Part One: How Do We Decide?
We – Alistair and Wayne – are the authors of this book. Our friendship goes back a long way, and has helped us bring together several perspectives on life. Both of us – like you, perhaps – have a considerable stake in the world of commerce and business. The routes our two lives have followed have brought us face-to-face with many of the dilemmas of that world.
When Wayne answers the phone at his home office he is never sure exactly which of his many roles he is about to assume. Maybe it will be some person he’s consulting about his current writing project. Maybe it will be one of his local commitments – an issue of church leadership perhaps, or a request for help from one of the voluntary organizations that he works with, or a query from the high school where he’s a trustee.
Over the last twelve years it might also have been a business matter. Amongst his other roles, Wayne has been a car dealer – surely a source of ethical questions if ever there was one. (In fact, in a moment we are going to launch you into one of Wayne’s business dilemmas. Hold tight. You’ll be looking for God’s guidance on the car lot!)
Oh yes, and of course sometimes you won’t get Wayne on the phone because he may be attending to one of the domestic chores that need to be done around the house, which he shares with his wife Jill and young adult children – Maria, Kelly and Melody.
If you call Alistair, on the other hand, you may be lucky to catch him at all. Some days you’ll find him teaching as a lecturer in practical theology and ethics. Other days he’ll be travelling as a consultant, resourcing churches to support Christians at their work. Or he may be at a board meeting for one of the several non-profit and commercial enterprises he’s involved with. Or he could be busy mentoring one of a number of people he regularly helps.
Alistair was raised in a family involved in the timber industry where he worked for a number of years as a truck driver. Since then he has been a pastor with three Baptist congregations in New Zealand, and has headed up an overseas mission and development agency working among the urban poor in Asia.
Like Wayne, Alistair is a proud father. He and his wife Alison share their home with son Chris (motor mechanic), daughter Catherine (teacher) and Catherine’s lovely young daughter Ruby who keeps the house bubbling.
Though they live in cities on different islands and support competing rugby teams, Alistair and Wayne have managed to remain friends. Their mutual tolerance has even survived several demanding projects they have worked on together over the years … as well as a certain round of golf that neither of them mentions any more.
Wayne doesn’t understand why Alistair is such a dedicated fan of Bob Dylan, but is glad to have him there to thrash out issues of real concern. One of them is the question of how we as Christians can progress our service of God from Sunday worship to Monday workshop – from the Christian community where biblical values are the focus, to the marketplace where competition, profit and success seem to be what matters.
Are Christians aliens in that Monday-to-Friday world? Do the two worlds ever meet? Do they clash? Do we change, chameleon-like, as we cross from one to the other?
For us – Wayne and Alistair – this is no trivial issue. We believe that God has called us to live enthusiastically in this world he has made, and that includes the commercial and business part of it. To some degree we, all of us, are participants in the marketplace. Many of us live the greater part of our lives there.
If we don’t understand our nine-to-five job (and many of us spend even longer in our workplace) … if we don’t realize the implications of the business steps we take and the employment decisions we make … how can we possibly pretend that we are taking God’s call seriously?
This book is all about the challenges we face in the marketplace. Let’s start by throwing ourselves in at the deep end – by entering Wayne’s business world, just to see how complex it all can be…
Wayne is a car dealer. Just over twelve months ago he sold a secondhand Toyota Camry to a customer, in good faith. The car had a comprehensive check before sale and was determined to be in above-average condition for its price range.
Now, twelve months later, the customer calls Wayne. A problem has recently developed with the automatic transmission. What is Wayne going to do to fix the problem?
Wayne is under no legal obligation to pay for the repair – nor even any moral obligation, given the length of time that has elapsed since the sale. But he is sympathetic to the client’s plight. Should he (Wayne wonders) take responsibility for the problem and carry the cost of fixing the gearbox? In reality this would mean choosing to accept a financial loss on the Camry. Adding the cost of the repair will make the car more expensive to Wayne than the price he charged for it.
Rather than immediately commit himself to a particular course of action, Wayne tells the customer he will get back to him within a day.
As Wayne puts the phone down a number of different concerns begin swirling through his mind. Who should carry the cost, Wayne or his client? On what basis should Wayne make his decision? And in what ways might his Christian faith influence what he chooses to do?
Wayne has a decision to make. As we all have from time to time in our daily jobs. Whether we’re employers or employees or self-employed; whether we work at office or workshop, on hospital floor or factory floor, in a truck or a dairy or a market garden … we are all faced with problems. Sometimes, very tricky problems.
This book is all about making decisions – ones that are consistent with our Christian faith. Ones that are good, right, just, and appropriate.
Part 1: Wayne’s decision
To help us do this, in the first part of the book (chapters 1-5) we’re going to follow Wayne as he weighs the arguments for and against meeting this particular repair bill. Wayne wants to be guided by God’s perspectives in his dilemma, so we’ll join him in a search for the principles that God might want him to follow.
We’ll look at the three most common approaches among Christians for making moral choices:
Looking for a command from God that will apply to our situation.
Calculating consequences to decide the best course of action.
Assuming our character will enable us to make a good decision.
We will consider how much the Bible provides help in each of these approaches. Then we’ll explore whether we can combine the three in some way to give us a more balanced and integrated approach.
Using Wayne’s problem will help us enter into this issue of guidance and ethics. But of course its greatest value will be in helping you apply the same principles in the context of your own work. As you read this section of the book we’ll suggest that you try to think of a similarly perplexing situation that you find yourself wrestling with at the moment. Or maybe you’re aware of a predicament someone else is in – an individual or corporate or community group that you know. So, using Wayne’s decision-making process as a guide, we’ll invite you to chart your own framework for dealing with the tricky decisions you meet in your workplace.
Part 2: Creative tensions
The second, and larger part of this book (chapters 6-12) takes a slightly different tack. Here we’ll cast our net wider and explore seven of the most common ethical tensions that Christians find themselves wrestling with in the modern marketplace. It’s likely you’ll be able to identify with at least some of them. But we’ll leave it to the introduction immediately before chapter 6 to set out the nature of these discussions.
Getting the most from this book
Like our other books in this Faith at Work series, Just Decisions is written for both individuals and groups. At the end of each chapter you’ll encounter case studies and questions. We hope you’ll find them useful for mulling over personally, and for discussing with others.
Their purpose is to help you digest and process the material. Often the value of this is amplified when done with others. So we encourage you to find, if you can, a group with whom you can explore this book.
Now, where were we on Wayne’s car problem?
Wayne contemplates his dilemma with the car. He wonders if there is any simple rule or principle that can help him decide the right thing to do. He knows this is complicated by the fact that we all make decisions for quite different reasons, using different criteria, and having totally different motives. Our decisions zigzag through a complex and often confusing combination of rules, reasons and reflexes. Even Christians can come to quite varied conclusions about what is the right thing to do.
Wayne is searching for a rule or principle (or command from God) that would define the right-thing-to-do with this particular customer. His starting point is obvious enough – do the laws of the land provide a clear answer? What is the legal position?
The primary legislation determining this in New Zealand is called the Consumer Guarantees Act. The CGA gives customers six guarantees about a vehicle they purchase. The critical one is that it must be of acceptable quality. The vehicle must be:
Fit for the purpose that type of vehicle is normally used for
Acceptable in finish and appearance
Free from minor defects
Durable – in other words, the vehicle can be used for its normal purposes for a reasonable time after purchase.
The age and price of a vehicle must be taken into account when deciding whether it meets an acceptable quality.
So what is considered a “reasonable” time after purchase? There is no clearly defined answer to this, so Wayne’s legal obligations are not precisely defined. However, for a seven-year-old Camry with medium mileage like the one Wayne has sold, most car dealers would probably point to the very clear warranty provisions they used before the CGA came into force. In this case, three months or 5000km would be considered a “reasonable” period for Wayne to be legally obliged to repair the car. Having said that, because of the way the legislation is worded there is no definitive answer. A customer might well think that six or twelve months were “reasonable”. A period as long as twelve months, however, is unlikely to be upheld if it was ever tested in a court of law.
Wayne asks the customer how many kilometres he has driven in the car over the twelve months. The answer is 22,000km. This suggests to Wayne that he has no legal obligation to repair the fault. Both the time since the sale, and the distance it has travelled, are well beyond what would be a “reasonable” warranty for a car of this age and mileage.
Even though Wayne is satisfied he is under no legal obligation to pay for the repair, that is not the end of the matter as far as he is concerned. Legality and morality, he knows, are not the same thing. The law is usually seen to define society’s minimum moral requirements for the protection of people. As Wayne reflects on this, he is reminded of an incident he recently heard about from a friend. The Board of Directors of a particular company was discussing a business proposition. Initial comments were about the legality of the proposal, and it soon became clear that the scheme was well within the law. But then one director said, “It is legal. But is it right?”
