Led by Malawi’s chief law enforcement officer, 19 armed agents surrounded Martha Chizuma’s home in the capital city of Lilongwe at 4 a.m. on December 6, 2022. Whisked away in her pajamas in the early morning darkness, Chizuma, the director general of Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, was forced to kneel on the floor for questioning at a police station before being released. Her arrest was retribution for her efforts to expose high-level corruption in the government.

A London-trained lawyer and formerly Malawi’s government ombudsman, Chizuma was the first Malawian anti-corruption leader chosen through a purely merit-based process. “People fought against my appointment, and now they wanted to undermine me ,” she explained, especially because she was leading a grand corruption probe that was “a test case of the government’s commitment to integrity.”

Those who engineered her arrest presumably hoped to silence a godly public official determined to “spit fire at corrupt politicians,” as the Nyasa Times reported several days later. They have not succeeded.

The fight against corruption takes courage like Martha’s, in part because corruption offers massive rewards. Its global financial toll is notoriously difficult to estimate, but the total may exceed $1 trillion annually. Every year, 25 percent of the world’s adults pay at least one bribe. The demand for bribes from public officials causes many Christian-majority nations to have unfavorable rankings on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Too often, evangelicals are part of the corruption problem, which takes many forms: bribery, fraud, nepotism, human trafficking, sex-for-grades schemes, money laundering, ghost teachers in schools, and more. An African trained at a US evangelical seminary, after exchanging US dollars for local currency, shocked me when she said, “I only do business with Muslim money-traders. I would never trust a Christian!”

“The Church needs to clear its Augean stable,” said former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo in 2017, comparing Nigerian churches to the manure-filled stables of a Greek myth. “They not only celebrate but venerate those whose sources of wealth are questionable. They accept gifts … from just anybody without asking questions. This gives the impression that anything is acceptable in the house of God.”

Why are Christians so insensitive to, and often even participants in, blatant corruption? There are at least six reasons.

Article continues below

First, some in the church are unwilling to hold Christian workers accountable. Others live in willful ignorance, as if it is not possible for fellow believers to be corrupt; thus, we fail to address warning signs or to undertake proper investigations.

Second, in some cases, a shift from traditional folk religion to Christian affiliation can actually exacerbate corruption. A recent unpublished report, based on interviews with 48 Christian leaders in Africa, explained that many followers of African traditional religion do not dare to lie because they believe their ancestors are watching from beyond the grave and could deliver certain, swift punishment. In contrast, some respondents said, African Christians seem more willing to lie—even when swearing on the Bible—because they think the Christian God is merciful and delays judgment.

Third, if pastors “preach anti-corruption, they will lose members who give large offerings,” says Orinya Agbaji Orinya of the Palace of Priests Assembly, a church in Abuja, Nigeria. In many cases, Orinya says, Protestant churches’ dependence on offerings pushes them to avoid offending corrupt but generous donors.

Fourth, pastors or Christian workers in many countries feel an expectation to benefit their families and ethnic communities, a phenomenon that journalist Michela Wrong calls “it’s our turn to eat.” Also known as demand sharing, this pattern creates intense pressures on leaders to raid organization finances for the benefit of friends and relatives.

A fifth reason Christians are AWOL in the fight against corruption, says Munkhjargal Tuvshin, pastor of Truth Community Church in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is their dualistic mindset. “Most Christians,” Tuvshin states, “would say that corruption is a world matter, not a church matter. That dualistic mindset takes us away from standing with the truth.”

Orinya, who is developing a major anti-corruption campaign among Nigeria’s Pentecostals, proposes one more driver of corruption among Christians: the prosperity gospel. According to Orinya, the heretical movement’s message that “if you are poor, you must not be a child of God” sometimes motivates listeners to steal, believing that even ill-gotten gain is a divine blessing.

How can Christians make a substantial difference in bridling cultures of corruption around the world?

Article continues below

The first step is to disciple people to prioritize daily acts of integrity in the face of cultural norms that favor dishonesty. Citing Ephesians 4:25 (“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body”), pastor Taba Ebenezar in Bamenda, Cameroon, urges his congregation and community members to “make every day an integrity day.”

Well-trained disciples know that God is not a transactional spirit who pours out favors on those who pay the requisite bribe, whether to a shaman or a prosperity preacher. Ebenezar, whose nation ranks 140th of 180 nations on the Corruption Perceptions Index, says, “We cannot talk only about salvation when the country is going backward.”

Second, churches must become model societies. Secular leaders will be more able to envision corruption-free nations when churches exemplify a corruption-free life. Too many churches and mission organizations disguise unethical behavior through flawed management practices such as the use of nondisclosure agreements, thereby undermining the message of hope and honesty that the church should be living out.

Global Trust Partners (GTP), a worldwide spinoff of the US Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, is seeking to reshape the behavior of churches and Christian organizations through peer accountability groups that promote fiscal and ethical integrity along with generosity. As GTP’s CFO, Matthew Gadsden from Australia, commented, “Once transparency in governance comes in, then people can give with confidence that the gift is used for the purposes for which it is intended.”

Church leaders often fail to realize how much secular groups like Transparency International need them. Roberto Laver, a former World Bank lawyer who works on corruption issues in Latin America, says that secular groups “have all the tools on social accountability” but lack the social networks and universal ethic that the church offers.

Laver draws an interesting contrast between Catholics and evangelicals in Latin America, stating that the “Roman Catholic Church will speak out on every issue, including corruption … but their verbiage makes little difference [personally]. As for evangelicals, individually they are more honest, but they are more silent publicly.” Laver asks, “If the church is not exhibiting more public honesty, what hope is there in the gospel?”

