The Kingdom Work of the Corporate World
- Monday, December 28, 2009
Scanning the church directory you couldn't help but notice: in almost every household, someone was, or had been, involved in business. Which means, if this church is typical, that God has called all but a handful of His people to some form of commercial enterprise. He hasn't called them to missions or the pastorate or to any other "full-time Christian work," but to profit-driven, money making, dog-eat-dog, secular business.
What, we might be tempted to ask, is God thinking? Christians are "not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world" (Romans 2:2), and yet business is relentless in its temporal demands. It's a zero sum game: When one salesman wins, others lose. For lawyers to succeed, they must cause others to fail. If I work for Chevrolet, it's my duty to steal customers, market share, and profits away from Toyota. Hardly a picture of a caring community.
Christians are commanded to do nothing out of selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3), but business, at its essence, is striving and acquisitive. It grows or dies. Microsoft, Google, ExxonMobil, and Wal-Mart swallow up weaker competitors. They expand across the globe, their profits unfathomable, as the value of their stock continues to soar — almost always at the expense of weaker, more vulnerable competitors. This is raw, naked, unvarnished ambition, and it makes business, at best, an awkward environment for humble souls who "consider others better than themselves" (Philippians 2:3).
We most easily spot the "pattern of this world" in man's reverence for wealth. And the singular goal of nearly every business ever mentioned on the pages of Forbes or Fortuneis to earn as much profit as humanly possible. When they evaluate corporate performance, Wall Street analysts, the press, and investors all join in Jerry Maguire's once-famous chorus: "Show me the money!"
And the evidence from the church directory is indisputable: God's people willingly — and even gladly — join forces with these worldly, ambitious, profit-hungry organizations who, they hope, will share the wealth … with them. And they do so knowing that it is impossible to love God and money (Matthew 6:24), and knowing, as surely as they know the chief end of man, that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10).
Certainly, business is no place for those who have "set their minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Colossians 3:2). And yet, that is precisely where God has put them. And that can only mean one of two things: either most Christians need to find new work, or they need a new perspective on the institution of business.
There are, when we look closer, hundreds of biblical and godly reasons for Christians to be in business. And many of them fall into one of these three categories.
Business and Our First Responsibility
In Genesis 1:26, God lays out His plan for the human race: "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule …." Two verses later, He commissions Adam and Eve: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it."
That cultural commission, writer/theologian Paul Marshall argues, is more than a set of commands or instructions. Its emphasis is not on what God tells the man and woman; but on why He created them in the first place. As His consummate act of creation, God forms a creature "to be our image and rule" over the Earth. "Ruling" Marshall says, is "built into our very being …. If we do not take up our responsibility for God's world, we defy not only His command, but also our very nature and the very purpose for which we have been created."
Stamped with God's image, Adam and Eve were to continue God's creative work in the world. They were to take the raw materials God left behind and continue shaping, molding, and improving His creation. As Michael Wittmer, a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, notes, "God's world was flawless, but it wasn't finished."
He didn't create computers, but they were here waiting for His image bearers — working together and combining their diverse skills and talents — to put the pieces together. He didn't create phonograph records, 8-tracks, audiocassettes, CDs, or iPods, but the raw materials existed from the beginning, waiting for man to make one discovery, then another, each generation building and improving on the work that had come before. God didn't create television, telephones, or microwave ovens, but the elements were all here, awaiting the creative prowess of His image bearers — engineers, scientists, and industrial designers, working in concert with one another — to call them into existence.
Man invents, produces, and improves products, writer Nathan Bierma says, "because we're following our mission. … We do this out of instinct, obeying God's command to fill the Earth and subdue it."
In earlier issues of byFaith, we've discussed the importance of the arts. As God's image-bearers, many have said, we are meant to create, and the arts are one vehicle for our imaginative expression. But have you ever thought about the creative power of business?
Consider the things that make your life richer, more comfortable, more convenient, and more productive. Think about all the things that make you safer, healthier, and wiser. They are all products of business innovation. There is no more creative force in the world than business, and God has placed most of His people there, not to pursue money or power, nor to satisfy their selfish ambition — but to create, rule, fill, and subdue the Earth. Christians go to work each day to transform God's world, to make it better than it was the day before. And they do it in obedience to God's first command — as an act of worship, and for the sake of His glory.
Business Is How We Love Our Neighbors
The Pharisees wanted to test Jesus, and so they asked Him for the single greatest commandment. He replied with two. "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. … And 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 27:37-40). Here, essentially, is every believer's duty: love God, love others, and love yourself. The rest takes cares of itself.
God has placed most of His people in business because it is there, working with others in a common purpose, that we fulfill these duties. In The Fabric of this World, Lee Hardy discusses Luther's concept of vocation. Hardy summarizes Luther, saying, "Vocation is the specific call to love one's neighbor, which comes to us through the duties which attach to our social place or ‘station.'" (Calvin, in response to a freer labor market, would emphasize "gifts" rather than "station.")
"The call to love one's neighbor goes out to all," Luther believed, "but what this call requires of me in particular is discovered in those vocations which I presently occupy." In the 21st century, as much as when Luther said it, "It is ‘through the human pursuit of vocation … that the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are healed, the ignorant are enlightened, and the weak are protected.'"
Luther saw the connection between the cultural commission and the great commandments. He understood that God continues his creative work in this world through those who bear His image, explaining that: "God even milks the cows through those called to that work." In the 21st century it is business, blending the skills of diverse people, that brings the human race under God's providential care.
