For the Sake of Justice

Gregory Koukl

The word "bribe" is ugly, with bad built into its definition. For many, bribes are synonymous with dishonesty, deceit, and corruption. But are all gifts that are meant to curry special favor actually immoral?

If bribes are immoral by definition, then the question is settled. Exodus 23:8 seems unambiguous: "You shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just" (all from NASB). Deuteronomy 27:25 echoes, "Cursed is he who accepts a bribe to strike down an innocent person."

But some verses seem to commend bribes. Proverbs 17:8 states, "A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; wherever he turns, he prospers." Or consider 21:14, "A gift in secret subdues anger and a bribe in the bosom, strong wrath"—a truism every spouse is familiar with.

How do we resolve the apparent contradiction? The fog clears considerably when we factor in two important pieces of information. First, virtually every Hebrew word translated as bribe can also legitimately be rendered gift, offering, or contribution—and often is. Clearly, Scripture teaches that gifts ("bribes"), properly placed, can create opportunities or pacify anger and alleviate conflict.

But there's also a dark side. Proverbs says: "A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice" (17:23); "The king gives stability to the land by justice, but a man who takes bribes overthrows it" (29:4); and "He who profits illicitly troubles his own house, but he who hates bribes will live" (15:27).

Did you notice something about every verse above condemning bribery? The problem was not the gift given as a means of influence ("bribe," if you will), but the perversion of justice intended by the gift.

The Bible consistently condemns gifts if they subvert justice. Ezekiel denounces those who have "taken bribes to shed blood" (22:12). The Psalmist applauds the righteous man who does not "take a bribe against the innocent" (15:5). Even if no immediate injustice results, gifts to curry advantage can easily marginalize the poor, since they cannot compete with the wealthy for favors.

Even so, there are cases where bribes may seem necessary despite their evil character. We face dilemmas requiring actions that would be wrong under other circumstances.

Consider this: You're stopped while driving in a foreign country and cannot proceed unless you "gift" the local authority. Or your missionary work gets stonewalled until some kind of "consideration" is made to those in charge (this happened to me). What now? Clearly, the demand does not seem just, but the alternative clearly is worse.

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In some countries, "a man's gift makes room for him" (Prov. 18:16); bribes are required for the culture to function in spite of their deeply corrupting influence. Payoffs are almost like an ad hoc municipal fee.

Bottom line: Bribery to pervert justice is forbidden. Bribes to "make room" for an opportunity may be unavoidable. Gift-giving to curry favor when no injustice results can often be shrewd.

GREGORY KOUKL, author of Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, is president of Stand to Reason (, which trains Christians for winsome, thoughtful engagement.

Only Involuntarily

Samuel Kunhiyop

Missionaries must not pay bribes, cash or in-kind. It is biblically and ethically wrong.

The Bible condemns paying bribes. Exodus 23:8 states, "Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent." The evils on par with paying bribes include adultery (Prov. 6:20–35) and breaking a political treaty (1 Kings 15:18–20). Judas received a bribe to betray the Lord (Luke 22:3–5); the chief priests bribed the guards to tell a lie (Matt. 28:11–14). Felix wanted a bribe before releasing Paul (Acts 24:26).

Simon even tried to bribe Peter and John in order to get the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18–24). This is a case of voluntary bribery, and it deserved the full condemnation that Peter and John gave.

Yet some bribes are involuntary. The policeman at a checkpoint who uses his gun or uniform to force motorists to give money is clearly practicing extortion, and the motorist cannot be blamed for paying a bribe. In this situation, it is involuntary bribery and not blameworthy. The givers (including missionaries) should not be blamed for forced payment of money. We should trust veteran missionaries to make the best of a bad situation regarding involuntary bribery in war or other times of conflict.

Apart from an involuntary bribe or extortion, we must be slow to assume that a missionary is giving a bribe. When someone gives a gift to a service worker who is significantly underpaid, it is not necessarily a bribe. In the West, even in Africa, we should not classify tips as bribes. Both the restaurant server and the one served expect this tip for their service. It is completely voluntary, and we must not interpret it as bribery. There are situations, especially in Africa, where a missionary may give a gift (cash or in-kind) to a worker for service rendered.

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When a visitor declines to show appreciation by giving a token of appreciation, a service worker or host might interpret this as being stingy, unfriendly, or lacking compassion.

African traditions and governments prohibit giving and receiving bribes, and those caught are liable to be prosecuted and punished. Just because there is widespread bribery does not mean that it is acceptable. Corruption is out of control in Africa: In 2010, Transparency International named it the most corrupt region in the world.

Missionaries should not give bribes when they have the power to do otherwise. Bribery clearly violates the clear teaching of Scripture and the ethics of free will.

SAMUEL KUNHIYOP, author of African Christian Ethics, is general secretary of Evangelical Church Winning All, an evangelical denomination in Nigeria.

Only If Necessary

Sharon Mumper

Missionaries should not pay bribes to get an official to flout the law and give preferential treatment. But paying a bribe to get a corrupt official to do his duty may be necessary.

