Witness Lee on the local church: The Testimony of Church History concerning the Ground of the Church
Witness Lee on the local church: Oneness





Watchman Nee 

Witness Lee 



Testimony of Church History—Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee
From the 1930s to 1952, Brother Watchman Nee never wavered from his vision of the ground of the church and was faithful to speak it and minister it until his death. This steadfast conviction is borne out by the following excerpts from his publications in which he declared again and again, year after year, that the only churches truly recognized in the Scripture by God stand on the genuine ground of oneness in each locality.

The Normal Christian Church Life (1938)

And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church” (Matt. 18:17). The word “church” is used here in quite a different sense from the eighteenth verse of Matt. 16. The sphere of the church referred to here is clearly not as wide as the sphere of the Church mentioned in the previous passage. The Church there is a church that knows nothing of time or place, but the church here is obviously limited both to time and place, for it is one that can hear you speak. The Church mentioned in chapter 16 includes all the children of God in every locality, while the church mentioned in chapter 18 includes only the children of God living in one locality, and it is because it is limited to one place that it is possible for you to tell your difficulties to the believers of whom it is composed. Obviously the church here is local, not universal. (45)

The Church of God has been divided into the churches of God on the one ground of difference of locality. Locality is the only scriptural basis for the division of the Church into churches. (46)

Not only were the seven churches in Asia founded on the basis of locality, but all the churches mentioned in Scripture were founded on that same basis. Throughout the Word of God we can find no name attached to a church save the name of a place, e.g. the church in Jerusalem, the church in Lystra, the church in Derbe, the church in Colosse, the church in Troas, the church in Antioch. This fact cannot be overemphasized that in Scripture no other name but the name of a locality is ever connected with a church, and division of the Church into churches is solely on the ground of difference of locality. (46)

In the New Testament there is one method and one alone of dividing the Church into churches, and that God-ordained method is division on the basis of locality. (47)

What is a New Testament church? It is not a building, a Gospel-hall, a preaching center, a mission, a work, an organization, a system, a denomination, or a sect. It is the meeting together for worship, prayer, fellowship and mutual edification, of all the people of God in a given locality, on the ground that they are Christians in the same locality. (47)

We read of the church in Ephesus, the church in Rome, the church in Jerusalem, the church in Corinth, the church in Philippi and the church in Iconium. Now what kind of places are Ephesus, Rome, Jerusalem, Corinth, Philippi and Iconium? They are neither countries, nor provinces, nor districts, but simply places of convenient size for people to live together in a certain measure of safety and sociability. In modern language we should call them cities. That cities were the boundaries of churches in the apostolic days is evident from the fact that on the one hand Paul and Barnabas “appointed…for them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23), and on the other hand Paul instructed Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). (48)

In the Word of God we see no church that extends beyond the area of a city, nor do we find any church which does not cover the entire area. Any place is qualified to be a unit for the founding of a church which is a place where people group together to live, a place with an independent name, and a place which is the smallest political unit. Such a place is a scriptural “city” and is the boundary of a local church. Large cities, such as Rome and Jerusalem are only units, while small cities such as Iconium and Troas are likewise units. (48)

There were a great number of believers in Jerusalem. We read of a multitude who turned to the Lord, yet they are all referred to as “the church in Jerusalem,” not “the churches in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was a single place, therefore it could only reckon as a single unit for the founding of a single church. You cannot divide the church unless you divide the place. If there is only one locality there can only be one church. In Corinth there was only the church in Corinth. If a locality is indivisible, then the church that is formed in that locality is indivisible. (50)

The churches of God are local, intensely local. If any factor enters in to destroy their local character, then they cease to be scriptural churches. (51)

Since the churches of God are local, we must be careful to preserve their local character, their local sphere and their local boundary. Once a church loses these, it ceases to be a scriptural church. (54)

Whenever a special leader, or a specific doctrine, or some experience or creed or organization, becomes a center for drawing together the believers of different places, then its center is other than Christ and its sphere other than local; and whenever the divinely-appointed sphere of locality is displaced by a sphere of human invention, there the divine approval cannot rest. (56)

There are no other churches in Scripture but local churches! (56)

