The Crux of Christian Business Ethics

As I have taken part in the Lausanne Global Business as Mission (BAM) Think Tank and indulged in countless conversations concerning God’s movement in the marketplace through a myriad of other connecting opportunities, I am struck that most of us have become so enamored with the complexities of modern society and the modern marketplace that we tend to over think and over complicate how we might do business as Christians.

Personally, I am highly in favor of reductionism, even if we must, from time to time, endure pithiness when it comes to tackling the whole wide world of business as a field of Christian mission. For example, I have been trying to isolate the various models and forms of marketplace ministries. Thus far, including those who are operating from “the outside” as advocates, I have identified eleven major model categories. The substrata of those categories stretches to something near thirty five distinct practices. Now, I can compile that list, annotate it with detailed descriptions of each function, and cite organizational examples for each one. Frankly, it would not take much for me to throw in some foundational material on the theologies of work, stewardship, and the marketplace and compile a book length treatment that might be handy for missions agencies and local church mission committees to explore how they can take any number of different paths into the marketplace to build relationships and evangelize.

But now, in keeping with Jesus’ willingness to also be a reductionist when he reduced virtually all of the Law and the Prophets to two commands then asserted one new one, in effect, to supersede even those: “Love one another as I have loved you” – I hope to assert that there is a very simple approach to addressing business ethics and practices that will simplify many, many discussions, or at the very least, provide a consistent foundation and launch point for making business decisions.

I find reductionism also in keeping with the soundest of all business principles, the singular most important lesson any management wannabe should learn as early as possible in their management career: K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple, stupid. Now Jesus never really called us stupid because it would have been enormously out of character but perhaps it was somewhat tongue in cheek when he referred to his followers as sheep, undeniably one of the most simple-minded of all God’s creatures.

Lest I offend, please be aware that as I share my own reductionist theory on what “Christian business” looks like, I am coming at this from a very personal tack. I am an information junkie and tend to collect way more material than I can ever read or digest thoroughly. I have had to come to a personal practice of reductionism to make sense of a world that is confronted with the bizarre proliferation of information that is taking place around us. I cannot make sense of the world if I consider anything in too much depth, hence the limitations of things like doctoral degrees that restrict their holders to narrow fields of specialty. I, being of a free spirit to a fault of too often lacking real discipline, find myself wandering down rabbit trail after rabbit trail, finding my way back to some center point, then becoming distracted once again by another interesting topic that just might have some tangential input to some other tangent running aimlessly around within the neural networks of my cranium. But I digress…

The question I would pose is this: what guiding thought can I engage that will allow me to take all that I have learned in my faith walk as a Christian and bringing it to bear quickly, simply, and effectively in operating as a Christian business leader?

We can throw pithy answers at that question and say things like asking ourselves in every instance, “What would Jesus do?” and actually, that is not a bad approach, especially if we find ourselves in doubt as to what Jesus would do and take the time out of our schedule to ask for his guidance. Some might also say that when it comes to making business decisions we should always be guided by the “law of love,” which is also a good answer . . . if we can just define exactly what we mean by love.

But it is within those two answers that I think a very satisfying, formulaic approach can be found. First, every decision is informed by our relationship with God, and second, the essence of that particular God is defined as love. In other words, our decisions are based in real time vital relationship to the God who defines how love acts and our answer emerges that we should always follow the Way of the Cross, rather the definitive act of God intervening in human history since creation.

Now, that might seem to be as vague as “What would Jesus do?” or being guided by the law of love but the Cross gives us the example of the character and nature of the God who stands behind it and the one who hung upon it.

To help us understand the God who is love and how the Cross is an expression of that love we need to take a minute and understand why the Cross occurred. The operative word we are pursuing (via this convoluted journey) is righteousness. That may seem a bit out of place given we are just now discussing the Cross, which must surely be the most unrighteous event in human history, and indeed it was. But, the problem with that is we having already overstepped and framed the Cross as an event isolated to human history. It may well have been unintentional on our part but that is what we have done.

