At one of my previous jobs, a running joke went, “If you see the Jesus fish on your contractor’s business card, turn around and run!”

The idea was that unscrupulous individuals would use the symbol to convince others that they were trustworthy. That is probably sometimes true. But, when is it legitimate to have a business with a prominent Christian theme?

Before you say, “Never!” - consider that you probably already use Christian businesses. There are Christian radio stations, schools, magazines, websites, bookstores, and bands. By contrast, there are also Christian business owners who don’t feel right indicating their faith in a marketing context. Romans 14 advises us not to quarrel over such matters. But it’s fine to explore a topic and consider different views before making up our minds.

When is it ethical for entrepreneurs to call their small businesses “Christian”?

We could nitpick over things like profit vs. non-profit tax status. However, I think the only legitimate distinctions to be made are as follows. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I using my business or professional activities to point people toward Christ?
  • Am I using the Christian label, imagery, or theme because I am producing something that other believers will find beneficial?
  • Does it appeal primarily to Christians?
  • Do I want to do business only with other Christians?

Personal application is fair game for any business that doesn’t explicitly contradict biblical teaching (such as a strip club). We are instructed to examine our own motives. Anyone considering a Christian business should explore these questions before making a decision.

The ultimate question is, Do I have a legitimate reason? Or, am I only using the Christian label for a selfish reason, such as trying to drum up more business? Worse yet, am I using it to deceive people into believing I’m an honest person?

Someone doing the latter might not be a true believer at all. How are we to know the difference?

How to Distinguish Between Honest Christian Businesses and Fakes

I think the answer is found in 1 John 4:1, which instructs us to test the spirits. For example, when I review other Christian finance sites, I can normally discern the true from the false. The false tend to contradict themselves, and glorify themselves rather than God. In my particular line of work, they tend to appeal strongly to people’s sense of desperation, fear, guilt, or greed.

Perhaps most significantly, they often quote the Bible out of context (or not at all). Interpretation has gray areas and no one is perfect. But, someone constantly twisting scripture to fit their own views is displaying signs that they’re a false teacher. So, when it comes to businesses that seek to instruct Christians, there is plenty of material through which to discern the spirit behind the business.

But there are businesses without such material. What about the Christian plumber who has the fish symbol in his ads? If you get to meet with him, maybe you can glean some insight. With others, that opportunity might not come. How am I to know if the furniture store with the fish symbol in their ads is legit? I should either investigate them further, or ignore them altogether. I shouldn’t pass judgment prematurely, or react with a critical spirit.

Ultimately, I would rather reserve grace, giving fellow believers the benefit of any doubt. I would rather err on the side of supporting other believers, rather than act out of fear that something I supported will turn out to be a ruse. That kind of fear is normally self-centered, having concern only for what people will think of me if I support something that later turns out to be counterfeit. That’s probably not the best approach.