Part Two: 7 Dilemmas Christians Face at Work
One of the important assumptions throughout this book is that following Jesus needs to inform, impact,, and transform every area of our lives – including our work in the marketplace. How we conduct our business should be markedly different because of our faith.
But are there some matters where engaging in business and our faith is simply incompatible? Or are there at least issues where, in order to be faithful to Jesus and be successful at work, we have to compromise? Perhaps we are just fooling ourselves. Can we really follow Jesus and at the same time be involved in the world of commerce?
These are some of the inherent questions in a study conducted by Laura Nash, a business ethicist and a former professor at Harvard Business School, who set out to examine how faith impacts on doing business. Nash interviewed a substantial sample of business executives who claimed to be evangelical Christians. Her aim was to uncover how exactly their beliefs affected their decision-making process – particularly in regard to ethical choices. Did their faith make any difference at all? If so, in what way?
Nash’s findings were fascinating. Essentially she encountered three broad responses. There was one group of business people who largely refused to believe there was any real conflict between their faith and the requirements of business. Nash labelled these “Generalists”, because they avoided identifying any specific way in which their faith might affect their work. They minimalized and trivialized any apparent differences. In short, the approach of these Generalists was thoroughly dualistic. That is, they lived their lives in two worlds, their faith in one and their daily work in the other. The only real connection was through a small band of sexual and personal morality issues. Generalists gave little thought to the possibility that their faith might have economic, social and environmental implications.
A second group (whom she called “Justifiers”) acknowledged that there are goals in business that are different to some issues of faith – like pursuing profit and loving God. However, Justifiers resisted seeing them in any way conflicting. Their approach was largely: “If you do the right thing in business you will do well economically; if you do the wrong thing, you will be punished by the marketplace.” This is remarkably similar to the “enlightened self-interest” of Adam Smith that we noted in chapter three. Such confidence in an “invisible hand” that ensures the free market will automatically reward ethical choices and punish unethical behaviour, smacks of a wholesale belief that capitalism is “God’s ideal system”.
The third broad group identified by Nash were those acutely aware of some inherent tensions or conflict between their faith and the business world. It was this group of Christian business people (labelled “Seekers”) whom Nash found most intriguing. They did not deny or ignore the points of conflict between their faith and business. They simply recognized that the struggle is active and ongoing, as they wrestled with what was the best response to a given situation. As Nash observes:
Rather than seeing business and Christianity as automatically compatible, the seekers find that faith does two things simultaneously: it demands an awareness of conflicting values, while it also becomes the mediating factor in the ongoing tensions between the musts of religion and the musts of business.
In her conversations with this group of evangelical business people, Nash identified seven broad tensions that Seekers regularly faced. These issues, she determined, are not completely reconcilable. There are no easy solutions to them, just a series of “creative tensions”. Nash called them “creative” because she observed that when Seekers grappled with these problems they often produced original and alternative courses of action which not only took into account their ethical concerns, but also made good economic sense.
Laura Nash’s research highlights an important challenge for us. On the one hand, it’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing our faith and our business to become so closely intertwined that there is no distinction between them. Our faith ends up failing to provide any critique of our business – as though no real tensions exist. For example, we can naively believe that the economic system we are part of – capitalism – is totally consistent with Christianity.
On the other hand, there’s a temptation to simply avoid allowing our faith to impact on our economic activities at all. This is also a well-worn track which essentially results in a retreat into a wholly privatized faith. Disappointingly, many Christians live in this type of dualistic world – where their spiritual beliefs and values are kept separate from the way they operate in their work. The consequences of living this way can be observed in the story of Enron that we consider in chapter six.
To avoid these twin dangers, we need to walk what amounts to a tightrope – ensuring that our faith is sufficiently distant from our business activity, so that it is able to inform and shape our involvement in the marketplace, while in no way just validating it uncritically.
This, it seems to us, is what Laura Nash’s “creative tensions” help us to do. And so in the following chapters we will be utilizing her categories as a starting point to explore some of these ongoing dilemmas for Christians in business. They are:
Her findings are summarized in her book, Believers in Business: Resolving the tensions between Christian faith, business ethics, competition and our definitions of success (Nashville: Nelson, 1994).
Sadly, Nash’s sample is restricted to “successful CEO’s and executives” – high-end managers and leaders in large corporations. Most of us don’t find ourselves in those sorts of roles, so the kind of struggles and ethical challenges these people experience may be somewhat different to ours. Nevertheless, we think her findings have widespread relevance – to employees, to the self-employed, and across industries.
We admit freely to only really taking the core issue of each tension – and then exploring it in ways that Laura Nash might not have intended. We hope such liberty is ethical!
Of course, there are other creative tensions that exist; the ones Nash mentions are not exhaustive. For example, we considered writing a chapter about the tension between the biblical injunction to steward creation (caring for the environment; what we might call “earthkeeping”), and the business goals of progress, productivity and the development of industry. While we’ve chosen not to develop this topic in full, there are elements of this tension in some of the other topics, and in one or two of our case studies.
Loving God means loving people. Running a business means making a profit. Between these two lies a gap – or is it a yawning chasm!
What kind of paradoxical relationship exists between investing much of our working week in trying to make money, while at the same time attempting to be – before all else – committed to loving and following God? In other words, are the two goals of loving God and seeking to make a profit in any way compatible, or do they in fact take us in opposite directions?
For Wayne this has been an ongoing point of tension.
In my early years as a car dealer I was a little naïve in setting profit margins. I often determined them by what I felt would be a “fair” price. A very subjective decision. Sometimes a consideration was the number of hours I invested in the deal, though this became increasingly difficult to use as a measuring stick. The problem is that for some customers I invested huge effort and time for little or no return, and for others very little time for exceptional return. In the first situation I felt frustrated and sometimes taken advantage of … and occasionally I felt embarrassed by the second.
Rarely, however, did I consider the level of financial risk I was taking in buying the vehicle in a foreign country (Japan) and importing it here without knowing whether I could sell it for a profit. In the car industry there is no guarantee of a sale, and certainly no guarantee of a profit. Market conditions and consumer fickleness can mean that what is one month a safe buy in Japan can the next month be a worrying loss in New Zealand.
Even with buy-to-orders (where I bought and imported specific vehicles for customers) there was significant risk – risk that they might not like the vehicle when they finally saw it, that it might need unbudgeted-for repairs, or that customers might buy something else in the meantime and ignore their verbal agreement with me. To not take all this into account in my pricing was foolhardy.
There were other, perhaps more fundamental, questions that I learned to consider as well. For example, I knew that loving God was visibly expressed in loving people, so how might that look when dealing with customers? Could I genuinely seek to serve/love them wholeheartedly, or was this always going to be compromised by my equal determination to make money?
And then there was the question of whether profit was legitimate. Or was I just dabbling in “filthy lucre” and condemning myself to a life of greed and a fixation on money?
Temptations arose to take “shortcuts” and thus minimize costs and maximize profits. Rewinding odometers was not something I would ever consider, but there were opportunities to avoid doing small extra jobs on a car – a service, a groom, a panel repair, etc. Some of these jobs would eventually have to be done by the customer anyway; by shifting the responsibility onto them I could make a little more profit. But was this right?
I regularly felt pulled in two directions. Some people might think that a “Christian car dealer” was a contradiction in terms. But for me the real tension was in seeking to love God and pursue profit at the same time.
When we work in the marketplace as Jesus followers, there’s a phrase that often rings in our ears. The words come from Matthew, chapter 6: “You cannot serve both God and money.”
The central message of what Jesus says here is clear enough – we can have only one Master, one primary allegiance in life. Jim Wallis notes that the things that dominate our time, energy, thoughts and money are most likely the best indicators to what controls us – or what we worship.
That’s all very well, but if my job or my business requires me to give substantial energy to ways of making money, is this wrong? Have I then allowed money to become my master?
It’s the line between “pursuit” and “entrapment” that most of us find notoriously difficult to pin down. At what point does an energetic commitment to our work, edge onto the slippery slope towards enslavement? Can we draw a line between the two, or are we just kidding ourselves?
Rob Bellingham notes that there are three broad approaches Christians take in dealing with the tension between God and money.
God and money
Viewing financial prosperity as a sure sign of God’s blessing is an age-old response to the tension. It assumes that there is no conflict between the two. Not only can both be pursued at the same time but, in fact, one will automatically lead to the other. This is the creed of the “prosperity doctrine” or “health-and-wealth gospel”, and it’s usually backed up by many Old Testament passages and verses which reinforce the prevailing view of ancient Judaism: that material prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing.
God or money
Another way of responding to the tension is to draw a sharp line between loving God and the pursuit of money. Treat them as mutually exclusive … a straight choice: one or the other. When Jesus says, “You cannot serve both…”, this statement is taken to its logical conclusion. The result is that a faithful Christian should not get into business. Such “secular” work badly compromises one’s faith. Better to exit the marketplace and work “fulltime for the Lord”.
God then money
The alternative to both the others is to view it as a question of priorities. Jesus’ statement is a challenge to elevate God to the position of first place in our lives – first over everything else, including our business activities. Primary allegiance is the key. Which master will rule? This approach accepts the reality of an ongoing tension – one that will never be fully resolved. In this sense it is riskier and messier than the other two approaches which both offer simple resolutions. The “God then money” way assumes engagement in the marketplace.
None of us have any difficulty with the idea that God wants us to work for our living. We all agree that we should do our daily job to the best of our ability. We would be failing God if we did not give full value during the hours we work.
Let’s take that a step further. If we have a special skill at some particular activity, we should have no hesitation about giving it all we’ve got. In the film Chariots of Fire, the Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.”
Who would suggest that Michelangelo should not dedicate himself to his art? Who would stop Martin Luther King from giving his life for civil rights? Who would take Mother Teresa from her task of caring for broken people?
That which fulfils us, that which we excel in, should bring us pleasure – as running did to Eric Liddell. If there is an area of our work that does that for us, let’s embrace it as part of our lives for God, not something that is in competition with God. If that area is skill at making a profit – creating money that can be used for good in countless ways – then we have no need to feel it is wrong.
The crucial factor is that we do these things with God, that our love for them is within our love for God. Of course, that is not an easy balance to keep. Pursuing a profit can take the place of God, but so can any enthusiasm: a love of music, a spirit of adventure, a career in politics – the list is endless.
The key is that in our lives God comes first. Knowing this, we need to keep a watchful eye on our passions, whatever they are. We need to pursue them with wisdom. With God. Let’s always remember that Jesus made a special point of mentioning the deceptive allure of money. For a rich man to enter Heaven really is difficult. As we are about to see.
Most simply put, profit is the excess of income over costs. Another way to express it is as a return on the investment made in a business after all expenses are accounted for.
