Todd Nettleton, director of media development for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, Jonathan Brooks, president of the Voice of China and Asia Missionary Society, and Gary Russell, international director for China Harvest, weigh in on whether Christians should continue to smuggle Bibles into China.

Bible Smuggling Is Still Necessary

Remember the sheer size of the Chinese church.

Todd Nettleton

Several years ago, my wife and I delivered a small suitcase of Bibles into the hands of a Chinese house—church pastor. When he opened the suitcase and saw the treasure inside, his face displayed the same look I'd seen on the faces of my young sons on Christmas morning, when they realized "Santa" had left a basketball hoop in our driveway: sheer, unfettered joy.

I think of that pastor whenever I hear that the Chinese church has enough Bibles and doesn't need more than those printed legally in China. I wonder about those who argue against getting God's Word into the hands of as many people as possible by every means available.

One important fact to remember about Bibles and China is that China is still a restricted nation. The Communist government seeks to control Christian activities, including Bible distribution. Yes, China has changed and is changing. But don't let pictures of American preachers or presidents in large, ornate churches fool you into thinking that all of China's Christians are free. They are not.

As you read this, Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan is serving out a three—year sentence at the Qinghe Detention Center of the Haidian Sub—Bureau in Beijing. His "crime": printing and distributing Bibles without the government's permission.

Another important fact to remember is the sheer size of the Chinese church. In a closed—door discussion in 2008, one Chinese government official estimated China's Christian population at 120 million.

China's government—approved Bible printer, Amity Printing Company, boasts of printing "close to 56 million Bibles" since its first print in 1987. But in light of the growth of China's church, that means that in 23 years Amity still hasn't printed enough Bibles for half of China's Christians to have one. Its website says it exports Bibles to "more than 60 countries," and shows pictures of Bibles in English, Spanish, and Braille. So how many of those 56 million Bibles are in Chinese and still located in China?

China is a huge country with a huge population, and huge differences abound in how religion is "managed" in various parts of the country. While Bibles can usually be found in provincial capitals and large cities, they are much more difficult to find in rural areas. Among China's five approved religions, Christianity is the only one whose sacred text the government does not allow all public bookstores to sell. Also, Bibles printed legally do not contain commentaries, footnotes, or other study tools that help unlock the meaning of the text; these tools are, however, included in most Bibles delivered secretly in China.

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I am thankful for every Bible legally printed and distributed in China. I hope someday the government will allow enough Bible printing to meet the needs of the growing Chinese church. But until that day, it is vital for Christ—followers around the world to help meet our Chinese brothers' and sisters' need for God's Word.

Even if it's one suitcase at a time.

Bible Smuggling Is Outdated

Owning a Bible printed outside China could draw suspicion about one's contacts.

Jonathan Brooks

To answer the question about smuggling Bibles into China, it's helpful to better understand how Bibles printed within China are distributed. The city of Nanjing is home to Amity Printing, the world's largest Bible-printing facility and the only legal Bible printer in China. Its mission is to print Bibles for distribution inside China. Amity also exports Bibles in many languages throughout the world.

Because Bibles printed inside China do not have an isbn number, they cannot be sold in Chinese bookstores. The only place one may legally purchase a Bible is in a registered Chinese church.

Working with these guidelines, Amity has developed 70 main distribution points that are located in China's largest population centers. From there, Bibles are funneled out to 55,000 registered churches for sale to the general public.

These are the choicest of Bibles among believers, because they bear an imprint stating they have been legally printed inside China. To own a Bible printed outside China can draw suspicion about one's outside and perhaps unauthorized contacts. We at VOCA do not smuggle Bibles into China and do not encourage others to do so. There are positive and extremely effective alternatives to smuggling that are rarely used due to outdated thinking.

Because of historical differences, which have included persecution, many underground believers in China will have nothing to do with the registered church. To be seen entering a registered church would be to betray the trust of one's closest Christian friends. In urban areas, however, this wall of division is slowly crumbling. Many believers enjoy the traditional Sunday worship of the registered church and the intimate cell-group atmosphere of the underground church during the week.