“As soon as that question was asked,” Wayne’s friend commented, “it was followed by a long silence, because we all knew the answer was ‘No’. Even before we had time to discuss why.”
Wayne knows that what the law says is clearly not enough. However, thinking beyond legal minimum standards is not always easy in a secular society. This is a problem for many business schools when they seek to discuss ethics. Concerned to assert their secular status and to show themselves free from “religious interference”, they often end up largely ignoring morality and values. The result is an arid focus around what is legal. The discussion among the company directors above demonstrates the inadequacy of this attitude.
The approach to ethics that looks for some command from God has a similar inherent flaw: it suggests that moral actions are simply right or wrong. It does not take into account other factors such as the context in which the issue has arisen, the results that might follow from whatever decision is made, the effects on people that will arise from those results, or even the broader intention of God’s Law. There is always a danger of misrepresenting God when we select out some Bible verse. The situation we are applying it to may be only superficially similar to the one in which it was written.
And that’s the point. How does Wayne determine which rules apply to his problem? Christians understandably take the line that it is God who ultimately knows what is right and wrong. But how do we discern what God knows? There are always so many factors involved.
Our understanding of Scripture interacts with many parts of our experience – with what “reason” suggests makes best sense, with what our experience of God’s grace pushes us to do, and with what we have learned from history or from other influences that have formed our spiritual awareness. These elements can often be in conflict with each other. It turns out that even a simple scriptural rule can, like a diamond, have many facets.
This is not to ignore the fact that many biblical commands are rightly considered self-evident and sound moral principles – even by people outside the Christian community. (These are often called “natural law”.) The Bible certainly does give us clear guidelines for living. Christians from all church traditions are agreed that Scripture plays an essential role in determining our understanding of life. But when we select out words and apply them to specific situations, even where there is a general similarity of content, how do we know we are really thinking about this specific situation the same way as God thinks about it? Or that we are not going beyond what God intends?
It’s not hard to find Bible verses that speak about work and employment issues. But which of these rules and principles do we choose? There are lots of different systems for applying the Bible. And furthermore, the Bible itself is far from uniform in its approach to ethical decision-making.
So where does Wayne begin looking for an answer to his dilemma?
In desperation, Wayne goes searching for help on his bookshelf. He spots a title that could be the very thing he’s looking for – The Businessman’s Topical Bible. A quick glance indicates how this book tackles the problem. It looks for a specific Bible verse to provide a rule that deals with the particular work issue we’re facing.
Wayne scans through the pages. In them the author, Mike Murdock, lists 1550 verses from the Bible, to “provide God’s insight into situations and circumstances encountered every day in today’s business world”. These are grouped under sections such as “Your Attitude”; “Your Work”; “Your Daily Schedule”; “Your Family”; “Your Finances”; “The Businessman and Integrity”; “When a Customer is Dissatisfied”. Nearly 100 topics are included, covering a wide range of common business situations.
As he looks at some of the sections, Wayne notices that the author doesn’t try to outline any particular method for making decisions. He simply chooses to list Bible verses he thinks are relevant to each situation, without any explanation or commentary. The implication is that they apply directly and are self-explanatory.
Wayne finds some topics that he initially thinks might help with his problem:
“When a customer is dissatisfied” includes verses such as 2 Timothy 2:24: “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful”; and Luke 6:35: “Love your enemies, do good to them, lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great.”
“The Businessman and Integrity”, where Psalm 112:5 is quoted: “Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely, who conducts his affairs with justice.”
“The Businessman and Negotiation”, including 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
On closer inspection, Wayne finds that such random Bible verses give him little help. In fact, one of the problems with such an approach is that if the Bible is seen as an “answer book” for all the various situations we might encounter, we can easily slide into taking verses out of context and make them mean something different to that intended by their original author. (This is often called “prooftexting”.)
When we start with a “problem” and go looking for an “answer” we’re really using the Scriptures in a “back-to-front” way. The risk is that we simply take what “fits” into our pre-formatted scheme and ignore everything else, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself and allowing the consistent themes and messages to make themselves evident in the reading and re-reading of the text.
For example, when Wayne takes a closer look at the section on “When a customer is dissatisfied”, he notices the verse in Luke 21:19: “By standing firm you will gain life.” When he reads the passage it is a part of, he realises it has absolutely nothing to do with a dissatisfied customer in business. Luke is quoting the words of Jesus to his followers, telling them what they should do when they are arrested and persecuted for their faith! The verse has been taken completely out of context (as have many others in the sections Wayne looks at).
There’s another danger from hunting out a scriptural rule for every occasion. Such an exercise can easily descend into a kind of reductionism and legalism. We only have to look at the scribes and the Pharisees to see what this might look like. In their genuine desire to obey God, they so reduced the law down to a set of specific do’s and don’t’s, that in the end, rather than assisting them to follow God, it actually blinded them to their own legalism and arrogance.
If this sounds like a severe criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, let us just note briefly here that what they were attempting to do was admirable. They were some of the few people who seriously sought to apply faith to the whole of life, including business. They realised that faith wasn’t just about observing temple rituals and attending synagogue meetings. They were trying to define what it meant to be godly in every aspect of life. The trouble is, the only way they knew to go about this was by trying to define a rule for every occasion. And this led to an explosion of rules that went way beyond what Scripture actually said.
For example, take their desire to fulfil the commandment about keeping the Sabbath. In seeking to “nail down” how this might look in practice, they completely missed the point of the exercise, even berating Jesus for having the audacity to heal on the Sabbath! They became captive to their own self-constructed rules, and in doing so found themselves obstructing rather than assisting others to fulfil the intention of the law.
So attempting to formulate a complete book of rules based on Scripture that will speak to every conceivable ethical dilemma we face in our work contexts, is a hopeless and pointless quest. Not only does the Bible fail to account for the thousands of situations that arise in business, but in trying to make it do so we risk forcing it to say something it was never intended to mean … or even worse, trivializing Scripture and missing the point altogether.
However, while the Bible can’t and shouldn’t be turned into a comprehensive rule book for ethics in the marketplace, it still does contain some important and relevant commands/rules. Many statements in Scripture are straightforward and easily applicable. Not every situation we face at work is complex. In many business activities it is not difficult to discern the Bible’s counsel. If Scripture tells us (e.g. in Col. 3:22) to work wholeheartedly for our earthly masters (similar to “boss”), then we need to do it . If it warns us against laziness and not taking responsibility for earning our keep (e.g. 2 Thess. 3: 10-12), then that should be our aim. When it tells us to deal with conflict by talking directly with the person who has offended us, there’s the guideline we need to follow. When it tells us not to steal and not to slander people, we should adhere rigorously to those commands.
Disappointed, Wayne puts the book back on the shelf. As he does so he glances at another title that grabs his attention – Business By The Book. Intrigued, he picks it up and quickly discovers that the approach of the author, Larry Burkett, is to identify a wide range of principles in the Bible.
The subtitle of the book, Wayne notes, is “The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for Business Men and Women.” This seems promising. So he begins to read. It’s clear that Business by the Book assumes that God has laid down in principles the necessary ethical instruction for “doing business His way”. According to Burkett the Bible contains statutes, commandments and principles that provide “God’s plan for His people in business”.
Fundamental to this are the Ten Commandments – which Burkett considers to be the minimum standard separating God’s people from those around them. Then there are “other minimums that set apart God’s followers from others in the business world”. 
In this regard, Burkett highlights “six basic biblical business minimums”. They are:
Reflect Christ in your business practices.
Provide a quality product at a fair price.
Honour your creditors.
Treat your employees fairly.
Treat your customers fairly.
Clearly the two “minimums” of “providing a quality product at a fair price” and “treating your customers fairly” are relevant to Wayne’s problem. But while it’s useful to identify these principles, this doesn’t actually get Wayne any closer to what he should do. He is still left struggling to determine exactly what it is in this case that might be “fair” treatment and what process he might use to establish what is fair? He readily agrees with both Burkett’s principles – but this doesn’t help him proceed any further.
However, the book does offer the suggestion of talking with friends about what they think might be fair in this situation. This, Wayne decides, would be a useful thing to do. He likes the idea of developing a more communal environment to help him gain perspective on his dilemma. Doing this works against some of the intense individualism we all battle with, and it also recognizes that many ethical challenges are complex and need insightful others to give perspective and support.
Wayne is less enthralled by what he considers to be a quite prescriptive approach to using the Bible. It seems to reduce Scripture to a series of easy-to-understand principles and rules – like a “how-to” manual. Wayne’s perusal of Burkett’s company website reinforces this perception. There it states: “Business by the Book is a step-by-step presentation of how businesses should be run according to the Creator of all management rules.” The implication is that if you apply this programme, God will prosper you. 
Wayne also feels that the book contains a very selective reading of Scripture. The commands and principles appear to be chosen fairly arbitrarily, with no clear particular rationale to them. What is more, Scripture is generally treated in piecemeal fashion, and often employed in a proof-texting way.
