Business as Sacrament: On the Sacred versus the Secular

(This essay is a close adaptation of an excerpt from the book Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, © David B. Doty, 2011, which is due to be released in January, 2012 by Wipf & Stock Publishers.)

Two statements made at a 2010 summer conference undermine the Christian’s role in the marketplace. Both were made by mature Christian business practitioners and in response to pointed questions after speaking to a largely Christian gathering of theologians, business practitioners, students, clergy, and administrators.

The first concerned the role of business in God’s mission in the world (paraphrased): “Business is not ordained of God. It is only a vehicle for doing good.” This would hold true if it were qualified that business is only for the purposes of financial gain. But business serves numerous and far more important purposes.

Experience validates that those in agreement with the speaker are generally uncomfortable trying to reconcile the extensive abuses of the marketplace to the character of God. This concern with the “corrupt nature” of the market, therefore it must not be “of God,” is quickly undone if marriage is held to the same purity test. The corruptions of marriage and the marketplace are due to human sinfulness, not God’s design or intent for either institution. An obvious parallel is God’s allowance for the sin of divorce. Jesus addressed the Mosaic divorce decrees as acquiescence to the hardness of the human heart. God hates divorce (Mal 2:16) just as He hates unjust scales (Prov 16:11; Prov 20:10; Prov 20:23) because both are violations of just relationship.

Marriage is a covenant, an earthly model of the marriage of Christ and His bride (Eph 5:22–33). The household, as marriage and family, serves as a microcosmic model of the marketplace as a unifying and provisional social community. God’s relationship to humanity is covenantal. God did not destroy humankind when the (pre-Fall) Edenic covenant was broken. Grace remained for human provision and to provide the opportunity for restored relationship with God. In the marketplace, formal contracts are legal covenants but we seldom witness grace (forgiveness) from the world when contracts are broken, further evidence of sin’s corrupting presence.

The human social (informal or cultural) contract, as a manifestation of God’s stated moral laws and naturally-ordered law in creation, is fundamentally concerned with economic issues. Law and culturally-based behavioral norms contribute to peace of mind and body and stability to society as they broadly serve the common good. Economics appear to have played a dominant role in God’s indictment and judgment of Sodom, as they did not “help the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49), and Tyre, where they “did not remember the covenant of brotherhood” (Amos 1:9). The abhorrent acts under indictment were, in the view of God and the godly, clearly unacceptable and violated the shalom of society.

Parts of the human social contract and the pursuit of the common good are upheld by law. But God-followers are morally obligated to do good (Isa 1:17; Mic 6:8), delighting in kindness (Hos 6:6), and preserving justice by doing what is right (Isa 56:1; Zeph 2:3), especially for the poor, orphans, widows, the weak, and afflicted (Ps 82:3; Jer 22:3). These are the sacrifices pleasing to God (Heb 13:16; 1 Pet 2:5) which may go beyond the letter of the law, as Jesus often taught. The focus is toward social equilibrium and flourishing, shalom such that all in society are well provided for.

God commands His people to do good. Business is one means for doing good and in fact does a great deal of good (i), even as it is carried out by non-believers or operators from other faith traditions. Whenever business is carried out justly, it does good and is God-ordained because we are assured that all good things “come from above” (Jas 1:17). God created the marketplace to serve several positive ends. Human provision, facilitated by the beneficial exchanges of the marketplace, is a fundamental function of creation. Commerce can also be, at least informally, a means of revelatory grace, specifically as immanent charis, the kindness, mercy, and goodwill of God in the world, as business generates wealth that can be used to pay wages, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for widows and orphans. Business can be evangelizing witness to the glory of God as operators share their lives and hope with their employees (by paying fair wages), vendors (by being credit-worthy), customers (by giving excellent service), communities (by supporting and participating in civic activities), and to all by their profession of faith and general congeniality. Christ is present in the marketplace when the devout carry out their business in accordance with God’s will, purposes, and character.

The subordination of the marketplace to “worldly” status, as a form of dualism, is an offense to the Scriptures and God. God decreed the cooperative relationship between Adam and Eve and in all its inherently economic, spiritual, social, relational, and ecological nature. We undermine God’s design when we disallow God’s ordination of the marketplace as part of the proper created order.

The second comment came when the other businessman referred to his “secular” business. When that description was challenged from the audience, he claimed that the business was “secular but not secularist.” I admit freely that I did not and do not understand what that means. I believe that, like the first speaker, this man views business as not ordained of God and under God’s ownership and operation, but meant that as the operator of the business he has godly intent and aims. I cannot disagree more vehemently with drawing such a distinction.