Let us take that same event and frame it in the divine approach to God’s mission in the world. We recognize the omniscience of God and so understand that God knew the Cross would occur even before the creation of the world. But God took an extra step that ensured the Cross would happen . . . he made a promise to Abraham that through him, that is, by his seed, God would provide the corrective stroke to set right the corruption of sin that entered creation when Adam chose the course of moral self-determination. Adam chose to disobey God but his disobedience, just as surely as the Cross, came as no surprise to God.

God committed his Son, our Savior, to the Cross, knowing it was the fulfillment of a covenant he swore by himself to deliver the descendants of Abraham from the throes of that sin corruption. The Cross was, and only from the divine perspective, an act of righteousness. But this understanding of righteousness must embrace the character and nature of God whose glory cannot be contained within the godhead itself. The glory of God is always in outward motion, extending itself for the sake of the other. A fundamental purpose in creation is to reveal God’s glory, that is, the (literally) overwhelming goodness that emanates from divine love, “spilled over” into creation.

So, the Christian business operator operates business, not of their own accord nor for their own benefit but as a manifestation of the glory of God, that same outward movement of goodness acting by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit indwelling the Christian business operator. Ultimately, following perfectly in the example of Jesus’ ministry on the Cross, the Christian business operator takes no mind of their own benefit in making their business decisions but, entrusting those decisions and the outcomes to God, makes decisions always to benefit others as witness to that same “other-oriented” glory.

The Christian business operator does not face the same challenges as a worldly operator and may even find themselves on the outs if the values and demands of worldly stakeholders are enforced and take precedence over God’s determination of righteousness, which is demonstrated by the “power” giving itself freely away for the sake of the powerless. Frankly, many Christian business executives are being challenged every day to follow Christ, which may mean a venue change for their particular desk, if you catch my drift, or to follow the world.

For most employees, however, the choice is much simpler than it is perhaps in the executive suite since the New Testament commends us to obey authority, and even the ornery type. That is not to say that Christian workers should take part in overtly immoral activity per se and the discernment of when it is appropriate to speak out against certain practices may come with great difficulty, and at great price. But even in those situations, where livelihood hangs in the balance, there may well come times to step out, in the name of righteousness and in faith that God does not call his people to demoralizing, ungodly circumstance. Faith tells us that we may be Daniels, on the carpet but able to prove our ways, the ways of God, better in the long run. And God does tell us to pray for the “city” of our exile so it will go well for us even there.

Christian business owners have the greatest latitude to exercise righteousness because it is their own livelihood they sacrifice or put at risk but even in that position, there may come times when the owner must suspend business simply because no other course will align with the righteousness of God.

So the simple rule is this: Act according to the righteousness of God. Any other decision criteria leads down a slippery slope. I know, I have fallen on that slope myself more than once and the lessons involved were hard to learn but well worth it. Ours is not an easy path, especially as we strive to integrate our Christian faith with our workplace ethics and decision making, but it is a path that leads to glory . . . but only as we choose to glorify God according to his righteousness.




Filed under Faith in the Marketplace

9 responses to “The Crux of Christian Business Ethics

  1. I like reductionism. Paul seemed to sum it up in Rom. 14 -“16Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. 17For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”(NIV)

    If I am going to operate in the business world, I would suggest I have to operate to a certain degree for my own benefit. Having no personal benefit doesn’t seem more noble to me. However, how I steward the benefits I receive are of greater consequence. If my motive is truly righteous, peace-seeking and joy-filled, how far wrong can I go? Customers will be cared for and honoured. Employees will not be exploited. The work environment will be one that attracts heaven.

    Too often I hear the discussion of Christians in business focusing on abandonment of desire for stuff and pursuit of pro-heaven activity. It sounds somehow right if I don’t stop and pause about how God feels about stuff. He made it all. The things on my wish list he probably likes. A more serious question for me is, do I like the things on his wish list? If I love him, I will love what he loves, or at least make a greater effort to move in that direction. When Christians in business operate with that foundation, I suspect our cultures will face a sharp adjustment.

