Should christians accept bonuses?

Background

I had a recent chat with another christian when this question came up as part of the conversation. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know that I am distinctively left-leaning. One of the main reasons for this is because I am a christian. I have a lot of difficulty understanding the idea of the “christian right” as I consider it to be an oxymoron.

Subsequently, I have quite strong views when it comes to money. So I wanted to lay out my reasoning for why I think the answer to the question ought to be “no,” though I wanted to understand the counter-argument. As a result, I asked around a little bit, which is laid out below. I have also attempted to play devil’s advocate.

Of course, I am not judging christians who do accept bonuses as part of their remuneration. If you do, all I’d like to do is make you think and question your motivation for accepting it.

Why I think the answer ought to be “no”

The fundamental reason why I would not be happy to accept it is one of motivation. Without giving too much confidential information away, employees in my company are given a choice. They can accept a fixed salary of £x per year, or else they could take a lower salary with a bonus which, when combined is greater than £x. So let’s say someone might be offered a basic pay of £30k, or they might be offered £28k with a £4k bonus. Of course the bonus is tied to their meeting certain conditions. If they meet their targets, they will obtain their bonus; if they get part-way they will be awarded part of their bonus. If they don’t meet the minimum target, they won’t get anything.

To my way of thinking, this creates a danger that we then work, our motivation becomes the creation of personal wealth. Following on from my recent post on worship, this would indicate that we are worshipping money. Of course, we may to rationalise this by claiming that we are accepting the bonus structure in order to pay our rent, fund the train fares, feed the family, etc. What I do not like about this view is that it creates the false impression that we would not be able to make ends meet without the bonus.

I would rather my motivation to work be because I want to do a good job. As I touched on briefly recently, there are many ways we can worship. To me, trying to do a good job at work is a part (though by no means all) of my worship. There is the very famous warning in 1 Timothy, where Paul writes “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:8-10, NRSV) Often only a part of that is quoted, but I wanted to include the lot.

Having worked in financial services for several years, and subsequently working in the finance side of a different type of business, I am surrounded by those who are obsessed with money. It would be very easy to get sucked into that world, where I’d care about profit and trying to boost my own pay, quite possibly at the expense of others. That’s not someone I’d ever want to become. I want to be someone who is content with what I have.

Another passage in my thinking (though I recognise that money is not the primary purpose of this particular discourse) is Romans 4, where Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.” (Romans 4:4, NIV) This is as close as I can find to anything about bonuses. I hope you don’t think I’m stretching scripture too much; that’s not my intention.

The devil’s advocate argument (why it might be OK)

You have to recognise that the pay culture we have in modern society would be totally alien to those living in the 18th century, let alone anyone before then. So the people of the bible wouldn’t have known enough to either speak in favour or against company bonuses.

There are various people in the bible who had great wealth and who were not condemned for it. Abraham was a bit of a Richard Branson-type figure of his day, and in terms of a single individual owning a high proportion of the world’s wealth, Solomon was probably one of the richest men in history. Yet neither of them were condemned for their wealth. It was incidental to them. This brings us on to the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’

Proponents of this view often cite Psalm 37 as a justification for not only claiming that wealth is acceptable, but that it is a sign of reward for faithfulness: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3,4, NKJV) I interpret this quite differently. Given the preamble of verse 3, I think what constitutes the “desires of [our] hearts” will be changed so that we no longer will be desiring of wealth, but rather we will be desiring the riches of God. (c.f. Romans 12).

Given the balance of the number of times wealth and money are referred to in the bible, I think that prosperity advocates must have a hard time defending their position. For brevity, I’ve omitted most references I could use to back this up; maybe another day.

Some practical considerations

Of course, not everyone is given a choice to not have a bonus as part of their pay packet. You have to be in a particularly high-end job to be able to change the terms of your employment contract. Given that I have only ever taken jobs whilst unemployed, I never had much bargaining power, so I simply wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise the prospect of employment.

Then you have the choice of what to do with it. I asked on Twitter what people thought about it, though I only got 1 reply which was that it’s OK to accept a bonus, so long as it is donated to charity. More widely, there are a number of good things you could do with additional money, of which giving to charity is but one. However, I think christians always have to keep a tight reign on their motives. For example, if you donate via a Just Giving page (or similar) do you disclose your name and the amount you are donating, or do you go by the principle of “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)?