In the wisdom of God He has decreed that all His churches be local. This is the divine method of safeguarding them against sects. (57)

If we impose any conditions of membership upon a believer in the locality, we are immediately in an unscriptural position, because his being a member of the local church is conditioned only by his being a believer in the locality. A local church is a church which comprises all the children of God in a given locality. (59)

The universal Church comprises all those who have the unity of the Spirit. The local church comprises all those who, in a given locality, have the unity of the Spirit. The Church of God and the churches of God do not differ in nature, but only in extent. The former consists of all throughout the universe who are indwelt by the Spirit of God; the latter consists of all in one locality who are indwelt by the Spirit. (63)

Locality is the divinely-appointed ground for the division of the Church, because it is the only inevitable division. Geographical distinctions are natural, not arbitrary, and it is simply because the physical limitations of the children of God make geographical divisions inevitable, that God has ordained that His Church be divided into churches on the ground of locality. Any division of the children of God other than geographical limit lies not merely a division of sphere, but a division of nature. Local division is the only division which does not touch the life of the Church. (63)

If we wish to maintain a scriptural position, then we must see to it that the churches we found in various places only represent localities, not doctrines. If our “church” is not separated from other children of God on the ground of locality alone, but stands for the propagation of some particular doctrine, then we are decidedly a sect, however true to the Word of God our teaching may be. The purpose of God is that a church should represent the children of God in a locality, not represent some specific truth there. (67)

A church of God in any place comprises all the children of God in that place, not merely those who hold the same doctrinal views. (67)

The sphere of the church is local, and the local church should on no account be divided. The question naturally arises, if the spiritual life of a local (not denominational) church is very low, can a few of the more spiritual members not gather together and form another assembly? The answer from the Word of God is emphatically, No! God’s Word only warrants the establishment of churches on local ground. Even lack of spirituality is no adequate reason for dividing the church. Should local methods, government and organization be far from ideal, that still constitutes no reason for division. We must lay it to heart that the difference of locality is the only ground for dividing the Church of God. No other ground is scriptural. (71)

Paul came from Antioch to Corinth and there he preached the Gospel. People believed and were saved, and soon there was a group of saints in Corinth. Into what kind of church did Paul form them? Into the church in Corinth. Paul did not form an Antiochian church in Corinth, but simply established a church in Corinth. Thereafter, Peter came to Corinth and preached the Gospel, with the result that another group of people believed. Did Peter say, Paul came from Antioch, but I am come from Jerusalem, so I must set up another church. I will establish a Jerusalemic church in Corinth? No, he contributed all those he led to the Lord to the already existing local church in Corinth. After a while Apollos came along. Again people were saved, and again all the saved ones were added to the local church. So in Corinth there was only one church of God; there were no schismatic denominations. (93)

If we are in a place where there are missions, or churches standing on sectarian or denominational ground, but no church standing on the ground of the Body and the locality, then our duty is just the same, namely, to found and build a local church. Many will still persist in their old ways, hence the persons standing on clear church ground may be far fewer than the total number of Christians in the locality. But the area of the ground on which they stand is just as wide as that on which the church ought to stand, so it is still our duty to maintain that ground. (94)

May God grant us grace to see that His churches are all local churches. (96)

If in a certain place there were a few believers and one of them had a house large enough to accommodate them all, they quite naturally assembled there, and the Christians in that locality were called “the church in the house of so-and-so. (116)

Assembling Together (1948)

The Bible permits the church to be divided solely on the ground of locality. Corinth is a city, so are Ephesus, Colosse, Rome and Philippi. All the churches are divided wholly according to locality. 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. (11)

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. (13)

The Word of God permits only the distinction of locality. (13)

God recognizes the distinction of locality alone; He will not justify any other basis. (13)

Love One Another (1948)

If there is to be a church in a locality, its scope must be as comprehensive as the body of Christ: it must include all God’s children in that locality—nothing more, nothing less. (147)

The ground of the church, therefore, is the body of Christ in a locality. (198)

The King and the Kingdom of Heaven (early 1930s)

The church in view in verses 18-20 is the church local, which is the miniature of the church universal spoken of in Ephesians 5:23 and Matthew 16:18. (222)

