The Christian in business: Beyond honesty

For many people, business ethics is about saying “no” to lying, cheating, and stealing. We can all agree that the world would be a much better place if people earned the trust of those with whom they traded, played fairly, and respected other people’s resources.1 But Christian business leaders can and should adopt a more positive view of the relationship between their faith and what they do at work. What makes Christian business practice Christian is not exclusively or primarily the fact that it doesn’t involve deception, unfairness, or theft, but rather its contribution to making life in God’s world better. Christians in business can participate in the development of God’s world—helping to create and distribute worthwhile goods and services. They can participate in the healing of God’s world by helping to reduce poverty and injustice. At the same time, of course, they need to be sensitive not only to the value of business and of the goods and services businesses make and share with others, but also to their limits.

Several distinctive features of Adventist belief and practice are especially relevant for businesspersons who wish to live responsibly in relation to God and creation. Sabbath rest is a reminder that work, while valuable, is not of transcendent importance. Adventism’s emphasis on embodiment underscores the inherent worth of the material world. And the practice of tithing can build habits of generosity and responsiveness to others’ needs. However, the principles that ought to guide Adventist business leaders in thinking about the meaning of their profession are those I hope would inform the thinking of all Christians about business. Thus, I focus here on the tasks and opportunities all Christians face in the business world, rather than on the unique challenges confronting Adventists.

Business and creation’s flourishing

The Christian businessperson contributes to the development of life in the world. God is the world’s creator, and creation—in both its material and cultural aspects—is essentially good.

Mainstream Christian faith affirms that bodily life is something worth celebrating—that the whole world, including its material and thus its cultural aspects, is God’s good creation. Christians also believe that God’s creatures are “sub-creators”: God creates in and through their activities, and their freedom enables them to contribute novelty to the world’s history. That’s why it makes sense for Christians to be involved in economic life. By creating valuable products and processes and services, they are joining God in the ongoing development of the good creation.

Of course, there are costs and trade-offs. Some products aren’t worthwhile; they simply waste people’s time and money. Some products are made in ways that harm humans or other creatures. Some products are harmful in themselves—think of, say, chemical and biological weapons. Some business activities, like other components of human culture, reflect the distorting influences of sin in pronounced ways. Just because economic activity is at root a good thing, it doesn’t follow that every product or process or service someone might create is inherently valuable. But many things businesses make or do really enrich life in God’s world, making life easier, fuller, more enjoyable. People who build houses, manufacture computers, grow food, provide entertainment, design attractive clothing, or sell tasty meals are doing intrinsically useful things, things that make life in God’s world better.

Unlike their Jewish cousins, Christians have too often been tempted to escape God’s good creation, to act as if they might somehow be required to deny the value of the good things God has made and is making. They have acted as if the material world, the social and cultural world, were the work of a second-rate, morally deficient deity, not the God revealed in the history of Israel and Jesus. They have pretended that God’s good creation was corrupt to the core in a way that made involvement in its ongoing development a source of profound moral and spiritual risk.

But to think this way about the world of business is to assume that God’s Spirit is absent from the world and that the underlying dynamics of creaturely life don’t reflect God’s providential ordering. The reality, though, is that the existence of an ordered world is dependent on God’s continuing creative presence. With other believers in God, Christians are convinced that the world never is, and never could be, a place where God’s touch is never felt. And they believe that the basic structure of life in the world bears the imprint of God’s creative providence. God isn’t an alien intruder, who ventures into the world occasionally to perform a magic trick before leaving again. The world is God’s world, through and through, even when God’s creatures fail to realize God’s intentions or frustrate God’s creative design. Our relationship with God isn’t somehow separate and independent from our relationship with God’s creatures. As Matthew 25, among other biblical passages, hints, we love God in and through our love for God’s creation.

Fearful Christians have been right to point out the reality of moral and spiritual brokenness in the world. But they have been wrong to see that brokenness as localized in one place or another, as if, say, the world of sports or the construction industry were corrupt, while the church was a place of purity and safety. Good and evil can’t be localized in particular spheres of human endeavor. The impulse to deny that we are parts of God’s good creation—by pretending that we are divine or pretending that we or other creatures are worth nothing—causes destructive consequences in every district of human experience. The conflict between good and evil is a conflict in every heart and mind, and it is evident wherever we live and work and whatever we do. For Christians, there can be no hierarchy of sacred and secular, holy and profane.2 There is certainly a need for religious institutions and practices, but God lives in the marketplace as well as the sanctuary. Christians do God’s work in the world when they make and distribute excellent widgets just as they do when they heal, preach, or teach.