How Christians perceive the division of secular and sacred is important. The popular definition of secular absolutely divides temporal and spiritual matters (dualism). Several Biblical and theological concepts, however, reinterpret that definition. In addition to God’s people, all of creation is being redeemed in Christ, as waiting in earnest expectation (Rom 8:19). Is being redeemed, an active process, is the operative phrase. The functional reality of the Christian life is tension between the worldly (fallen temporal) and the heavenly (restored spiritual). Paul sees this as normal when telling the Corinthians that “we will all be changed” (future passive—1 Cor 15:51–52) and that we “are changed” (present passive—2 Cor 3:18). The first is in reference to the bodily resurrection, the second to taking on the image of Christ. Charles Cranfield, the author of the commentary on Romans published in The International Critical Commentary series, argues that this tension is not resolved between Romans Chapters 7 and 8, but rather that the war between the flesh and spirit is the ongoing conflict of the Christian disciple, striving to serve God in holy living yet recognizing how they continue to fall short of his glory.(ii) Both personally and systemically, the Kingdom of God, the growing reign of Christ in individual hearts and the ongoing redemption of social institutions, is already-but-not-yet, now in imperfect operation yet looking to a future, perfect fulfillment.

This moves the discussion toward issues of eschatology, the study of the last thing (eschaton) or last things (eschata).(iii) Mortals peering into the future certainly see “as through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). The views on what is to come in this world and in heaven run across a broad spectrum. Western orthodox Christian traditions—Roman Catholic, Reformed and the majority of Evangelical—lean toward forms of a post-millennial view that holds Jesus Christ’s earthly reign will occur when He returns (the Second Coming) at the end of a long period of time: a period in which the church is spreading the Gospel throughout the world and leading the transformation of social institutions and cultural norms toward God’s will. These Catholic, Reformed, and Evangelical traditions hold an optimistic view of the future, drawing on Scripture, and the advancement of human institutions in the West, including democratic government and liberalized markets, and the Christian calling to godly ethics in all spheres of life.

The validity of these views is defensible in much of the Old Testament prophetic expectations and the New Testament witness, and poignantly expressed by Jesus’ petition in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt 6:10).

Eschatology is fundamentally concerned with God’s reign in the last days in the world, from Jesus’ Ascension until His return. The presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit for the Christian life advocates for a significant degree of Kingdom presence in the world as adherents live in obedience, doing good as the agents of God. Kingdom speaks to ownership and rule as it is under the authority of God’s sovereignty that good works are carried out.

Here the discussion shifts to issues of stewardship and sonship. Two strong arguments in Scripture for pursuing the sacred in Christian life are that “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps 24:1), “and whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col 3:17). Adam’s appointment as steward (to keep) the Garden was clear. The Bible is filled with considerations of the moral responsibility and character of godly (and ungodly) stewardship.

But more than stewards, Christians are the children of God which involves the important elements of inheritance, ownership, and dominion. It is helpful to remember God’s original intention in creation to create a family for Himself, to ultimately bring “many sons to glory” (Heb 2:10). As any good father would, the heavenly Father wants to bestow a rich inheritance on His children, not just of material blessing but, more importantly, of character. Christians anticipate that inheritance explicitly in being called joint heirs of the glory of God with Christ (Rom 8:17) and look to being changed step-by-step, from glory to glory, into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) as the “event” of receiving the inheritance.

The nature of the glory of Christ and of the heavenly Father is summed up by the four living creatures in adoration before the throne of God: “Holy, holy, holy.” As God followers, Christians live under the hortatory “Be holy for I am holy” (Lev 11:44b), “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior, because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15–16). The call to holiness presents challenges for Christians in the marketplace, in particular by the phrase “in all your behavior” here and Paul’s “do not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2). Holiness (hagios—Strong’s 40) is determinative of character in all aspects of Christian practice. To be holy is to be morally upright by intrinsic or divine character. Holiness is available to Christians only through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Christians in the marketplace, feeling pressed by worldly circumstances, may impose an unholy bifurcation on market decisions to allow excuse for ungodly behavior. The nature of holiness has been defined as otherness. God’s glory is so far from our fallen state, for example, that it is understood that we cannot be like God. We cannot be omnipotent, omniscience, or omnipresent. We can, however, seek to know and practice the will of God. Accepting and loving one another, taking on the mind of Christ (Rom 15:5), willingly deferring and sacrificing for one another, submitting ourselves to lives of humble service—these attitudes and acts may challenge the logic of worldly pragmatism (human wisdom) which is limited by the narrow vision of human knowledge.

Holiness may oppose what appears to makes sense: “let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, ‘He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless’” (1 Cor 3:18–20).

It easily follows that, beyond any limited righteousness “enforced” by the world’s legal documentation and contracts, businesses operated by Christians are to be held as sacred trusts, set apart for the glory and worship of God. That set apartness means these endeavors are sacramental with a small s, having a sacred nature. Any lesser view relegates the marketplace and the workers’ efforts to the profane.

A major influence dividing the spiritual and the secular in Western Christian minds is one hallmark of Platonic dualism: the view that the material world is inherently evil. While creation has been corrupted, this dualism leaves no room for redemption except as an escape from the material realm. This view of the material world encourages false eschatological notions and stands against an already-but-not-yet realization of the Kingdom.

