By David K. Bernard & Loretta A. Bernard
Thou shalt not steal (Exodus 20:15).
Do not steal . . . Defraud not (Mark 10:19).
In this chapter we will study various questions related to personal honesty and integrity, namely, theft, fraud, paying taxes, paying debts, extortion, and bribery. (For a discussion of lying, see chapter 4.)
Theft. The Bible teaches respect for the property and possessions of others. Stealing is the act of taking someone’s property without his or her consent. Theft is wrong regardless of the value of the stolen goods, the wealth of the victim, or the poverty of the thief. The Bible admonishes, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Ephesians 4:28).
The proper way to obtain what we need is to work for it. “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Some believe that if poor people truly need something, they are justified in taking it from a rich person who can easily replace it. Others hold that if something is not guarded, the owners do not consider it to be valuable and so do not deserve to keep it. These are human rationalizations, however, not the Word of God. Neither the old covenant (law of Moses) nor the new covenant (teaching of Jesus) allows such exceptions, but they simply command, “Do not steal.”
To be as practical as possible, let us give some examples of stealing:
- Checking out a book from a library and not returning it.
- Downloading copyrighted songs, movies, or books from the Internet without permission or payment.
- Making copies of copyrighted software in order for other people to possess it without permission or payment.
- Borrowing money without intending or attempting to repay.
- Refusing to give tithes and offerings to God (Malachi 3:8-12). Tithing began before the law, for Abraham and Jacob paid tithes (Genesis 14:20; 28:22). Jesus endorsed the practice (Matthew 23:23), and Paul gave lessons on giving (I Corinthians 9:7-14). Ministers should pay tithes on their income, even if they receive their income from the tithes of others (Nehemiah 10:38; Hebrews 7:9). Many other passages of Scripture teach or commend the paying of tithes. (See Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:21; Deuteronomy 14:22; Proverbs 3:9; Luke 11:42; Hebrews 7:5-10.) When we give tithes (ten percent of net income) and offerings (freewill giving of any amount), we honor God as the true owner of everything we possess. He is the one who gives life, health, strength, ability to work, and opportunity to receive income. He is the one who has supplied our needs and blessed us materially. We are stewards of these blessings, and by giving a small portion to His kingdom we acknowledge His ownership and give thanks for His blessings. When we refuse to do so, we actually rob God.
- Taking supplies or money from an organization without payment or consent of the one in charge. When people take supplies or money belonging to an organization, they sometimes justify their actions by saying that they belong to the organization and are thereby entitled to use the funds as they wish. For instance, one person misappropriated church funds using the rationale, “This is God’s money and I am God’s child.” This argument ignores the clear distinction between personal and organizational property and the principles of authority that must be followed. The organization’s managers are responsible for the proper use of the property. When members of an organization take property for personal use without proper authority, they have stolen from the organization and its managers. They have stolen from the group of people who donated or earned money for use in a specific way. For instance, when money is given to a church, it must be used according to the designated purpose and according to proper authority. The financial managers are not owners but stewards of that money. They must ensure that the money is used properly, and anyone who would receive the money must follow the proper procedure and receive the proper authorization.
Fraud. In addition to simple theft, there are other dishonest ways of taking money or property. The Bible teaches us not to defraud other people. (See Leviticus 19:13; Mark 10:19; I Corinthians 6:8; I Thessalonians 4:6.) To defraud means to cheat, swindle, take by trickery, or take by deception. Again, we will give some practical examples to illustrate the concept.
- Merchants can defraud by having incorrect weighing scales, by deliberately shortchanging a customer, or by deliberately measuring out less than what a customer actually pays for. They can also defraud by giving damaged goods to an unknowing customer.
- Sellers can defraud by giving exaggerated descriptions and creating false impressions. Sellers should answer buyers’ questions honestly and should not actively conceal important facts about the items being sold. Salespersons need to make sure that they can honestly recommend the items that they are selling.
- False pretenses. It is fraudulent to receive money for one purpose but spend it for something else. For instance, when employees requisition money to purchase an item, they should spend the money on that item. If they purchase something cheaper and pocket the difference, they have committed fraud. They should refund the difference or obtain permission for alternate use. If a church receives donations for a certain purpose, it must use the money for that purpose or else obtain consent of the donor for a new purpose.
- False receipts. It is fraudulent to submit a receipt or expense statement for reimbursement when the actual expenditure is less.
- False documents. Forging documents and using false documents is dishonest. It defrauds the person or organization who seeks verification by proper documentation. Likewise, if an employee knowingly accepts false documents, he or she is defrauding the organization that has asked for proper documentation.