It is fair and reasonable to expect a return on the investment of capital that a person or group makes when starting and running a business. By choosing to invest capital in the business, the owner has lost the opportunity to invest the money elsewhere (like in a bank savings account where it might earn, say, 7% interest). He or she deserves to be compensated for this “opportunity cost”.
Many would argue that legitimate profit should also reflect the level of risk the individual or group is taking. An example of this is Wayne’s business of buying cars in Japan and importing them into New Zealand. We believe it is fair to factor in the risks he takes; there is a genuine chance that some of that money will be lost. Furthermore, without profit there can be no re-investment in stock and plant, which means that Wayne’s business will ultimately run down and fail.
So in the economic system we are part of, profit is both legitimate and necessary. However, this is not to say that economic profit should be the primary reason for commercial operation. Business is fundamentally intended to serve – providing goods and services that contribute to the wellbeing and development of the community. Profit is a necessary part of this – but not the only reason for a company’s existence. A Christian view of business won’t minimize profit-making, but neither will it raise it above all other concerns.
Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their well-known study of visionary companies, note that,
Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself … Profit is like oxygen, food, water, and blood for the body; they are not the point of life, but without them, there is no life.
James C. Collins & Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (London: Random House, 1994), 55.
How should the level of profit be determined? This raises a whole hornet’s nest of issues and questions. But it needs to be considered.
The standard way that many determine the level of profit is by working out what the market will sustain. Whatever that is, is considered legitimate. It’s true that generally competition serves to keep prices within reasonable limits. It creates a trade-off between ensuring a successful and rewarding business … and protecting customers by giving them choices of cheaper or different products. However, it’s naïve to believe that the free market can always moderate this tension consistently and justly. For example, where essential services are controlled by a monopoly there is the potential for excessive profit to be made through unjust exploitation.
Usually the people who are hit hardest by unreasonable profitmaking are those who can least afford to pay the extra. This is particularly destructive in the business of lending. The least welloff in society frequently find that money from banks is not readily available to them. That leaves them at the mercy of financiers who exact exorbitant rates of interest. The justification offered by these lenders is that they need to cover bad debts and therefore must charge higher interest rates. But the reality is that many of the poorest will never climb out of debt. They are trapped and often end up with nothing.
New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem argues that profit needs to reflect the value my work has added. He suggests that, “Profit is…an indication that I have made something useful for others.”Such profit should reflect the person’s time, skill and risk. Grudem’s biblical argumentation is based on the mandate of Genesis 1:28; the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30); and its Lukan equivalent, the parable of the minas (Luke 19:13).
Two of Larry Burkett’s basic business maxims are, “provide a quality product at a fair price” and “treat your customers fairly”. We couldn’t agree more – but the problem comes when there is no real handle on how, in practice, these standards might be determined.
Alexander Hill takes a similar approach. Applying God’s justice to the world of commerce, he points out that justice should be the aim for both customer and seller, for both client and service provider. Therefore there’s nothing wrong with expecting to be rewarded for effort made and risk taken. We essentially agree with this “added value” principle. But again, making such assessments is deeply subjective and often based on societal expectations as well as supply-and-demand economics.
Let’s consider the following case, as an example of some of the issues involved:
Barbara, a real estate company director sells a house for clients Gerry and Norma. The price she secures for them is $475,000. It has taken her (and her associates) several days of work to market the property, show it to prospective buyers and eventually do the important negotiation work that happens when an offer is presented. For this service, she charges the client just under $21,000 including GST. When Gerry questions the high commission, Barbara trots out a well-argued line, including the “fact” that she managed to achieve a far better price for the house than Gerry and Norma would have managed by themselves. Her network of contacts, she says, is an incredibly valuable source of potential buyers, and her negotiating skills are second to no one.
In spite of Barbara’s points, Gerry and Norma are obviously disenchanted. Sure, they did sign the contract with Barbara’s company back at the beginning, but they clearly didn’t fully appreciate the implications.
It’s not made much better by the knowledge that when Barbara sold their last house five years ago, her commission was a more palatable $9500. What’s more, Gerry and Norma have also had to fork out over $2000 for pre-paid advertising costs – none of which (apart from a listing on the company’s website) were covered by Barbara’s company.
Barbara walks away from the conclusion of the after-sale conversation a little disturbed. The clients’ unhappiness has caused her to question whether she should re-consider some of the issues involved.
Where might Barbara start? The profit she charged was for “added value” – how should she calculate this in a fair way?
Some of the issues she might consider are:
What risk did Barbara take in marketing the property?
What is a fair payment for the time consumed by Barbara and her staff in selling it? (In other words, what are they worth?) And to what degree should Barbara factor in the time she and her staff consume working on houses that they end up not selling?
How much higher was the price Barbara negotiated than what might have been achieved if the client tried to sell the property without the assistance of a real estate company? Is there any reasonable way of estimating this?
What value should Barbara place on her well-honed marketing and negotiating skills? In other words, how much difference did they make to the eventual price?
What value should Barbara place on the extensive number of contacts and prospective buyers that her company has developed over the years?
What are other companies charging? (See below)
What value do the sellers place on the relatively hassle-free process of getting Barbara to sell their house?
In business, it is often easy for a Christian to just go along with the standard practice. That is, simply set your prices or charge-out rates based solely on how much you can get away with. After all, what your customers will be prepared to pay is usually dictated by what your competitors charge, or what is the industry-accepted practice.
To us, however, these factors (though far from irrelevant) are not enough. There are other considerations in our attempt to love God and pursue profit, such as:
Given that my assessment of the “added value” I’ve produced is subjective, do I feel comfortable that I am charging a fair/just price – one that is fair for me as well as fair for my customers?
Are there any factors that I am conveniently ignoring (or underplaying or overplaying or otherwise using to my own advantage) that are preventing me from seeing the issues a little more objectively?
Is there anyone I should talk with to gain some outside perspective?
Could it be that the particular profit issue I am looking at is a “blind spot” of my industry? (In other words, have we developed well-articulated justifications for our actions that help to support an industry-accepted practice that in other contexts would be difficult to justify?)
Is there anything about the customer’s circumstances that should affect what I charge them? (For example, a client’s ability to afford my services or goods.)
Wayne Grudem, Business for the Glory of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 41.
Take for example, the case we heard of recently, of a company that makes small volume, highly complex engineering machinery. They have produced a new machine that reduces the manufacturing costs by 70%, giving them a huge profit margin. What is a “fair” price for them to charge? If they determine it totally by supply and demand, they will make a “killing”. Alternatively, they could pass on some of the margin to their customers – but how much? And what about the need to be fair to the shareholders, given the fact that they have incurred costs developing the machinery and now marketing the product, meaning that the company probably won’t be profitable for another 2-3 years?
One of the deep challenges of living with the tension between loving God and the pursuit of profit is that greed always lurks as a potential threat. We all know from personal experience how easy it is to begin with good intentions and motives, but increasingly under the pressure of the market, be seduced so that profit-making becomes the sole, or at least main, arbiter of our business decisions.
If we are not to be consumed by greed, we would do well to remind ourselves regularly that our capacity for self-deception and convenient justification is intrinsic to our human condition. Having a healthy distrust of our own judgement is therefore important. So too is developing a relationship with a select few who can aid us in honestly talking through such complex issues.
Fellow pilgrims like this are a little more rare than they should be, but they can be found. Friends who will ask the hard questions but refuse to answer them for us – nor judge us for our response – are friends to be prized.
Loving God inevitably leads us to take into account the welfare of the other people affected by our decision-making – both locally and globally. It also involves considering wider issues – like the environment and the stewardship of resources. If we maximize profits at the expense of these wider concerns, we compromise our capacity to love God.
The writer of 1 John makes it clear that the most obvious way we can love God is by loving other people. He cites Jesus as our ultimate example: “Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” ( 1 John 2:6 The Message). This means learning to care for and invest in the things Jesus cared about – loving our “neighbour”, caring for the poor and for justice, stewarding well the resources entrusted to us.
Sadly, we can too easily say we’re following Jesus but in reality be living counter to his example. 1 John is blunt in its assessment of such behaviour. It’s a lie, a sham.
The tragic case of Enron is a testimony to this. It’s really a tale of two stories – one of corporate greed, the other of pietistic faith.
White-Collar Crime's New Milestone
By Brooke A. Masters and Carrie Johnson, Washington Post, Friday, May 26, 2006
If there was one case the government had to make to define this as the era of corporate accountability, it was Enron.
But the Enron Corp. tale was complicated, with labyrinthine partnerships and intricate accounting entries, and no documents directly tying the guys at the top to the decisions carried out by others.
When the jury returned its verdicts – guilty on 25 of a combined 34 counts – it was a clear win. Jurors refused to let slide the two former chief executives who had become synonymous with corporate corruption, and who tried to blame underlings, advisers, institutional investors and the media for the Houston energy company's spectacular 2001 collapse.
"The jury says, you're the boss," said white-collar defense attorney Charles A. Stillman.
The convictions of Enron founder Kenneth L. Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling cap the Justice Department's five-year battle to hold top executives responsible for a flood of accounting fraud and corporate failures that undermined investor confidence, put tens of thousands of people out of work and hit the savings of millions of ordinary people.
Enron's 2001 bankruptcy exposed failures across the system of corporate governance, from audit companies that lacked true independence and board members who failed to ask skeptical questions to lawyers and bankers who blessed questionable deals in exchange for whopping fees. It also resulted in major changes to the regulatory system, including a federal law that requires top corporate executives to attest to the accuracy of financial statements.
Although the Enron convictions serve as a high-water mark for the government's efforts to crack down on high-level corporate lawbreaking, legal analysts cautioned that the case does not mark the end of white-collar crime. "Where there's money, there's going to be crime," said former U.S. Attorney David N. Kelley. "You never know what's going to surface."
As in many of the recent top corporate trials, prosecutors had few documents linking Skilling and Lay to the accounting maneuvers that hid billions of dollars in losses from investors. The case therefore came down to weighing the two men's credibility against that of the other Enron executives, who swore Lay and Skilling were involved.
That made the two men's performances on the stand that much more critical, and both of them fell short. Lay in particular came across as an irritable control freak, while Skilling strained credulity with his complicated explanations and convenient memory lapses, jurors said.
More than any other case, Enron symbolized the collapse of the 1990s stock market bubble and the revelation that many of the nation's highest-flying companies were far less substantial than they seemed. "This was the stock market's 9/11. How could the seventh-largest company collapse?" said Samuel W. Buell, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the early stages of the Enron case. "The fact that significant and highly credible companies engaged in misconduct of the rankest sort, pulling the wool over the eyes not just of investors but of analysts, journalists and regulators, is a very sorry chapter in our history, and one that deserves the right type of burial," said Harvey L. Pitt, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Ken Lay was both the CEO and Chairman of the Board for Enron. He was the son of a Baptist minister, and during most of his involvement with Enron was a Methodist, very active in the life of his church, enjoying good standing among his fellow believers. In 2001, Ken Lay claimed, “Looking back on my years in business I am convinced that God has been guiding me all the way. I’ve been able to make a bigger and more positive impact on more lives, more communities and more causes than I could have done any other way.”
