The largest of the indigenous churches was, and is, the “Little Flock,” a name given to them because of a quotation from the Gospel of John used in their hymnbooks. The name used by themselves is “Christian Assemblies”; but there is no association with the “Christian Assemblies” or “Plymouth Brethren Assemblies” of the West, although their principles of church gathering, discipline, and teaching emphasis are strikingly similar.
The “Christian Assemblies” movement began in 1926 through the teaching of a remarkable Chinese Christian, Nee To-sheng, more widely known as Watchman Nee. Nee was a man of brilliant mind, a research scientist, and deeply spiritual. He founded a large pharmaceutical factory and many chemist shops throughout China. Both the profits from these operations and the operations themselves were used to support evangelists and teachers, print booklets and books, and finance other aspects of Christian witness.
Watchman Nee had been influenced by a Western business colleague, a member of the Exclusive Brethren; and after a period of private study of the Bible, he began to expound the Scriptures with great clarity and power. He emphasized the autonomy of the local church, the fellowship of all Christian believers, whatever their denomination, the scripturally unwarrantable practice of denominationalism and its inadequacy, and the tremendous promise of a New Testament Christianity in China.
Many Chinese Christians began leaving their denominations for the simple household “Christian Assemblies,” particularly in Fukien and Chekiang Provinces. When Watchman Nee’s exposition of the Acts of the Apostles was published under the title Concerning Our Missions, the stream became a flood, including many foreign missionaries. From among these early associates there emerged many evangelists and teachers of power and ability who carried the new emphasis across the country.
When I was first brought into touch with the movement in 1946, they had a huge meeting place, “Christian Assembly,” in Shanghai, capable of holding three thousand believers, and there were hundreds of others throughout China. They kept no register of churches or members, but one report claimed that by 1949 there were more than seven hundred churches with a membership of over seventy thousand.
With the collapse of the traditional denominations and organizations in 1950 and the subsequent pressures of the Three-Self Reform Movement on them, many of the regular members, having no churches to attend, joined the “Christian Assemblies,” so that there was a spectacular rise in membership. Writing in 1961, Leslie Lyall claimed: “There are thousands of such assemblies throughout China, many of them having separated from older churches, but many also having been independent from their beginnings.”3 Another report— from a Communist source—stated that in the mid-1950’s they were “more numerous than all the other Protestant denominations combined.”
Among the influential “Christian Assemblies,” the leaders were never selected or appointed—they “emerged.” That is, in the words of the New Testament, a bishop “must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous” (I Timothy 3:1-13). They maintained that the New Testament churches were ruled by elders (presbyteroi) and deacons, and that the elders could equally well be called overseers or bishops (episckopoi). Some made a distinction between bishops and elders, but it was generally agreed that this was a distinction of function and not of status; i.e., all bishops were elders, though not all elders functioned as bishops. These groups conformed to the New Testament, too, in that there was no single elder or bishop in a church, but always several.
The function of the bishops or elders might be classed as administrative, in that they were the authorized “shepherds of the flock” and were responsible for the spiritual conduct of the members of their church and the church’s activities. In addition there were men recognized as “evangelists” and “teachers.” The former were responsible for preaching to the non-Christians and making converts, and the latter for the building up of the Christian person or community. All of these men were recognized because of the particular spiritual qualities which they manifested; hence, they were seen to “emerge” and were never “appointed” as elders, evangelists, or teachers. When the spiritual quality disappeared through complacency, sin, or any other reason, their authority was also automatically suspended.
Each local church was completely autonomous. In addition to the local church in any village, town or city, there were many “household churches.” (Very often there were more than one “meeting hall” in any large town or city. The “local church” would be the accepted meeting place in the particular district, and they would be known as “Hall Number One,” “Hall Number Two,” and so on. Each was autonomous, but the aggregate was known as the “local church” of the town or city.) There would be gatherings held in private houses for neighbors “to hear the gospel of Christ,” or for a few friends meeting for prayer or Bible discussion, or for classes for children or young people. But these were not recognized as “churches” in the New Testament sense; they were only complementary activities carried on by members on their own initiative. The chief aim was always the upbuilding of the local church.
Patterson, George N. Christianity in Communist China. Waco, Tx: World Books, 1969: 72-73, 79-80.