- Omission of important information. We can be guilty of fraud if we omit valuable and pertinent information when asked to explain something. Withholding truth or telling only a part of the truth can be misleading, and if another person or organization is relying on this inaccurate impression in making a decision, the result can be fraud.
- Wages and salary. When people work for wages or salary, they sell their time in exchange for money. Therefore, both parties must honor this mutual agreement. Employers should treat employees fairly, provide reasonable protections and accommodations for them to perform their work, supply the promised benefits, and pay everything owed. Employees should work diligently and give an honest day’s work, whether the boss is present or not.
Work ethic. In discussing the importance of working diligently, we recognize that employees need time to relax and take breaks, simply to be more effective. There are also times when work is slow. As long as they follow the employer’s guidelines and fulfill the work they are assigned to do, they may be able to take some personal time or attend to some personal matters. However, they should not neglect their work or cheat their employer of the time for which they are paid.
Christians should be known for their diligent and faithful work. They should not work merely to please their superiors or create a favorable impression, but they should perform their work as unto the Lord. (See Ephesians 6:5-8.) As representatives of Jesus Christ, their lives are a witness of the gospel. In applying these teachings, Christians should endeavor to come to work on time, depart on time, make up for personal time if necessary, and obtain permission to take time off.
Ministers likewise have a responsibility to work diligently. Pastors who receive income from tithes have a responsibility to minister to people and to work faithfully for the Lord. They should be diligent in contacting the sick, absentees, visitors, and prospects. Since they typically do not have anyone to set a schedule for them, they should discipline themselves to put in a full day’s work and to be available when people need them.
Pastors expect the average church member to work a full-time job, attend church services, have personal devotions, and do volunteer work for the church. Therefore, pastors should at least do the same. If their congregational responsibilities do not require all their time, they should invest extra time in personal evangelism and growing a church. If their area of labor is small, they should reach out to other areas. There is always an opportunity to spread the gospel, and there is always more work to do. For self-evaluation, full-time ministers should ask themselves, Apart from personal devotion and time spent in church services, do I spend at least forty hours a week actively working for the kingdom of God?
Paying taxes. Jesus taught us to pay our lawful taxes to the government (Matthew 17:24-27; 22:15-22). Paul wrote, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7, NKJV).
If we refuse to pay the taxes we owe, then we are defrauding the government and our fellow citizens. We benefit from the social services that they pay for, yet we do not contribute our fair share. If we are not honest in reporting our income, then we are guilty of lying. If our dishonesty is discovered, then we are subject to civil and criminal penalties, and we bring reproach upon the church.
Paying debts. Christians should avoid unnecessary debt, remembering that “the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). It is advisable to save money to purchase consumer items (rather than borrowing money for these things) and to pay credit card bills in full each month. In general, it is wise to incur long-term debt only for items that retain or appreciate in value, such as a home.
If Christians do incur debt, they should discharge all their obligations in a timely manner. “Owe no man anything, but to love one another” (Romans 13:8). “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” (NIV). If we borrow money with a promise to pay it back by a certain date, then we should keep our commitment. When we purchase something by a credit card or an installment plan, we do not owe the money until the agreed-upon due date. If we do not pay on time, then we are in violation of God’s Word.
If we borrow, we must repay and repay on time. If we borrow something without returning it, we have committed theft. If we borrow money without the intention to repay, or without a reasonable expectation that we can repay it, we have also committed fraud.
Due to an unforeseen problem, sometimes we may not be able to pay a debt on time. In that case, we need to follow the procedure allowed by the creditor to pay at a later date with a late fee. If there is no such arrangement, then we must contact our creditor, provide an explanation, and ask for an extension of time. If we do not repay, we have violated Romans 13:8, unless the creditor releases us.
In cases of extreme hardship, the law allows for the discharge of debts through bankruptcy, but discharging debts legally is not necessarily the same as discharging debts morally. The debtor should carefully consider what action is necessary to be honest in the sight of God. For example, understandable reasons for bankruptcy might be a business failure, medical crisis, loss of job, or other unexpected circumstance that was contrary to the debtor’s intention and beyond the debtor’s control. The debtor may conclude that a moral way to discharge debts would be to turn over business assets to creditors, cooperate with the repossession of a vehicle, or cooperate with the foreclosure of a home.
Consumer debt is a different matter, however. What if the bankruptcy was caused by extravagant spending or poor money management, and what if the debtor has already enjoyed the benefits of the expenditures—such as restaurant meals, clothing, trips, furnishings, and electronic items? In this case, there is a moral obligation to pay for what the debtor used.