Such isolation of secular and sacred even clouds the argument that God’s glory is demonstrated in nature (Ps 19:1). For example, consider the pending birth of a child. Secular humanism wrestles with the essential nature of a fetus (“When does it become a person?”). Yet logic is not troubled that the fetus is present and possesses the potential of a fuller realization. It is at once a thing living though in a transitional state and as yet unfulfilled. Before I was married, I had the potential to be a father (conceptual), but when my wife became pregnant I was in a state of flux until the child’s birth actualized that role. In a real way, I was already-but-not-yet a father during her pregnancy.

Compartmentalizing our spiritual and temporal natures is a slippery slope excusing and even justifying the necessity of ungodly policies and practices. Profit, for sustainability and increasing wealth, is ordained of God (Deut 8:18), but that ordination remains only as God is obeyed in both generating wealth (means) and using it appropriately (ends). The primary function of the marketplace in creation is for the facilitation of just relationships toward adequate universal provision, the Edenic shalom as both means and ends.

Marketplace Christians are under enormous tension because it is easy to live with just one foot in God’s Kingdom. Compartmentalization is enabling and pragmatism can be self-justifying. Greed and power are strong temptations and compromise easily leads to hypocrisy and dishonors the glory of God.

The false divide of sacred and secular presents difficult disciplines and choices for marketplace Christians. That is why personal and systemic economic issues arise in every section of the Bible. In the Torah we find laws and commandments pertaining to the treatment of the poor (Lev 25:35–55) and the valuation of property (Lev 27). In the historic books, we find the military and economic oppression of Israel by Midian (Judg 6:1–10), Boaz leaving gleanings in his field for the poor (Ruth 2:1–9), and the abolishment of usury (Neh 5:1–13). In the wisdom literature, we see that a righteous man does not exact usury (Ps 15:5), that honest scales are of God (Prov 16:11), and that the Lord hears and responds to the cries of the poor (Ps 34:6).

And so it goes, throughout the prophets, the Gospels and Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. Creation is economic by design, and economic justice (equilibrium, shalom) is a primary aim of God’s mission.

i. Kennedy, Robert G. “What is the Good That Business Does?,” in The Good That Business Does, 67–85. Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2006.
ii. Cranfield, Charles E.B. Romans: A Shorter Commentary, 168–72. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
iii. See Walls, Jerry L., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 2008, as an excellent resource for studying eschatology generally.

2 Comments

Filed under Excerpts from Eden's Bridge the Book, Faith in the Marketplace

2 responses to “Business as Sacrament: On the Sacred versus the Secular

  1. Will Hensel

    I really appreciate the selection David has shared, and the evident work and thought he has invested. I want to reflect at greater depth and more care than I can invest right now, but I also want to register my gratitude and raise one issue for further consideration, at least at first reading:

    As a Christian engaged in commerce, I find this sentence self-contradicting:

    “Marketplace Christians are under enormous tension because it is easy to live with just one foot in God’s Kingdom.”

    Quick reactions:
    *If it were easy to live this way, the tension would not be enormous.
    *I’m not sure I could agree that it’s even possible, let alone easy, to live with just one foot in God’s Kingdom, assuming that one has a second foot and it’s somewhere else.

    • Will – The assertion was made given the general performances we often see among those who call themselves Christian (which covers a broad range of spiritual maturity), not to any one person’s particular walk. Certainly we all know different behaviors within our own experience that create tension in our life with Christ simply because we rationalize (without understanding) or we stumble again in sin.

      The logic of my assertion is such that if it were difficult to have one foot in the Kingdom and the other not, most would live without the tension by taking the easier route of pursuing one course or the other. However, conditions exist, giving the history of bifurcating our secular and spiritual realities, i.e., seeing our vocations / businesses as secular and identifying our role in them as somehow distinct from our spiritual allegiance to God, such that we tend to function as dualists, leaving Jesus at the church building and taking on the mores (even if unconsciously) of the world when we re-enter the marketplace on Monday morning. At the same time, the Spirit continues to minister, as deep calling unto deep, to draw us away from ill-advised behavioral justifications, hence the ongoing tension between the flesh (and temptation) and the spirit (and obedience).

      Christians in business are daily faced with decisions that can appear expeditious, even prudent, but that may seriously violate the Spirit. The world’s arguments make it easy to follow its dicta (summed up in “It’s nothing personal, just business”) which undermines the responsibility of being our brother’s keeper.

      Easy choices are made when there is an obvious choice (i.e., X and Y as choices tend to be mutually exclusive) but choices become inherently more difficult when we justify our actions by operating from two seemingly incongruous ideologies that can be “switched on and off” by rationalizing them. Scripture even warns us that we can become jaded to the warnings (the “still small voice”) of the Holy Spirit. The path to spiritual degradation is not unlike the opposite trajectory toward holiness such that we either pursue growing in grace or in our self-determination (again, even if subconsciously). Faith is subsumed to logic and we “re-write” our faith / doctrines to justify our rationale.

      In any case, the tension is great, perhaps more so in the spiritual realm than realized in the temporal, but if we are truly seeking to know God, worldly wisdom will create tension that must be overcome by submission to God.

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