And he was very generous in his giving to other causes, from literacy projects to church-planting efforts. He also proclaimed his innocence and denied any responsibility for wrongdoing.
Yet a certain Professor Hanson who had a number of students working at Enron says, “I think culture is critically important, the ethical environment in which one operates, and unfortunately Enron appears to have been a problematic ethical culture, which didn't encourage the kind of honesty and responsibility-taking that is central to any ethical organization.”
At the same time another professor observed, “When you look at this management – who for the last few years were taking great responsibility for what was happening at the company, the great success they enjoyed, being on the cover of every magazine, in the newspapers, being interviewed on television – now appearing before Congress and saying, ‘We didn't know, we didn't see, we weren't part of it, we didn't understand.’ I mean, that's a lack of responsibility. That is total irresponsibility”.
The story of Bernie Ebbers is remarkably similar. The founder of Worldcom and its former chief executive, Ebbers was known as a very generous man, a church deacon and civic leader. He taught a Sunday School class for young married couples, and his pastor said, “He is a man with a good heart.” When he proclaimed his innocence in church he received a standing ovation.
The trouble is, the congressional committee that investigated Worldcom said in its findings, “This was a case of pure theft, of insiders stealing from their own investors.”
These really are scary crimes for those of us who profess to follow Jesus. If the stories of Enron and Worldcom were simply of corporate and personal greed and dishonesty by executives who professed no faith in God, it would easily fit our preconceived views of who is most likely to act unethically.
The problem is, however, that not only were some of the key players professing Christians, they exhibited exemplary “Christian” behaviour in many aspects of their lives. This raises some very serious questions for us to ponder, questions such as:
How can Christians think and act like this?
Is it possible to think we’re serving one master, when we’re actually serving a different one?
How can Christians sincerely believe they are acting ethically when all the evidence points to deep deception and greed?
Are we ourselves in danger of this kind of hypocrisy?
If so, what can we do to avoid falling into the same trap?
The book of Amos is a powerful prophetic challenge to those of us who seek to follow God. The primary message is: if you say you love God then it must be reflected in the way you live.
In a sense, this book is talking to the Ken Lays and Bernie Ebbers of our world – people who feel as though they are following God faithfully, but in reality are living in two worlds – one where they practise piety, one where they practise business. And the two are as different as chalk is to cheese.
Amos is really the first of the biblical writers to go public with the truth that our worship goes hand in hand with our business – that our talk on finance and our walk with God can’t be separated.
As we read the book of Amos it quickly becomes clear how relevant are his words to our situation today. He’s speaking to a world where the “act of worship” has become reduced to the equivalent of a Sunday morning “worship hour” – rather than a life lived reflecting the values of Yahweh. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
Here are some of the no-nonsense things Amos says:
People for them are only things – ways of making money.
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
They’d sell their own grandmother!
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fundraising schemes, your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice – oceans of it.
I want fairness – rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 2:6-7; 5:21-24 The Message)
In this, one of the Bible’s most dramatic cries, Amos shows how God must feel when our business behaviour on Monday makes a lie of our songs on Sunday.
Eugene Peterson notes:
The biblical prophets continue to be the most powerful and effective voices ever heard on this earth for keeping religion honest, humble and compassionate. Prophets sniff out injustice, especially injustice that is dressed up in religious garb. Prophets see through hypocrisy, especially hypocrisy that assumes a religious pose. They pay little attention to what men and women say about God or do for God. They listen to God and rigorously test all human language and action against what they hear. 
Amos is unequivocal – our worship is meaningless if we are making profits unjustly through exploiting others and accumulating wealth. If we truly seek to love God, it must be reflected in the ways we think about profit, in the ways we acquire profit, and in the ways we use profit.
Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 1641.
This is the place to mention another area where our pursuit of profit may lead us to ignore God’s intentions. The conflict sprang into focus during the final decades of the twentieth century when damage to the environment became an issue. Suddenly western cultures were faced as never before with the pollution they had let loose. Looking at the rape of our environment, some blamed the Bible for fostering a mindset of exploitation. The wording that aroused this criticism is to be found in Genesis 1:28.
And God said unto them [the newly created humans], Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing…
The wording is that of the King James Version – the translation that was universally used during the centuries when western technology was on the rise. Critics focussed on the words “subdue” and “have dominion over”. The charge made against the Bible was that this was an excuse for pillaging the earth and its resources.
There may be an element of truth in this, but it is also a caricature. The words have constantly been quoted out of context. You’ll notice God’s instruction to “replenish the earth”, which rarely gets a mention from critics. In this regard, James Beattie and John Stenhouse have recently completed a study of the attitudes of nineteenth century Christian colonists in Otago (in southern New Zealand). They show that not only did the faith of these pioneers provide incentive for their cultivation of the soil as they burned off bush and tilled land for farming, planting crops and pasture grasses, but they were also involved in a number of significant conservation efforts. These were clearly an expression of concern for the earth, encouraged by their understanding of a wide range of biblical injunctions.
In the story of the Garden related in Genesis chapter 2, the man is invited to both cultivate and care for the garden (verse 15). Management of the land and its resources is an important element in any Christian environmental ethic: preserving what has been given at the same time as adding value to it. (This emphasis appears in numerous specific commands that are given in the Levitical law.) We humans are given “dominion” with a strong sense that it is the delegation of responsibility under God; eventually we will answer to God for how this responsibility has been exercised.
Historically this has most often been called Christian stewardship. Nowadays stewardship is more often related to church campaigns to raise money. Perhaps trusteeship is a more helpful word. We have been given responsibility to cultivate and care for our physical environment as trustees under God.
One example of exercising such “earthkeeping” is the Businesses for Social Responsibility movement which has promoted the idea of Triple Bottom Line Reporting. They encourage companies in their annual reporting to not only analyse and report on their financial performance, but also to audit social consequences and their environmental impact. They invite companies to develop some key performance indicators in each of these areas and to regularly measure and report on their full financial, social and environmental performance. Some people think that businesses only exist to maximize profits. Others, such as BSR, suggest that businesses also have a responsibility to help create a better world. Profit is not the sole goal.
1. Are there any tangible markers that might help us determine whether we are “pursuing profit” or “enslaved to the pursuit of profit”?
2. Read through the case study again about Barbara, the real estate agent. Discuss what might be appropriate if you were in Barbara’s situation. (You may like to use the questions listed in the case study as a starting point.)
3. Is an appropriate profit margin solely determined by what the market will bear? Or are there other ways to settle on a fair price? What other ways?
4. Early in the chapter we referred to this quotation from the book Built to Last, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras: “Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself for many of the visionary companies. Profit is like oxygen, food, water, and blood for the body; they are not the point of life, but without them, there is no life.” To what extent do you agree/disagree? In what ways is this true or untrue for the enterprises you work with?
5. Are there any “industry-accepted” practices in your field of business that you think might be questionable? What might they be and why? (If there are others in your group who are involved in different industries, ask them what they see that needs to be questioned in yours.)
6. How important is it to have friends who will ask the hard questions? Do you talk over ethical dilemmas with friends? If so, what do you appreciate from them? For example, do you expect answers from them, or just help to clarify the issues? How important is it for you to know that they will not judge you for your response? What other ways can they help?
7. Discuss the questions we listed at the end of the stories about Enron. They are:
How can Christians think and act like this?
Is it possible to think we’re serving one master, when we’re actually serving a different one?
How can Christians sincerely believe they are acting ethically when all the evidence points to deep deception and greed?
Are we all in danger of this kind of hypocrisy?
If so, what can we do to avoid falling into the same trap?
8. If Amos were alive today, what specific attitudes and practices in your business culture do you think he would comment about, regarding the lifestyles of Christians?
9. We have noted above that the Businesses for Social Responsibility movement is trying to encourage companies in their annual reporting to “not only analyse and report on their financial performance but also to audit their social impact and environmental impact … Some people think that businesses only exist to maximize profits. Others suggest that businesses also have a responsibility to help create a better world.” A counter case is put that a business should limit itself to what it is designed to do – that is, conduct business. It should not set itself up to undertake environmental or social programmes. That, say proponents of this view, is the function of government, and of public or charitable organizations who are skilled and experienced in the demands of such intervention.
Do you think that businesses only exist to maximize profits, or do they also have a responsibility to help create a better world?
What do you think about Triple Bottom Line Reporting?
How might a company or organization that you know well go about this?
What might be some key performance indicators to measure social and environmental performance?
Al Gore (in An Inconvenient Truth) and others think that significant climate change has been caused by human activity, and is rapidly leading towards an environmental crisis. They argue that drastic and urgent action is necessary. How concerned do you think we need to be? What are some of the practical points at which this affects you? For example, your use of a car? Aeroplane travel? Heating your home and office…?
Christianity, Modernity and Culture: New Perspectives on New Zealand History, edited by John Stenhouse and GA Wood, (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2005), pp 180-203.
Larry was a financial advisor. He had worked in the industry for ten years and had completed a professional qualification in financial planning.
As one of three partners in his firm, Larry had a reasonable degree of influence on the way business was undertaken. While his fellow partners did not share his own commitment to following Jesus, they did have a strong desire to deal honestly and ethically. Larry considered them people of integrity.
For the past two years Larry had been meeting with four other men from his church for breakfast once a fortnight. Their conversation revolved round the challenges they found in their work environments. They shared about how their faith was working out, though most of the discussion and prayer focused on opportunities to witness and to be people of honesty and integrity.
Recently, Larry had been sharing about the difficulties he was encountering because of the recent downturn in investor confidence – the result of a string of finance-company failures, and losses amongst managed funds. What especially upset Larry was the negative press that financial advisors had received as a result.
Larry described to the others his sense of hurt that all advisors have been typecast so badly. “I consider myself a person of high integrity,” he said. “I’m scrupulously honest and would never attempt to mislead my clients. I treat my customers with the utmost care and genuinely try to do the very best for them. And I think I can reasonably claim that I have good skills and expertise. It’s unfair that those of us in the industry who operate ethically get tarred with the same brush as the irresponsible ones. I mean, I know there are some ratbags in financial advising, but why do the rest of us get slated for their stupid actions?”
The others in the group could feel for Larry. They genuinely thought him a great guy, with a real heart for people and a desire to serve God. So they affirmed him and let Larry know of their confidence that he really was an advisor of integrity and honesty.
A couple of weeks later, Larry was approached by Mark – a friend at church – wanting to know whether he would be willing to do something for some neighbours of his. Mark was looking for someone with financial skills to sit down with these people and help them develop a plan to ease some of the enormous financial pressure they were finding themselves under. Larry agreed to an initial meeting with Kate and Dave, a couple in their thirties, with three young children (two under 5).
