The CBs reproduce a little article by N. Tomes in which he argues against the notion of a singular minister of the age. But has he proved anything at all? If the saints read carefully what he has to say and weigh his arguments soberly, I believe that they will see that he is trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
Tomes rejects the notion that the vision of the age and the ministry of the age can belong to a singular minister of the age. I believe that he agrees that there is a vision of the age and with it a ministry of the age; hence, Tomes takes exception to a singular minister of the age. He is certainly within his right to believe what he wants to believe, but I take exception to how he tries to persuade us of his personal belief. I am actually quite surprised at how he argues his point.
Before he wades too deep into the matter, he admits that “we should ask, Is this teaching according to the New Testament?” but he conveniently “defer[s] the question to another occasion.” Deflecting attention from an obvious authoritative source always raises a red flag when I read an argument, so I had to pause and consider why Tomes did not consider the issue from the perspective of the New Testament and be done with it. It seems to me that he could have spared himself a lot of effort if he could have shown that the notion of a singular minister of the age does not accord with the New Testament. Tomes (and the CBs who put him forth as their champion) elsewhere challenged the brothers to support their views by showing that their views are founded on the Scriptures. But here he conveniently lets himself off the same hook. Is there some double standard here? I think so. As his readers, what we should ask is, Why didn’t Tomes appeal to the New Testament on this occasion? Perhaps he realizes that he would have no support there. Or perhaps he remembers that Brother Lee already considered all these matters in light of the Scriptures and offered a Scriptural basis for it. Of course, Brother Lee could be wrong about it all, but Tomes would have to take exception with Brother Lee, and he probably does not want to be so bold.
Freeing himself from the requirement he places on others, Tomes instead appeals to Watchman Nee to buttress his claim: “Did Watchman Nee teach that there is one, unique ‘minister of the age’? Did Brother Nee see himself as the unique ‘minister of the age’?” (Tomes’s emphasis). Of course, we all respect Brother Nee, so I find his appeal to Brother Nee acceptable. I trust Brother Nee’s grasp of the truth and am always interested in hearing what Brother Nee has to say. I do not, however, trust Tomes’s grasp of what Brother Nee has to say, and therein lies the problem.
In response to his first question, Tomes offers two “supports.” In this note I will address only the first support. which is Brother Nee’s general comments on the matter: “In every age there is the ministry of that age,” and later in the same place, “Luther was a minister of his age. Darby was also a minister of his age” (Collected Works, vol. 57, p. 260). Then, Tomes argues:
“Note the indefinite article, ‘a minister of his age.’ The Chinese can also be rendered, ‘Luther was one minister of his age, Darby was also one minister of his age’ When directly addressing this issue, Brother Nee does not refer to either Luther or Darby as the unique ‘minister of the age.’ We cannot find a statement by Watchman Nee affirming one, unique ‘Minister of the Age.’” (Tomes’s emphasis)
I think that many of Tomes’s readers will find something creepy about his reasoning, even if they are not able to clearly put their finger on it. The fact is, Tomes is not being completely fair in his interpretation, because he fails to allow that the indefinite article is ambiguous here. If “in every age there is the ministry of that age,” then as we consider the various ministers across the ages (as Brother Nee does in the context), we could naturally refer to each as a minister of his age. If I say, “Luther was the minister of his age,” and “Darby was the minister of his age”; I could easily say in the same breath that each was a minister of his age: “Luther was a minister of his age. Darby was also a minister of his age.” The ambiguity of the English indefinite article in this context should prevent Tomes from wresting his particular meaning from Brother Nee’s words, but it doesn’t. Either it eludes him, or he is deluding others. It does not necessarily follow that because Watchman Nee used the indefinite article (or the quantifier in Chinese) here, the notion of the minister of the age “did not match his view of God’s recovery work throughout history and in his own era,” as he finally concludes. Brother Nee’s general comments, taken in isolation as given by Tomes, could go either way. His interpretation is not definitive at all, and even in their massaged form Brother Nee’s words do not make Tomes’s point. In their full context, Brother Nee’s words seem to have a different sense.
It may be helpful now to quote the entire portion that Tomes uses for his support. (This may be the best part of my post on the matter.) The quotation is from the online edition at http://www.ministrybooks.org/collected-works.cfm (click on vol. 57: “The Resumption of Watchman Nee’s Ministry,” then on link “27” for “Brokenness and Ministry [Chapter Twenty-Five]):
CONCERNING FOLLOWING THE MINISTRY OF THE AGE
Seeing the Ministry of the Age
Question: How should Jonathan in the Old Testament (Saul’s son—1 Sam. 14:1-46) have chosen his way?
Watchman Nee: In the Old Testament both Solomon and David represented the Lord. The two persons represented the one ministry in two separate ways. In the Old Testament there were many ministries. After Moses, the judges were raised up. After that, there was Solomon, the kings, and the prophets. After the Israelites were taken into captivity, the vessels for the recovery were raised up. The Old Testament is filled with different kinds of ministries. In every age there is the ministry of that age. These ministries of the ages are different from the local ministers. Luther was a minister of his age. Darby was also a minister of his age. In every age the Lord has special things that He wants to accomplish. He has His own recoveries and His own works to do. The particular recovery and work that He does in one age is the ministry of that age.