Occasionally a problem arises when someone starts a project “by faith.” One pastor did not have the funds to build a church, but he ordered the materials “by faith” and began to build. Later he could not pay his debts. The result was that the minister and the church obtained a bad name in the community. He did not operate by faith but by foolishness.
If a church wants to build, they should put their faith to work by raising and saving funds, obtaining proper credit with a reasonable and affordable plan of repayment, and building as they have the means. They should do what they can and wait for the next development by faith. They can have faith for God to supply the necessary money before they spend it. Jesus said, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28).
Problems can arise when someone borrows from another person in the church. One deacon borrowed money from an individual, saying the church needed it. Actually he needed it personally and had no means of repaying the debt. Because he lied, he owed money that he could not repay, and he caused others to lose confidence in the church.
Making and guaranteeing loans. On a personal level, when people are truly in need and we have the means to help them, we should act generously. Jesus said, “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:42). This statement appears in the context of Christ’s teaching on loving one another and being reconciled to one another. Thus, it assumes some sort of personal relationship rather than a business transaction. Those making such a request have an honest need that is known to the prospective donors, and the donors can easily meet the need from their personal resources without impairing their ability to meet their own obligations.
When people are persistently in need, however, or when their circumstances are not known to the potential donors, a loan or gift may not be the best way to help them. Instead, they may need help to find employment, overcome destructive personal habits, or develop a budget to live within their means. In this case, it is probably best to refer them to the church or a social agency that can ascertain their needs and establish a means of accountability. Individual donors can make wise use of their money by giving to these programs.
Sometimes people ask others to serve as guarantors or co-signers on a personal loan. Such a request should serve as a warning, for it indicates that the borrower may not have the means to repay the loan. There is a high risk of default, in which case the guarantor will be liable. “He who is surety for a stranger will suffer, but one who hates being surety is secure” (Proverbs 11:15, NKJV). “A man devoid of understanding shakes hands in a pledge, and becomes surety for his friend” (Proverbs 17:18, NKJV). Consequently, the best policy is not to guarantee a personal loan unless the guarantor is willing and able to assume the primary responsibility for the loan if necessary.
Extortion. Extortioners will not inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:10). In fact, Christians are commanded not to have fellowship with those who call themselves believers but who are extortioners (I Corinthians 5:11). To extort means to obtain money or favors by violence, threat, or misuse of authority. One form of extortion is blackmail—using a threat of exposure. Here are some examples of extortion.
- A stole money before he became a Christian. An old acquaintance, Mr. B, demanded that A help him get a job at A’s office. If not, then B threatened to reveal As past life with the result that A would probably be fired. B is guilty of extortion, even though a favor is involved and not money.
- A always left the office when the manager was gone. Once Miss B asked A to give her some office postage stamps under A’s control. When A refused, B threatened to tell the manager about A’s absence. A is guilty of fraud, but B is guilty of extortion.
- A preacher lived in a house owned by the church. Because of problems the church asked him to resign, but he refused to leave the parsonage unless the church gave him a large sum of money. Of course, his continuing presence would have caused severe problems for the church. Although the preacher did not use physical force, he used a threat of harm.
Usury and interest. Several passages in the Old Testament warn against usury (Psalm 15:5). In its original, general sense, the word refers to interest on loans. The Israelites were not to charge interest on loans to the poor or on loans for food (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37). In general, they were not to charge interest on loans to fellow Israelites but only to foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:19-20). These statements occur in the context of personal loans in an agrarian society as a means of helping one another, not in a business context.
These instructions indicate that the charging of interest is not wrong under all circumstances. Rather, the concern was not to profit unjustly or excessively, especially when dealing with basic necessities of personal life. Later warnings against usury focus on this sense of justice, speaking of both “usury” and “increase” (Proverbs 28:8; Ezekiel 18:8-17). The NN uses “exorbitant interest” in the former passage and “usury” and “excessive interest” in the latter. Indeed, in modern usage, the word usury means exorbitant, unconscionable, or excessive interest, such as interest charged by a loan shark.
The New Testament does not have any specific teaching on the subject. Jesus told two parables about lazy servants, whom He rebuked for not earning interest with the money that their masters had entrusted to them (Matthew 25:27; Luke 19:23). In a commercial sense, interest is the cost of using money, representing the real cost of forgoing other uses of the money. In a business context, the Lord recognized that it was legitimate to pay and collect interest.
