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Missiological Reflections on Money

From the series Reflecting on the End of the “Golden Age”

Should we give money to Chinese coworkers?

Yes! Of course! “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18). Even if we are not speaking of full-time evangelists, pastors, or assistants, we must follow Jesus’ earliest disciples who “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45).  It doesn’t matter if they are Chinese or not.

But Scripture also calls us to discernment. Jesus says, “‘Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). 

I have seen encouraging and fruitful partnerships between Chinese nationals and foreign Christians, but I’ve also seen well-meaning Christian expats “trampled” and “attacked” in China. I’m sure it happens all over the world, but let’s zoom in on China for now.

Why is it so hard for us to discern between the “pig” we should avoid and the “ox” we must reward?

In his recent post, Chen Jing calls for “missiological reflection” on the last four decades, and responses are already coming in. Brent Fulton grapples with politics in mission. Swells in the Middle Kingdom wants to shrink the gap between theory and practice. Luke Wesley takes on the question of denominations. I hope Christians with experience among China’s ethnic minority people groups will contribute their unique points of view as well.

Today, I invite you to join me as I reflect on a lesson from a history book.1 It’s a lesson about missionary money.

Karl (Charles) Gützlaff isn’t famous enough to have his case study in cross-cultural orientation manuals—at least not the ones I’ve read—but maybe he should be. After all, questions of money—supporting Chinese Christian workers, paying local assistants, giving gifts to “needy” Chinese—return like revolving doors as often as new expat Christians arrive in China.

Gützlaff was a German independent missionary and early adopter of indigenization principles in China. He founded the Chinese Union (福汉会, Fú Hàn Huì) in Hong Kong in 1844. The Union’s purpose was to send Chinese preachers and colporteurs (itinerant book sellers) to China’s interior. Western missionaries were to teach, oversee, and of course fund the Chinese evangelists.

So far, so good, right? Gützlaff should have gone down in history as a model of indigenous mission sending with Westerners stepping back into supportive roles. But that’s not what happened. His legacy is more of a scandal than success.

Gützlaff’s own charisma and glowing reports of his early success garnered praise and support in Europe (p. 275). New organizations were set up to fund his Chinese Union (p. 288). But Gützlaff lacked the trust of his coworkers on the field (p. 274). The moment he left China for a speaking tour, his own colleagues launched a thorough investigation of the Union, interrogated his preachers, and sent 100 copies of their findings to Europe. Among the most damaging revelations, “Testimony indicated that a significant minority of the Chinese Union members were opium smokers, that some of the preachers had never left the Hong Kong area, and that some of the colporteurs had resold their tracts to book suppliers to be repurchased by Gützlaff” (p. 275).

Before Gützlaff left for his tour of Europe, he had handed his responsibilities to Theodor Hamberg of the Basel Missionary Society. Hamberg quickly dismissed most of the Union members. But even some of the remaining Chinese assistants stole from him, and others were caught smoking opium. “Hamberg’s reaction was that all goes well as long as you are giving the Chinese money, but if anything happens to stop the flow, they begin immediately to show their bad side” (p. 284).

Hamberg had many faults and weaknesses too, but the lesson I take from this one anecdote is this: We must not use past hurt, whether a historical scandal or failure in our own experience, as an excuse to shirk generosity. Paul exhorts Timothy: “Honor widows who are truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:3). The lesson here is about discerning generosity—wise giving. Easy to say, but not so easy to get right every time. That is why we need to participate in frequent and deep reflection if we want to discern the sound paths to use money and avoid the pitfalls in the future.

Gützlaff’s story is a tale of financial scandal, but he teaches us about so much more than merely how not to use money. He has lessons for us on broad versus deep sowing, conflicts of interest for tentmakers, rejecting criticism, believing witnesses of one ethnicity over another, and a host of other things. His example is not all negative either. He helps us empathize with the plight of cultural minorities in supposedly multicultural teams, and the later unearthing of his scattered gospel seeds (p. 288–289) gives us hope that God works even when we fail. All this from just one man’s case study!

Today I’ve been reflecting on mission history from the angle of money. Specifically, I refer to ministry strategies that have foreigners employing Chinese to do evangelism and literature distribution with limited accountability. It’s a strategy that broke down in the 1840s when Gützlaff led the Chinese Union and still breaks down in strikingly similar ways in our time. There are also plenty of success stories, of course. I hope they too will be written down and circulated as positive, yet balanced and honest case studies for our instruction.


  1. Jessie G. Lutz and R. Ray Lutz, “Karl Gützlaff’s Approach to Indigenization: The Chinese Union,” in Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, ed. Daniel H. Bays (Stanford University Press, 1996), 269–291. All page numbers cited refer to Lutz and Lutz’s article.
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Julie Ma

Julie Ma

Julie Ma (pseudonym) is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) and a member of the Angelina Noble Centre for women in cross-cultural missions research. She left her home in Australia over a decade ago to serve Hui Chinese Muslims alongside her Chinese husband. After all these years overseas, …View Full Bio

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