Editors’ note: 

TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question about how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].

I’m the operations director at a church, and part of my job is negotiating contracts with vendors for good or services. As a Christian, how firmly should I negotiate? How much do I share (e.g., the price bids I’ve received from other vendors) and how much do I keep back? And when something goes wrong, should I overlook it in love or hold them accountable? What advice could you give about balancing the need to be a good steward of church finances with the need to be a good witness to every salesperson I interact with?

While the Bible doesn’t give much direct advice about negotiating, it does provide a number of positive and negative examples.

In the first negotiation in Scripture, the serpent used deceptive tactics to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Later, Jacob used his skill at negotiation to obtain Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew. In more positive examples, both Abraham and Moses negotiate with God on behalf of others (the city of Sodom and the Israelites, respectively).

Unfortunately, none of these narratives provides concrete guidance on how to carry out our own negotiations. To learn to be effective as Christian negotiators, we must instead combine prudence with biblical principles.

Here are three such principles that can help us think it through.

1. Our goal in a negotiation is to properly steward God’s resources.

The word stewardship comes from the Greek oikonomia, which refers to someone who manages a household and is the root of the English word economy. Stewardship is an important concept in the Bible, which tells us we are stewards in God’s world, his economy of all things. This is true even when we’re negotiating with non-Christians since, as the psalmist said, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).

God has entrusted us to be “rulers over the works” of his hands (Ps. 8:5–6). We’re given the resources of the earth not to exploit but to cultivate for the good of ourselves, our neighbors, and those who come after us. We must therefore take into account numerous stakeholders when deciding how best to negotiate.

That said, because resources were given to you for the benefit of a specific group (in this case, your local church), you have a special responsibility to use a minimal amount of resources (i.e., time and money) to close the deal in a way that benefits all parties. By preserving the resources entrusted to you whenever possible, you can expand the good that can be done with them.

2. Prices are a God-given means of coordinating resources.

Because we have a limited amount of resources to steward, God expects us to make ethical decisions about how we can use them most effectively. One timesaving method he’s given us is the price system. As the economist Alex Tabarrok has said, “If it had been invented, the price system would be one of the most amazing creations of the human mind.” The price system is indeed an amazing creation—but of the divine mind. It’s one of God’s means of coordinating human activity for the purposes of human flourishing.

We tend to be uncomfortable talking about cost, because we think of it solely in terms of money. But prices should be viewed as an information system. A dollar amount provides a simple way of conveying a vast array of information, such as the relative abundance or shortage of a product, which God uses to help us coordinate our use of his resources.

The price system is one of God’s means of coordinating human activity for the purposes of human flourishing.

When it comes to contract negotiation, don’t be ashamed to ask about price. If there’s a willingness to negotiate the bill, it’s likely because there is a degree of flexibility in the transaction. For example, a supplier might agree to give you a lower price if you’ll be flexible on the delivery date. Embedded in the original price was information—such as transportation cost—that you likely didn’t know.

Rather than thinking of all the possible ways you could find flexibility in the contract, simply ask for a lower price. This allows your negotiating partner to look for a solution using the information that went into the pricing. Similarly, by conveying—when appropriate—how much you can pay, you help your suppliers know if a mutually beneficial arrangement can be reached.

Keep in mind that prices resulting from negotiation may include information that is not generally available to the public. While sharing the publicly available price of competitors with other vendors is probably acceptable, be wary of betraying trust by revealing a specially negotiated price.

3. We have obligations to unseen neighbors.

The foundation of a successful negotiation is mutual trust and mutual benefit. The best-laid plans, however, can go awry when it comes to implementation.

No one should walk away from a negotiation with a Christian and justifiably feel they were cheated. If someone has to suffer wrong, we should prefer it to be us (1 Pet. 2:19–20). But we also have a responsibility—not only to our stakeholders, but also to other neighbors—to hold our supplier accountable.

No one should walk away from a negotiation with a Christian and justifiably feel they were cheated.

If vendors fail to deliver because of incompetence or lack of ethics, they should be allowed a good-faith effort to rectify the situation. If they fail to do so, though, we have a moral obligation to prevent them from cheating others.

What this requires of us depends on the context. In some cases, it might require nothing more than leaving a negative online review; in others, it could require seeking a lien on business property. But if we allow them to continue to act immorally, then we are to some degree culpable.

Sometimes being a good witness requires us to think about people (such as other customers the salesperson will cheat in the future) we may never see.

You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.