Burkett’s use of biblical principles is also limited by being almost entirely built around the issue of money. Virtually all of the anecdotes he uses to support his points are related to financial integrity and honesty. This includes his coverage of subjects such as the treatment of suppliers and employers, as well as his section on “reflecting Christ in your business practices” and on establishing “ethical priorities” for companies. This too is all about money and property (tax, fraud, misuse of company property).
It’s not that these are unimportant issues. In fact, we could argue that if all Christians in business simply sought to be financially honest the commercial world might be a very different place! But there is much more to ethics than just money. Broader issues are involved; for example, social, environmental, and macro-economic issues. So while Burkett’s approach has some relevance to Wayne’s current dilemma – which does revolve around money – it doesn’t extend to anything like a full range of issues. As an attempt to engage with God’s world, his material is of limited use.
It is encouraging to see approaches like Business by the Book taking seriously the challenge to let our faith influence the world of business in practical ways, but sadly it is built around a limited selection of principles, shaped by Burkett’s particular perspective. Hence, like most other similar attempts to summarize the Bible’s approach to business, it provides helpful insights into some issues, but also promises more than it can deliver.
In the next chapter we’ll look at two other ways of taking a “command approach” to ethical dilemmas like the one Wayne is facing.
1. In this chapter we’ve been focused on Wayne’s particular dilemma and two types of command approach that might help Wayne decide what to do.
Here’s a very different situation. To reflect on how useful a command approach might be, read it through and consider the questions we’ve listed.
One day you receive in your letterbox an invitation to an “amazing business opportunity”. The writer introduces himself and tells how he has invested $194 which has returned $78,000 within three months of operating his “business plan”. He urges you to follow the instructions exactly. They are:
Immediately send a $10 note to the person listed No.1 on the list at the end of the letter (there are 5 names and addresses listed).
Then delete this person’s name and address from the list and move all the other names up one position, adding your name as the new No.5.
Photocopy the letter 200 times and pick out 200 names and addresses from a telephone directory, sending this letter to all these people.
In short, this is a Chain Letter. The writer concludes by explaining how the chain letter system works. Based on a conservative 3% response rate, by the time the fifth sequence of letters are sent out (with your name and address at No.1) over 7,800 people will send you $10 each! All this, for the cost of $10, plus the stamps and photocopying of the 200 letters!
The letter finishes with several testimonies of people who have (in spite of their skepticism) participated and reaped a windfall of money.
You carefully re-read the letter and decide that the “opportunity” is not a hoax. There is a realistic chance of making good money out of it.
Is there a biblical “rule” or “principle” specifically applicable to this situation?
Do Burkett’s “six basic business minimums” help in this situation? Why or why not?
Can you think of any other way of approaching this issue, using the Bible, that might help you resolve what to do?
How would you respond to this invitation? Why?
2. Think about the approaches of Murdock’s Businessman’s Topical Bible and Burkett’s Business by the Book. In what ways do you find them helpful? In what ways do you find them inadequate? How well do they reflect a rounded biblical and Christian perspective?
3. Describe two issues that a person might meet in the world of business, for which these two approaches to using the Bible appear to be of no help.
Mike Murdock, The Businessman’s Topical Bible: Wisdom and Inspiration for Today’s Businessman (Tulsa: Honor, 1992). There’s also a companion Businesswoman’s version. Each “chapter” within the sections is headed up “When…” or “The Businessman and …” – for example, “When a customer does not pay his bills” or “When you face illegal or unfair competition” or “The Businessman and Negotiation”, etc.
Larry Burkett, Business by the Book: The complete guide of biblical principles for business men and women (Nashville: Nelson, 1990).
This is, to be fair, tempered by Burkett’s acknowledgment that adopting the “minimum” of reflecting Christ in your business practices will cost you money. Burkett,16.
Wayne is still struggling with his dilemma. Should he pay for the repair of his customer’s car? Having found the two command approaches largely unhelpful, he returns to his bookshelf to see what else might be of assistance. John Maxwell’s There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics almost jumps out at him!
John Maxwell is a well-known business consultant and writer. He thinks we have made Christian decision-making far too complex. It’s his belief that all the Bible’s moral imperatives can essentially be reduced to just one overarching command. According to Maxwell there’s no such thing as business ethics: there’s only one rule for making decisions. We’ll return to this point of Maxwell’s in chapter 5. This is the “Golden Rule”, proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12, NIV. The Lukan equivalent is 6:31 – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”)
This one guideline (“How would I like to be treated in this situation?”) should govern all ethical decision-making. Simple, but not easy, is the way Maxwell describes this rule. However, he acknowledges that it requires a number of other principles to explain what it involves, including:
1. Treat people better than they treat you
2. Walk the second mile
3. Help people who can’t help you
4. Do right when it’s natural to do wrong
5. Keep your promises even when it hurts
Even though he doesn’t explicitly quote the Bible, Maxwell’s approach is clearly rooted in Matthew 7:12. Over the past two centuries this saying has become known as the Golden Rule  and Maxwell notes that the core of this precept is found in other religions and cultures as well. It is therefore a principle that can be commended to Christians and non-Christians alike.
Several of the explanatory principles mentioned by Maxwell are also clearly based on other elements of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “Treat people better than they treat you” seems to be a natural implication of Matthew 5:43-48, and “Walk the second mile” is a clear reference to Matthew 5:41.
One thing that attracts Wayne to this Golden Rule approach to business ethics is that it is grounded in the teachings of Jesus. Given that we are often guilty of evading Jesus and his ethics, this is refreshing.
The Golden Rule is certainly a very useful clarifying principle for Wayne. It causes him to think, “How would I want to be treated if I was in my customer’s shoes?” And the associated principles of “treating people better than they treat you” and “walking the second mile” do challenge Wayne to go beyond what is legally expected of him. However, Maxwell’s approach still does little to help Wayne determine the specifics of what he might take responsibility for.
There is no doubt that the Golden Rule is close to the heart of Jesus’ ethical teachings.
The simplicity of elevating the significance of one principle is attractive, and it is obviously helpful in some ways. However, it may also prove far too simplistic and quite deceptive in other ways. Maxwell’s need to flesh it out with further qualifying rules shows that this is, in fact, true.
Some of Maxwell’s fundamental assumptions are also questionable, such as his belief that ethical behaviour pays (at least in the long-term). There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, as Scott Rae and Kenman Wong point out, if this was always (or even mostly) true:
…there would be no need for books or courses on business ethics, as nearly everyone would practise solid moral behaviour because of the prospect of financial reward.
There is another limitation to Maxwell’s approach. It assumes that there are only two players involved in the decision (the person making the choice and the person being affected by it). As long as it works to the advantage of these two people, according to the Golden Rule it is the best thing. Wayne realises that in his particular current situation that’s largely true. However, his mind turns to many other decisions he has to make, where other people are impacted indirectly, and/or the environment is also affected.
For example, not so long ago Wayne sold a large four-wheel-drive vehicle. He felt he did apply the Golden Rule to the customer (treating her with respect, giving her the best deal he possibly could, disclosing all relevant information, etc.). However, in that sale one thing he didn’t take into consideration was the broader issue of how much impact this vehicle, with its high fuel consumption, would have on the environment.
So ultimately, Maxwell’s use of the Golden Rule (along with his accompanying principles) is a very useful clarifying perspective for Wayne. He finds it genuinely helpful to reflect on the statement, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” and it does offer some direction to his thinking. However, the Golden Rule is simply not designed to “cover all the bases”, as if it was an easy, simple solution to every issue we face. We need help from other perspectives for that.
Wayne is fast running out of books! But as he gazes up to his bookshelf again, he notices Alexander Hill’s Just Business. Hill, a professor of business and economics, has attempted in this book to find a middle way between the simplistic single-rule approach and other more complicated approaches with multiple rules.
His central point is that Christian ethics in business should be built not on rules, but rather on the changeless character of God. As we study and observe God’s character, we can learn to imitate God. “Behaviour consistent with God’s character is ethical – that which is not is unethical.” 
We are called, therefore, to emulate God’s character. Few of us would argue with that, but the big question is….so, what is God like?
Hill’s answer is that the three characteristics of God most often emphasized in the Bible are
More specifically, he defines these traits as follows:
Pursuing holiness involves single-mindedness, making God our highest priority. Which means considering all other concerns of lesser importance – concerns such as material goods, career goals and even personal relationships. Pursuing holiness includes zeal, purity, accountability and humility.
“Justice provides order to human relationships by laying out reciprocal sets of rights and duties for those living in the context of community.” Two fundamental personal rights are the right to be treated with dignity and the right to exercise free will. The duties or responsibilities (which are really the flip side of the justice coin) require that we treat others in ways that offer them these rights. The rights and duties exist in tension, providing a necessary counterbalance to each other. For example, a worker’s right to a liveable wage means the employer has a duty to pay the employee fairly. And it also requires the worker to work faithfully for his or her pay. Justice cuts both ways.