Bribes and gifts. The Bible teaches against bribery. A bribe is “something, such as money or a favor, offered or given to a person in a position of trust to influence that person’s views or conduct.”1 Giving a gift is wrong when the intention is to gain an unfair advantage or an unlawful favor in return.
Gifts can blind the wise and cause the righteous to sin. ‘And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous” (Exodus 23:8). Deuteronomy 16:18-19 repeats the same words and adds, “Judges and officers . . . shall judge the people with just judgment. Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift.” A wicked person takes a gift to pervert the course of justice (Proverbs 17:23), and the hands of evildoers are filled with bribes (Psalm 26:10). ‘A gift destroyeth the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:7).
Of course, there are times to give and receive gifts, but we must be careful in doing so. Any gift that obligates someone could become an occasion for sin. If a gift distorts fair judgment or results in an illicit favor, then the giver and recipient are guilty of the sin of bribery. Moreover, if someone demands a gift, either directly or indirectly, for the simple performance of a duty, then he or she is guilty of extortion. The sons of Samuel sinned by accepting bribes (I Samuel 8:3).
Isaiah 33:15-16 describes the type of person who pleases God: “He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes . . . He shall dwell on high.” Such people despise deceit and unjust gain. They do not extort, oppress the poor, take advantage of people, or deal falsely. They do not seek or expect bribes and refuse to accept them if offered.
Ministers should not accept money in return for helping individuals spiritually, such as praying for someone or baptizing someone. The reason is that the gospel and its benefits are free. “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
Peter rebuked Simon for trying to purchase the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:19-20). The prophet Elisha refused to accept a gift from Naaman when the latter was healed of leprosy. When Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, secretly accepted gifts from Naaman anyway, he was stricken with leprosy. Elisha rebuked him: “Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments?” (II Kings 5:2627). If people who receive blessings from God want to give an offering of thanks, they can give it to the church.
Sometimes leaders receive gifts because someone wants to obligate them. After the gift is accepted, the giver asks for an inappropriate or impermissible favor. Therefore, leaders should use wisdom in accepting gifts. Depending on the circumstances, they may refuse a gift, return it, or at least take care that it does not influence them improperly. Here are some examples:
- A man is in charge of hiring workers for his company. Someone he does not know gives him a present. He may thereby feel obligated to hire that person, but he cannot let the gift influence him. If he does, then he is not being fair to other applicants. He may pass up a more qualified candidate and thereby cheat his company. In this case, it is best to refuse the gift.
- A woman in the church does something wrong and hurts many people. Biblically, she needs to seek reconciliation and forgiveness, but instead she brings a cake to the pastor. The pastor cannot allow this gift to override biblical requirements and solutions.
- A new employee is eager to make friends and be accepted within the company. A fellow employee asks him to do an illegitimate favor, such as accepting a false document. If he complies, he will earn goodwill, which could result in a return favor or greater job security. Although there is no explicit offer of a gift, this action is still dishonest and a form of bribery.
In many parts of the world, corruption is rampant. Often it is impossible to conduct legitimate business with certain officials unless they receive a gift. They refuse to grant a necessary approval unless they receive extra money. Can Christians conscientiously give them a gift in this case?
On the part of the officials, this behavior is a form of extortion and solicitation of bribery. As a society we should try to eliminate such practices. If Christians give a gift in order to seek a preference over others or for an official to overlook something wrong on their part, then they are guilty of bribery. However, if they are forced to offer a gift so that an official will treat them fairly, or so that an official will do his or her job, then they have not done wrong. They are not asking for anything illegal or unethical but simply for proper and just treatment.
In short, the Bible instructs us not to accept bribes. We can accept gifts only if they do not obligate us. We must not let any gift or favor taint our conscience or pervert our judgment. In turn, we should not try to obligate anyone else to act inappropriately through gifts or favors.
Honesty and integrity today. As in the days before the Flood, it seems as if the whole earth is corrupt (Genesis 6:11). Corruption has been uncovered in high levels of government, politics, business, and even religion. There are many religious charlatans and extortioners. Businesspersons, government employees, lawyers, accountants, leaders of all kinds, and even ordinary workers are exposed to frequent temptations to compromise their honesty and integrity.
In this environment, we must cherish and protect our integrity, because in the end it is all we have. Once lost, it is difficult to regain. Blessed are those who keep their word even when it hurts them to do so (Psalm 15:4-5)! Blessed are those who will not sell their integrity at any price! “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3d ed.
The above article, “Honesty and Integrity” was written by David K. Bernard and Loretta A. Bernard. The article was excerpted from Bernard’s book, In Search of Holiness.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.