    • David –

      Thank you for jumping into the conversation. I think where I was pointing with the notion of self-sacrifice would come down more on the level of making decisions that have a major impact on others, such as laying someone off while the operator / owner maintains a significant salary really above their own needs, etc. It is easy to justify “self-service” when the things we are doing are providing benefit for those around us but we run a great risk of becoming Pharisidic when we start justifying it. Jesus warned that our righteousness must that exceed that of the Pharisees and indeed, his command to love one another as he loved us is entirely self-sacrificial. I think God does like a lot of the things we like. I am sure he appreciates the fine engineering work that goes into a Porsche 911 or the beautiful marble he created that is cut for kitchen counter tops but, personally, I would hesitate to use that argument to justify spending a lot of money so I could live an elaborate lifestyle.

      I can appreciate the idea that “Having no personal benefit doesn’t seem more noble” but, ultimately, that is exactly the Way of the Cross. I guess Jesus did gain something by his obedience but do we really want to say he did it for his own benefit?

      • It’s just tough to do the “nasty” stuff to your employees if you are really about righteousness, peace and joy. When Christ died, he reconciled all things to himself through his blood shed on the cross (Col. 1:20). I actually don’t remember much teaching on that growing up. I do remember a significant amount on his love for sinners. I just missed the “all things” part. Paul wonderfully defines it as, “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, powers, dominions and authorities.” I am truly thankful he died for sinners but I am thrilled he died for all of creation too. That is the foundation upon which I then choose to respond to society. It is something God loves and his command to me to steward it has never been lifted.

        If all things were reconciled, what did they look like before they were broken? I only have Eden to refer to so it is a bit limited. Yet the thought that I now have the capacity to respond to life (people, creation, myself, my relationship with God and even with the “serpent”) as God intended is profound. What is the difference between being able to look at every relationship through the lens of what God intended verses the relationship as defined by culture.

        I am suggesting that it isn’t the sacrifice that is the focal point. True Christ says to take up the cross, but what he focused on was following him. If I am truly following him I will sacrifice certain entitlements because of love. As an employer, I don’t need to necessarily make that much $ when I realize I can benefit others more if I take a little less. It may be my right to have it, but it is also my right to pass it by. I need a clear lens to see this world as God intends and at its foundation there needs to be a commitment to righteous living, marked by peace and joy.

      • I agree that sacrifice was not the focal point before the Fall in Eden but inequity now forces it upon us if ever we hope to see the shalom of God restored. It is so difficult for us because our culture tells us specifically not to sacrifice, that somehow we have earned what we have but it is all gift of grace, even creation itself. I can appreciate, at least by our human logic, that we have a right to what we create / build / earn but as Christians come to realize that in truth none of it is ours.

        And please do not think I am making accusatory remarks. This is all very much a reflection of my own wrestling with my cultural programming. I am having more and more contact with “the other” among domestic and global poor and the inequity of wealth between the have’s and have not’s is (and should be) alarming.


      • No judgment taken. I do prefer to look through the lens from the opposite end though. Rather than feeling life is about sacrifice, I prefer to look at it as an opportunity for generosity. And usually generosity has a bite to it but it is so modified by the joy of giving and receiving that there isn’t often a sense of pain and loss.

        My life is one that is filled with seeing the sad side of life. One of the places I find the greatest joy is when I see generosity among the poor and the needy. They get it.

      • “They get it” Amen to that. There was a recent study that showed the reason many of the poor cannot accumulate savings / investments is because they are more apt to have family and neighbors in need and they share more in their communities.

      • You wouldn’t be related to Jonathan Doty would you?

      • It would be very, VERY distant. I have to go back about four generations then branch out to find any male Doty’s other than my Dad and brother.

      • Well I’m older than he is so it better not be the same guy.

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