Business and creation’s healing

Christian business leaders can contribute to the healing of the world’s brokenness using their special skills and resources to reduce poverty and promote justice. The most basic task of the Christian in the world of business is to contribute to the flourishing and development of God’s world. There is nothing exceptionally “spiritual” about the plain, the drab, or the unexciting. Christian business leaders shouldn’t accept the material world grudgingly: They ought to celebrate it, contributing to its richness and variety and beauty. But development isn’t the only task of the Christian. For Christians acknowledge, sadly, that the world is full of pain and brokenness. Thus, the Christian businessperson can and should contribute not only to the world’s development but also to its healing.

Again, Christians might adopt a super-spiritual stance: The suffering they encounter in the world, they might say, is a matter of attitudes and values, of morality, of creatures’ relationships with God. But the suffering of God’s creatures is often bodily suffering. It is often reflected in and reinforced by people’s material conditions. Think about the hopelessness and penchant for crime to which poverty can give rise. So being an agent of healing, being an agent of God’s grace, doesn’t just mean offering people helpful beliefs, encouraging appropriate attitudes, and making them aware of the relationship they already have with a loving Creator, helpful as these activities can be. It means improving their material conditions. Because God’s creatures are embodied, mediating God’s grace in God’s world must have a material dimension. And that’s where the Christian businessperson can help.

Healing through social entrepreneurship. Being a Christian in business gives one a remarkable opportunity to help transform people’s material lives as a social entrepreneur. Christian businesspersons can help to meet the challenges associated with disaster and endemic poverty alike by making important strategic decisions about how and where they make products and services, who makes them, and how their businesses is organized. They can choose to provide jobs in poor communities at home and around the world by locating operations there. They can give opportunities not only for work but also for renewed dignity to people—like recovering alcoholics and drug addicts—who need a second chance.3 They can produce and deliver products to developing communities at prices that make them accessible. And when they seek to touch the lives of people in developing communities, they can make certain to involve these people in determining what their needs are and how those needs should be met—to listen.

Individual business leaders can and should be social entrepreneurs. But they can also contribute to efforts by their church communities to promote economic justice by encouraging church agencies concerned with the relief of poverty to see social entrepreneurship as a valuable economic development strategy. They can emphasize the importance of focusing on long-term, systemic change, using strategies including not only public policy changes but also social entrepreneurial activities.

Healing through fair corporate decisions. As businesspersons, Christians can make a real difference in addressing the problem of poverty. But they can also help to address other challenges, as well. A Christian executive can be conscious of the consequences of business decisions for public health, for instance, following the Golden Rule by refusing to impose on those who live near a factory for which she is responsible a health risk she wouldn’t be willing for her own loved ones to suffer. A manager can be loyal to people who have worked for years for his company by refusing to eliminate their jobs simply to earn a few more dollars.4 A Christian director can refuse to regard skyrocketing compensation for presidents and board chairs as appropriate when the value of ordinary workers’ wages is falling behind and the gap in the power, influence, and material conditions of those at the top and those at the bottom of the corporate ladder is growing dramatically. A corporate leader can honor the basic dignity and equality of those affected by her company’s decisions by ensuring that workers and local community members have meaningful opportunities to participate in shaping those decisions—from the shop floor to the boardroom.

Healing through the promotion of just public policy. Christian business people can do a great deal to promote healing in God’s world just by making sure their own companies seek proactively to make the world a better place. But they can also affect the public policies that shape economic life. It will be tempting for them to vote and lobby in ways that simply promote their own or their company’s interests—by seeking, say, to reduce their own tax burdens even at the cost of needed services. But, in light of a vision of God’s inclusive love, they can and should do more. They can lend their voices to efforts to foster economic justice. That means they can press for domestic policies that ensure everyone access to higher education, health care, satisfactory retirement pensions, and economic support in case of unemployment. They can support tax laws that foster a fair, progressive sharing of their countries’ fiscal burdens. They can press for international development policies that offer empowerment and foster growth rather than encouraging inefficiency and promoting the purchase of military hardware by governments that cannot afford to make basic infrastructure expenditures. And they can argue for import rules that allow farmers and other producers in developing countries to compete on an equal playing field with those in developed countries (thus benefiting not only these producers but also consumers in the developed world as well).

The limits of business

Adopting a positive vision of business ethics means seeing the real potential of businesspeople to make the world a better place, both by enriching human life and by reducing poverty and injustice. But the Christian in business also has to recognize the limits of business.