Article continues below

The third part of the strategy concerns education on aspects of the Christian worldview that discourage involvement in corruption: God’s sovereignty, his ethical expectations for believers, and the transformative potential of faith in Christ. Pastor Ebenezar in Cameroon has an open invitation from public school authorities to teach integrity to children, a key to breaking the corruption culture. Ebenezar’s visible public advocacy campaign includes a weekly radio program, pro-integrity caps and shirts, and integrity awards at halftime during youth soccer games.

As British anti-corruption expert Martin Allaby says, “There is no substitute for deep cultural change.” Whether through films or music, in churches, schools, or homes, and whether with adults or children, teaching a Christian worldview provides a rational basis for efforts to restrain corruption.

In Jinja, Uganda, along with the usual radio fare, station director Anyole Innocent champions a Christian view of integrity on Busoga One, which has 1 million listeners daily. Creative efforts like Innocent’s and similar initiatives on social media are persuasive ways to reinforce a Christian worldview and mobilize believers to oppose corruption.

A Christian worldview also acknowledges the messiness of situations in which temptations to corruption are deeply intertwined with poverty. Public officials seeking bribes may themselves be the victims of corrupt senior officials who withhold their salaries—or their salaries alone may be insufficient to feed their families. God may call us to share gifts with impoverished families—especially those within the church—so that they do not feel driven to consider seeking bribes. Interestingly, whereas the Bible frequently condemns receiving bribes, it nowhere condemns the giving of bribes. But those who feel compelled to offer one should consider to what extent, in their own situation, doing so perpetuates an evil system.

A fourth key strategy, highlighted by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, is the development of networks of high-performing leaders who can work together across sectors of society. William Wilberforce’s Clapham community of the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought together bankers, parliamentarians, authors, activists, pastors, writers, and educators in determined efforts that, with support from the Wesleyan revival, profoundly changed formerly corrupt England for the better. High-performing networks can coordinate overall anti-corruption planning while also linking what happens in churches to national conversations and reform efforts.

Article continues below

Pathways for Integrity Network, which has recently launched in Uganda, shows the potential to become a high-performing anti-corruption network. Innocent, the radio station head, commented, “Looking ahead, we envision a network where organizations rely on us to train their employees, where job creators and seekers trust our recommendations, and where Western investors seek our assistance in Ugandan projects, including governmental initiatives, as reputable.”

The Faith and Public Integrity Network, cofounded by Allaby and Laver, brings together academics and Christian leaders for shared efforts. Some evangelicals, such as Martha Chizuma in Malawi, participate in high-performing networks, such as the Chandler Sessions, that are not specifically Christian.

The fifth part of the strategy involves a virtuous, sacrificial spokesperson as the face of the movement, much as Martin Luther King Jr. legitimized the US civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Activists need a cheerleader to bring their voices together for change. Ebenezar is one such voice in Cameroon, declaring ambitiously, “If we pastors engage with this issue, it will restore and liberate our nation!”

Perhaps we need a 21st-century James Yen to lead the fight against global corruption. Yen was a celebrated Christian agrarian reformer during China’s titanic struggle between the Nationalists (China’s ruling government from 1912 until 1949) and Communists. Both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek recruited him for their respective governments; he declined both offers.

One day, after these polite but earnest refusals, a leading government official in a passing limousine watched Yen fall from his bicycle as he crossed trolley tracks. The next day, a new automobile mysteriously appeared where Yen was staying. He quietly mothballed the car in a friend’s garage, choosing embarrassment and muddy pants over betraying his Christian integrity by accepting gifts from a corrupt government.

Not all Christians should decline service in corrupt governments. But virtuous, sacrificial leaders like Yen can powerfully spotlight and expose corruption. When the “fruitless deeds of darkness” (Eph. 5:11) are exposed, they wither under the bright light of truth.

Article continues below

In Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ) has focused relentlessly on corruption in public schools, achieving enormous dividends for the country’s 2 million school-age children. ASJ’s efforts reduced the percentage of ghost teachers (who don’t show up for class but continue to receive paychecks) from 26 percent to 1 percent in two years.

When schools reopened after a 28-month closure due to COVID-19, ASJ again mobilized its 20,000 volunteers to monitor schools and spot instances of ghost teaching. Thanks to the volunteers, says ASJ cofounder Kurt Ver Beek, Honduran students received their scheduled 200 days of education in the 2023–2024 school year. ASJ has persisted in spite of occasional harassment by some government officials.

In Malawi, Martha Chizuma is persisting too, with encouragement from some friends. Three days after her unexpected pre-dawn arrest, she was waiting for her driver when she saw ten very poor women approaching. “They hugged me, crying, because they knew what had happened to me,” Chizuma recalled. “One of them said, ‘I was so worried when they arrested you because we knew you were the only one fighting for us!’”

Although Malawi has an evangelical president, Lazarus Chakwera, the deeply rooted corruption plaguing the country has not yet been eliminated. In May, when corruption charges against a leading public official were suddenly dropped, the disappointment reminded Chizuma that hers is often a lonely path. We need more evangelicals like those ten women who encouraged Chizuma to continue in her difficult but crucial undertaking.

Robert Osburn is a senior fellow with Wilberforce International Institute and is author of Taming the Beast: Can We Bridle the Culture of Corruption?

[ This article is also available in español Português, and Français. ]