all the believers in a city or the believers of only one city:

But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:3 ESV)

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. (Romans 16:3-5 ESV)

I should also mention that in Acts 9:31, some manuscripts have the singular “church” (while others have the plural “churches”) for the believers in the regions of “Judea, Galilee, and Samaria”. There are also other passages that mention the “church” in someone’s house which may or may not be the entire church of a city.

So, I do agree with Nee that Scripture describes all the believers in a certain city as a “church” (singular). However, it appears that there may be smaller groups within that city-church that are nevertheless called “church” (singular). Similarly, in Acts 8:3, it appears that Saul is persecuting believers over a larger area than a city, but Luke still considers Paul to be persecuting the “church” (singular). The usage of the word “church” is more complicated that Nee makes it out to be.

There is one other point (and a major point, I think) with which I disagree with Nee. He claims that individuals are not the dwelling place of God; only the church is God’s habitation:

In the past God dwelt in a magnificent house, the temple of Solomon. Now He dwells in the church, for today the church is God’s habitation. We, the many, are joined together to be God’s habitation. As individuals, though, we are not so. It takes many of God’s children to be the house of God in the Spirit. [5]

Unfortunately, I do not think that Nee considered enough scriptural evidence. It is true that most of the references to the Spirit dwelling within beleivers occurs in the plural. But, of course, most of Scripture was written to communities of believers to be read to the entire community. It is also true that the Spirit dwells with the community; however, just as Solomon’s temple could not contain God, the community alone does not contain God’s Spirit. There are plenty of references to individual believers being filled with the Spirit of God (i.e. Acts 6:3, 9-10).

Besides these two points of disagreement, this is an excellent chapter. Nee encourages all believers to find other believers with which to fellowship. He especially exhorts new believers that they should not try to live in isolation.

I usually find the last paragraph of one of Nee’s chapters to be very helpful. Sometimes, even when I do not agree with Nee’s arguments, I agree completely with his conclusion in the last paragraph. I agree with much of this first chapter, and I also agree with his last paragraph:

You who are already in Christ should learn to seek the fellowship of the children of God. With this fellowship of the body you may serve God well. If you as young believers can see this light, you will move a step forward in your spiritual path. Thank God for his mercy. [15]

The next chapter in this book is called “Laying On of Hands.”

Review of Watchman Nee’s Assembling Together Series:
1: Chapter 1 – Joining the Church
2: Chapter 2 – Laying on of Hands
3: Chapter 3 – Assembling Together
4: Chapter 4 – Various Meetings
5: Chapters 5 & 6 – The Lord’s Day and Hymn Singing
6: Chapters 7 & 8 – Praise and The Breaking of Bread


12 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-12-2007

    Alan,

    I’m going to have to refresh myself, by reading some of Nee’s other books, on what he thought about individual house churches as part of the city church. I don’t think he would disagree that there are such a thing as different house churches within a broader city church. He would just say they all come together to form part of the same church in the city.

    He certainly would agree that the Holy Spirit fills individual believers as well. But, perhaps he means there is a fuller special sense of the church as the habitation of God.

    I’ve got some other questions about “joining the church.” What role does baptism have, if any, in making yourself known to other believers in order to have fellowship with them? Also, what happens if all of the “elders” in a given city do not mutually recognize each other as “elders” of the city church? What do you do about church discipline in such a case?

    I imagine I will find the answers to some of these questions as I continue to read Nee’s other works. He does tend to be pretty thorough in his analysis.

    Also, I am curious to know just what it is about Lee’s (and possibly Nee’s) ecclesiology that has gotten them branded as sectarian by some.

  2. 3-12-2007

    David,

    I think I agree with you on almost everything that you said. This book raised alot of questions for me about Nee. I don’t know anything about Nee other that what I am reading here. His view on the Holy Spirit and the individual is expressed more fully in a later chapter, so you are probably correct. I was surprised at how he described the Spirit as only being with the community in this chapter.

    It looks like you are asking some of your questions rhetorically, to Nee. But, I will tackle two of them on my own, if you don’t mind.

    I’m not sure if “elders” alone are responsible for recognizing other elders. We certainly can’t recognize someone as elder if we do not know them – even though this is done often in churches, even if in title only. Also, I don’t think elders play a role in dicipline that is different than the role played by other believers. At least, I don’t see a specific instruction to elders in Scripture for them to direct discipline. I could have missed something though.

    As far as Lee, I know absolutely nothing about him, except that I have been warned to be careful. I’m assuming that Lee took some of Nee’s speculations and turned them into doctrine, much like others have done throughout church history.