Conclusion

For my conscience, I am happier to not take a bonus. I do not think it is inherently wrong to do so. What is important is what you do with it. In this, I probably ought to be honest about my own pay packet. I contribute to a pension scheme which removes from my pay packet 10% of my gross pay. This pushes me down into the “basic rate” tax band. Had I opted not to do this, I would be higher rate tax payer, having a marginal rate of 40% on a small portion of my salary. As it stands, my effective rate (total tax+NI/total pay) is 26.7%. From this, you can tell that I am paid significantly more than the average salary. This is slightly tempered by my train fares of £87.50 a week. Once you take tax into account, this means that if I got a job within walking distance of home, I could take a gross pay cut of just over £6,000 per year and it would have no effect on my take-home pay.

Given that I am such a highly paid job, putting me amongst the top few percent of UK workers, I think that to demand any extra would be selfish and immature. When I work long hours, I don’t complain about a lack of overtime, in spite of pressure to do so. When I think of all the millions in this country alone (let alone the billions elsewhere in the world) who do not have the material riches that I have, it is very humbling. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b, NIV) It is a huge responsibility and one that has to be taken seriously. Personally, I find those who have abundant material wealth, and yet who complain about a lack of it, to be repugnant; it’s one of the biggest intolerances I have. Maybe I’m being harsh and lacking grace; I don’t know.

So that’s my choice. What’s your take on the matter?

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4 responses to “Should christians accept bonuses?

  1. Whilst I agree in the most with this entry, I have to say that I think you are looking at this in almost too much depth. The question is not necessarily should Christian's accept bonuses, but rather how should they use whatever money they receive.Obviously there are extreme examples where the question of the bonus could be called in to question, but in most cases bonuses are built in to a person's contract (as you said) and cannot be changed.Extreme examples would include a top banker receiving a massive bonus when public money has been used to bail the banks out. At this point, if the top banker is a Christian then this question would be pertinent.Is it wrong for a Christian to make lots of money? The impression I get from your entry is almost a resounding yes. I would like to refute that by saying that it is not wrong for a Christian to make lots of money. Is it wrong for a Christian to make lots of money at the expense of others? Absolutely. Money itself is not the root of all evil, but rather love of money, as you correctly quoted. Whilst both you and I are employed by someone else it becomes easier to decide what needs doing with the money we make, we give some away and the rest gets used on bills, food, rent/mortgage and maybe we save some…What happens when a Christian sets up their own company? What if that company becomes very successful? The very nature of this world's economy dictates that a successful company will generate a large revenue for the owner of the company.Should a Christian entrepreneur therefore give his products or patents away, thereby sabotaging his own company and potentially allowing others to get rich in his stead or should he use the the talents given to him by God to create a revenue with which he can benefit many others?As I said, the real question here is not about whether Christians should accept bonuses or whether Christians should be rich but rather what should Christians do with the riches and payments they do receive.AlexP.S: Totally agree with your second to last sentence. 2nd place to those people in the repugnancy scale would be those who profess Christianity yet spend much more than required on certain material things/physical pleasures when the same thing could be acquired for much less and the excess money could be used for much greater good…

  2. Thanks Alex. Well put. This was meant to be a specific blog post, not an all-encompassing thesis. I may well post more on finance and stewardship later. This was written over a weekend ill at home! I don't think it is inherently wrong for a christian to *be* wealthy. What I do think is more questionable is for a christian to *aim* to be wealthy. One reference I chose to admit was the "eye of the needle." To give up everything for discipleship is harder the more one has; it's not impossible, just harder. I recall being repulsed during my accountancy training when it was stated that the "purpose of a company is to create wealth for its shareholders." No mention was made of employment or providing goods or services of value to society. When writing this, I didn't have in mind owner-managed businesses where the owner was a christian, even though I know a few who are. Off the top of my head, I think you're right that they shouldn't risk causing unemployment on those who depend on them for a living. Being a company director I personally aspire to. I would rather devote my energies to a life of discipleship, be that at the cost of career, marriage, money & respect if necessary.

  3. In your particular example, where you have to choose between a bonus or a fixed amount, I would say that there's an argument to be made that choosing the bonus is akin to gambling, and therefore that as a Christian you probably shouldn't choose it. Of course, the targets are largely personal, but with the obvious exception of banks, few companies would pay maximum bonuses unless both the individual and the company had performed well, and so there's more than an element of luck involved.On the wider question of accepting bonuses – what is the alternative? That money will either go to you, or stay with the company, so if you refuse it, you are effectively donating it to the company. Based on all you've said above, do you not have a moral obligation to try and use that money more wisely?

  4. Pingback: Confession of a left-wing christian | The Alethiophile