Missionary Ethics and the Practice of Bribery

by Jason Richard Tan

Tan offers a detailed description of how to differentiate between a bribe, extortion, a payment, and a gift.

Detained by a customs official despite having completed all his visa requirements, a clerk approached the visibly irked missionary and offered to help if the missionary was willing to give $10 over and above the required fee.

Disgusted by what he perceived as bribery, the missionary handed the money and sarcastically commented, “I hope you sleep well tonight!” To which, the clerk responded, “Oh, thank you, I will. I know God is pleased with me for going out of my way to help a fellow Christian.”

Bribery practices are ethical issues many missionaries to foreign lands face. Despite its prevalence in missionary engagement, little has been done to define what accounts as a bribe. As a result, some missionaries and evangelical writers approach the issue from a Western perspective, categorizing all forms of traditionally non-Western yet otherwise acceptable economic practices pejoratively, using terms such as “bribe,” “wrong,” “sinful,” “a result of greed,” or “a moral problem” (see Falkiner 1999; Langston 1994; Miranda-Feliciano 1990; Wilson 1974). One missionary remarked, “Almost all the Russians I’ve interacted with on this topic have been brought up with bribery since infancy.” How should missionaries engage the issue of bribery?

What Is a Bribe?
One of the ways to approach this issue is by defining what we mean by a bribe. Most cultures do not have a word for “bribe.” Even the Old Testament does not have a modern equivalent. Instead, it uses the word kopher, meaning “ransom,” and shohad, meaning “gift.” These two Hebrew words are not equivalent to the English term “bribe,” but may be interpreted as such, depending upon the context. Unfortunately, the context is not always clear.

One example is found in Proverbs 17:8: “A bribe (shohad) is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds.” Since the term carries a negative connotation in the English parlance “designating and denigrating the briber and the bribe” (Noonan 1984, 3), the whole verse therefore becomes ambiguous and the Bible can be viewed as promoting the practice of bribery. However, if it were translated as “gift,” then the verse would make more sense (see also Prov. 21:14).

A bribe, by definition, is any gift or services given or promised by a client to a certain “power holder” (see Noonan 1984) in order to encourage him or her to violate a duty or moral obligation in dealing with the client.

For instance, when Adoniram Judson was imprisoned, Ann Judson tried to preserve his life by giving money to prison officials to allow her to bring food for him and his fellow prisoners (Robert 1996, 46). Was the prison official morally obligated to keep the prisoners from receiving food? (See also Philips [1984] on Nazi guards.) Was Ann Judson guilty of committing bribery? Of course not.

If this is the case, then most instances of bribe or bribery that Western missionaries are decrying are actually instances of extortion, perceived or otherwise.

Extortion refers to the power holder’s intention of obtaining any pecuniary gift from a client as a condition to dispense duty or services (see Noonan 1984; Philips 1984). A customs official who refuses to grant a visa (despite all the proper documentation) unless a fee is given is actually committing extortion. On the other hand, kidnapping is also a form of extortion. It is prudent that Western missionaries be able to distinguish between these two forms, depending upon the degree of danger a missionary is facing.  

Defining an act as either bribery or extortion makes an enormous difference. In the concept of a bribe, the blame is placed on the client who initiates a transaction in order to compel a person to violate his or her duty. This is clearly against biblical values.

On the other hand, the concept of extortion shifts the blame to the power holder, the person given a public trust to dispense his or her duty fairly. When power holders (such as customs officials) use coercive threats in order to initiate a transaction, they commit extortion. The client in such a case should not bear the moral responsibility for being forced to pay under duress because he or she is a victim of extortion (see Adeney 1995).

The word “bribe” is an “anachronistic linguistic habit” (Philips 1984, 625) that forces users to make a premature value judgment about those who give and those who receive gifts, insinuating that such action and relationship is corrupt. This word should be used sparingly, especially by Western missionaries who tend to judge acceptable Majority World transactions as immoral.

Conscience Is Arbitrary
In his article on missionary elenctics, Robert Priest argues that conscience is culturally conditioned (1994). Even though all human beings have a conscience, what triggers it varies from culture to culture. He states, “American missionaries internalize deeply held moral ideas about punctuality, egalitarianism, individual rights, privacy, cleanliness, etc., which derive much more clearly from their culture than from the Scripture” (1994, 300).

Steven Falkiner argues that a Christian should never pay a bribe under any condition in order to get a visa. On the other hand, he states, “Creative ways to operate without bribery have been found. For example, to work in the face of strict visa laws, missionaries have gone as tentmakers or students or have approached these countries as nonresident missionaries” (1999, 24).

This only shows how selective people can be when applying moral laws to themselves and to other cultures. A person may find nothing wrong in dissimulation when entering a restricted country, but would find bribery appalling. Although bribery is wrong, what amounts to it is different from every culture and situation.

Paying what westerners term as a “bribe” in order to expedite the processing of a legal document is no different than paying the post office more money to expedite the delivery of a package. However, for many, the written law is the ultimate arbiter of justice. Falkiner insists, “Therefore, even if it were considered to be a cultural norm, and even if everyone else is doing it, the Christian is called to obey the law that prohibits it” (1999, 24).  