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In the past, purchasing a Bible required showing an identity card. I have been told this is no longer necessary. But such a belief dies slowly, especially among the large numbers of urban believers who bear identity cards that show they have illegally migrated to larger cities, typically for work.

Leaders of the Chinese Christian Councils in many provinces recognize that even with Amity's thousands of distribution points, distribution of Bibles to China's rural communities is very limited. They also understand that for the millions of Chinese who make $125 or less a year, purchasing a Bible may mean spending over 3 percent of one's annual income. Since China's greatest church growth is among the rural poor, arrangements have been made for free distribution of Bibles to poor people with the use of funds from overseas donors.

Chinese officials are working to ensure that Bibles are supplied to all Chinese Christians who want them. The best thing we can do is partner with their work and help to increase legal distribution avenues, rather than harming Chinese Christians by smuggling in telltale Bibles that could bring their owners unwanted attention.

More Bible Smuggling Is Better

Covertly supplying Bibles to China is not only legitimate—it is a necessary element of obedience to Christ.

Gary Russell

The best way to illustrate the need for Bibles in China today is to share the testimony of a longtime friend, Brother "Han."

Born a peasant, Han came to Christ while in university. While planting churches in urban centers, he found the number of available basic Bibles growing. Getting enough Bibles was not the problem. That need, he concluded, was being met on a nationwide basis.

Soon, Han was asked to help develop a major Chinese study Bible for pastors, and he worked to help pastors use it in every imaginable church setting. Many of those churches—especially rural ones—began asking him for regular Bibles to distribute. He was shocked to learn that they had only very limited access to officially sanctioned Bibles. Han found himself confronted by hundreds of thousands of Bible requests. The number of requests he receives is still growing.

Different areas in China have widely different circumstances and must be approached using different practices. But nationwide, there are just not enough Bibles to go around. Paul Hattaway, founder and director of Asia Harvest, recently compiled a county-by-county report of the number of Christians in China from 2,000 published sources, and arrived at a total of more than 102 million. Taking the loftiest estimate of Bibles supplied from all sources and comparing it with reasonable but conservative estimates of the number of Christians in China, one is left with a deficit in the tens of millions.

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Whether working primarily in registered or unregistered churches, we should agree on some common realities.

Every Chinese person deserves access to God's Word, and hundreds of millions do not have it now; the need has increased in the past 30 years.

Amity Press Bibles are legal, authentic, and available in many areas, and have made a substantial contribution to the need. But the Amity route is limited in quantity, variety, and distribution. Editions for children and pastors have barely been addressed. And millions of Chinese still have no regular access to a Bible.

Given these realities, covertly supplying Bibles to China is not only legitimate—it is a necessary element of obedience to Christ. While civil authorities are to be honored and respected, their authority is delegated by and limited under God. Restrictions against evangelizing and providing Scripture are not legitimate, and those who love God and China serve well by increasing the country's Bible supply.

But government-sanctioned and clandestine Bible suppliers contradict the very Bible they are distributing when they attack each other, oversimplify China's context, or otherwise undermine their unity in Christ to appease their own constituents and stakeholders. Both suppliers are appropriate, share the same goal, and are utterly insufficient to achieve that goal working alone.

Supplying Bibles to China by any means is a great contribution to the cause of Christ. All concerned would do well to exhibit Christlike humility, recognizing that we "see through a glass darkly."

Related Elsewhere:

Todd Nettleton is director of media development for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, a ministry to persecuted Christians. Jonathan Brooks is president of the Voice of China and Asia Missionary Society (VOCA), which has served in Asia since 1909. Gary Russell is international director for China Harvest, which ministers to needy individuals inside China.

Christianity Today spoke with more ministries last year about the Bible smuggling debate.

Previous Village Green sections have discussed frozen embryos, creation care, intelligent design, preaching, immigration, Lent, premarital abstinence, aid to foreign nations, technology, and abortion.

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