Hill acknowledges that love is generally viewed as the pre-eminent virtue. However, it needs to be moderated by the other two characteristics. Its primary contribution to the holiness-justice-love mix is its emphasis on relationships, through empathy, mercy and self-sacrifice. Love creates bonds between people, and conversely, the breaching of these bonds causes pain.
Hill’s view then is that “a business act is ethical if it reflects God’s holy-just-loving character.”  (There’s no particular significance to the ordering of these three characteristics. In fact they are completely intertwined with each other.)
The image Hill uses to express this is that of a three-legged stool. If we are to operate biblically in business, all three aspects (legs) need to be taken into account consistently, otherwise we will have a badly imbalanced stool.
For example, if holiness is overemphasized to the exclusion of love and justice, then the result will be legalism, self-righteous judgementalism and withdrawal from society.
If justice dominates, then harsh results, emotional coldness and condemnation are the likely outcome.
When love is the only major measure, things can easily lapse into permissiveness and favouritism, because there is no real moral compass to direct us to the limits that love requires.
Alexander Hill condemns any attempt to reduce Scripture to a book of rules that can be applied to specific situations.He’s also acutely aware of the complexities of the business world. (This is something that Wayne appreciates!)
While Hill’s approach is built on three principles (or characteristics of God), he frequently also takes into account the consequences – especially to determine whether justice has been produced.
Wayne struggles to get his head around exactly what holiness looks like in his situation, but he finds the balancing principles of justice and love quite useful. What particular rights and duties exist in his seller-customer relationship? And what response to the customer’s request might be just for both parties? Wayne resolves that he may have a duty to contribute to the repair – though he thinks that the customer also has a responsibility to contribute. Justice cuts both ways – being fair to both customer and seller.
Given that Wayne gave the customer a very cheap price on the car in the first place – with little profit margin, he feels it would be unfair to be expected to pay for all of the repair. But the principle of love causes him to also reflect carefully on the question, “What might it mean for me to love this person?” Again, while no definitive answer results, it does prompt Wayne to consider the customer’s own financial situation. What impact will a sizeable repair bill have on this particular customer?
One of the great strengths of Hill’s approach is the clarity it provides when considering ethical dilemmas, without being too simplistic. The holiness-justice-love stool is more comprehensive than the single principle of the Golden Rule, and infinitely less cumbersome than the multi-rule approaches we looked at in the previous chapter. Once we’ve gained some clarity regarding what Hill means by the terms holiness, love and justice, the three-legged stool can be a helpful starting point. Confronted with a particular situation we can ask:
What does reflecting God’s holiness require here?
What does expressing God’s justice require here?
What does expressing God’s love require here?
What does a balanced expression of all three characteristics of God require here?
For those Christians who are stronger in emphasizing personal morality than social justice this approach provides a useful corrective, ensuring that social concerns are not ignored. Similarly, for those who express a strong concern for social justice but in the process may ignore the demands of holiness and love, it may provide a useful balancing corrective. We like the way Hill’s model leads to developing God’s character in our lives as well as producing good ethical choices. And it reflects an approach to the Bible and to business that is more than one-dimensional. So it is useful.
But it nevertheless has its problems. The main limitation of the three-legged stool is that we’re still left with the challenge of determining exactly what is holy, just and loving for the affected parties. And what do you do when justice, say, conflicts with love? Which gets priority?
At last Wayne is beginning to feel he’s making progress. It was always obvious that reaching a decision would not be easy, but Hill’s three-legged stool in particular has given him something to work with. Clearly, whatever approach to ethics we adopt, discerning and balancing the relevant rules and principles is an important part. But in addition we must also try to calculate the consequences of different courses of action to see which decisions produce the most loving and just and holy results. But this is the subject of our next chapter – and of the next stage in Wayne’s decision-making process!
Consider the following situation:
Roger is a property developer. He’s about to embark on a new subdivision on the edge of the city. Roger has already invested much of the last three years attempting to negotiate and secure the land, which is the only significant undeveloped block within the basin that the city is located in. A fair amount of his capital has been tied up in this project too. However, the lengthy process of resource consent hits a snag when an environmental pressure group puts in a submission stating that the subdivision will negatively impact on an already fragile ecosystem, particularly given that it will require the cutting down of a block of trees, and the infilling of a small wetland area. On the other side of the equation, Roger’s development has been encouraged by council officers, who are aware of the pressure that shortage of housing is bringing within the city.
Is there a “rule” or “principle” specifically applicable to this situation?
Do Burkett’s “six basic business minimums” help in this situation? Why or why not?
Does the Golden Rule help in this situation? Why or why not?
Does Hill’s Three-Legged Stool offer any help?
What if abandoning the project were to mean financial ruin for Roger? How much weight should we give to this consideration?
How do you think Roger should respond? Why?
Craig Keener suggests that John Wesley may have been the first to call it this, in a sermon he gave in 1750. See Craig S. Keener, Matthew (IVP New Testament Commentary Series) (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 161.
Scott Rae and Kenman Wong, Beyond Integrity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 85.
Alexander Hill, Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).
Although Hill does note that the two great commandments – love for God and neighbour (Matthew 22: 37-39) include holiness (making God our highest priority) and justice (taking others’ interests into account). See page 47.
Wayne is still wrestling with his customer’s request. Should he meet the cost of the repair? So far he has attempted to decide by asking the question, “What is the right thing to do?” – and by looking for rules or principles from the Bible to guide him in answering that question.
There is another way for Wayne to approach this. He could evaluate which option would produce the best result. In other words, if Wayne examined the potential consequences of each response and compared the likely results, he might be able to decide based on the ideal outcome.
This approach of calculating consequences and comparing the results is often known as “consequentialism” or “teleological ethics” - from the Greek word telos, meaning “end”.
Unlike the Command approach (where the best option is determined by the inherent goodness of the action) the Consequences approach is decided by the outcome. It is the end result that determines what is the most moral course of action.
However, as Wayne will discover, consequentialism raises four curly questions. They are:
“Good” for whom? (Who really benefits from this decision?)
What is “good”? (How do we define good? For example, presumably it is more than simply making the customer – or Wayne – financially better off.)
Can the good be calculated? (Can we fully foresee what will result and is good in any given situation?)
Does the end (the good) ever justify the means?
There are two main ways that the first of these questions is commonly answered.
Firstly, there are those who use self-interest as the measuring stick. They take the approach that if the decision brings about good for them, then it is the best choice to make. This school of thought is known as “ethical egoism”.
You’re not impressed with this line of thinking? Well, before you rubbish it as completely wrong, reflect further on Wayne’s dilemma. Self-interest does not always mean operating from a totally selfish perspective. Wayne could choose to repair the problem in his customer’s car as a result of self-interest. He might decide that long-term his reputation and capacity to gain new business are dependent on satisfying the customer’s expectations.
So what might seem from the outside as a selfless response, can often be driven by self-interest. And this is not always bad or wrong. It often has positive outcomes. We might say, “What’s good for me will often be good for everyone.”
Interestingly, the economist and philosopher Adam Smith (often known as the father of modern capitalism) was an ethical egoist. However, he realized that if we were left to our own devices, self-interest would quickly degenerate. So in arguing for minimalist government intervention in the economic system, he believed that there was an “invisible hand” at work to temper and restrain selfishness. To quote Smith himself, talking about the businessman:
By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.
Smith’s approach was really, then, one of “enlightened self-interest”, though you may judge it to be rather optimistic and naïve. (Even the most capitalist of nations have added countless laws to protect customers and consumers.)
A second and more substantial group of people advocate that consequences should determine our ethical decisions by using “the greater good” as their measuring stick. They take the approach that the best decision is the one that will bring about the greatest “good” for the greatest number of people. This is often known as utilitarianism.
Attempting to consider the consequences of his decision is actually a lot simpler for Wayne in this particular situation than in many cases. This is because, as Wayne sees it, there are really only two parties who might be affected by his decision – he and the customer. Unlike many of the other decisions he faces as a car dealer which involve indefinable consequences relating to their impact on environmental, social and community issues, this choice is rather more simple. What good will result from a decision to pay for, or at least contribute to the repair? The answer is that he will have a satisfied customer and one who may be saved from unnecessary financial hardship. This may well serve the “greater good” better than not paying, and benefiting personally as a result.
Because so many people think of the Bible as a rule book, and of ethics in terms of the Ten Commandments, it is perhaps surprising to discover how often the Scriptures themselves encourage readers to consider the consequences of their actions and let this influence their decision making.
The book of Proverbs does this repeatedly. It is full of warnings and promises, in pithy little sayings that spell out the likely outcomes of certain actions. For example, Proverbs 14:14 (NRSV): “The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good what their deeds deserve.”