Forsaking the Past Ministries
Jonathan stood between Saul and David. He was one man standing between two ministries. He should have followed the second ministry. However, because Jonathan’s relationship with the first ministry was too deep, he could not disentangle himself. In order to catch up with the ministry of the age, there is the need for us to see the vision. Michal was married to David, yet she did not see anything. She only saw David’s condition before God, and she could not tolerate it. As a result, she was left behind (2 Sam. 6:16, 20-23).
All Being a Matter of God’s Mercy
It is God’s mercy that a person can see and come into contact with the ministry of that age. Yet it is altogether a different thing for a man to take up the courage to forsake the past ministry. It is a precious thing to see, and it is a blessed thing to come into contact with something. Yet whether or not one can set aside his past ministry is entirely up to God’s mercy.
This is the entire piece on the ministry of the age, taken from a series of apparently unrelated questions and answers posed to Brother Nee during a co-workers’ meeting in April 1948. In reading the entire piece, we are able to make some interesting observations about what Brother Nee taught concerning the ministry of the age and the ministers of the age. First, he indicates that there is one ministry in the Old Testament. Then, he points out that various persons represented the one ministry in different ways. But it is interesting to note that in substantiating this from the biblical record, he gives chronological examples: “After Moses, the judges…”; “after that,…Solomon, the kings, and the prophets”; “after the Israelites were taken into captivity, the vessels for the recovery….” Each example shows that for each age there was a ministry of the age, and for each ministry of the age there was a representative person of that ministry of the age. In answer to the question, “How should Jonathan in the Old Testament have chosen his way?” Brother Nee expresses the ministries of the two ages that Jonathan stood between in terms of the persons who represent each: “Jonathan stood between Saul and David. He was one man standing between two ministries. He should have followed the second ministry.” In Jonathan’s case, the ministry of the age was changing, and each ministry of its respective age was represented by a unique person—Saul, then David. Would we say then that Brother Nee did not believe that there was a unique representative of the ministry of the age in each age? Certainly there were others at the time of Saul and David of whom it could be said that they too represented the ministry of their age. But Brother Nee inserts an important qualifier here: “These ministries of the ages are different from the local ministers.” Tomes conveniently omits this sentence in his quotation of the portion, but Brother Nee mentions this because indeed he wishes to make a distinction between the local ministers and the one representative of the ministry of the age. He then goes on to single out particular individuals in church history as representatives of the ministries of the ages: “Luther was a minister of his age. Darby was also a minister of his age.” Why would he single out in this context Luther and Darby as ministers of their ages unless he wanted to show that even in the long history of the church there are certain ministers that singly represent the ministry in their particular ages? We need not be scholars of church history to know that there were others teaching justification by faith in the sixteenth century (e.g., Philip Melancthon, Andreas Osiander, etc.), but as Brother Nee says elsewhere, and as Tomes allows Brother Nee to say in quoting him, “the truth of justification by faith…was Luther’s particular recovery” (Collected Works, vol. 11, p. 845). I think it is absolutely fair to say that Brother Nee believed that Luther was the single and unique representative of the ministry of his age and, in that sense, was the minister of his age.
Tomes titles his argument “One, Unique ‘Minister of the Age’? — What Did Watchman Nee Teach?” But the first part of his argument is only a very narrow presentation of the exact wording of Brother Nee’s comments on the matter, wrenched from their full context and pressed into an interpretation that stands at odds with the whole point that Brother Nee is trying to make. After reading the entire portion, I come away with a view of what Watchman Nee taught on the matter that is quite different from what Tomes wants us to believe. If I read the entire portion, I understand Brother Nee to be saying that if Jonathan had followed the one unique David, he would have been properly aligned with the ministry of the age, because David was uniquely the representative of the ministry of his age. In that sense, he was the minister of his age. I do not believe that the notion of a unique minister of the age is foreign to Brother Nee’s thought and teaching at all, even if in these narrow portions we are not able to find the exact term with the definite article. To build a case upon the lack of a definite article is pedantic in view of the full text of Brother Nee’s comments.
After considering Tomes’s argument and the CBs reliance thereon, one has to ask: Why are these brothers arguing against a singular minister of the age? What is driving them? Well, think about it. If there is no singular minister of the age, then there must be other ministers of the age, in their mind. And who might those be? Where are these other ministers of the age? To be the—or assuming arguendo, a—minister of the age, one must be speaking the vision of the age. It is a simple matter: If you are speaking the vision of the age, if you are in the ministry of the age, then, yes, you are a minister of the age, even if you are not the minister of the age. That is so obvious that you really don’t need to post it on a Web site. But I believe that at the base of their argument is the intention to promote one or more of their local ministers as ministers of the age and to find for them some larger audience than they now have. The problem is, their local ministers are not being accepted as ministers of the age (except among small pockets of saints here and there), because they do not minister according to the vision of the age. This necessarily disqualifies them from being ministers of the age. Even if Tomes et al. could establish that Brother Nee did not teach that in each age there is the minister of the age, there is still the simple fact that it is the vision of the age that makes ministers of the age what they are. Proving the possibility of more than one minister of the age doesn’t prove that any particular teacher is a minister of the age, which, I believe, is the actual implication to be drawn from Tomes’s argument.