The problem with written law is that it is sometimes unrealistic and unreasonable in a given context. Ultimately, a Christian should abide by the standards of God’s word and not simply by a written law. American Christians might drive over the speed limit (a clear violation of a written law), yet feel little or no guilt, but often react with great indignation to the expectation of a gift for services they feel they are owed. On the other hand, a Christian who hires the services of a prostitute in Amsterdam acts within the freedoms of the written law, but violates God’s moral law.             

The Gift Economy
The modern system of government is dependent upon “impersonal decision makers” who are “disinter-ested” neutral agents given a public trust to run the bureaucracy (Clarke 1983, x). This system operates on the Western principle of egalitarianism. A government bureaucracy should be neutral and fair to its constituency. This bureaucratic system removes the need for gifts, commissions, and tips, since these may threaten the system of justice, egalitarianism, and fairness.

On the other hand, prior to this modern bureaucratic system, most of the world operated on a gift economy that relied upon reciprocity and patronage, where allocation of resources was dependent upon personal relationships with patrons, village chiefs, wealthy landowners, and community officials. When the modern economic system was adopted in pre-modern societies, the values of reciprocity and patronage remained intact (see Rambo 1989; Parry and Bloch 1996).

As a result, government officials in these countries continue to operate in terms of the gift economy. Problems arise when government officials do not receive proper compensation and therefore engage in extortion practices to increase their income.

In countries where customs officials are not properly compensated, there is a general understanding that they are permitted to look for compensation elsewhere, and the practice of what Western missionaries call “bribe” is actually understood as part of their commission or a “tip in advance” (Mayer 1976, 104).

“Bribery is sometimes part of a government employee’s income and may ‘lubricate’ the inefficiencies caused by a fixed salary and hierarchy” (Hu, et al. 2004, 178). In reality, these “bribes” are payments for services. They do not fall under the category of bribes since in most cases they do not coerce officials to violate a duty (such as giving a visa without proper documentation), but only to ensure service.

However, a payment becomes a bribe if its purpose is to violate or circumvent a law. Extortion, on the other hand, puts your life and family at risk. This requires prayer and wisdom, since money and inconvenience are no longer the only issues. If a Western missionary is forced to pay under these circumstances, then he or she must not be held liable since he or she was under duress.   

Below are five things Western missionaries should remember when entering a foreign country.

1. Determine whether the transaction is a bribe, extortion, payment, or gift (this does not demand a counter gift immediately). In most cases, a missionary will discover that what is being asked is a payment or tip for services given.

2. Ask local Christians about the process. Local Christians can typically identify whether a transaction is acceptable or not.

3. Determine whether you are putting your life or your family at risk by refusing to pay. In some instances, a police officer will go out of his or her way in order to make money. Paying may be safer, since you may report the incident later, if necessary.

4. Decline an offer in a respectful way. If a certain transaction does not sit well with you, learn to refuse an offer without violating one’s honor. Tell the person your honor is at stake if you release any money without official receipt (Elmer 1993).

5. In all situations, pray and ask God for wisdom.

The unwarranted use of the term “bribe” by foreign missionaries to describe acceptable Majority World economic practices only adds unnecessary moral burden to Majority World Christians. Foreign missionaries serving in Majority World countries should be aware of these differences. Furthermore, it is possible for missionaries to be “bothered by a conscience which condemns for behavior God himself does not condemn” (Priest 1994, 294).

Adeney, Bernard T. 1995. Strange Virtues. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Clarke, Michael, ed. 1983. Corruption: Causes, Consequences and Control. New York: Martin Press.

Elmer, Duane. 1993. Cross-cultural Conflict. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Falkiner, Steven. 1999. “Bribery: Where Are the Lines?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 35(1):22-29.

Hu, Jin-Li, Chung-Huang Huang, and Wei-Kai Chu. 2004. “Bribery, Hierarchial Government, and Incomplete Environmental Enforcement.” Environmental Economics and Policy Studies 6: 177-196.

Langston, Richard L. 1994. “Alternatives to Bribery: Philippines.” Evangelical Review of Theology 18(3): 248-260.

Mayer, Marvin. 1976. A Look at Latin American Lifestyles. Dallas, Tex.: SIL Museum of Anthropology.

Miranda-Feliciano, Evelyn. 1990. Filipino Values and Our Christian Faith. Manila: OMF Literatures.

Noonan, John T. 1984. Bribes. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Parry, Jonathan and Maurice Bloch. 1996. Money and the Morality of Exchange. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Philips, Michael. 1984. “Bribery.” Ethics 94(4):621-636.

Priest, Robert J. 1994. “Missionary Elenctics: Conscience and Culture.” Missiology: An International Review 22(3):291-315.

Rambo, Karl F. 1998 (1989). “From Shells to Money.” In Annual Edition: Anthropology 98/99, 21st ed. Ed. Elvio Angeloni, 87-92. Guilford, Conn.: The Duskin Publishing Group, Inc.

Robert, Dana L. 1996. American Women in Mission. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press.

Wilson, Marvin R. 1974. “Prophets and Green Palms: Bribery in Biblical Perspective.” Christianity Today January 18:13-19.


Jason Richard Tan is a Filipino doctoral fellow of Langham Partnership International and Scholar-Leader International. He is currently working on his PhD in intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He served as a pastor and professor of theology in Manila for seven years prior to his studies.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 278-282. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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