In God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, Gene Edward Veith also cites Luther: "When we pray the Lord's Prayer we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And He … does it by means of the farmer [think Cargill, Inc. or Archer Daniels Midland] who planted and harvested the grain, the baker [who, while working for Sara Lee, Pepperidge Farm, or Flowers Bakeries] made the flour into bread, we might today add the truck drivers who hauled the produce, the factory workers in the food processing plant, the warehouse men, the wholesale distributors, the stock boys, the lady at the checkout counter. Also playing their part are the bankers, futures investors, advertisers, lawyers …. All of these were instrumental in enabling you to eat your morning bread."
Calvin affirmed much of Luther's thinking. In his Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, he criticized the common interpretation of the Mary / Martha conflict found in Luke 10 ("Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?") He refused a dualistic understanding of that passage, writing: "We know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to contribute to the general advantage."
Zwingli also concurred. In Of the Education of the Youth, he added: " …[it is] those who exercise themselves in righteousness that they may serve the Christian community, the common good, the state, and individuals that are ‘the most like to God.'"
Business Is How We Care for the Poor
Business is the means by which we rule and subdue the Earth. It is an instrument through which we love our neighbors. And it is, in an ultimate sense, the only solution to poverty.
At the most fundamental level, business provides wealth to share. Psalms 37:25says, "I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread. All day long he is gracious and lends; and his descendants are a blessing." When God's people prosper, they're generous and take care of the poor. There's a related idea in Ephesians 4:28: "Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need." Paul seeks more than a transformed heart (let him steal no longer); he understands that for-profit work in the secular world is how we care for those in need.
But there's far more to business, as an institution, than that. In his book, Business as a Calling, Catholic theologian Michael Novak argues that "capitalism makes it possible for the vast majority of the poor to break out of the prison of poverty — to find opportunity — to discover full scope for their own personal economic initiative; and to rise into the middle class and higher." Those who live in democratic, capitalistic societies, Novak says, "walk the walk of the free — erect and purposeful and quick."
The Scriptures remind us often of God's concern for the poor. They command us to respect them, to have compassion for them, and to seek justice on their behalf. And that is surely one reason God has called His people to business, the only institution that can have a permanent effect on their poverty.
Some might argue that it is technology and science — and not business — that have improved life for the poor and made living conditions more bearable. But, Novak rhetorically asks, "Whence came the drive to advance technology — and not only through gaining knowledge about it, but by bringing it to markets that carry it to billions of individuals — if not from an enterprising, dynamic market system?" He pushes the rhetorical argument further, asking, "How many pharmaceuticals do you have in your home that were developed in communist countries or for that matter, in Third World countries?"
The former Soviet Union, Novak points out, trained more scientist and technical experts than any country in the history of the world. Yet they accomplished little for the greater good of mankind. Why? They had no moral or economic incentive. And even if one had existed, there was no market system — no vehicle — for moving knowledge out of the lab and into people's lives.
Management guru Peter Drucker once said, "The greatest need in underdeveloped countries is people who build … an effective organization of skilled and trained people exercising judgment and making responsible decisions." The poor, Drucker was saying, need business if they're to have a chance of changing their circumstances.
As we think about "kingdom work" and jobs that have value, it's helpful to remember that only business — not the Church, not government, not ministry, nor non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—creates new wealth. And wealth is the only cure for poverty. We must, therefore, encourage believers to go into business, to create new products and wider distribution (in obedience to the cultural commission) in order to create new wealth (good stewardship), which creates more jobs (loving our neighbor, caring for the poor). Adam Smith, the 18th century economist and philosopher, once said that new wealth is the road to "universal opulence," which he defined as "the condition in which the real wages of workers keep growing over time, until the poor live at a level that in 1776 even kings and dukes did not enjoy."
A realistic hope for a better (economic) future, Michael Novak says, "is essential to the poor … ." And that is why God's people must build profitable businesses.
Transforming Business for the Kingdom
Suzy Schultz and Mako Fujimura are talented artists. Their Christian worldview informs and inspires their work, and both are critically acclaimed by Christians and non-Christians alike. Novelists Marilynne Robinson and Bret Lott are believers who sculpt words into beautiful stories that enrich millions of lives. Musicians from Bach to U2 have, in response to God's call, created the world's best music.
Christian artists add beauty and complexity to God's creation, transforming the raw materials of paint, language, and sound into finished products that proclaim God's glory.
Where are their business counterparts — the entrepreneurs and corporate executives who, with the same passion, reshape the world through business? And who, intentionally and for the sake of God's glory, manage the power of free markets to make the world more productive? Where are the Christians who are propelling the world's best corporations?
God's people can, as agents of His redemptive plan, transform business, stripping it of selfish ambition and pursuing instead what's best for their neighbors. Through business, God's people can harness mankind's creativity, and with it nurture His creation, developing products that make the world more satisfying. Through the economic power of commerce, Christians can make the world safer and healthier. The members of Christ's Church, distributed in offices around the world, can transform greed into good stewardship, showing the world that business has a biblical responsibility to create new wealth and provide a fair return to investors (Matthew 25:14-28). But, with an eye toward the consummation of Christ's kingdom, we also create wealth in order to create new and satisfying jobs, which offer the hope (and perhaps a glimpse) of a coming world where there is no poverty.
God has placed His people in business so that they can — in humility, and making full use of the talents and resources He's given — serve customers, employees, suppliers, and the world at large, looking out for the interests of others and providing for their needs.
On their deathbeds, many Christians will regret that they didn't love their neighbors, care for the poor, or advance Christ's kingdom as they should have. They might therefore, with their final breath, gasp: "I wish I'd spent more time at the office."
This article reprinted from Issue Number 11, October 2006 of byFaith.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home and Crossing the Lines, both published by David C. Cook Publishers.
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