Come, Lord Jesus (early 1930s)

The church in Ephesus”—the church has two different aspects: one is the mystic church, the other is the local church. One is the body of Christ, the other is the house of God. The churches referred to in these two chapters are the churches in each locality. Great is the distinction between “the church in Ephesus” and “the church of Ephesus,” for the church only sojourns at Ephesus, it does not belong to Ephesus. For this reason, names such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Chinese Church, and so forth are unscriptural. (20)

The Orthodoxy of The Church (1945)

Furthermore, I believe the lack at that time was that the brothers did not see the “local” ground and boundary of the church. They had seen clearly on the negative side the sins of the church, but on the positive side, as to how the church should love one another and be of one accord on the ground and boundary of locality, they had not adequately seen. The Roman Catholic Church pays attention to the unity of a united church on this earth, while the Brethren paid attention to an idealistic unity of a spiritual church in heaven. They had not seen, or had not seen clearly enough, that the love for one another in the epistles is the love for one another in the church in one locality; the unity is the unity of the church in one locality; the joining together is the joining together of the church in one locality; the edification is the edification of the church in a locality; and even the excommunication is the excommunication of the church in one locality. In any case, only these two kinds of people talk about church unity: the Roman Catholic Church speaks of the unity of all the churches on this earth, while the Brethren speak of the spiritual unity in heaven. As a result, the former is but a unity in outward appearance, while the latter is an idealistic unity, but in fact is divisive. Both have not noticed the oneness of each and every local church in each and every locality as recorded in the Bible. (83)

One church for several localities, or several churches in one locality—both are not ordained of God. God’s Word clearly reveals that one locality can have only one church, and there can only be one church in one locality. To have one church in several localities demands a unity which the Bible does not demand; to have several churches in one locality divides the oneness which the Bible demands. (84)

At that time we had a question: What does the Bible say? Should the children of God join a movement? The unity of Christians ought to be in Christ and not in a movement. So we spent more time to study the Bible. We became increasingly clear that that which is bigger than the locality is not the church, and that which is smaller than the locality is also not the church. (101)

The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation

These seven churches do not bear a common denomination since they are severally called the church “in Ephesus”—“in Smyrna”—“in Pergamos”—“in Laodicea”: there is one church in each locality. There should not be several churches in one locality nor several localities for one church. God has ordained that in one locality there is but one church. Hence there is only the church in Ephesus or the church in Smyrna, never the churches in Ephesus or the churches in Smyrna. It is also ordained by God that a local church cannot be joined to other local churches to form one church. Therefore the Bible says “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev. 1:4) and not—“the church in Asia”—since Asia at that time was a Roman province and in a province there were obviously a number of localities. (84)

What God has ordained for the church is that on the inward side it must submit to the authority of the Holy Spirit while on the outward appearance side it must take locality as its boundary. If we understand the Bible and know the Holy Spirit we cannot but confess that the church on earth is to be expressed in one locality with one church. One church in several localities or seven churches in one locality is not scriptural. For to have one church in several localities demands a unity above that of Scripture; and to have several churches in one locality breaks the unity called for in the Scriptures. (85)

Watchman Nee’s Testimony (1936)

Between 1921 and 1923 there were revival meetings in different places, and many thought that as these meetings were leading people to the Lord they should be regarded as all that was necessary. But God led me to see that His purpose requires those already saved to stand on the ground of unity in local churches and to represent God’s Church on earth and maintain witness to God. When I studied the Acts of the Apostles, I saw that it is God’s wish to establish local churches in each city. It was as though a light shone on me clearly and I understood His purpose. (30)

The Normal Christian Faith (1977)

In Revelation chapter 1, there are seven churches in seven localities. We can see that the Bible does denominate the churches. But it only denominates them according to one way. There is no other way. Rome is the name of a place, so is Corinth, Ephesus, Colosse, or Philippi. They are all names of places. The churches are identified according to the names of those places. Other than the difference in localities, there is no other way for the churches to be differentiated. The church has its locality as its unit. Other than a division according to this unit, the Bible gives no further ramifications. (288)

What Shall This Man Do (1938-1942)

