Part 2: To bribe or not to bribe?


Last week I proposed the Noonan definition of a bribe as “an inducement improperly influencing the performance of a public function meant to be gratuitously exercised” (The History of Bribery). That definition then begs the question of what is proper and improper.  Considering biblical culture and law, our own culture and law and the host culture and law, the following questions will go a long way to helping us make decisions on what is a bribe and what might not be a bribe.  Remember that “Christianity operates on the notion that ethics (the study of human character) logically follows theology (the study of God’s character)”.1

In short, questions of bribery and extortion can be subjected to a Biblical test contextualized to the culture of the business:

  1. Does a bribe create partiality?  The Old Testament commands us to not “show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great.” (Leviticus 19:15). Likewise in the New Testament, “…keep these instructions without partiality, and do nothing out of favoritism.”  (I Timothy 5:21).  If the activity causes one to be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged, the decision is likely unethical and unfair.
  2. Is the activity based on greed and does it oppress the powerless?  If a gift or “bribe” causes you to be advantaged and another to wait unfairly, the act has oppressed the powerless and is strongly condemned in the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:23;  Ecclesiastes 7:7).  Friedman uses the Old Testament to provide principles for businesses such as “Helping the Needy and Powerless”, and “Fair Treatment of Employees”, and “Not Engaging in Dishonesty and Immoral Business Practices.”2
  3. Does the activity clearly result in doing something illegal?  While it is difficult to determine what the law really is in many developing countries because, it is important to determine some standard to follow through your own research or by following trusted national experts.  Take the position that that it is never right to sin or disobey a law in order to accomplish a good purpose.  When a developing country does not have laws as robust as developing countries, don’t jump at the opportunity to take advantage of lenient local laws but use it as an opportunity to consider what is right and operate accordingly. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”3 Keep in mind that “…in free societies law is a moral floor, providing only minimal standards of acceptable behavior.”4
  4. Does the activity “pervert the course of justice” (Proverbs 17:23, Exodus 18:21)? Another definition of bribery suggests it is the “bestowing of money or favor upon a person who is in a position of trust (for example a judge or government official) in order to pervert his judgment or corrupt his conduct.”  In quoting this Falkiner states, “ Perverting justice through bribery can take the form of paying for an unfair advantage, such as buying entrance to a school that has limited enrollment, or fixing a traffic ticket, or receiving a visa for which one is not qualified.  The common denominator is that a perversion of justice has taken place.”5

With regard to bribery and extortion, the Bible seems to promote the morality of paying a bribe or giving a gift for something clearly legal or good.  Likewise the Bible seems to never condemn giving a bribe though it does clearly condemn taking a bribe.  Proverbs speaks positively in terms of gift giving (18:16, 21:14).  There are cases where gifts (bribes?) are not a way around the law (which is wrong) but an incentive for officials to do their prescribed jobs, or to expedite what they should be doing anyway, or to encourage justice.  Bribery in the Old Testament is condemned if it exploits or oppresses the poor.  It is condoned if it establishes a relationship.”6

In relationship-based cultures which are poverty stricken, sometimes “bribes” may be helpful to officials who have not been paid for months, and need encouragement to do their rightful job.  Clearly there are difficult cultural nuances at play here, and careful study of scripture, the laws and culture are important.

In a relationship culture, gifts can be a way of developing a friendship and working relationship.  Many non-western cultures expect an incentive gift as a way of solidifying a relationship and when not perverting justice, can be a healthy way of living in a culture.  One way to test this would be to ask – can it be given openly as opposed to subtly?  “A tip is for proper performance of a job; a bribe causes a person to betray a job.”5

“Be wise and give serious thought to the way you live.”  (King Solomon in Proverbs 23:19)


  1. Hill, Alexander. Just Business,  InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2008, page 14.
  2. Friedman, Hersey H. “Creating a Company Code of Ethics:  Using the Bible as a Guide”, Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organizational Studies,  Vol. 8 (1),  April 2003.
  3. Wong, Kenman L. & Rae, Scott R.  Business for the Common Good, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2011, page 187-188.
  4. Welch, D. ed. Law and Morality, Fortress, Philadelphia, PA, 1987,  page 153-154.
  5. Falkiner, Steven. “Bribery – Where are the Lines?”, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January 1999, page 22-37.
  6. Adeney, Bernard. Strange Virtues, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1995, page 153.

Larry W. Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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