- David B. Doty, Eden’s Bridge, Inc., February, 2017
Author’s note: This essay was prepared for inclusion in a Marathi language handbook (see photo at bottom) distributed to participants in Marketplace Ministry / Business as Mission seminars I presented in Aurangabad, Jalna, and Ahmednagar (Maharashtra State), India earlier this month. The essay was prompted by the fact that this question was prevalent in previous sessions and subsequent communications with indigenous business and pastoral leaders.
Though Christians are not “of this world,” we must live in it for now. Bribery is a difficult issue we must face in many parts of the world.
There are typically two approaches to bribery among Christian teachers, missionaries, and pastors in places where bribery is a common practice. The first approach considers bribery as an absolute wrong and never to be done. In part, this is sound thinking as Christians should 1) never demand or accept a bribe, and 2) should never offer a bribe for the purposes of serving injustice. If someone will be harmed by paying a bribe (either materially or physically) while we receive undue benefit, such as a judge wrongly ruling in our favor or a business person seeking advantage over a competitor, both parties in the transaction are clearly guilty of doing wrong.
The second view accepts bribery as a cultural norm and the way things get done. In this view, paying the bribe does not place guilt on the one paying the bribe as it serves extending justice. For example, if a Christian was trying to carry aid to an underground church in a country where such aid would be prohibited by the government, the bribe may be the only realistic means of getting that aid delivered. Another example would be the case of smuggling persecuted people out of a country where their departure would otherwise be prohibited. In these cases, the officials are being paid to “look the other way.” In such cases, disobeying human rule to obey God is a legitimate argument from Scripture for paying the bribe.
The first approach, to consider an absolute ban on paying bribes, would likely have been the practice of the Pharisees. They likely would have allowed neglect or abuse to continue rather than violate the Law. However, the Apostle Paul points out that this is to put the letter of the Law above the Spirit of the Law: But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. – Romans 7:6.
Jesus admonished the Pharisees because they failed to perceive higher and lower principles within the whole Law: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” – Matthew 23:23.
In paying bribes as a means to extend justice, the Cross comes into clear view where Jesus willingly paid an evil price for the sake of achieving a higher principled goal, the salvation of humankind.
The difficulty becomes, if we see paying a particular bribe as a lesser evil to gain a higher purpose, discerning such times appropriately. Praise God we can seek the counsel of the Holy Sprit in prayer, the Bible, and the advice of those in authority over us in the Church.
What does the Bible say about bribery and what we might infer by extrapolating the texts?
Here are some samples which address the main issues of bribery. Exodus 23:8 clearly and simply states “you shall not take a bribe.” Deuteronomy 10:17 says that God does not take bribes. Deuteronomy 16:19 and 27:25 focus on the power of a bribe to pervert justice. 2 Chronicles 19:7 also places the focus on taking a bribe. Psalm 15:5 is concerned with protecting justice, and Proverbs 17:8 draws a parallel between bribery and witchcraft.
Ecclesiastes 7:7 says that bribes corrupt the heart, in other words, driving participants more deeply into sin. Isaiah 1:23 equates taking bribes to thievery and in 5:23, again, we see the concern for protecting justice (rights). Isaiah 33:15 draws a comparison between unjust gain and taking bribes. In Micah 3:11, judges, princes, and prophets – all social and political leaders in the theocracy of ancient Israel – are all condemned for perverting justice in return for receiving money. Proverbs 29:4 tells us that taking bribes undermines the social, economic, and political stability of nations.
In these passages the clear concern in condemning bribery is that of corrupting justice. When two parties conspire, one demanding and one paying a bribe, to pervert justice (harming the innocent, oppressing the poor, or giving undue favor to the one paying the bribe) someone outside that transaction is being harmed. While Scripture always condemns accepting a bribe for any reason, it is also always wrong to pay a bribe that serves injustice.
But that is not as clear cut as it may appear because the one paying a bribe is harmed financially. This is where we must return to the issue of serving a higher purpose. There are times that not paying a bribe will allow a greater evil to continue or evil grow worse.
Let us consider war as an analogy. The Bible tells us not to “return evil for evil” – 1 Peter 3:9. Many will argue that we should not wage war. But a ruthless enemy can bring economic and social ruin, enslavement and lawlessness. These things hurt the most vulnerable the most. To allow such an enemy to take control is a great evil. But resistance to such an enemy may protect and preserve many, many lives and livelihoods. God grants civil governments the power to wage war on our behalf as a defense against growing evil. The evil of taking lives in resistance to evil power may well be the lesser of evils.
Bribes occur when one party possesses power (authority) that is unavailable to the other party. Either the first party demands a bribe or the second party offers a bribe to motivate the first to act on their authority. The one with power can withhold justice or threaten to perform an injustice or the one offering a bribe may do so with the intent of perverting justice. In both cases, bribery is grossly sinful. However, a bribe may be paid to ensure or restore justice. Here then the burden of sin falls on the person in the power position. This may well be taken an instance in which Peter commends us to submit even to unrighteous authority (unjust masters, 1 Peter 2:18).
Some examples of where the one paying a bribe might not sin would be in making payment to government officials or to utility workers to ensure the timely completion of their duties and tasks. The Bible does not condemn those who paid tribute to conquering kings (a form of bribe to appease aggressors).
It goes without saying that bribes should never have to happen. But there are times, especially as concerns the spread of the Gospel and our service to those in suffering, when we may rest assured that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20). And we can pray that as the Gospel spreads around the world that laws and social morals against bribery will strengthen.
In the end, we must be very careful about paying bribes but there may be times, with proper discernment, that to pay a bribe may be the godly thing to do.