* * *
At the meeting Dave outlined their precarious financial situation. Their only assets, he explained, were a secondhand car and the household belongings in their rented house. They had no savings; on the contrary, they had a substantial personal loan of $35,000.
Four months ago Dave had been made redundant from his job as a machine operator at the local sawmill. In spite of searching vigorously for another position, Dave failed to secure fulltime work, though he did manage to pick up irregular casual jobs such as mowing lawns, gardening and handyman tasks.
As a result of the significant drop in income and the pressure of paying the bills, their loan repayments had bounced for the past four weeks. The finance company they owed the money to had threatened to push him into bankruptcy if the missed repayments weren’t paid within a week. Kate and Dave attempted twice to explain their situation to the company. They asked for a meeting to discuss an alternative plan so they could manage the situation while Dave was still without a fulltime job. But the company had not been interested. They just wanted their money.
Larry asked the couple how much the repayments were and what the interest rate was. Kate replied that they paid $292 per week and the interest rate was 29%. (The interest component of the loan was currently $195 per week.) That was on top of their weekly rent of $300 and living costs of around a further $300 per week (power, phone, car, food, insurance, clothes, school costs, etc.). All told, Kate explained, they had weekly expenses of just under $900 per week. But with Kate’s part-time job and Dave’s irregular casual work, topped up by some WINZ payments and family support, they had been finding themselves well short of this.
Larry asked how they managed to incur such a debt in the first place. Dave explained about the failed business venture he attempted three years earlier. When it didn’t work out they closed it down as soon as possible and Dave returned to a regular paying job. But by then the damage was done. The bills kept coming in – mainly from supply firms they owed. Soon they were up to their neck in accounts, well beyond what the credit card could handle. A friend of theirs mentioned this finance company and recommended they see if they could consolidate their debt to manageable repayments and pay their creditors out.
As Larry listened to their story he was overwhelmed by anger as he heard the account (admittedly one side of the story) of the treatment the young couple had received from the finance firm, even though they’d tried to be responsible and front up to the missed payments. When Larry asked them the name of the firm they replied, “Genoa Finance”.
Larry’s face turned white. Genoa Finance was a company he regularly recommended to his clients. They were a consumer finance company that had an excellent reputation and paid a healthy 10.25% interest rate on secured debentures.
* * *
At the next breakfast meeting Larry recounted his experience with Kate and Dave (being careful not to give too many details away and betray confidentiality). He was still attempting to process his mixed feelings and what this might mean for him and his business.
Fred asked Larry whether he was aware of the interest rates and penalty clauses Genoa charged. Larry replied that he had a vague knowledge but had always accepted Genoa’s explanation that with consumer finance the default rate is high, with little or no security, and therefore such rates are justified. Otherwise companies such as theirs could not afford to loan money to the kind of people they do. Plus, Larry noted, he knew for a fact that the directors of Genoa were honest and clean operators, who prided themselves on running a professional ship.
“So what’s changed for you, Larry?” asked Fred.
“I guess it’s just that until Saturday I’d never really met anyone who was on the other side of the equation, so to speak. It kind of personalized it for me. I mean, Kate and Dave are real people. Sure, part of me thinks that they only have themselves to blame for getting into this situation. But there’s another part of me that feels angry about the unjust way they are being dealt with. The repayments are crippling them.”
As the conversation continued on, Larry was already mulling over some of the questions he and his partners would need to answer in the next little while. Questions such as:
Do we believe there is any ethical legitimacy to charging 29% interest (let alone the high penalty rates), given that inflation is running around 3% and bank personal loan rates are around 14%?
Is it not questionable morally that Genoa lends to such desperate people as Kate and Dave, knowing that the crippling rates and penalty charges are likely to leave them even more in debt than when they started?
What might some of our clients think about their investment with Genoa if they knew the effect the company’s practices are having on people such as Kate and Dave?
How can we support and promote a finance company that operates this way?
* * *
That night Larry hardly slept. He kept wondering why he had never thought about these questions before. Here he was, a financial planner, and he’d never really considered the consequences that the actions of a loan company could have on those it dealt with. How could that have happened?
On Monday Larry decided to formulate a plan to meet with Genoa’s CEO and ask for some specific details about their operation – questions that would go far beyond the normal balance sheet ones they usually considered when determining whether to recommend a company to their clients. These questions were of an entirely different type, but they needed to be asked and he felt determined to get some solid answers
However, as the month wore on Larry began to be nagged by another question. This one went much wider and deeper than the specific ones he had been asking of Genoa. And it worried Larry. It went something like…
“If I’ve operated as a financial advisor for over ten years and never before had cause to ask the kind of questions I have these past few weeks, what other areas of my business – or at least the industry I’m part of – might I be unaware of? In fact, could it be that there are other practices and attitudes that are just assumed by us financial planners as being acceptable and normal, but which might be questionable morally?”
* * *
Larry, being his usual transparent self, raised all this at the next breakfast gathering. The others were uncertain what he was saying so there was an uneasy silence to begin with. Simon spoke first. “Is that a rhetorical question, Larry, or are you asking us if we’re aware of other areas of the financial planning industry which might be questionable ethically?”
Larry thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and responded, “I think the latter, Simon. I mean, be honest. You know me well – certainly well enough to know that when it comes to business I try to take my faith seriously. But am I not seeing stuff that I should be seeing?”
Scott was the next one to speak. “That’s a really fascinating question, mate. I’m not sure though that we’re qualified to talk. You’re the one in the industry – not us. We don’t understand how you operate so it’s difficult for us to comment.”
Trevor interrupted, “I actually think Larry’s question is a fair one to ask. It seems to me that sometimes we’re up so close to something that we don’t see the thing right in front of us.”
There was a palpable silence. But Trevor’s brain was doing some serious work. “Hey, have you guys heard of the Johari Window?”
The blank looks indicated no, so Trevor carried on, “It’s a way of looking at ourselves that helps improve our self-awareness as well as our understanding of others.”
Trevor reached for his bag and eventually pulled out a dog-eared, folded sheet, and proceeded to put it on the table in front of them.
“It basically gets us to recognize four parts to ourselves. See – represented by each of the four quadrants.
“Firstly there’s stuff about each of us that is known to both ourselves and to others. For example, you guys know that I’m quite idealistic and that I think conceptually. I recognize that about myself as well. Everyone who knows me sees those character traits. That’s called our “open” self.
“The second quadrant is the part of ourselves that is known to us, but which other people don’t see. It’s private – stuff we haven’t revealed to others for a whole lot of reasons. So we put up a façade and conceal it from others.
“The third quadrant is often called the “blind spot” quadrant. It’s the stuff about ourselves that others see but which we aren’t aware of. We’re blind to it.
“And then the fourth quadrant is the things about us which are completely unconscious – we don’t see them ourselves, and others don’t either. But nevertheless they still are part of who we are, and they deeply affect how we relate and live. I guess it’s the undiscovered parts of ourselves that only God knows.
“The point about all this, of course, is that growing as a person means developing a fuller self-understanding. In other words, the road to maturity is progressively beginning to see those things about us that are in the three partly hidden or fully hidden quadrants. Bringing them out into the open more and more. Not that everyone has to see “all of us” – but to be really known and loved, and to be able to really know and love ourselves, we need to have at least a few people in our lives who see us for who we really are – both good and bad.”
By this stage Simon was growing a little impatient, “So-o-o … what’s this got to do with Larry’s situation?”
“Well, it occurred to me as we were talking that the same issues of self-awareness that we struggle with as individuals might also apply to many of the industries and professions we’re a part of.
“Just as we’re each dogged with blindspots about ourselves – things others see that we don’t – so an industry like financial planning may have blind spots. Things that are obvious (or at least see-able) to some outside the profession but that those within the industry are unaware of … or maybe even aware of, but things that are just considered acceptable or normal practice.
“In this case, when I’m talking about blind spots I mean practices and ways of operating that are so accepted within an industry that everyone has come to assume they’re okay – even ethical. But when you’re close to an issue you lose the ability to evaluate the moral fairness of what you’re doing.”
Scott butted in, “I think I’m getting your drift, Trev, but can you give us an example?”
“Trevor thought for a moment. “I have a mate who is a car dealer. We were having lunch not so long ago and he told me that many dealers make nearly as much money out of financing people into vehicles as they do from the actual profit on the sale. He said that because of the commissions and kickbacks from the finance companies, it actually pays a dealer to sign people up for car loans, rather than sell them a vehicle that’s more affordable and that they can pay cash on. So it becomes a natural incentive to get people into vehicles they can’t really afford.
“My friend told me that this kind of practice is considered totally acceptable, even among car dealers who pride themselves on running an honest yard.”
“You mean ones like your mate?” Larry asked.
“Yeah. This guy is high on integrity. He has a great reputation and people really appreciate his genuineness. But he told me that it’s only been recently that he began to realize how destructive this practice was. He was mortified when he realized the damage it was causing. Turns out that he’s now completely changed the way he sells cars. As a result, he’s put strict criteria on himself regarding finance deals. In fact he’s even considering taking the radical step of not offering finance at all.”
Larry was intrigued. “What made him recognize the blind spot?”
“Oh, a mixture of things really. And for him it didn’t happen all of a sudden. He’d been doing some Bible study on money and debt. At the same time he had a sobering conversation with one of his customers who had had his car repossessed – turns out they couldn’t afford the repayments – probably a bit like your recent experience, Larry. And then he told me that for the past couple of years he’s been meeting regularly with a bunch of others – sort of like our group – and they’ve now made a point of helping each other. Their aim is to grow in their understanding of following Jesus in the workplace. That really helped, he said, because it gave him support for working things through.
“Since then he’s begun to think about other sides of car dealing that he’d just taken for granted. Lots of them, he reckons.”
“Like what?” asked Simon.
“Oh, he had a whole list of things – like the way the negotiation process tends to erode trust between the salesman and customer, and encourages deception and game-playing. Then he mentioned to me about how he’d even begun to think about the type of vehicles he sold and their impact on the environment and community. Not that he had simple answers to these issues, but what impressed me was he was clearly beginning to see car dealing in a whole new light and asking questions that previously he wouldn’t have considered.”
Scott glanced at his watch and let out a despairing grunt. “Sorry guys, I gotta run. Can we pick up where we left off, next time? I’m fascinated by this but I’ll miss my first appointment if I’m not careful.”
The meeting quickly dissolved as everyone hightailed it to their places of work.
* * *
For the next few months the breakfast group took on a whole new level of conversation. They agreed that it wasn’t just Larry who needed help. Each of the guys recognized that there were likely blind spots in all of their perceptions of what it meant to work ethically – Christianly – in their particular contexts.
In a healthy environment of trust, they began to let each other in on how they went about their work, giving the others freedom to probe and ask questions.