If we look carefully into this, we shall discover that the basis of division (if we can use that word at all) is a single one—that of locality alone. If the New Testament is to be our guide, the only ground of division contemplated is geographical. There is in the Word of God no room for the grouping of Christians together into things called “churches” on such grounds, for example, as history or doctrine, mission—connection or personal allegiance, or even a special message or ministry. The names given to churches in Scripture are invariably those of cities, that is, of local centers of community life. We read of “the church of God which is in Corinth,” “the church of the Thessalonians,” “the seven churches that are in Asia” (each, of course, named after a single city), and so forth. It is such expressions alone that designate the Church of God distributed on earth, and Scripture knows no exceptions. But this brings us to another thing, and it is this, that the very same word “church” is used locally as is used universally (for of course, in Greek there is no distinction by capitals and lower case). We read of “the Church which is His Body” but we read also “the church of God which is at Corinth” and “the church in thy house” (Eph. 1:23, 1 Cor. 1:2, Philemon 2). Surely this means that the church in a locality is the Church which is His Body (with all the profound wealth of meaning that goes into that term) finding her local expression in that place at that time. (132)

Watchman Nee and the Church Ground after World War II

Several quotations from Watchman Nee’s messages on the ground of the church given in the period from 1948 to 1951 testify of his faithfulness to this vision beyond the end of the Second World War:

Further Talks on the Church Life (1948-1951)

The Bible clearly shows us this one thing, that the church absolutely belongs to a locality, such as the church at Jerusalem—Jerusalem is a place; the church at Corinth—Corinth is a place; the church at Antioch—Antioch is a city; the church at Ephesus—Ephesus is a seaport. In the Bible, the ground of the church is the locality where the church is. The churches all take the locality as the boundary. (19)

There can never be more than one church in one locality. (21)

On the other hand, people desire to have a church smaller than the city or the locality. They wish to divide a locality into many “churches,” many “assemblies,” many “congregations” or “churches in houses” used as a beautiful title. But these are all of the same nature, that is, to have divisions, to establish their own sects according to the flesh. (41)

Who can point out in the Bible that there are two churches in one locality? No one! Today, we can only say that there are two denominations in one locality, four sects in one locality, or a hundred manifestations of the flesh in one locality, but we can never say that there are two or more churches in one locality. (43)

I hope the brothers and sisters will see that in the Bible the minimum requirement of unity is the unity in the locality. The children of God must have their spiritual unity in each locality. This is the basic demand in the Bible. (114)

Congregationalism is actually very close to the Bible, but it went a little beyond the Bible. The Congregationalist brothers studied the Bible, but failed to discover the word “locality.” They failed to see that Jerusalem is a city, not a congregation; Antioch is a city, not a congregation; Ephesus is a port, not a congregation; Colosse is a city on a hill, not a congregation. They thought that Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Colosse were congregations; so they concluded that congregations were independent of each other. (122)

If we study the matter of the church, we must be able to understand this principle, “one locality, one church.” All mistakes came from violating this principle. “One locality, one church” is the pendulum. When it swings to one side, it is wrong because it causes three or four localities to have one church, or the whole world to have one church; when it swings to the opposite side, it is also wrong because it causes one locality to have several or many churches. (124)

Now, within these last twenty to thirty years, the Lord has led us to see the local church. It is clear enough. The church today is taking the Apostles’ way. The church is local. Never be proud to say that this is preached by us. This is the grace of God. God allowed His children to grope for more than a thousand years. Thank God! We have inherited what they gained and have found the way. (127)

We must not relax these two points—i.e., denominations are sin, and the church is local. (134)

Every locality must have only one church and only one administration; it is impossible to have several churches and several administrations in one locality. (135)

Scripture consistently testifies that the only ground of division in the Body of Christ is the ground of locality. The unique unit of the church is the city. Watchman Nee stood unwavering concerning the strategic truth of the local church throughout his entire ministry. He presented more clearly and thoroughly than any of his predecessors the truth that the only legitimate ground for a local church is the ground of locality. The sphere of a local church equals the boundary of the city in which it exists. Consequently, the only designation given to the church throughout the New Testament is the city in which it exists. There can be no other designation for a local church and no other ground on which it can stand.