Jesus too warns his listeners to weigh carefully the consequences of their decisions. In fact, in one sense the whole life and ministry of Jesus can be viewed as a living example of making decisions for the “greater good”.
His Beatitudes display an implicit consequential aspect – if you want to be “filled” then hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc. The same applies to much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, such as (all verses NRSV):
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:16)
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. (5:25)
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (6:3-4)
…but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (6:15)
Considering the consequences should play an important role in our decision-making. However, there are a number of potential landmines in such thinking, so we need to tread carefully.
Firstly, our definition of what is “good” is critical. For most consequentialists good is defined as “happiness” or “pleasure”. In this view a decision is determined to be ethical if it produces the greatest amount of good (happiness) for the greatest number of people affected by the decision. In our culture, happiness is viewed as the primary purpose of life (and with it goes the implication that pain should in all circumstances be minimized or avoided).
However, in the Bible happiness is not considered the ultimate good. And when it is the subject of attention, it tends to be redefined in ways that are significantly different from our culture’s understanding. For example, Jesus turns our thinking upside down in his Beatitudes. He claims that the situations we might feel aggrieved or sad about can be the very ones to make us blessed or happy!
So how might we define good biblically? In the Bible, what is considered good? Undoubtedly the answer is … anything that promotes the fruit of the Spirit. (Or as Alexander Hill would probably put it … anything that imitates God’s holy-just-loving character.)
God’s primary intention is not to make us happy. It is to make us whole. The New Testament is clear that embracing suffering and pain is often the road to wholeness – whether for us ourselves, or for those whom our suffering helps. Take, for example, Paul’s attitude to suffering in his letter to the Colossians – “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake…” Colossians 1:24 (NRSV).
The choice Jesus made to submit to the way of the Cross is our model. He denied himself in order to bring liberation and life for others: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28.) The call of Jesus to follow him is made clear in such statements as “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NRSV).
Secondly, we must be wary of making decisions based on the good of the majority when they have potentially negative or disastrous consequences for the minority – particularly if that minority is a marginalized and largely powerless group. Under such “end justifies the means” terms, all manner of evils have been condoned. But expediency is not a biblical principle. The classic biblical example of expedience is Caiaphas’ decision leading to the execution of Jesus. Speaking to the Jewish Council he declared, “…it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50 NRSV) The irony of the statement is not lost on the writer of John, nor on his readers!
The Bible consistently calls God’s people to stand up for and protect the poor and the marginalized. In fact, the Prophets regularly challenge the Jews to care for the most vulnerable, even declaring that the health of a society is measured by how they treat the “orphan, widow and alien” (three significant marginalized groups). The poor and marginalized are the ones most at risk of being calculated out of the equation under a consequences approach. Recent ethical debates such as euthanasia and abortion hinge on this.
However, let’s not suggest that the end never justifies the means. There are hard choices to be made, where no alternative is thoroughly good or right. In such cases the decision-makers are left with a choice between relative degrees of “evil”. The “just war” theory results from this sort of dilemma. It is also the kind of dilemma that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in his agony over what to do about the evil Nazi regime. Sometimes a choice brings pain for others; however unavoidable that suffering may be, the choice must be made with genuine compassion and humility.
Thirdly, even where good can be defined in a way consistent with the Scriptures, there remains still the problem of predicting or measuring it. Consequences can be hard to quantify. Sometimes impossibly so. For a start, there are often people and environments affected that we have not taken into account. Sometimes we can’t even know about them in advance.
At a number of points the Bible helps us recognize our own finiteness and severely limited perspective. In contrast, God is all-knowing and all-wise. While humans are responsible for their actions and expected to consider carefully the consequences, humility is required, and with it a dependence on God who knows all things.
Experience bears this out. Frequently we have no real way of knowing what consequences will result from our actions, or indeed how to rate or measure the good. On these counts alone, while a consideration of the consequences is often a valuable component of our decision-making, it is not in any sense sufficient as the only ethical approach.
Another thing that needs to be understood in considering consequences is what a given action means in a particular context. Sometimes this is because actions mean different things among people of different cultures. Sometimes it is because people’s circumstances are different.
One of the best-known examples of this from the Bible is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8, where he examines ethical decisions that arise from eating food offered to idols. The key issue, he points out, is how our behaviour will affect “weak believers”. In this case Paul puts love and consideration for others ahead of his own liberty to do as he feels fit. The question is not just, “Is it right?” but rather, “Is it appropriate or fitting?” What he feels free to do in one situation, he chooses not to do in another, where it might cause offence or problems. Paul is deciding on the rightness or wisdom of the action according to the consequences in this particular context.
Paul continues this argument into chapter 9 and closes with the words, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9: 22 NRSV). Again, circumstances sometimes modify what Paul normally feels free to do. According to Paul we need to be sensitive to cultural and contextual factors when we are trying to calculate the consequences of our actions, and sometimes this will cause us to modify our behaviour out of sensitivity to others. It is not just a case of what we feel is right for us.
It could be argued that Paul’s argument for women wearing head coverings (in Chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians) is also contextual. That is, Paul is urging it because of the culture and circumstances in the city of Corinth and the region round about. For that reason most scholars do not interpret it as being in any way prescriptive for other contexts.
So the Bible suggests that a limited relativism is legitimate, taking into consideration the context both of the people in our direct orbit, and the wider cultural setting we are a part of.  This is different to the full blown relativism that is such a feature of our culture, where there are no absolute standards of truth or morality. What is acceptable in one situation may be unacceptable in another.
Increasingly the society we live in is becoming more and more multicultural. We can expect to face a number of situations where the context challenges us to change our practices. For example, if you’re an employer, how do you allocate bereavement leave when several of your staff are Maori, and it is culturally appropriate for them to take several days, a number of times a year, to attend a tangi of relatives and friends?
Or, suppose you are a tent manufacturer and you decide to get your tents made in Vietnam, because of much cheaper costs. How do you decide what is appropriate payment for your Vietnamese employees?
The issue of “context” goes beyond cross-cultural matters. It’s also a factor in working out whether to treat people differently because of their circumstances. For instance, a doctor might use graduated fees for patients based on their income. A car dealer might decide what is a fair profit margin on a car by how well-off the customer is.
When Wayne begins thinking about ways that these particular circumstances are influencing possible courses of action, he finds himself trying to understand and anticipate a number of things.
We’ve already mentioned the question of the customer’s financial situation. If Wayne refuses to pay for the repair, or only contributes partially, what impact financially is that likely have on the customer and his family? Is it likely to create unfair stress? Wayne thinks that this is worth taking into consideration. In fact, for him it is part of the wider question of love and justice.
What if Wayne is aware that the customer is generous and liberal with his own time and money – serving others and genuinely seeking to make a difference in the world? If this is the case, Wayne may feel it is extra fitting to extend generosity towards him.
At the same time Wayne is also mindful of the financial implications for him and his family if he ends up making little or no profit on this sale.
There’s another angle. Should Wayne think carefully about the sort of precedent he is setting? If he takes a soft line will other customers also come running for assistance? Wayne smiles ruefully at the possibility. But for him personally, this is not a major issue. The other factors he has sifted through are, as far as he is concerned, of much greater importance. He doesn’t mind if he acquires a reputation as a “soft touch”, so long as he is satisfied with the appropriateness of his choice.
Fortunately for Wayne, the potential consequences and the contextual factors of this particular dilemma are fairly simple to identify. But, of course, many situations are much more complex and have many more variables. Take, for instance, the following story – based on a frequent development in the last decade or two – of an entrepreneur we shall call Trevor…
Trev is the owner/manager of a small company that specializes in distinctive rugs and mats for the retail trade. His job is to source and locate products that are of good quality in order to supply retailers around the country.
Where possible, Trev has in the past used local manufacturers. His aim was to have a minimum of 70% of his goods come from NZ manufacturers who were, on the whole, far easier to deal with than overseas suppliers, and whose goods were generally of better quality than imports. In addition, communication and shipping issues were much simpler when dealing onshore, and there was a sense of pride in helping keep his fellow countrymen and women employed.
About three years ago, things “hit the wall” as far as Trev’s NZ manufactured goods were concerned. His comfortable arrangement came crashing round his ears. The sequence of events was something like this:
End-user (that’s you and I) says to retailer: “Forget it, Bruce. I know I’ve bought from you for fifteen years, but the warehouse that’s opened up in town now has mats and rugs up to 50% cheaper than yours. Loyalty is one thing, but I have to watch my expenses too.”
Retailer says to Trev: “Sorry, Trev, I would deal with you, you know I would. But I can’t sell your products any more. If I don’t source at lower prices, I’m history. Either get me cheaper goods or I buy from someone else.”
Trev to manufacturer: “We’ve had some great years, Harold, but now I’m being hung out to dry. If you can get your costs down I’ll hold off importing more, but otherwise I’m off to India.”