Larry found this liberating. At no stage did he feel “got at”. It wasn’t for the others to make value judgements about his way of operating. Instead he viewed the questions that Fred, Scott, Simon and Trevor raised as open-ended invitations to really grapple with the difficult challenges of seeking to follow Jesus faithfully as a financial planner.
In time, Larry’s perspective widened. He came to re-evaluate standard practices such as receiving commissions from finance companies for signing on investors, and charging a fixed fee regardless of how well or poorly the investment performed. And of course there was lots of talk about what might be considered “ethical investments”, and even around what responsibility, if any, an advisor had to raise with clients “how much was enough” to save for retirement.
Like Larry, the other guys found their own fields of endeavour a complex web of issues and questions. It wasn’t like there were generally easy answers to be found. But, as they discussed and prayed, probed and explored, they began to discover the deep sense of satisfaction that came from working hard at their faith, allowing it to impact and transform their professions. They would never be the same again.
The August management meeting for Big Outdoors Ltd was in progress. A review of the winter sales of all the company’s outdoor products was being undertaken, and the focus at the moment was on the company’s polar fleece jackets.
Sean, the general manager, was concerned that sales of these jackets had declined from the previous year’s levels. “It could just be the mild winter we’ve had, but I suspect we’re getting cleaned out by the competition. I was down at Carisbrook last Saturday for the Bledisloe Cup Rugby Test and I saw a lot of polar fleece jackets being worn – but not many with our label. I’ve got a Board of Directors meeting next week, and I know I’ll be tackled on this one.”
Robin, the sales manager, was confident he knew the reason. He reckoned that a small company, Little Jacket Ltd, had gained significant market share. “The problem,” he said, “is that this increase in competition is really congesting the market for polar fleece jackets.”
Sean grimaced. “Well then, we’re gonna have to come up with a strategy to deal with it.”
Craig was the Production Manager, and he’d looked into Little Jacket’s operation. “There’s really no difference between the two companies’ jackets. They’re made of the same fabrics and to the same quality standards.”
Sean interrupted. “So, we have to find a way to compete more effectively.”
The Finance Manager, Olo, had a suggestion. “Look, we’re a well funded, publicly listed, long established company. “Little Jacket is owner-operated. They’re newcomers and they’re small. We could just drop our selling prices and take a short term loss while we force them out of the market. We can absorb the loss; I’m sure they couldn’t.”
Robin shook his head. “If we force them out, some other small operation will turn up. The important thing is to restrict the retail outlets these small guys can distribute through. We’ve got to find a way to say to our retailers, ‘Look, we’ll sell you our complete range of outdoor products, including jackets – so long as you don’t stock polar fleece jackets from Little Jacket or anybody else.’ I’m sure we could work our way around the Commerce Act somehow.”
“From a production point of view,” said Craig, “the thing that’s giving Little Jacket the edge in the market is the innovative designs of their jackets. Now I happen to know they’ve got only one designer. I’m sure we could get the chequebook out and entice her to work for us. That would deliver a real body blow to Little Jacket. I don’t think they could recover from that.”
Robin grinned. “Either that or we just get our hands on their upcoming designs, and then copy – I mean enhance – them. Our sales team are bound to come across their design release notes while they’re out and about. It would be just as effective as buying their designer – and a lot cheaper!”
Olo, as always, was practical. “We really need to find out as much as we can about Little Jacket. I can get details from the credit agency.”
Craig nodded. “And Ian, my production supervisor, can ‘interview’ some of our machinists. Two or three of them are ex-employees of Little Jacket. It’s amazing what you can find out from people like that.”
Robin grinned again. “Look,” he said, “I’m not much into this analytical research. I’m a salesman at heart. The best way to beat a competitor is spread a few juicy rumours in the market. My sales reps call on most of Little Jacket’s customers. We can start the odd story about financial instability, struggling to come up with next season’s supplies, that sort of thing.”
Sean interrupted. “You guys are starting to sound like the mafia. Let’s take a couple of days to think it through and reconvene on Thursday.”
That night Sean pulled on his polar fleece jacket with the Big Outdoors label, and went for an extended walk in the evening frost. What should he do? He wasn’t too comfortable with the ideas his managers were tossing about, but he had to find a strategy that would keep his Board of Directors happy...
Sally works as a customer service representative in a large appliance retail store. The firm operates an incentive-based remuneration system for its employees. The sales reps are paid a minimal salary, plus a small percentage of the dollar value of their sales each month. As an added incentive, when their sales reach a particular threshold the commission doubles. To motivate staff even further, the company pays substantial bonuses at the end of the year to employees who have achieved a certain target.
Sally places a high value on caring, thoughtful relationships – both with customers and fellow workers. She excels in connecting with people and helping them work through what they want. If this means spending significant time with customers in order to satisfy or help them, so be it. That, to Sally, is what the job is all about.
It’s not just the customers that Sally seeks to serve. She also makes a real effort to look out for her fellow workers, especially if she sees that one of them is having a bad day. Occasionally this means that she passes over one of her sales to some staff colleague who may be struggling. It’s one way, Sally believes, they can really work together as a team.
However, some of the other staff appear less committed to customer service and more interested in their own commission. Jerry and Shaun are the main offenders. They stay away from sales of small items and use ingenious methods to get other staff like Sally to deal with a customer who is hard work or only wants something minimal. (One little trick is to ask her over for advice – and then leave her to it!). Sometimes these competitive sales reps even turn up at the counter and subtly take over the completion of a sale that someone else has initiated. That way, the pushy one gets the commission.
By nature, Sally is not much of a competitor. She enjoys a good game of social netball but shies away from anything that’s bordering on serious. It figures that her instinctive response to aggressive co-workers is to let them play their game and just get on with what she can do. However, recently she has noticed she’s starting to feel resentful when one of them muscles in on her contacts. Until now Sally has just let it ride. But even she is irritated when Jerry drops into the lunchtime conversation the size of his pay packet. It’s considerably more than Sally’s!
To make matters worse, the assistant manager has just tendered his resignation. Sally is keen on additional responsibility and hopes the manager will ask her to fill the vacant position. She knows she has the skills and work habits to do it well, and because she thinks in terms of team support she believes she is the best person for the role.
However, Jerry is clearly also keen and seems to be spending a good deal of energy ingratiating himself with the manager. Sally is worried that the high number of sales he’s completing (including some stolen from her!) will speak louder than her superior people skills and product knowledge.
One evening over dinner with a friend, Sally pours out her mixed feelings about the work situation. She questions whether she is just being selfish and precious about it all. Maybe she doesn’t have a right to feel the way she does?
Her friend is in no two minds about it. She reckons Sally is being taken advantage of and should do something.
But what should Sally do?
Whether we like it or not, our whole economic system of capitalism is built around the principle of competition. It’s not surprising then that, as Richard Higginson observes, “competition lies at the heart of many of the more difficult ethical issues in business”.
There is generally a limit of potential customers, dollars to spend, resources to utilize, markets to supply. (The concept is often referred to as a “zero sum game”.) This means, as Laura Nash puts it: “In many markets my increase in share is another’s loss.” In striving to stitch up a deal or tap into a supply of raw materials, I may well be depriving someone else of the same opportunity. Of course, this is not so acute or obvious in emerging industries or markets, or where there is an oversupply of demand. However, when markets tighten and supply of materials or customers is limited, the reality of “winners and losers” really does kick in.
And it’s not just those who run businesses who face the tension between competition and love for others. It also affects employees.
The job market too is a competitive environment. We go for job interviews knowing that if we get the position, others will miss out. (Again, this is less acute when there is a shortage of workers, rather than of work.) Furthermore, within the workplace itself, things can frequently be very competitive. When opportunities for promotion or reward are available, our colleagues can become our opponents, and we may find ourselves fighting them for recognition and pay increases. In situations like this, managers can easily play workers off against workmates in order to “bring out the best out in you”.
The tension for the Christian in the marketplace is this – how can I love my neighbour when I am involved in competing against him or her? To what extent is it possible to work and thrive within such a competitive system and at the same time genuinely seek to love others? This leads us to a fundamental question…
Few Christians would argue that competition is entirely good. We have all seen too many excesses to affirm the competitive drive out-of-hand – including plenty in the Scriptures. The Bible narrative has barely begun before competition is revealed as part of the human experience. Cain and Abel; Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers … they’re all early examples of where the competitive urge led one to exert power over the other. Generally with tragic consequences.
Where the drive to compete is fuelled by greed, self-interest, envy, pride or revenge, it clearly isn’t consistent with the call to love others. But are there examples in the Scriptures that suggest a more sympathetic case for competition?
At one level, the Old Testament could be viewed as an ongoing competitive struggle between Yahweh and Satan for the allegiance of the people of Israel. As the Jews regularly strayed into idolatrous relationships with the gods of surrounding peoples, the prophets called them back to a “monogamous” commitment to Yahweh.
An explicit example of this cosmic struggle is the story of Job. God contends with his protagonist, Satan, for Job’s allegiance. He’s even prepared to have that allegiance tested by allowing Satan’s request to “knock Job around” a bit. (No anti-competitive or anti-monopoly restrictions put in place by God here!)
Even more uncomfortable is the Old Testament programme in which the Promised Land is taken over by the people of Israel in a highly competitive scrap for precious land resources … and this is sanctioned by God. There is no “everyone wins” result to this story. It’s clearly a case of winners and losers.
In the New Testament, Jesus employs several parables that involve, explicitly or implicitly, competitive activity. Some of them seem to give contradictory perspectives. For example, on the one hand we have the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) and its lesser known twin, the parable of the minas (Luke 19). In both cases, servants are given varying amounts of money to steward and invest. The two who are given the largest sums “work” the money well and produce a handsome return for the master. However, the steward with the smallest capital does nothing with it. The master is furious and takes it from this man, giving it to one of the others. “To everyone who has will be given more…but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
On the other hand, we have the parable of the hired workers in Matthew 20. Those the landowner hires at the start of the day get paid the same as those who worked only a part-day. The full-day labourers plead unfairness; the vineyard owner maintains he is being both generous and just by treating all his workers the same.
Implicit in these parables of Jesus is a level of contradiction. It’s as though we live in two different economies – one where God deals with all of us in the same way, and another that suggests God deals with us differently.
Then we have the intriguing parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Faced with imminent dismissal by his master, the manager reduces the debts of his employer’s creditors, and in doing so creates friends for life! Remarkably, when his boss finds out, he commends the astute behaviour of his manager. Of this parable, Peter Quek comments:
Not only does Jesus acknowledge the competitive nature of living in this world, but he recommends a streetwise approach to survival that overcomes the destructive potential of competition. 
The Apostle Paul also alludes to competition. He compares living the Christian life to running a race. (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27) Many commentators have suggested that when Paul is writing of “running the race” he is not thinking of a sprint, but rather of a marathon. However, regardless of what type of race he has in mind, Paul’s use of the metaphor revolves around the aspect of discipline and training required in order to win. This is the nature of the Christian “race”. The implication is clear: the context of competing provides motivation for us to apply ourselves to the challenge of training hard.
