I recommend you go read a few short posts my teammate has written about smuggling Bibles in China. They are a worthy read, as he talks frankly about some of the overlooked aspects of this issue.
And, for your consideration, here’s some of the stuff that’s been rattling around upstairs as I read his posts.
1. Is there no point at which we submit to the law of China?
I’m a law-breaker in this country. I preach to Chinese people in unregistered churches that we planted. Obviously I agree with the Bible smugglers in at least one way: as Christians our primary loyalty is to God, and that overrides any other loyalties in our lives, including the laws of the land. But aren’t we as believers obligated to live by those laws that aren’t in conflict with the directives of God?
But the Bible smuggler protests: ‘Their laws about Bible distribution are in conflict with God’s commands!’ Are they? Is it against God’s commands to go to the Three-Self Church and buy a Bible? Is it against God’s commands to have to go into the next town to get a Bible? Is it even against God’s commands to have to wait for a week or a month to get a Bible?
Simply put, just because you disagree with the policies or politics of China, does that mean that you have no obligation to obey any of their laws? This is obviously not what we want to teach to the Chinese people in the churches here. All the reasons given for not acquiring Bibles legally boil down to the supposed inconvenience of it. Smuggling Bibles in China is the result of nothing short of refusal to jump through any hoops to purchase a Bible. This, of course, ignores the fact that money itself is a hoop. The border guard is a hoop. The customs form is a hoop. Rephrased: the Bible smuggler refuses to jump through any of the hoops that the government asks him to jump through. Which, by the way, are far easier to navigate than the X-rays at the airport!
2. You can raise support to do just about anything
You can get large amounts of manpower and money to do something for which there is no need. This thought I offer primarily as a word of caution to missions-loving churches and pastors back home. China is far away. The missionaries telling you about the need are sincere. These are two ingredients for an ineffective missions strategy: unfamiliarity and sincerity. Before you agree to smuggle Bibles into China, you ought to ask a few questions, as my teammate pointed out so well. Who are these Bibles for? How much is it costing to print and move them? Is there no other way to buy this many Bibles in China?
I have no doubts about the sincerity of those sneaking Bibles across the border. But I also think they are seriously in the dark about the current situation in China. As someone who heard all kinds of stories about Bibles in China before I came, I have been very pleasantly surprised at the inexpensiveness and availability of God’s Word here.
3. Demand is not the same as need
Much is made of the supposedly huge need for Bibles in China. But how exactly is this need manifested? Usually some evidences of demand are given: the number of Bibles printed, sold, or distributed. But that’s not need! Does the number of coffees Starbucks sold last week have anything to do with the need of coffee in the world? All that number shows is the demand for coffee. The same is true of Bibles. In America, for instance, over 20 million Bibles are sold every year. That’s the demand. But the average American household has four Bibles. That’s the need (or lack thereof). Bibles go out by the millions into China every year. But that has nothing to do with how many people are in need of Bibles.
But even if we concede that there’s a large demand for Bibles in China, is there any evidence that the demand is greater than the supply? The phrase often employed is ‘they can’t print them fast enough.’ All that means is that they’re selling them all. By the same line of reasoning, someone could say that ‘Starbucks can’t make coffees fast enough.’ In one sense, the person might mean, ‘Starbucks sells a lot of coffee,’ which would be true. In another sense, the person might mean, ‘there’s many people who want Starbucks but can’t get it,’ which would not be. Are there really thousands of Christians in China longing for the Bible who can’t get it?
There is one subset of the population that we would all like to get Bibles to. That subset is the intersection of those who want to read the Bible and those who can’t get one (because of financial or supply-related reasons). And this group of people is just not as numerous as some apparently think. Bibles are cheap. Free, if you can get to a computer. Besides all this, there is no evidence that those Bibles being smuggled in are landing in the hands of this small sliver of China’s population.
4. Literature isn’t in as short supply as men are
Let me strongly emphasize that I am for every human on the planet owning a Bible. But let’s also remember the uniqueness of our historical moment. For the larger part of church history, very few owned Bibles. Is it a good change that we can now have our own Bibles? Of course. I’m only pointing out that putting a Bible into the hands of every person is not a necessary prerequisite for the work we are trying to do. If every person in China had a Bible, that would be a good thing, but that accomplishment alone would achieve very little in the area of disciple-making. The Great Commission meter will barely register the change.
What is needed in China is for men who have been trained in the Scriptures and who will boldly and tirelessly proclaim it to those around them, whether they have Bibles or not. Send a million Bibles into China, and you’ll probably never know where most of them went. But send a hundred men like this into China, and you won’t have to worry about the results!
The truth is, there might be some little village in China somewhere whose believers fit perfectly into the subset I described above. But in the city we live in, there are plenty of Bibles. And guess what? While we’re thankful for the sufficient supply of God’s Book, there’s still a famine of his Word in this city. The Word proclaimed is our goal. The Word printed is our tool. So send all the Bibles you want to that little village somewhere in China. But send a Gospel preacher, too, for he is the disciple-making catalyst.