I have some Christian friends who seem to feel that they do not have to obey civil laws. Two of them are known for the speeds at which they travel – usually in excess of 100 mph (160 km/h)! They are always in a hurry to work for the Lord. But there are others who also tend to find ways of getting things done quickly, normally by paying a bribe. My impression is that they follow two Bible verses, the one in Romans 7:6: But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law, and the other in Acts 4:19: Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.
This situation becomes worse when missionaries are living in foreign countries and amongst people of other cultures. For many the calling to preach the gospel is so strong, that they feel that rules and laws may be bent in order for them to accomplish their goal. But is this right?
As with so many of these questions, the answer is not easy. In certain countries there were times when people were not allowed to have Bibles and they were not allowed to pray. It would be fairly easy to conclude that, to disobey the laws of the country in these circumstances, is allowed. During the 1970s Brother Andrew became known for the Bibles which he smuggled into countries where people were not allowed to own Bibles. I remember hearing him speak in Durban in South Africa in 1973 and was amazed at his prayer which he prayed before entering a country, something like: Lord, you who were able to give sight to the blind, make these customs officials blind when they search the car so that they won’t see the Bibles. And it worked!
For almost twenty years I’ve been involved in distributing the Online Computer Bible to literally thousands of people, mostly in Southern Africa. One day a young engineer came to see me as he wanted a copy of the program to take with him. He was working as an engineer for the government in a certain country where Christians are prohibited to evangelise members of the local population and he realised that it would be easier to take a Bible on a disk rather than as a book.
Before a previous visit to this country he had read the story of Brother Andrew, God’s Smuggler, and decided: If he could do it, so can I. Therefore he had taken with him a big pile of Bibles in the language of that country, knowing well that it was not allowed. In contrast to Brother Andrew, he was arrested at the border and put into prison. All his Bibles were also confiscated. The possibility that he could be executed was very real.
Almost like Paul, this man also appealed to the leader of the country, claiming that he was in the service of the government and that the president of this country therefore had to arrange for his release. Eventually he was released and even sent back to his former work. But he was warned: We have released you because you are employed by our government. Therefore we expect you to abide by the rules of this government. This was a great shock to him and also a clear warning that Christians cannot claim that they are above the normal civil laws.
This morning I was reading in the newspaper that the secretary of the Bible Society in China asked Christians to be very careful, should they want to use the Olympic Games as a means of preaching the gospel. He explained Chinese laws which states that Christians are not allowed to hand out literature or Bibles on the streets. However, the law does allow Christians to befriend local people and if the Christians should share his faith with the Chinese person possibly over a meal, then that is acceptable. Within this personal relationship it is also allowed to hand a Bible to this person. (Formerly Bibles were not allowed to be printed in China. Then the government ruled that 500,000 could be printed each year. Currently they are allowed to print 3 million Bibles per year.)
As I read this article I thought back to what that engineer had told me and I also thought about my own work in Swaziland. Yes, there are times when one has to make a choice between God and man, but in my opinion there are few countries in the world where one would be prosecuted today merely for believing in Christ. In most countries, subject to certain restrictions, Christians can even share their faith with others. But we need to do this, as far as humanly possible, without breaking the laws of the country.
I wondered how many thousands of Christians are going to travel to Beijing later this year to attend the Olympic Games and how many of them will proclaim the gospel on the streets, regardless of the laws of the country and, even more importantly, regardless of what local Christians advise them to do. And I also wondered how many long-term missionaries’ work are going to be jeopardised because of the insensitivity of people rushing in and out of China. In Matthew 10:16 Jesus warns His disciples: I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
This is especially true when we work in other cultures and even more so when we work in cultures where Christianity is not welcomed, but merely tolerated.