In summary, then, the biblical material seems to assume competition as part of the human experience. Sometimes it is implicitly affirmed, while at other times it is viewed as unhealthy and destructive. Nevertheless, we are still left with a degree of ambiguity regarding the Bible’s view of competition.
Is competition, then, biblical? Perhaps one answer is this: while it may not seem part of God’s ideal, it is nonetheless permissible – perhaps even necessary because of our fallenness. Whether in an ideal world competition would be part of God’s intention is certainly questionable. Co-operation seems to fit much more with our understanding of who God is and who he made us to be.
Richard Higginson argues that competition is an appropriate response to the world’s fallenness – enabling a dispersion of power so that not too much is accumulated in the hands of a few. We are only too familiar with the consequences when resources and power are monopolized by one person, corporation, country, or organization. The results can be devastating as those in power inevitably take advantage of those without such leverage. Politically, economically and socially, the majority can be marginalized and controlled when alternatives are not allowed or encouraged. Competition, Higginson believes, is a natural corrector of these tendencies. It moderates the capacity of a person or group to abuse their position. (In the political sphere democracies work in a similar way by providing systems to moderate corruption and the abuse of power. A formally recognized “opposition” is enabled to criticize those in power; competing groups can appeal for public support.)
Higginson also suggests that competition is a spur to excellence. We certainly see this on the sports field. The pursuit of excellence is propelled significantly by the desire to outperform the other person or team. Athletes can hone their physical and mental skills to gain an advantage over their opponents, and to push themselves beyond their previous limits.
But if at its best competition helps people maximize their potential, there is nevertheless another side to it. In an unhealthy context competition can lead to an obsessive win-at-all-costs mentality. Opponents become “the enemy”, and there is a temptation to use unfair tactics. (Not only the participants in a sports competition, but also supporters are apt to become caught up in this mindset.)
Of course neither explanation automatically means that competition is therefore good and right. It can be of great value – working to minimize the effects of our fallenness – or it can be the source of much evil. Because of this, for the Christian the competitive drive should have strict boundaries and limits.
Laura Nash identifies one helpful way of approaching competition. She suggests developing a “covenantal ethic” rather than one driven solely by “enlightened self-interest”. So what does she mean by this fancy terminology?
Enlightened self interest
Many (and perhaps most) people in the marketplace operate on the basis that the only obligation they have is to obey the “law of the land”. As long as nothing illegal is being done, they are acting “ethically”. Business is simply about profit – increasing the return on investment. Underlying this, Nash suggests, is the assumption that our capitalist system will automatically bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. This is really an enlightened self-interest ethic, in the tradition of Adam Smith and others (see chapter 3).
But the self-interest ethic can only too easily lead people or companies to try whatever they can legally get away with. In this sense, it is minimalist. Competition becomes legitimately aggressive. Whatever can be done to gain an advantage is fair behaviour. That this, as we have seen, was the case with John D. Rockefeller despite his devout Christian beliefs, is an indication of just how easily this approach can become debased.
In contrast, a covenantal business ethic is not focused on the legal constraints of producing and trading. Neither is it just about making a financial profit. Rather, the purpose of business is the creation of value for others. Business is a service – one that should bring about beneficial economic results for all of the people involved. As Nash says, “The first question asked is not, ‘How much money did we make?’ but ‘How is the customer faring?’ Maintaining a specific product is not a sacred duty; maintaining a beneficial relationship is.”
At the core of such an approach is the recognition that in doing business we covenant (undertake, promise, pledge) with society to fulfil mutual obligations that will result in the general welfare of everyone. Competition is therefore moderated by this commitment.
An example of attempting to put covenantal ethics into practice is Dick Hubbard’s company, Hubbard Foods. A medium-sized business producing breakfast cereals for the domestic and international markets, Hubbards have worked hard toward both sustainable development and social responsibility. Their goal is to produce cereals that not only are “nutritionally responsible and reasonably priced” but that also minimize the environmental footprint; they aspire to contribute socially as a company to the community; and they aim to take seriously the welfare of all “stakeholders” – including consumers, retail outlet customers, suppliers and employees. This social responsibility has included hiring a large number of unskilled workers from the surrounding suburbs. One year Hubbard’s care of his staff even resulted in shouting them and their families to a long weekend holiday in Samoa – all expenses paid!
This is not to suggest that Hubbards Foods is the ideal workplace. They’ve come in for their share of criticism over the years. However, they have attempted to operate in a more covenantal manner.
Whether businesses such as Hubbards are disadvantaged in such a competitive market is a moot point. It certainly involves a more complex and challenging route to success. Some would argue the goodwill that such companies acquire, and the loyalty they gain from employees, customers and suppliers, often results in a better “bottom line” than would otherwise be the case.
Another expression of this covenantal ethic is the concept of win-win strategies, popularized by Stephen Covey in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey encourages his readers to work at creating “mutually beneficial solutions” to issues – solutions that will not only result in a win to them, but also in a win to the other players involved in the transaction. This, he suggests, may well require a compromise in order to be achieved. But it is worth it. Covey compares this with the standard “win-lose” mentality prevalent in the marketplace, which encourages a dog-eat-dog approach in pursuit of limited resources.
Management and leadership consultant, Charles Handy, takes a similar approach to that of Covey. He believes that competition is “good news for everyone, but only if everyone can win”.
Interestingly, the study (noted in the previous chapter) undertaken by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras on highly successful visionary companies discovered the following:
[Such companies] do not oppress themselves with what we call the ‘tyranny of the OR’ – the rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces or ideas at the same time. The ‘tyranny of the OR’ pushes people to believe that things must be either A or B, but not both.
Collins and Porras conclude that, on the contrary, visionary companies seek to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time, noting that this does not equate to balance.
[They] don’t see it as a choice between living to their values or being pragmatic; they see it as a challenge to find pragmatic solutions and behave consistent with their values.
This approach is similar to that noted by Nash, regarding the Seekers. They recognize that tensions exist – but they use the conflicting demands of each situation as a seedbed for creative responses.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the radical ethics and lifestyle of Jesus clash violently with the realities of much of the business world. His uncompromising call to love others – particularly those who make life difficult for us – is something we need to reflect on regularly.
Take, for example, the following statements:
…if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practise the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
You’re familiar with the old written Law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies [competitors?]. Let them bring the best out in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.
Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behaviour: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.
Love others as well as you love yourself. (Matthew 5:41-42; 5:43-45; 7:12; 22:39 The Message.)
And Paul’s commentary on the example of Jesus:
Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself (Philippians 2:3-4 The Message.)
Determining how to follow the example and commands of Jesus is, of course, no easy matter. And it’s made even more challenging when resources are severely limited, when our survival as a business is at stake, or when our competitors are employing some aggressive or underhand tactics against us!
Nevertheless, this is an important part of the call to follow Jesus in our work. We need to engage in this task seriously and prayerfully, inviting him to help us find ways of living out this calling in the often cut-throat marketplace we work in.
In the case study of the Big Outdoors company (at the beginning of this chapter) are any of the “solutions” raised by the various managers ethically acceptable?
If you were Sean (CEO of Big Outdoors) how would you respond to your shrinking market share?
What do you think Sally should do?
Peter Quek claims that “not only does Jesus acknowledge the competitive nature of living in this world, but he recommends a streetwise approach to survival that overcomes the destructive potential of competition”. How does this fit in with the statements Jesus makes about loving others?
“[Competition does] not seem part of God’s ideal, [but] it is nonetheless permissible – perhaps even necessary, because of our fallenness. Whether in an ideal world competition would be part of God’s intention is certainly questionable.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
What do you think of Richard Higginson’s arguments for the appropriateness of competition?
At what point do you think the competitive drive becomes unhealthy for Christians to buy into?
In what ways do you think a “covenantal ethic” moderates competition?
Think of your own situation. What are particular points of tension for you as a business owner or as an employee? Where do the ethics of Jesus challenge you the most? What, in practical terms, might it mean for you to “love” your competitor?
For employees – particularly those in management – one of the biggest challenges can often be “climbing the corporate ladder”. What tensions have you seen or experienced? In practical terms, how can you love someone who is competing with you for the same promotion? What if you (like Sally) feel this person is taking unfair steps to get ahead of you?
Peter Quek “Competition” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 193.
James C. Collins & Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (London: Random House, 1994).
Is there a tension between “people needs” and “profit obligations”?
Some employers will say there isn’t – looking after the one will automatically take care of the other. “It’s simple really. Hire good staff. Train and treat them well. Build a good culture that values them. Give them incentives that inspire them to work hard. Reward them generously. Do all this and profit will follow.”
There’s plenty of truth in that approach. If your boss values you and looks after you, you are more likely to perform – and the business is more likely to prosper.
However, life – and business – is rarely that straightforward. Particularly if our goal is to follow Jesus. If it is, we cannot just take an enlightened, self-interest approach to our staff (“If I treat them well, they will work hard and I’ll make lots of money!”) or our job (“If I work hard the boss will reward me”). That’s because God has placed us in this world to do more than just run a successful business. We are here (as Jesus puts it at John 10:10) “to live life to its fullest”, and therefore to help others reach that same fullness. Work is one of the many different opportunities we have to grow and develop, on the way to reaching our full human potential. Our trade or profession provides us a means for bringing this about – both in ourselves and in those who work for or with us.
If work is not “just a job”, then determining where the line is drawn between people needs and profit obligations is much less clear.
For example, what do you do with:
A person who applies for a job with you, who has all the necessary qualifications and experience … but is a solo Mum with a severely handicapped child who often gets sick? Clearly she will frequently need to stay at home to look after the child. Will you hire her? And if you do, who will pay for the time off over and above the allocated sick leave?
A worker whose marriage has just busted up and who is dealing with bouts of depression, which are affecting his/her capacity to do the job?
An employee who is a willing worker but lacks the skills to do the job, and would be unlikely to get a job elsewhere?
A Maori worker who regularly asks for bereavement leave to attend tangis of dead relations and friends?
A boss who is applying pressure on an employee bus driver to work double shifts in order to avoid hiring more staff?
A potential employee who has just been released from prison for the crime of theft – who (his social worker tells you) will almost certainly re-offend if he is left to drift back to his former friends and lifestyle?
Or take the stories of Roger, Kim and Jerry…
Roger runs a small building company employing three other guys. All of his workers are qualified chippies. Roger is very committed to seeing his business as an opportunity to invest in his workers – particularly those who might not otherwise get work. Sam is one such person.
Prior to working for Roger, Sam had a chequered work career. His skills as a builder are not in question. He is a good craftsman. However, his capacity to work well with others is not great. Wherever he has worked, Sam has eventually fallen out with his co-workers. Coupled with this is a streak of unreliability – fuelled by a fondness for the bottle.