Harold sees the writing on the wall and puts all his staff on contract; he stops paying overtime, and adds new time measurement systems to his factory floor. But inevitably he can’t compete with Indian pay rates.
Things settle down. Trevor now imports 85% of his product and finds he can compete reasonably well at all levels. The crisis is passed. But one day, in between sales calls, he stops to think. “That rug I just sold for $18.45 used to cost $43.20 from the NZ manufacturer. According to Harold the cost of materials was around $15.00. Okay, there’ll be some difference in material costs between NZ and India – but that still means the labour cost in India is tiny. I know NZ factory workers get paid a marginal wage, so what must it be like for the Indian workers?”
The thought nags away at Trev, so one day he hops on the phone to Raj, his Indian supplier, and asks for a breakdown of costs. Raj politely tells Trev where to get off as it’s none of his business (Raj uses a Hindi word Trev doesn’t recognize). Trev tries to insist but gets nowhere. Trev then tries four other Indian suppliers he knows. Same message. Some more Hindi words. So he calls Trade Aid. These guys are a bit short with Trev. They call him some uncomplimentary names because of what they say is his support of sweat labour, including virtual slave labour of children. The average “wage” for rugmakers in India, they say, is 200 rupees a month. That’s about $10 – except that children generally get nothing except their “board”.
Trevor doesn’t sleep easily that night. He knows that if he doesn’t buy from India, or somewhere similar, his business is doomed. But if he doesn’t import the products, his competitors will. Should he offer to pay more for the rugs? (Whose pocket would the money end up in?) Should he find another Indian supplier? And is paying impoverished people 200 rupees a month better or worse than not employing them at all?
Discuss Trevor’s dilemma:
In what ways might a consequential approach to Trevor’s dilemma shape his decision making?
What are the competing factors in determining what might be “good” and who it might be good for?
When it comes to determining what is good and who it is good for, in what ways has the additional information Trevor recently gained made things more complex?
Can you think of any further steps he might take to guide him in his choices?
What are some of the contextual issues that affect this situation?
How might they contribute to shaping an appropriate response?
Does it help in this situation to ask, “What is the most loving thing to do?” Whose interests would need to be considered? How would you determine who gets your priority when it comes to doing the “loving thing”? And what, in practice, might it mean to “love” them?
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Admittedly this is a difficult passage to exegete because of the limited information available regarding the context and the subsequent logic of Paul’s argument. Nevertheless, as Gordon Fee notes, “For Paul the issue was directly tied to cultural shame that scarcely prevails in most cultures today.” The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 512.
These are, of course, the types of issues that face cross-cultural missionaries. How should/can the gospel be contextualized and what implications does this have for ethical issues such as polygamy in Africa?
“At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.”
The two main approaches to decision-making we have looked at so far, and that Wayne has made use of for analysing his car-dealing dilemma, are concerned with the morality of the action/choice.
However, there is another way of considering ethical choices – one that doesn’t focus on the action but rather on the person making the decision. This is often called “virtue” or “character” ethics, because its chief concern is the character of the person performing the action.
Rather than asking, “What is right?” or “What will produce the best results?” the virtue approach asks, “What type of person should I become?” The assumption is that if you mould your character more and more on God’s character, this will increasingly lead to doing the right/good thing. For this reason, it is more an ethics of being than of doing.
It also recognises a flaw in the process that all of us are only too aware of. Knowing what the right thing is doesn’t ensure that the right thing is done! This is because it takes character to do the right thing.
In previous chapters we’ve thought through the ways in which understanding God’s character might shape how we make our decisions. (We’ve especially looked at his love, justice and holiness.) The aim was to see how we might use those characteristics as a grid through which to determine right decisions. Let’s now subtly change the emphasis. Let’s look at how God’s character is shaping our character. As Christians our aim is to become more holy, just and loving people. So are these characteristics becoming ingrained in us as “default settings”?
Notice: this is not just about the character of God any more. Now the emphasis is on whether these attributes also describe us.
There are several reasons why this is so important. First, the way we have been talking about ethical dilemmas so far suggests a rather idealized world – a world where we have both the time and the ability to reason our way through complex issues towards our decision. And sometimes we do. But what about all the other occasions? Are not most of our decisions made in a split second while we are on the run? How we respond to a complaint from our boss, or sort out a misunderstanding with a customer, or advise an inexperienced shopper, or motivate an underperforming team – these steps are often taken without much thinking at all.
Second, could it be that many of our ethical choices are already substantially decided before we make the decision? In other words, our character automatically shapes much of what we decide to do. Because of this, our ethical decisions are largely determined by who we are (the type of character and values we’ve embodied), rather than what decision-making process we employ.
Third, are we really just individuals freely making personal decisions, or are the decisions significantly shaped by the communities we are part of? We’d like to suggest that character and community and values are intertwined inseparably when it comes to talking about ethics.
For these reasons, some people believe that rather than focusing on good decision-making, we would be better to concentrate on developing good character. They claim that when virtue and goodness are grown in our lives, good decisions will automatically follow.
The truth is, says David Cook, we rarely make moral decisions. Most times we don’t think about the moral dilemma but simply respond to it. If this is the case and our reactions are mostly instinctive, then developing godly character is even more critical, because we are making so many of our ethical choices automatically. “Good” people have a greater chance of making “good” choices.
If developing character and virtue are so important, then there are several key questions we have to grapple with. They are:
- How do we define a virtue?
- Who actually determines what is virtuous?
- How do virtues actually develop?
The first of these questions is probably the easiest to answer. The Oxford Dictionary defines “virtue” as “a quality considered morally good or desirable”. Every culture values certain qualities highly. In their context they are considered virtuous.
But the second question regarding who exactly determines what particular qualities are good, is a little more complex. Over the years many philosophers, theologians and thinkers have attempted to list and define virtues.
For example, Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. Ambrose (339-397), an early Christian leader, agreed that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically biblical virtues – faith, hope and love.
As far back as the sixth century, Gregory the Great contrasted these seven virtues with corresponding vices – the ones we now know as the “seven deadly sins”.
It is only recently that Protestant theologians have begun to seriously explore virtues. Glen Stassen and David Gushee suggest that, “virtues are character traits that enable us to contribute (positively) to community.” One inference of this is that it’s the society we’re a part of that ultimately determines what particular attitudes and behaviour are virtuous. It figures then that what is virtuous is significantly governed by the values and worldview of our surrounding culture.
So what does this mean for those of us who follow Jesus? Who or what should determine for us what is virtuous?
Clearly the Bible is the short answer to this. However, within the Scriptures, we suggest that the focal point for determining Christian virtues should be the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is our most visible expression of God’s character. So if we want to know what virtues to develop, observing the qualities Jesus modelled and talked about is our best starting point. We agree with Stassen and Gushee who note that:
The Bible is not flat; Christ is its peak and its center. No moral issue should be addressed apart from consideration of the meaning of Jesus Christ for reflection on that issue.
The largest body of Jesus’ ethical teaching is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a good place to start if we are seeking to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to.
To be even more focused, it’s in the Beatitudes that Jesus shines the spotlight on key virtues – the qualities and behaviours he especially values. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst and hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion – these, it seems, should be our prime goals.
Repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus links our actions directly to our character – to our core attitudes and motives. Other comments by Jesus throughout the Gospels reinforce this connection. For example, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice…” (Mark 7:21-22 NRSV).
The early church was quick to pick up on the importance of imitating Jesus. Take for example, the writings of Paul, where we find a significant emphasis on character development. For example, he exhorts the Galatians not to gratify the desires of “the flesh” but rather to allow the Spirit to grow “fruit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5: 16-25 NRSV.) To the Philippians Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves … Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:3-5 NRSV.)
Christ then is our example and model. It is his character we are called to develop. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
All this talk about virtues has got Wayne a little confused. It’s hard to evaluate how your own character is developing. In fact, true character is probably more accurately measured by the observation of others than from our own analysis.
However, Wayne has been aware all through his decision-making process of a significant reaction. Rather than finding it easy to resist the customer’s complaint about the car and the request to fix it, his heart has gone out to the customer. Wayne genuinely wants to respond in a way that expresses care and concern. In fact, looking back over the slow but real development of Christian character through his lifetime, he especially recognizes (and values) a growth in compassion, kindness and generosity.
The result is he finds himself wanting to respond positively to the customer’s request in a way that many others might not. So, when Wayne begins to calculate the consequences, it is more about how far he can afford to go in providing assistance rather than how he can resist the customer’s request. It seems that his default setting has already been defined by values that are shaping his character.
The third key question to consider when thinking about virtues is, “How do they actually develop?”
We all know people whose lives exude character. The way they work in the marketplace seems to have integrity or consistency with the rest of their lives. But just exactly how have they become people of such character?
In our highly individualistic culture it’s easy to presume that this has largely occurred as a result of the person’s strong commitment to Christ, a rigorous discipline and piety, and a desire to grow the character of Jesus in his or her life.