    -Alan

  3. 3-13-2007

    Alan,

    Points well taken. I will rephrase my questions:

    1. What happens if all of the believers in a given city do not recognize the same “elders” of the city church?

    2. What if one segment of the city church puts pronounces corrective disicpline, but another segment of the city church is not in agreement?

  4. 3-13-2007

    David,

    I had almost forgotten about this conversation, and it has only been a day. I’m glad that you remembered it.

    1) I cannot “recognize” someone as an elder if I do not know them. But, since I do not know them, then the question is moot. However, if I do know an “elder”, but do not recognize that person as an elder, then I should take responsibility for that. First, I should approach that person alone, then with two or three others, then take that person to the church. Of course, if it is just a case of my not liking someone, then perhaps someone should approach me alone…

    2) Of course, my answer above also leads to the question of discipline. What if one “group” doesn’t recognize the discipline of another “group”? Notice that in both cases (elders and discipline) we are assuming relationships between the “groups”, which is assumed in a city church. If one group doesn’t accept the disciplinary actions of another group, the problem is not with the discipline but with the relationships. It could simply be a problem of communication, which is easily remedied through relationship.

    I really think that the answer in either case is relationship or fellowship. I’ll address this a little more in the other comment on the “City Churches” post.

    By the way, neither of these problems are remedied by having a structure. Instead, we just agree to live within that structure without relationships, instead of dealing with relationship/fellowship problems that actually exist.

    -Alan

  5. 3-9-2013

    Well now, another book I have to put on my to-do reading list (at the rate it’s growing, I’ll never get through it!). So in saying that, I’m not responding to Nee’s, but just what I understand from the Scriptures.
    1. There are only two “churches” – 1. the Church universal/invisible, which includes all saved from the beginning to the end of the Church Age (Matt. 16); and 2. the local church, where the believers gather together with the Lord Jesus in their midst, for their mutual edification and the building up of others (Matt. 18).
    That’s it. No ‘city’ church which serves as an ‘umbrella’ organization over a bunch of smaller ‘churches.’ They may simply be in fellowship. We learn from Rev. 1-3, that each local church is autonomous and independent of all the others, and each one is answerable to the Lord Jesus alone. The elders of one local assembly have no jurisdiction in any other assembly.
    Now I have to go and read what Nee said.

    Ron

  6. 3-11-2013

    Ron,

    I don’t think Nee was describing a city church “which serves as an ‘umbrella’ organization over a bunch of smaller ‘churches.'” Instead, he was describing the NT usage of the term ekklesia when it’s used to refer to all believers in a city or region.

    -Alan

  7. 3-11-2013

    Alan,

    After locating a PDF of the book and reading the chapter on “Joining the Church,” I think you are correct. However, this brings up a number of questions in my mind, namely, how does Nee’s concept of a local church fit into the city/locality as defined by Nee? He says there can be only one church in any locality (city) and that church must bear the name of that locality. However, if we consider any city (or town or village, for that matter), there are often many “local churches,” none bearing the name he suggests. What’s worse, according to Nee’s definition of a local church, none of them fit the bill because there can be no church smaller than the locality, and the many we do find are based on some “system.” So they can’t be a church! Here is what Nee says:

    “The number of churches in the world today exceeds fifteen hundred. These are all well-organized and approved. They are not reckoned according to locality but according to a system. Brethren, when we advise believers to join the church, we are faced with the formidable task of choosing one from among fifteen hundred churches.
    Let us consider this matter before God. Is there a way out of the confusion? We believe there is, for the Word of God still remains with us. We can search the Scriptures and find out what God has to say about this. Indeed, God’s Word has already revealed His appointed way as to which church we ought to join.” (p. 13)

    He is likely meaning “denominations” when he uses the word “church” here, and according to Nee, none of them are the real church we should “join.”

    “In a word, churches can only be divided according to locality, not by any other factor. A locality, a city, is the unit. As Corinth, Ephesus, and Colosse are all cities, so the boundary of the church is the city. Locality constitutes the basic unit. The smallest church takes a locality as its unit; so does the biggest church. Anything smaller than a locality may not be considered a church, nor can it be so recognized if it is bigger than a locality.” (p. 14)

    So that’s where I came up with the idea of an “umbrella” organization…

    At any rate, his definition of a local church does not make any sense to me at all. And he gives no clear guidelines in determining which church I am to join, or even how to locate one if it even exists.