Roger was aware of these issues when he took Sam on. However, he felt God prompting him to offer Sam a job, and talked upfront with him about his expectations before Sam began work.
The first few months were great. Sam responded really well to the work environment that Roger had developed. Once a week Roger holds a working breakfast where the guys talk openly about their own lives and in what ways they want to grow and develop. Roger also promotes any opportunities for industry upskilling and personal development, and pays for his workers to take such courses. He’s also very supportive and flexible when guys need time off for specific family or personal issues.
Over the months Sam has become increasingly interested in Roger’s Christian faith and they have had many significant conversations. One of Roger’s other workers, Owen, is also a Christian and has made a big impact on Sam as well. They often talk on the job about God and about gutsy personal issues.
However, in the last three months there have been several incidents that have undermined the good progress Sam has been making.
On a number of occasions Sam has failed to turn up to work. His wife has rung in to say that he is sick, but Roger suspects it’s because Sam has been out late drinking with his mates, and that a hangover is the more likely cause.
More than once, unsupervised, Sam has made silly but costly mistakes. In one case Sam misread the plans and pegged out the foundations wrongly. It wasn’t until after the floor was poured and the frames were up that Roger discovered the house was two metres further toward the eastern boundary than it should have been!
The most recent problem was an alteration they were making to an already substantial house in a well-to-do suburb. Sam was working alone there one week and made a crucial (and obvious) mistake in reading the plans. When the client came home early one day and noticed something wasn’t right, he confronted Sam about it. Sam reacted defensively and aggressively, and stormed off the job. The next day he didn’t turn up at all and it wasn’t until later in the week that Roger found out about it all, courtesy of a phone call from a very angry client.
Roger has confronted Sam about each of these issues, and has had assurances from Sam that he understands the gravity of the consequences. Sam’s responses are always very apologetic but it’s really wearing thin. Roger has offered to assist him get help for his binge drinking, and has attempted to strategize with him ways to manage the work better. But nothing seems to work.
It’s not only Roger’s reputation as a quality and reliable builder that is being dented. The bottom line is that many of the jobs Sam has been involved in have lost money. This is not just because of Sam’s unreliability, but also because of his inattention to detail, which often results in Roger having to redo work. To put it bluntly, Sam is now becoming a financial liability. His shenanigans are putting Roger’s business at risk.
Roger’s dilemma is further fuelled by the fact that Sam has a young, dependent family, and they are saving hard to buy their own home. If he pulls the plug on Sam’s job, it’s likely not just to spin Sam out but also to put at risk his whole family. Furthermore, Sam’s fledgling interest in faith is likely to be derailed if Roger fires him.
There’s one further complication for Roger to face. Employment law is understandably written to protect the vulnerable worker against exploitation from bad bosses. However, in the process it can make it hard for good employers like Roger to adopt a reasoning approach with underperforming workers like Sam. So far Roger has dealt personally and informally with Sam, but now that he has to seriously contemplate dismissal he is suddenly very vulnerable. He could be open to legal action if things go septic.
The law requires a formal process with a series of verbal and written warnings, none of which Roger has so far followed in any clearly documented way. If he continues to work towards a solution with Sam through informal discussion, what happens if Sam doesn’t respond positively? This will likely leave Roger open to being accused of “constructive dismissal”. Or Sam might take out a personal grievance claim against him. As the Employment Court decides cases largely on whether the right processes have been followed, Roger is understandably nervous. Does he continue to work things through informally – or minimize the risk and undertake a more formal, documented process?
What should Roger do?
The dilemma Roger faces raises several questions, such as:
What do you do with underperforming workers?
Is there a certain level of performance that one should expect from an employee?
At what point does the commitment you have made to helping workers grow and develop personally need to be moderated or even sacrificed by the requirement to make money?
To what extent do you seek to work things through relationally and informally, or at what point is it necessary to respond bureaucratically and legally?
Kim has been working for a private training establishment for the past five years. She was initially employed as a receptionist and personal assistant to the director of studies, but has recently been promoted to a demanding sales position.
During her time with the company, Kim has always attempted to be a good Christian witness to her colleagues and to the students. This has resulted in fruitful relationships being developed and people turning their hearts towards Christ. In particular, Kim has made a determined effort to work hard in her PA role. She has been loyal and compliant, and has gone well beyond her own work hours to meet crucial deadlines.
Kim has a good rapport with colleagues and students. However, she lacks assertiveness and the ability to say “No”. Consequently, she has worked many extra hours without pay. During the past five years, patterns that were intended as a “good Christian witness” in the workplace, have become expected and demanded. It is now proving exceedingly difficult to claim back any time in lieu, or to avoid undue pressure.
Although Kim has had no real desire to “climb the corporate ladder”, she has been regularly given more and more responsibility and now oversees the marketing for three schools. This involves important decision-making, the responsibility of overseeing two staff members … and even more extra hours.
Unfortunately, however, Kim’s salary does not equate to the work and responsibility she carries. In fact, she doesn’t even have an employment contract. In the past, after Kim has approached her manager about these issues little has changed. When she last raised the matter of her salary her boss told her it would be reviewed in six months.
What should Kim do?
Kim’s dilemma also raises broader questions for employees, such as:
What do you do when your boss takes advantage of your willingness to serve – effectively exploiting you?
What are reasonable expectations for remuneration and workload?
At what point does your preparedness as an employee to go the extra mile need to be moderated by asserting some boundaries?
Struggling with the tension between people needs and profit obligations is just something that employers and employees have to grapple with. It also affects those who are responsible for managing staff. Often such “middle managers” find themselves caught between the needs of their staff and the profit-making expectations of their bosses. This leaves them in awkward and challenging situations. For example:
Jerry works for an engineering firm that designs and manufactures specialist parts for the oil and gas industry. Even though he never did tertiary study, Jerry has a natural aptitude for technical matters and an excellent capacity to problem-solve. Over the fifteen years he has been with the company he has worked his way up from being a fitter and turner to now operating as part of the design and production management team.
The firm has done exceptionally well during this time. The success has come from a number of factors, including clever marketing by the owners of the company, and some excellent long-serving employees such as Jerry – all mixed in with a fair amount of good fortune in developing the right products at the right time. Truth is, over the past five years the firm has been making some juicy profits. While the owners don’t flaunt their wealth, they have become noticeably absent for periods of time, due mainly to overseas holidays, golf days, and the building of their new houses and holiday homes!
However, you wouldn’t pick that the company was doing so well by talking with most of the workers. Many of them seem somewhat in the dark about the growing wealth of their bosses. In fact, Jerry only found out the true extent of the profits by chance – when on the squash court one day the company accountant let slip some of his frustrations.
Conditions for the fifty or so employees are not great. Jerry’s observation is that those conditions seem to have deteriorated since he began. The main engineering workshop is in poor repair. While it carries some very up-to-date machinery, the shop floor is cramped and suffers from poor ventilation. The workers’ smoko room and toilets have not had anything spent on them for years, and basic items such as microwaves, jugs and fridges are reluctantly repaired or replaced. The workers have had to band together to purchase for themselves such things as a water purifier and a couple of toastie machines. Promises are made but little is delivered, and there is an air of cynicism that pervades the workers’ conversations. Meanwhile, the offices next to the workshop are in stark contrast – they have just undergone yet another refit.
The company has a growing reputation within its industry for paying poorly and for being tough negotiators with the unions. And the bosses have been cleverly ratcheting up the production targets – putting the squeeze on everyone to produce more and more. They have traded heavily on the fact that while they’ve struck it lucky by having a couple of products that are in demand, the wider engineering industry is suffering from a shrinkage of markets and an oversupply of tradesmen. This means that job opportunities aren’t in huge supply for any workers who might be tempted to look elsewhere for employment.
Jerry has never really been a “union man” – mainly because of what he perceives as their adversarial approach. Nevertheless, the extent of the growing inequities between owners and workers is causing him to reassess. He knows that as employees they are being exploited. Several of the shop floor tradesmen are struggling to provide for their families and, because of the relatively tight job market, feel they are trapped. While the workers increasingly live with poor conditions and pay, their bosses are creaming it. It all seems so unjust.
Jerry has always taken seriously his responsibility to give of his best for his employer. However:
What should he do in this situation?
Does he have any responsibility as a senior employee to advocate for improved working conditions? If so, what type of advocacy is appropriate?
Should he support the growing mood to have the union intervene?
What about pushing for profit sharing and other incentives?
What might it mean for Jerry to love God by loving his bosses?
The Law of Moses had important social elements built into it. These were designed to moderate and correct the natural capacity of some to do exceptionally well economically, and others to struggle. In a society where land was essential to making a living, the Law anticipated the situation where a family might become dispossessed. The poor and landless especially included orphans and fatherless children, those women who found themselves widowed with no “kinsman-redeemer” on offer, and foreigners who sought refuge in Israel or came to live there for some other reason.
There’s some debate among scholars as to how much the nation of Israel actually obeyed these economic levellers – particularly the year of Jubilee. However, one provision that is mentioned in the narrative of the Old Testament, and seems to have been reasonably well practised, is that of “gleaning”. Under this Levitical law a landowner was obliged to leave some cut grain on the ground when collecting the harvest. This enabled those without means to come and pick up (glean) the leftovers for their own use.
In the book of Ruth we meet Boaz, a wealthy and prominent landowner. When Boaz goes out to greet his workers and check on progress with his harvest, he discovers Ruth, a young Moabite woman, gleaning in his fields. Ruth has courageously accompanied her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel, after both Naomi’s and Ruth’s husbands have died. Since Naomi and Ruth are widows – and Ruth is also a foreigner – neither of them has access to land. Life is a real struggle for these two women.
Boaz inquires among his servants about Ruth. He discovers that she has been working hard all day, gleaning what she can from the harvest. Boaz also learns that he and Ruth are distantly related by marriage, though this does not entail a direct obligation on his part. He approaches Ruth in the field and not only offers her the water from his servants’ buckets but also asks her to share in the lunch prepared for the harvesters. This is remarkable and generous hospitality, and Ruth knows it. She says to Boaz,
Oh sir, such grace, such kindness – I don’t deserve it. You’ve touched my heart, treated me like one of your own. And I don’t even belong here! (Ruth 2:10 The Message).
Furthermore, after lunch Boaz quietly instructs his servants:
Let her glean where there’s still plenty of grain on the ground – make it easy for her. Better yet, pull some of the good stuff out and leave it for her to glean. Give her special treatment. (Ruth 2:15-16 The Message).
As a result of Boaz’s generosity Ruth returns home with nearly a sack full of barley – rich pickings that will provide for her and Naomi for some weeks.
The story of Ruth continues, of course, with Boaz eventually offering to become Ruth’s “kinsman-redeemer” and marry her. The author of the Book of Ruth ends the narrative with a dramatic flourish: Ruth’s child by Boaz will eventually be the grandfather of King David!