Even Jesus was willing to pay an unjust temple tax when it was necessary to keep the peace. There was plenty of corruption in that day. Yet in Matthew 17:24–27, Jesus said to do it willingly.

There may be times when it is necessary to give a payment in order to get an official to follow the law. One such occasion occurred years ago when I was exiting Ukraine at the end of a conference.

The Ukrainian exchange rate had plummeted, and expenses were much lower than anticipated. Under intense questioning by customs officials, I admitted I had a considerable amount of cash with me. I was taken into a separate room, where an official demanded to see the money. He spread it out on the table and then began to ask a series of irrelevant questions.

As my flight time neared, it became apparent that he was both aware of my departure time and willing to continue the interview indefinitely. Finally, minutes before my flight's departure, he picked up two $100 bills and looked at me. At that point I understood that I was going to have to ransom myself.

"That's too much," I told him, and he put one of the bills back. I gathered up the remaining cash, jammed it into my purse, and ran for the gate.

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I had done nothing wrong. It was not illegal to leave the country with the amount of cash I had. Yet I was forced to pay a corrupt official in order to catch my flight. I felt robbed. But I was not willing to miss my flight in order to wait him out, if possible, for the sake of principle.

What about voluntary bribes in the form of tipping? I do not consider tipping a bribe if it is done after the performance of a service. However, I will admit that on occasion, in countries where service tends to be poor, I have made it clear in advance that I appreciate good service and that I am a generous tipper.

Some missionaries in countries where corruption is rampant may become so used to greasing palms that they fall into the trap of paying for undeserved preferential treatment.

Some may even say that the laws are so vague and applied so unevenly that paying bribes is a necessary evil in order to achieve the good that they want to do. But the end does not justify the means. Westerners typically have more funds at their disposal than locals. Using those funds to obtain special privileges in the same way the local drug lord does distorts and taints their image as Christians.

Using Western wealth to get undeserved benefits is wrong and dangerous.

SHARON MUMPER is founder and president of Magazine Training International and has been in Christian publishing since 1967.

Rarely, If Ever

Marvin Wilson

The Bible does not specify a particular penalty for bribery, but it clearly warns against it. Bribes may lead to partiality and a distortion of justice (1 Sam. 8:3). Judges are to be especially wary of such gifts, for they may easily "blind the eyes" (Deut. 16:19).

The decision to refuse bribes may show godly, ethical character (1 Sam. 12:3; Job 6:22). Conversely, an act of bribery may lead to bloodshed (Ezek. 22:12), sexual looseness (Ezek. 16:33), or neglect of widows and orphans (Isa. 1:23).

Bribes sometimes bring temporary relief, yet in the end may prove to be deceptive security. Such is the lesson Judah twice discovers as she bribes foreign kings to come to her rescue (1 Kings 15:16–24; 2 Kings 16:5–9). Bribes are often associated with lying, betrayal, and the promotion of selfishness and greed.

Yet today, as in the ancient world, it is not always easy to distinguish between gifts and bribes. The differences are often subtle. Indeed, as Proverbs observes, "A man's gift eases his way and gives him access to the great" (18:16, Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh). However, we may perceive giving gifts to effect an urgent and seemingly just cause as a gray area involving situational ethics. This conflict—especially for Christians serving abroad—may be brought to the fore when, after fasting and prayer, the only apparent means to effect results seems to be a gift of money. These Christians are conflicted. Their motivation should be love, not manipulating a situation with money.

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Official corruption has existed for generations in rich and poor countries alike. But in the developing world, there is so little prosecution of official corruption that is normalized. By the nature of their ministry, missionaries are more at risk of bribery since they are so often at checkpoints and border crossings in times of crisis. Godly discernment is essential.

Biblical social ethics are about community flourishing and the priorities and teachings that guide our thoughts and actions. Real-life situations involving potential bribery require us to wrestle with tough questions, and we need great sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's leading. One concern must be to affirm the inestimable value of human life. Each person is created in the divine image (Gen. 1:26–27).

When Jesus confronts two biblical teachings in conflict, his priority is often to uphold the one that supports and promotes life (Luke 6:1–11). Rabbis later developed the principle of pikuach nefesh, "saving a life," as one of the highest teachings of Judaism.

How do our decisions promote the great commandment: love for God and for our neighbor and his welfare (Lev. 19:13–18; Mark 12:28–34)? Do we seek justice and mercy as we weigh inaction against the potential benefits of acting, often struggling to find the lesser evil or to affirm the greater good (Deut. 16:20)? In the end, if we opt for "bribe" money, it may only prove, at best, a quick fix.

How might God's redemptive power to transform the hearts of people and their ethics bring greater justice and permanent change within this fallen world? In this hopeful vein, two centuries before Jesus, Jewish sage Ben Sira longed for the day when "all bribery and injustice will be blotted out" (Sirach 40:12, NRSV).

MARVIN WILSON, author of Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, is professor of Bible and theology at Gordon College.

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