    “It is quite clear from the Bible that a church may be designated only by the name of the locality in which it is located. It should not be named according to a man or doctrine or system or history. No distinction is allowed on the basis of men, of nations, or of doctrines. The Word of God permits only the distinction of locality. Wherever one sojourns, he belongs to the church in that locality. To change his church affiliation, he has to move somewhere else. God recognizes the distinction of locality alone; He will not justify any other basis.” (p. 15)

    So Alan, how do you see this working? I sure can’t see it. The small town of Roseile, MB, population 50, can have a local church (the church at Roseile, for example) — and in fact, it has four church “buildings!” Can the city of Toronto have a local church that fits with Nee’s definition? Which leads me to ask, How big is a local church? How many believers? If there are 10,000 believers in a locality, how can they ever meet all together? Is a local church that large supposed to meet all at the same time? In a church that large, how would everyone know “those that have the rule over you?”

    Worse yet, according to Nee, if we break up the huge local church into more manageable units, then the smaller units no longer are be considered “churches.” So how does this all work?

  8. 3-15-2013

    Ron,

    For me, whether we’re talking about church as a small group of people who meet together regularly, or a larger group (city-wide) perhaps, I think the word “church” only makes sense when two things are involved: gathering and relationship.

    -Alan

  9. 3-15-2013

    Alan, my first reaction is to respond with, “That seems too simplistic.” (For me, it is.)

    Gathering and Relationship can be wrapped up in six words: “We are the people of God.” Even the Israelites knew that, but there was much more to being an Israelite, much more to learn.
    There was an order to their encampment around the tabernacle — the tribes, or even the various individuals, couldn’t camp where they pleased. There were rules to obey — they couldn’t live as they pleased. There was an awareness of God’s presence, and they couldn’t just go on ahead without Him… they moved when He moved, and stayed put when He stayed put. Now, we’re told these were just shadows…shadows of the real thing. The real thing.
    Paul said to Timothy that he was writing these things to him so that he would know how to conduct himself in the house of God (the local church). God hasn’t left us without instructions. But today, we seem to ignore what He has said and set up “churches” without regard to His Word, or to the Holy Spirit.
    So, to sum up, in my mind there is much more to being a Christian and part of a local church than “gathering and relationship.” Much, much more.

  10. 3-15-2013

    Ron,

    I agree that there is much more to being a child of God and to interacting with one another than “gathering and relationship.” But, I’m talking about the term “church.” All the other stuff is important, but it is not included in the Greek term “ekklesia.” Instead, the ekklesia that Jesus is building should demonstrate those other characteristics, but not because Jesus (or others) used the term “ekklesia.”

    -Alan

  11. 3-15-2013

    Alan,

    Now I have to say, “You’ve lost me.” I’m thinking the reason is I don’t see a connection between your last response and the original one that started this discussion.

    How are we to fully understand the term “ekklesia” and *all* that it means (as Jesus used the term) except in *how* it is used, by the Lord or anyone else? The root word is very simple, “to call out of” but is that all there is? No, clearly. It is a fairly all-encompassing word, used of any “gathering” (for example, the riot in Acts 19).

    But we’re considering how the Lord used the word, and what God means by the word as it pertains to His “ekklesia.” At least I thought we were. How did you determine that only “two things are involved: gathering and relationship?” I would suggest that those two words would fit any organization (e.g. Lions “Club,” AA and even Acts 19 again).

    But God’s “ekklesia” stands unique among a plethora of societies and yes, even “churches” so-called (man-made, man-organized, man-controlled). We need to determine what differentiates God’s “ekklesia” from all the other man-made “ekklesias.”

    For example, the two words you mention tell us nothing of God’s purpose for the church (Eph. 3:10). They tell us nothing about the Head of the church (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18) and how the church is subject to Him (Eph. 5:24). They tell us nothing about the future prospect of the church (as His bride, Eph. 5:27). At least without much further expansion. And I could go on…(and on…).

    There are important facets of God’s “ekklesia” that, as a child of God, I need to understand, far beyond “gathering and relationship.” Otherwise, your initial post is quite meaningless.

  12. 3-15-2013

    Ron,

    I agree, as long as we call it “God’s ekklesia” or “God’s church.” The difference is between the meaning of a word and the referent for a word. The word “ekklesia” simply means gathering or assembling. But, when the NT authors used the term, it (usually) referred to a specific ekklesia, i.e., God’s ekklesia. So, the term “ekklesia” itself means something that I would say must include “gathering and relationship.” But, in the NT, it refers to something much, much more – not less, but more. So, if we want to use the term “church” in a similar way that the authors of the NT used the term ekklesia, it will always include “gathering and relationship.” It will include more than that, because of the group of people that it refers to. But, it will include those two things. I hope that’s a little more clear.

    -Alan