From the bio of Frank Viola Author
1993 was an extraordinary year. I began devouring all of Watchman Nee’s books that I could get my hands on. I also began reading the works of T. Austin-Sparks, Nee’s friend and mentor.
In my personal judgment, T. Austin-Sparks and Watchman Nee had the most profound revelation of God’s eternal purpose in Christ since the apostle Paul. Perhaps what impressed me most about both men was that each had a tremendous grasp of Scripture, theology, and church history. At the same time, they both had a unique experience with the Lord and a deep knowledge of His ways. To put it in Biblical terms, both men “knew the Scriptures as well as the power of God” En. Matthew 22:29.
Biblical scholarship is important. But one shouldn’t drink it on the rocks. It goes down much smoother with a mixer. The best mixer for Biblical scholarship is the deeper Christian life (also called “Christian spirituality”). Both Sparks and Nee held both in beautiful tension.
(Incidentally, I’ve met people who tried valiantly to polarize these two elements, suggesting that those who are students of Scripture and theology couldn’t possibly know the Lord very well. And those who know the Lord well don’t give a hoot about Scripture or theology. This is spurious thinking at best.)
Reading both Nee and Austin-Sparks sent me on a spiritual odyssey. I wanted to find out all I could about both men. I wanted to learn what they learned. And more importantly, I wanted to experience what they experienced of the Lord.
So I began writing letters to people in England who were part of the Honor Oak Fellowship where Austin-Sparks ministered. I heard wonderful stories. Some were flat out fascinating. A number of years later, I flew up to Louisville, Kentucky and met Austin-Sparks’ daughter. An interesting experience to say the least.
I followed the same path with Watchman Nee. I got my hands on every biography of his that was written in English, and I sought out those who knew him personally.
In this connection, I met two men who would greatly influence my life. In meeting them, I discovered that our little non-traditional church wasn’t alone in our quest to recover New Testament simplicity.
I met both men in the summer of 1993. One man was trained by and had co-worked with Watchman Nee. The other man had co-worked with T. Austin-Sparks.
Both men would become personal friends and mentors. What impressed me most about them was not only their extraordinary revelation of Christ and the depth of their walk with the Lord. It was their character. Both men emitted the meekness, the graciousness, the honesty, and the humility of Jesus Himself.
These men not only spoke of a glorious Christ; they lived Christ. And that’s what separates sheep from sheep.
Since then, I’ve met others who were Christ-centered in their message, but who were also egocentric, self-indulgent, disingenuous, sectarian, cruel and harsh in their characters. And the latter betrays the former.
In my opinion, these two men are giants in the land, and I am privileged to know them. Only the Lord knows how much they have contributed to the Kingdom of God. They are mostly hidden vessels, but choice servants of the Lord worthy of emulation.
They taught me a great deal. I shall always be grateful for them and for the two men—Watchman Nee and T. Austin-Sparks—whose shoulders they stood upon.
In knowing these two men—both of whom are in their 90s and 80s respectively—I learned the immense value of drawing from experienced Christian workers who know the cross deeply and who possess the riches of Christ to build the church. I also discovered that churches that gather outside traditional lines need outside help from such Christians if they wish to grow in the Lord’s fullness.
The truth is that organic church life is a high-maintenance undertaking. It requires continual energy from lots of people over an unmercifully long period of time.
Science gives us a wonderful illustration of this. The second law of thermodynamics says that all things left to themselves tend toward entropy. Entropy is disorder, breakdown, and disintegration. This law applies not only to physical systems, but also to people groups.
In time, entropy degrades every human endeavor. Every person runs out of steam over time. We all burn out of fuel. The persistent energy that’s required to keep a group of Christians moving forward without an institutional structure is immensely taxing.
When entropy sets into a non-traditional church, the Type A personalities begin to fill the vacuum. This is the pattern of church history, and it’s how we got the so-called “institutional church.” As a result of the powerful force of entropy, the early church moved from an organic, shared-life community to a hierarchal, one up/one down, top-heavy organization. It’s also the reason why organic churches, over time, tend to lose their first love. En Revelation 2:4.
I’ve concluded that an important remedy to the on-going threat of entropy is to restore the place of itinerant Christian workers. Having someone spiritually mature to visit the church who is not part of the local mix can have a tremendous effect on defying the second law of thermodynamics, recentering and reenergizing the church toward Christ, and giving it fresh direction.
If you gather outside the traditional church, your group will take a nose dive. And when it does, it’s infinitely wise to bring someone in from the outside to raise Christ before the church’s eyes and help turn the tide. Those who are part of the local group typically can’t see clear enough to identify the root problem. So an outside view is needed.
Point: Do not make the mistake of underestimating and undervaluing the role of outside help from other brothers and sisters who are more experienced than you are. That’s what I learned from meeting Stephen and DeVern.
For more, see Frank Viola Author