However, while these elements are clearly important, and the Holy Spirit certainly does transform us in deeply personal ways, such change rarely occurs outside of a wider context. Both MacIntyre and Hauerwas (two recent advocates of virtue ethics) emphasize the huge role that community plays in shaping and embodying the virtuous life. In fact, they suggest that the telling of stories (narratives) of a particular community is a primary shaper of a group’s character. Stories engage our imaginations and get us involved in ways that are often self-revealing. They have power to help develop both character and community.
Clearly for Christians the Bible provides our primary narrative. The story of Scripture reminds us of the people we are intended to become and the perspectives and values that should shape our life in the world. It’s also a story that we can find ourselves within, and one that invites responses from us with profound moral implications.
For Hauerwas, Stassen and Gushee, the specific story most critical to Christians is the story of Jesus, whose character and virtues are what we are called to emulate.
But the gospel narrative does not reach us in sharp focus. Despite ourselves we absorb it through a filter – the filter of our culture and of our faith community. The way we retell this story, what virtues we emphasize, what failures we highlight, and how we encourage one another to nurture the habits and practices it describes – all these have a significant impact on how we grow in virtue.
In fact, we need to be acutely aware of the tendency of all faith communities to “reframe” Jesus in ways that are less challenging to their own lifestyle and worldview. Making Jesus into our own image is a temptation we all face. Western churches of today live in a society where wealth and affluence are widespread, to a degree unknown ever before in history. The danger we face is to unconsciously filter out the enormous social, economic, political and environmental implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. When that happens, as it sadly often does, all we are left with in our faith-community narratives is a Jesus who limits himself to addressing a small range of personal moral issues.
This is not the Jesus of the Gospels. For Jesus models and teaches, as Jim Wallis would say, a “consistent ethic of life”, not one severely truncated and restricted to issues of sexual conduct and personal honesty – however important those might be. The ethics of Jesus encompass so much more.
So godly character does not just occur as a result of individual transformation. It is in the context of community that such character is primarily nurtured and developed. And that community must find ways to expose the inevitable blind spots of its “take” on Jesus. As Benjamin Farley writes:
…the New Testament, in concert with the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes the indispensable context of the believing community, which, in this instance, is the church, the ekklesia. It is within this nurturing context of faith, hope and love…that the Christian life, as a process, unfolds. It is never a matter of the individual alone, pitted against an alien and hostile culture, that constitutes the epicenter of Christian moral action. 
A good example of how our community’s story can shape character is the inspiring account of a village called Le Chambon, in France. During the Nazi occupation in the Second World War, the people of this relatively small community rescued thousands of Jewish children by taking them into their homes, hiding them from the authorities, and guiding many across the dangerous countryside to safety in neutral Switzerland. This rescue mission was “led” by Andre and Magda Trocme – the pastors of the Huguenot Protestant church in the village.
However, the terms “led” or “organized” are really too strong to describe what actually happened. Philip Hallie conducted interviews with surviving villagers some thirty years after the war. One of the intriguing aspects he uncovered is how naturally the acts of hospitality and refuge occurred. There did not seem to be anything particularly premeditated, nor highly organized, about the decision to rescue – at least, not initially. And the villagers did not consider themselves particularly virtuous for acting in such a way.
In fact, they were doing no more than acting out of their character and values – not just as individuals, but as a community. Most villagers were descendants of the Huguenots, a heavily persecuted Protestant sect who for centuries had been hounded across Europe. They understood what it was like to be persecuted and to be refugees, not wanted wherever they went. This was part of their story – and indeed they held an annual ceremony to commemorate their Huguenot ancestors. The virtues of mercy, compassion, hospitality and non-violence which their community embodied were surely no accident. They had grown and shaped them through the regular retelling of their story, along with their immersion in the wider gospel narratives.
With the Trocmes leading by example, it was hardly surprising that the residents of Le Chambon would embrace such a risky rescue mission with little thought as to whether it was the right or even the wisest thing to do. These character traits had become part of them. As a result the “decision” to respond to such a situation was largely instinctive and automatic.
And of course, the more they chose to extend care to these children, the more this habitual practice continued to shape and reinforce their character.
Virtue ethics has important lessons to teach us:
Making ethical decisions in the marketplace is much more than developing a good decision-making process. It’s even more than agreeing to a “Code of Ethics”. Who we are becoming will substantially shape our ethical choices.
We cannot develop God’s character alone. We need others. When we are committed to a community seeking to retell, understand, embrace and live out the gospel story, we are much more likely to become people of virtue. And the world of business certainly needs people of character.
Such communities must find ways of discovering a clearer picture of the character of Jesus, of asking the hard and uncomfortable questions that help us confront our limited view of the virtuous life. When this happens we are less likely to duplicate the many sad examples of Christians doing business in a thoroughly sub-Christian manner.
1. Make a list of virtues/qualities that the New Testament identifies as being Christ-like. Some passages (several of which we’ve mentioned in this chapter) that might guide your study could be:
Matthew, chapters 5,6,7
I Corinthians, chapter 13
Galatians, chapter 5
Philippians, chapter 2
2. In what ways is God’s character actively growing in your life?
3. Who have been the significant role models (those followers of Jesus who embody and reflect something of the character of Jesus) in your life?
In what contexts have you been able to observe these men and/or women?
Which of your role models are extensively involved in the marketplace (business, politics, education, etc.)?
In what ways has observing them in work contexts helped you to understand more clearly how it might look to live like Jesus in the marketplace?
4. What context/s of Christian community are you currently a part of? Do you feel these contexts are helping you grow into the image of Jesus? In what ways is this happening? Could it happen better?
5. Do you currently meet regularly with any other Jesus-followers, with the specific intention of helping each other learn how to let your faith shape your behaviour at work, and/or to assist one another to discuss specific ethical issues? Are there others you can think of who might share your readiness to do this?
5. The role of a community is obviously not the only significant factor in growing character in our lives. What are other key stimuli to developing virtue and becoming like Jesus?
David Cook, The Moral Maze: a way of exploring Christian ethics (London: SPCK, 1983), 78.
The history of the word “virtue” demonstrates this cultural leaning. Our English word comes from the Latin virtus, which itself comes from the word vir meaning “man, male”. The Romans during the early, formative years of their nation needed to survive in a world of invading conquerors. The result is that their word virtus can be translated either “virtue” or “courage”. So virtue to those early Romans was manliness and the willingness to defend their families and homes.
Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IVP, 2003).
Benjamin Farley, In Praise of Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 100.
Philip Hallie’s book is entitled, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and how Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).
The past four chapters have had us leaping in and out of Wayne’s dilemma. Apart from turning his hair greyer, the exercise has made the point that where other people are involved, wise and balanced decisions do not come easily. All of us face problems in our places of work. If we are to respond to them in a way that is honouring to God, we need to understand the principles on which we base our decisions.
Commands, Consequences, and Character – three different approaches to making ethical decisions. And, as we have seen, there are plenty of variations within these streams. The truth is that in real everyday situations most people use a combination of approaches. For example, it’s hard to apply specific commands or rules without also considering the consequences of such actions. At the same time, when we weigh and compare different consequences we’ll want to identify the principles that lead to those results. And in the end, regardless of whatever we’ve decided in theory, it is actually our character that often dictates how we act.
So when it comes to making moral decisions we find ourselves involved in an ethical dance that is an interplay between these different approaches.
Approach to ethics Deontological Teleological Virtue
Key concept Commands/Rules Consequences/Results Character
Primary question Is it right? What will produce Am I becoming a good
the best result? person?
Which of these approaches do you favour in your own decision-making?
Frequently it may depend on the nature of the situation you find yourself in. For example, are you trying to solve a major moral dilemma … or is this an everyday moral choice? Let’s explain what we mean.
Sometimes major moral dilemmas require and allow for careful consideration over an extended period of time. In such cases, one way of going about this decision-making process is to:
Gather all the relevant facts.
Clarify what the key ethical issues are.
Identify rules and principles that are relevant for the case.
Consult the important sources of guidance – especially the Bible, with sensitivity to the best way of reading the Bible to address this situation. But also consult other relevant sources.
List all the alternative courses of action.
Compare the alternatives with the principles.
Calculate the likely results of each course of action, and consider the consequences.
Consider your decision prayerfully before God.
Make your decision and act on it.
As you can see, setting a course when faced with a major moral decision calls for a lot blood, sweat and tears! Especially for an organization. However, when it comes to dealing with everyday problems that we meet as individuals, the pace of life is likely to make us more streamlined…
We noted in the previous chapter that most ethical decisions in our daily lives and work are made instantly, often under pressure and without much room for forethought. They are instinctive, being the product of habits of a lifetime, as well as shaped by the culture of the places we work at, and the peer groups and faith communities we belong to.
Such decisions are influenced by the extent to which Christian virtues and character have been molded into the core of our being. This is regular Christian discipleship.
