Friday, March 23, 2018

Bribery and Christians

December 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Monthly Articles

There were exceptions in practice, but before the mass apostasy of AD 249-251 Christian writers condemned bribes to government servants to obtain earthly benefits.

The “Epistle of the Apostles”, a Christian work from the Middle East dating between AD 140 and 160, linked bribe-taking with such other sins as lust for alcohol and undue prejudice in judging motivated by a party’s status or relationship to the
judge.  About the same era, the “Apocalypse of Zephaniah” discountenanced bribery along with usury.

In the second quarter of the second century, the bishop of Antioch in Syria considered bribery, especially of judges, to be as evil as theft, oppression of the poor in court, acquitting the wicked, and killing anyone—especially not the innocent and

Clement of Alexandriawas the dean of Christianity’s foremost academy in the AD 190s.  He counseled soldiers not to loot, tax-collectors not to take more than assessed to pocket the difference, and judges not to corrupt just words, disregard innocent victims, or—like “The Epistle of the Apostles”—be prejudiced in decision-making or accept a bribe.

Christians were forbidden to so much as OFFER a bribe.  In Acts 24.26 a Roman official hearing the case of Saint Paul expected the Apostle to try to bribe him but Paul did not do so. Offering a bribe was forbidden even in life-and-death situations.  The above authors wrote while Christians were being persecuted.  After Paul’s time,
death was the penalty for failing to participate in pagan worship, which
Christians rightly considered to be idolatry and a betrayal of the lordship of
Christ.  Some frightened believers found a third alternative: bribe the relevant government officials to obtain an untrue certificate to the effect that they had participated, soothing their consciences that they had not actually done so in fact.  This was condemned before AD 211 by Apollonius and by Tertullian, a prominent lawyer who accepted Christianity and became a clergyman in Tunisia.  These two authors are valuable in showing that the various branches of Christianity were united on the bribery issue, for Tertullian later wrote a book against Apollonius on another issue.  Tertullian pointed out that such a Christian’s life would be saved not by the Lord but by money.  Recipients of such bribes would not be the
heavenly treasury but such low fellows as “an informer, a soldier, or some
paltry thief of a ruler”.  Relying on a bribe to escape undesirable consequences would be to rely on Mammon, the god of money, which Jesus expressly forbade in Matthew 6.24 and Luke 16.13.

On the other hand, two Christian writers of this period approved of bribery, one recording it as a matter of course while the other positively commanding it.  The account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas was composed shortly after the event in AD 202, some say by Tertullian.  It relates, without commenting on the ethics, that church officers paid jailers money for incarcerated Christians to be sent to a less unpleasant part of the prison for a few hours.  A manual of church
discipline and morals compiled in the first third of the third century, the
“Didascalia Apostolorum” so strongly enjoins payment of jail guards to relieve
and take care of and feed Christians in jail for their religion that if
Christians outside do not possess the funds for a bribe they are to fast and
pay the guards with the money saved on not buying food.  Wealthy Christians are to use their whole estate to redeem or refresh Christian prisoners by bribery.

The difference giving rise to the seeming contradiction turns on the status of the recipients and extent of their authority.  Before the nineteenth century in England,
prisoners were obliged to buy their own food and accoutrements.  Paying money to guards was the only means of ensuring meals and decent bedding and treatment for prisoners, which in Canada today are financed by the Crown as standard practice. 
The usual recipients of bribes in the prohibited categories were judges,
who have always been paid by the government and exercise wider discretion in
their work and hold sway over more people and over a wider scope of citizens’

Dr. David W. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer residing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. His articles on early and contemporary Christianity have been published by a wide variety of denominations in every major English-speaking country. He holds degrees from three Canadian universities.

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