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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book review: What Shall This Man Do? by Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee, “What Shall This Man Do?”  (Kingsway, 1961; Tyndale, 1978—I read the 1986 printing), 269 pages.

This book comes out of a number of sermons Nee delivered in China during the period 1938 to 1942, which was a tumultuous time due to World War II, Japan invading China, and Communist rebels acting in such a way that forced the government of Chaing-Kai Shek to Taiwan in 1949.  Additionally, in the previous decades, western missionaries had acted in a way with respect to the locals and the governments of the countries they came from such as to bring less than respect to things considered Christian.  It also serves as background behind the great coming to faith in Jesus that would occur during the time that Mao had most of the culture blocked off from the rest of the world.  Nee did not actually write this book.  It was edited into its form by Angus Kinnear from Nee’s sermons.  In the preface, as a note of caution, Kinnear quotes what Nee said after writing “The Spiritual Man”:  “The headings, the orderliness, the systematic way in which the subject is worked out, the logic of the argument—all are too perfect to be spiritual.”  I might suggest that this is the weakness of our “churches” in the U.S.—the music is practiced until perfect, then a speaker, depending upon tradition, presents something intellectually systematic or emotionally fervent, and everything is so under control no one can say the wrong thing, or even ask a question before others.

            There are 11 chapters to the book, and the order of presentation is the editor’s, not Nee’s.  The personal callings of Peter, Paul, and John represent the framework of the book, and represent the three main historic emphases of God to his people for all time—evangelism (fishers of men), building the church (tent making), and restoration (mending the nets) guiding/repairing us back. 

            Chapter 2 concerns itself with some situations involving Peter in which Jesus or the Spirit intervened to teach Peter and others beyond where Peter would have on his own.

            In Chapter 3, Nee’s message is about what an unsaved person needs to have to be saved, and what the Christian worker needs to be a vessel God can use in a situation.  Nee’s presentation on this idea is different from the other things I have heard and read on this topic.

            Chapter 4 goes back to the introductory analogy of Paul and the tent making ministry of helping build the church.  In the latter part of the chapter, Nee deals with the phrase “Be angry but sin not” and how so many of us will not rebuke and why.  I do not remember if I have ever read or heard someone teach on what this practically means.  If you read this and come to disagree with Nee’s conclusions, one will have to think hard on this matter to know exactly why.

            Chapter 5 is on the idea that we are both individuals who are servants of God’s will and parts of the Body of Christ at the same time.  He also speaks on the initial general vision of God’s will for us—salvation and a specific vision, with the believer moving through times of greater consecration.

            In Chapter 6, Nee deals with the relationship between specific calling and a person’s, a generation’s, and the Church’s character.  Much of the chapter is built around comments on Ephesians 1, 2, and 5.

            It is of note for those of us involved in simple/organic/house church here in North America that we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) look at the revival of faith in China during the Mao years as an example of simple church working properly (rightly or wrongly).  From that, we see the work and writings of Nee as a precursor to that explosion of faith, especially in his discouragement towards denominations or groups that divide believers from working together.  In this book, it is clear Nee personally, at the time of these speeches, spoke in a mode that saw “preachers and workers” in a different class, or if he did not, it appears that way from the way certain ideas are phrased.

            Possibly because this book was developed out of transcripts of speeches, and possibly because Chinese language and culture is so different from ours, on a number of sentences, one might easily disagree with an idea stated.  This may be because it is an accessory thought to a main point being discussed, and it would not fit to develop the details of the point in a speech setting, as opposed to in a book where one might be able to struggle with the fine points of a written teaching.  On the other hand, this is somewhat easier reading than Nee’s intentional books exactly because a speech, in and of itself (as opposed to a college lecture which is given, in part, to supplement texts) is less in depth than a writing.

            Chapter 7 examines 1 Corinthians 12:15-25, on Paul’s body analogy to the variety of giftedness in the church and, therefore, in we who are members of the Body.  One thing he speaks on is how we need to function as God has chosen to gift us, and not how we might prefer to be gifted, as that is a part of submitting to God’s direction for each of us in ministry.  Personally, I found that, beginning in this chapter, the reading gets slower as the teaching begins to present practical conclusions that I needed to stop and consider before moving on.

            Chapter 8 is titled, “Ministering Life” and moves on to 1 Corinthians 13.  God’s strength through a believer remains God’s, but love is for the long term building up of the church.  From this, he discusses the difference between ministering through gifts, as opposed to ministering through one’s life of serving God through what he calls “the formation of Christ” within.  At this point, the book begins to move from being a series of teachings to the presentation of practical points for the believer to apply in being God’s called person in the situations we walk through.

            Chapter 9 begins with the difference in the use of the word “church” versus the word “churches” in scripture, and continues with the role of all believers in restoring another to right relationship with the church, i.e. other believers, and brings insight from verses not normally seen in our part of the world as concerning this matter.

            Then comes what seems to be a jump to the subject of prayer, God’s self limitations, and the role of the believers as a group in minimizing those self limitations.  What is said here is different in attitude, but excellent.  He finishes the chapter with an exhortation for one to see the Church as more than those caught in the evangelistic net, but that all believers together, as the Church, have a fuller purpose that we are to grow into.  One can see in it a precursor to what more current writers have written on eternal purpose.

            Chapter 10 is about the connection of John’s writings:  the last gospel, the last letters, and Revelation—the last book, and the common theme of restoration and God’s view of time, eternity, and divine reality.

            The last chapter begins by discussing what the scriptures mean by “overcomer” and its connection to spiritual warfare.  The book concludes with a section that addresses the question of the book’s title, “What Shall This Man Do?”  Upon reading the last 15 pages, it is clear that the whole preceding part of the book was edited to prepare the reader for the conclusions there.  I believe that any normal person can look back on one’s life and feel that, at times, one did not do the optimal thing.  The final conclusion is both motivating and comforting that even our self-perceived failures are a part of what is in us, for the purpose of walking in God’s call upon one’s life, provided that one is willing.

            I wish I had read this forty years ago, but possibly I would have been too immersed in the traditionalism I had grown up with to have caught on to what Nee was saying.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the overview. i read this book years ago and thought it was good, but subsequently left off reading nee cause of some of his questionable teachings. i only remembered the sketches of peter, paul, and john, but after reading your review, i plan to re-read ch. 9 again, and perhaps 4 also... thanks