Chapter 1: The Command Approach to Making Decisions

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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?

What are Wayne’s legal obligations?

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

  • Safe

  • 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.

Legal and/or moral?

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.

Commands beyond the law

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?

A rule for every occasion?

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.[1] 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:

  1. “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.”

  2. “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.”

  3. “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.

Biblical principles?

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.[2] 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”.[3]

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”. [4]

In this regard, Burkett highlights “six basic biblical business minimums”. They are:

  • Reflect Christ in your business practices.

  • Be accountable.

  • Provide a quality product at a fair price.

  • Honour your creditors.

  • Treat your employees fairly.

  • Treat your customers fairly.

Does this help Wayne?

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. [5]

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:

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

To consider:

  • 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.