However, the importance of being as the foundation for our doing does not exclude “moral reasoning”. Within the virtuous life there is still a place for understanding rules and calculating consequences – but here the rules and consequences are subordinated to the virtues. They’re viewed as servants rather than masters.
This emphasis on virtues does not eliminate moral dilemmas. In fact, competing virtues are also capable of pulling us in different directions. Examples of this are the tensions that sometimes exist between justice and peace, or loyalty and truth, or courage and prudence.
Making good moral decisions in these cases is less about seeing one right answer (because there probably is not just one) and more about striving for a creative Christian response that recognizes all the competing priorities.
Increasingly through this book we’ve been using the terms “ethics”, “ethical” and “moral” to describe the types of decision under consideration. We realise these are not easy words to understand. What’s more, these days many people reject the area of ethics; it seems too theoretical and academic and divorced from everyday behaviour. The word “moral” is also much avoided; it is seen as carrying harsh and conservative religious overtones – usually denunciations of sexual immorality. So it’s important to explain what we mean by these terms and why and how we’ve chosen to use them.
The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethos, which has two meanings in common Greek usage: (1) habit or custom, and (2) ordinance or law. The New Testament uses both these meanings. For example in Acts 25:16 the word is usually (NRSV and NIV) translated “custom” (“It is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone”), whereas in 1 Cor 15:33 it is translated “morals” (NRSV) or “character” (NIV) (“Bad company ruins good morals”).
Both words – ethics and morals – are often used interchangeably. You might say that ethics is the study of moral principles that govern or influence our conduct.
Here are a couple of definitions of ethics that put this in slightly different ways. One is Stan Grenz’s comment that “living ethically” is concerned with “ordering our steps in every situation of life according to the fundamental faith commitments we share as Christians”. Meanwhile, Dennis Hollinger explains that ethics is “the systematic study of standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and vice, with a view to applying those standards in the realities of our lives”. 
That last phrase of Hollinger’s definition is particularly important to us – “with a view to applying those standards to the realities of our lives.” This is the goal of Christian ethics – applying them. Putting them into practice. Theoretical “what if’s”, or simply describing various ethical approaches, is not sufficient. Our concern has to be to action our Christian insights.
During the course of any day or week, all of us are confronted with a myriad of decisions. Not all of them have an ethical component. When we go to the supermarket and buy a can of pineapple or some toilet paper, we don’t usually think of this as involving a moral choice. When we get up in the morning, the decision of which pair of socks to put on is unlikely to have ethical consequences – unless we’ve “nicked” them from our brother or sister!
However, many decisions are moral ones – or at least have an element of morality at stake. For example, suppose we learn some unpleasant facts about the company that produces the canned pineapple. We find that they pay below-subsistence wages to the workers who harvest and process the fruit, and they ruthlessly suppress any requests from the workforce for better pay and conditions. This new information introduces an element of ethics to our supermarket shopping. In what way, we ask ourselves, does buying this particular brand give implicit support to an unethical corporation?
Sadly, many Christians wouldn’t consider this of any ethical concern at all. They limit their notions of moral choice to matters of personal honesty, accumulation of wealth, and sexual morality. This “selective moralism” is very destructive. As we’ve previously noted, for an example in the Bible we need look no further than the Pharisees. They were deeply concerned with matters of personal piety and purity, but completely blind to the weightier matters of loving others, justice and mercy. And we know how much Jesus railed against them!
It’s not that issues of honesty, greed and sexual purity are unimportant; just that Christian ethics encompasses so much more. It needs to include the manner in which we relate to others (imitating God’s character), especially how we care for the poor and marginalized; it needs to take seriously stewardship of time, money and environmental resources; it needs to free itself from addictions, and to challenge any allegiance that gets in the way of our worship of God.
Ethics, then, is a big word. It encompasses a great deal (though not all) of our daily decision-making – including many of our business and workplace choices.
John Maxwell, whose approach to ethics we considered in chapter two, has written:
There’s no such thing as business ethics – there’s only ethics. People try to use one set of ethics for their professional life, another for their spiritual life, and still another at home with their family. That gets them into trouble. Ethics is ethics. If you desire to be ethical, you live by one standard across the board.
He’s right. The view that business is amoral (having little or nothing to do with morality) is still very much alive and well, though it probably is less dominant than it was several decades ago. For example, the well-known businessman John D. Rockefeller was a devout Baptist with a strong personal religious ethic, but was ruthless in business, giving kickbacks, violently suppressing labour unrest and bribing competitors’ employees.
This is what is known as “dual morality” – applying different ethical standards to different parts of our lives. However, Christian faith should make a consistent difference in every area of our lives.
So applying a dual morality is out. But does this mean that there’s no point in talking about a specifically “business” ethic? We don’t believe so. For a start, there are just too many ethical issues that are unique to the marketplace, and that aren’t faced in the rest of life. Like, for instance, setting a “fair” price or profit for the product or service you’re offering. (Which leads to the practical question we’ll consider in chapter 6: Who should determine what is considered “fair”?)
The fact is, some very complex dilemmas arise in the modern world of business. And, as we’ve already seen, looking to get nice clear, straightforward answers to them from the Bible is easier said than done.
One of the reasons for this is that the Scriptures were written to people in times very different to our own. For example, a dilemma highlighted in the Bible is whether to lease/buy the land of a neighbouring family who are no longer able to support themselves off it. Buying their land would disenfranchise them and their descendants from their future. The Levitical law treats this and related topics at considerable depth. In an agrarian-based culture, the land meant everything – economic livelihood, connection to the past, inheritance, and prospects for future generations.
Today, we face issues such as the environmental impact of industry, whether or not to import cheap products from countries where the workers manufacturing the goods might be exploited, whether to make workers redundant in order to allow the company to survive in a more competitive environment, what type of advertising to employ … and so on.
It’s true there are moral questions which are just as pressing today as in Israel under King David – how to act when, for example, a boss/master with very different values asks you to do something against your own morals. Nevertheless, it’s clear that we live in a world that is very different to the ones in which the Bible was shaped.
So for us, Christian ethics is about a framework for making decisions that honour God, follow the example of Jesus, and are responsive to the Spirit, in order to achieve outcomes that further God’s purposes in the world.
We are not suggesting that this is easy. We’re aware that many Christians live with a lot of tension as the worlds of Christianity and Capitalism collide. In fact, the rest of our book is dedicated to charting what some of these tensions look like and how they might be approached more creatively by Christians.
1. Make a list of as many ethical issues in your work situation/s as you can think of. Remember not just to limit the list to issues of honesty, integrity and sexuality.
2. How many of these issues are specific/unique to the business arena? Which ones appear to have relatively clear guidance from the Bible?
3. At the end of chapter three you discovered that Wayne is a bit of a “soft touch”! Believe it or not, he’s seriously thinking of financing at least some of the cost of repair in this car that he sold 12 months ago. Taking into account that we mostly respond in a spur-of-the-moment way…
(a) What was your first reaction to the customer’s request when you read about it back in the Introduction? (Be honest!)
(b) How do you feel about the way Wayne’s mind seems to be working? (Still being honest?) And how do you feel about your own reaction to this? (If your thinking differs from Wayne’s, then remember that God seems happy for us to have a range of personalities. There are different perspectives on life – some see the holiness perspective more sharply, some the justice angle, some the love imperative. That, by the way, is why it’s so helpful for us to develop community – allowing us to pool our insights with fellow believers.)
(c) Which of the main approaches that we’ve looked at have you most often employed when making decisions? Which one(s) do you most warm to?
(d) Now that you’ve considered the range of ways in which we move towards making a decision, if you were in Wayne’s situation – facing the same dilemma – what would you do? Or, alternatively if you’re discussing this in a group: Imagine that together the members of your group run a car dealership, and you have found yourselves faced with the very dilemma that Wayne is wrestling with. Try to reach a group consensus for action, taking into account angles that each of you finds important. Remember: a consensus means that you would all be prepared to action the decision reached. If you cannot honestly do this, make sure the group knows.
5. Can you think of a similar issue to Wayne’s scenario in your own work, where a particular ethical choice could be made for two or more quite different reasons?
6. Invent a situation (or make use of one which you know of) where you are caught between competing virtues – for example, where there is tension between loyalty to a friend or employer, and the right treatment of another person? What sort of “creative Christian response” can you think of that recognizes all the competing priorities in your dilemma?
This approach borrows from Richard Higginson, Called to Account (Guildford: Eagle, 1993), pp 224-240; David Cook, Moral Choices: A Way of Exploring Christian Ethics (London: SPCK, 2000) and Scott B. Rae Moral Choices: An Introduction To Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995); but is also typical of many others.
Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest (London: Apollos, 1997), 19.
Dennis P. Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 14.
John C. Maxwell, There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics: There’s only One Rule for Making Decisions (USA: Warner, 2003),xi.
See Alexander Hill’s article “Business Ethics” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 91.