The limited value of business and material goods. Material goods are great, but they’re not everything. Business people make the world better by providing goods and services, but those goods and services don’t give life its ultimate meaning. The Christian business persons can’t, in good conscience, advertise their products in a way that implies that they will meet people’s deepest needs; they won’t. They’re enjoyable, worthwhile, helpful—but they’re not divine. Honesty in advertising means promoting products based on their actual merits, rather than pretending they can meet customers’ existential needs for meaning, value, and love.5

Escaping from the rat race. Recognizing the limits of business also means recognizing that businesspeople themselves can’t treat material success as ultimately important. Instead of trying to indefinitely maximize their incomes, they can say no to the rat race, opting for more time with the people they care about, more time to rest and reflect, more time to be. They can explore creative ways to simplify their lifestyles so that they don’t feel pressured to enslave themselves to their jobs in order to support their consumption habits.6 And they can recognize that their work, while valuable and important, doesn’t determine the ultimate meaning and value of their lives, so that saying No to work-related demands needn’t undermine their worth as persons. And they can promote corporate policies that enable others, too, to avoid being dominated by the demands of work.

Freeing oneself to take personal responsibility to help others. Material goods are valuable and worthwhile, but they don’t define the meaning of our lives. To recognize that can liberate Christian businesspersons to give freely to others. They can contribute substantially to dealing with the pressing problems of the world by developing productive businesses that make or distribute genuinely valuable things. They can also contribute out of their personal resources to making the world a better place, something they will obviously find it easier to do if they aren’t obsessed with acquiring more and more things. There is no magic formula.7 And the individual businessperson certainly isn’t responsible for meeting, or trying to meet, all the world’s needs.8 But, gifted with talents and resources, he or she has a real responsibility to make a difference.9

A successful professional might consider investing 20 or 30 percent of his income in the work of an international development agency like the Heifer Project.10 A wealthy CEO might use 50 or 60 percent of her income to support a flourishing jobs program for homeless people. An executive might choose to reduce his work hours, and thus his salary, in order to use his skills on behalf, not of a program or an agency, but rather of a particular needy person or family or community. In any case, recognizing that material possessions are good but not of ultimate importance leaves Christian businesspeople free not only to enjoy what they have but also to reach out to help others.11

Conclusion

A world in which businesspeople avoid lying, cheating, and stealing would be a great place. But being a Christian businessperson doesn’t just mean not actively harming others; it means making a positive difference. The Christian in business makes a difference, first of all, simply by producing or distributing high-quality goods or services that enhance life in God’s world. The businessperson can make the world a better place by offering others beauty, variety, efficiency, comfort, health, and any number of other goods. Christian business leaders can do more, though: They can help people overcome poverty, promote empowerment in the workplace, nourish local communities, and foster public policies that embody God’s love and justice. At the same time, by recognizing that work, money, and possessions aren’t divine, they can avoid being tyrannized by their work or encouraging others to be tyrannized by theirs. And recognizing that material things are valuable but not of transcendent importance, they can free themselves to give more to those in need. By moving beyond a narrow concern with avoiding harm and adopting a positive vision of the value of their work and the good they can do, Christian businesspeople can be especially effective ministers of God’s grace in God’s world.

Gary Chartier (Ph.D., University of Cambridge; J.D., University of California at Los Angeles) teaches business ethics and law at La Sierra University, in California. He is grateful to Deborah K. Dunn and Roger E. Rustad, Jr., for their critical comments, and to John Thomas for creating an environment conducive to the kind of thinking this article represents. His email address: GChartie@LaSierra.Edu.

REFERENCES

  1. Cp. David Callahan, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004).
  2. Cp. Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985).
  3. For some exceptional examples, see William H. Shore, Revolution of the Heart: A New Strategy for Creating Wealth and Meaningful Change (New York: Riverhead, 1995); The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back (New York: Random, 1999).
  4. Cp. Gary Chartier, “Friendship, Identity, and Solidarity: An Approach to Rights in Plant Closing Cases,” Ratio Juris 16 (Sep. 2003) 3: 324-51.
  5. Cp. Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel (New York: Simon, 1999).
  6. For varying approaches, see, Janet Luhrs, The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living (New York: Broadway, 1997); Georgene Lockwood, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Living (Indianapolis: Alpha-Macmillan, 2000); Jeff Davidson, The Joy of Simple Living: Over 1,500 Simple Ways to Make Your Life Easy and Content—At Home and at Work (New York: Rodale, 1999); Elaine St. James, Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More (New York: Hyperion, 1998); Juliet B. Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (New York: Basic, 1998); Do Americans Shop Too Much? (Boston: Beacon, 2000).
  7. See Onora O’Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), pp. 196-200.
  8. John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon-OUP, 1981), pp. 176-77, 195; Liam Murphy, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (New York: OUP, 2000).
  9. T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1998), pp. 224.
  10. See Onora O’Neill, Faces of Hunger: An Essay on Poverty, Justice, and Development (London: Allen, 1986), pp. 152-162.
  11. See the discussion of almsgiving in Luke T. Johnson, Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), pp. 132-139.