So the point of the story is not so much the way Boaz looks after people, but rather Yahweh’s grace in weaving a non-Jew into what eventually becomes the royal family of David’s line. Ruth, the penniless foreigner, is the great-grandmother of David. And while the cynics amongst us might suggest that Boaz has mixed motives for his care of the young and no doubt attractive Ruth, nevertheless the story is one of remarkable compassion and care. We get the sense from Boaz’s reputation and behaviour that he is a businessman who puts a premium on the needs of people more than profit. His example, though light years culturally from ours, is worth learning from.
Crème eggs and milk chocolate bars might seem like the height of decadence today, but originally the Cadbury family got into the candy business in order to promote healthy living, with dreams of social progress and Christian compassion.
Victorian Britain, home to John Cadbury and his sons Richard and George, had serious problems. Industrial workers, including mothers and children, spent their days in dirty, dangerous factories, and their nights in cramped tenements. Widespread alcoholism deepened the workers’ poverty, and contributed to domestic violence. While the Salvation Army attacked these ills with “soup, soap, and salvation”, the Cadbury family chose cocoa.
The Cadburys belonged to the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. As dissenters from the Church of England, they were locked out of the country’s Anglican-allied universities, and as pacifists they would not serve in the military. So they became entrepreneurs.
In 1831 John opened a shop near the centre of gritty Birmingham, selling coffee and tea—wholesome alternatives to harder drinks. He soon added cocoa to his product list, powdering it himself with a mortar and pestle. By 1878 the business, now managed by his sons, had grown to employ 200 workers. It was time to build a larger facility.
The brothers purchased land in the countryside near Birmingham and dubbed the site Bournville. They intended to build not only a state-of-the-art factory, but a village as well, to enable their employees to escape the dingy city. The village featured modest cottages with gardens, spacious public parks, swimming pools, and eventually shops, schools, and churches. All Bournville lacked was a pub, an indication of the founders' convictions about alcohol.
The Cadburys sought to make work life pleasant, too. The factory complex featured such avant-garde amenities as heated dressing rooms, a kitchen, and cricket fields. Days began with Bible study, and continuing education classes took place in the evenings. The brothers periodically circulated among the workers, listening for good ideas and occasionally performing odd jobs. One worker recalled their hands-on attentiveness: “To see Mr. George and Mr. Richard go down on their knees and crawl under a table to see if the water pipes were hot enough, made a great impression on all of us.”
The Quaker conviction that all people possess an “inner light” which links them to God and accords them equal stature with each other, meant that the Cadburys’ board governed by consensus, and company committees included representatives from all levels of the organization. The bright cottages and continuing education opportunities likewise aimed to elevate workers’ dignity.
Not that the enlightened chocolatiers were without their critics. Trade unionists and socialists accused the Cadburys of giving their workers just enough money and power to keep them in their place. Other observers sneered at the paternalism of Mr. George and Mr. Richard, who would, for example, dismiss a female employee with a Bible, a rose, and a small monetary gift when she was about to marry. They did not believe wives should work.
In 1901 the Cadburys’ reputation was put to the test through accusations that they were exploiting the use of slave labour to get their cocoa. Half their cocoa was sourced from plantations on the islands of Sao Thome and Principe in Portuguese West Africa, worked by indentured labourers in conditions of slavery. The Cadbury brothers spent four thousand pounds on two private investigations to ascertain the facts, and William Cadbury made a trip to the islands himself in 1908. It wasn’t until 1909 that they stopped trading with the islands. This episode culminated in a widely publicised libel case brought against them by the Standard newspaper in 1909, accusing them of being hypocrites in championing the rights of workers at home and ignoring them overseas. They were accused of acting far too slowly because they continued to buy cocoa from this source until 1909. The Cadburys replied that during this time they were attempting to reform the circumstances of their workers rather than remove their primary source of income. They won the court case.
Despite these gripes, the Cadburys enjoyed the affection of hundreds of loyal workers and excited the admiration of many other late Victorian industrialists. Upon George's death in 1922, more than 16,000 mourners paid their respects at the Bournville “factory in a garden”.
1. Read back through the case study of Roger. Discuss the questions we listed, namely:
What you think Roger should do?
What do you do with underperforming workers?
Is there a certain level of performance that one should expect from an employee?
At what point does your commitment to helping workers grow and develop personally need to be moderated or even sacrificed by the need to make money?
To what extent do you seek to work things through relationally and informally, or at what point is it necessary to respond bureaucratically and legally?
2. Read back through the case study of Kim. Discuss the questions we listed, namely:
What should Kim do?
What do you do when your boss takes advantage of your willingness to serve – effectively exploiting you?
What are reasonable expectations for remuneration and workload?
At what point does your preparedness as an employee to go the extra mile need to be moderated by asserting some boundaries?
3. Read back through the case study of Jerry, the middle manager, and discuss the questions we listed, namely:
What should he do in this situation?
Does he have any responsibility as a senior employee to advocate for improved working conditions? If so, what type of advocacy is appropriate?
Should he support the growing mood to have the union intervene?
What about pushing for profit sharing and other incentives?
What might it mean for Jerry to love God by loving his bosses?
4. Can you think of any possible equivalents in our society to the practice of harvest gleaning? (Note that gleanings weren’t a “handout”. Finding and collecting the harvest leftovers was painstaking work.)
5. Are there any situations in your particular context where you are struggling with the tension between people needs and profit obligations? Share them with the group and invite discussion and prayer.
6. Often it is assumed that in the long term honesty and integrity pay in business. However. Amar Bhide and Howard H. Stevenson disagree. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review (Sept-Oct, 1990), entitled “Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay”, they share the findings of their extensive research. “There is no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word – punishment for the treacherous in the real world is neither swift nor sure.” Doing right does frequently cost, in economic terms. Likewise, putting the needs of people (employees, customers, fellow workers, those in need, etc.) ahead of profit will also cost. Do you agree or disagree?
The term refers to the practice by which a family member close to the deceased husband would agree to marry and care for his relative’s widow. Generally this was a brother, hence the trick question posed to Jesus by a Pharisee – in Heaven, which brother would the woman be married to?
This short piece is adapted from an article written by Elesha Coffman, a senior editor at Christian History and Biography, entitled, “Sweet Charity: The Quakers behind Cadbury chocolate."
“That's it baby, when you got it, flaunt it!”
Mel Brooks, The Producers (1968)
“He made himself nothing…becoming a servant …he humbled himself”
The formula usually looks something like this:
business x (self-confidence + will-to-win + competitive-drive) = wealth x power = S*U*C*C*E*S*S
But is business really locked in to this sort of ruthless calculation? Are there models that differ from the stereotype?
Can successful business people have a servant mind rather than a presidential one? Do self-confidence and humility have to be opposing values? Or are humility and confident self-acceptance both essential Christian attributes for marketplace Christians?
At first glance it seems that the life of David is a rags-to-riches story. The youngest son of a shepherd/farmer living in Israel around 950BC, David spends much of his childhood looking after the family’s sheep. From time to time, in the rugged open country of Judah, the shepherd boy has to confront wild lions and bears. He learns to fight them off so that the flocks in his charge are kept safe. It’s a job that has big demands, little status and scant recognition.
Yet before he has reached the age of 20, three extraordinary events have changed David’s life and destiny, casting him forever into the national spotlight.
The first is an unexpected visit from the principal prophet/judge of Israel. According to Samuel, God has had enough of the way King Saul is running Israel. Samuel is sent to a little-known farmer by the name of Jesse (1 Samuel 16: 1-13). His assignment: to quietly select the future king.
The last person Jesse expects Samuel to be interested in is his youngest child – so when the prophet calls on him to assemble his sons, Jesse doesn’t even bother calling David. Instead, he automatically presents his eldest – and then the others. But each time, God tells Samuel this is not the one. Eventually, when all the other options have been exhausted, Jesse calls for the “runt” of the family. When he sees David, Samuel immediately recognizes that he is the one that God has chosen. David is anointed and the Spirit of God enters him.
There’s clearly something about the young David that God has recognized, something that has the mark of greatness. It’s not his physical appearance – it’s his character and his heart for God.
The second extraordinary event in David’s youthful life is a summons to the royal court. David’s excellent musicianship on the harp has gained some recognition, and he is instructed to play for the melancholic King Saul. Every time David plays his harp, Saul’s depression lifts. More than that, even Saul can recognize David’s qualities. The stripling soon becomes a valued servant of the king.
However, it’s the third event, some time later, that unexpectedly shoots the young David into national prominence. Back home on the farm, Jesse instructs the boy to take some food to his older brothers. They are serving in the Israelite army and are currently engaged in a campaign against the menacing Philistines. Threatened by enemies on virtually every border, the king has mobilized to defend the land. From an opposing hill the Philistines attempt to intimidate the Israelite troops by parading their master warrior. Goliath is a ten-foot giant, and he challenges the Israelites to send out their champion against him. Let the battle be decided by single combat!
One look at Goliath is enough to plunge Saul’s men into despair. No one offers to take up the challenge – except the teenage David, who is indignant at the arrogance of Goliath. The story from this point is, of course, one of the most famous in the Bible. David slays Goliath and becomes an instant national hero. But ominously, the plaudits he receives exceed those of the king. “Saul kills by the thousand, David by the ten thousand!”
In the event, there is to be a long wait before David becomes king. The intervening years are filled with challenge and hardship, as the desperately jealous Saul repeatedly tries to hunt down David and his band of warriors. Through these experiences David’s character and faith are honed. Finally, on the death of Saul he assumes the throne.
The young man has the world at his feet. As king he has the approval of his people and of God. He sets out to rule with justice and compassion. He is a leader with a real love for his subjects and for God.
That is, until he falls in love with a woman who is married to another man. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is a soldier who is away on duty. So David invites her to his palace. There he sleeps with her … she finds herself pregnant … David panics. He tries to hide his adultery and, by a process of deliberate deceit, to cover his tracks. What results is the virtual murder of Bathsheba’s husband. David has him sent to the front line of battle where he is caught in the open. He and several of his men die, cut down in the crossfire from enemy archers.
With Uriah’s death, David thinks he has concealed his sin. He marries Bathsheba soon afterwards and a son is born. But the issue is not dead and buried. God sends his prophet, Nathan, to confront David. The king is mortified. He realizes that he has completely abused his power and status. Psalm 51 is his way of expressing his repentance.
David’s story is a sobering one. Winning can be dangerous and seductive. As a shrewd modern proverb puts it, “Nothing fails like success.” We can become intoxicated with our business achievements and our prosperity, and from there it’s easy to become overly familiar with God. When success comes our way, we can easily fall into the trap of equating it with God’s blessing. From there it’s only a short step to presuming that God validates our decisions, that he is with us, that he will be understanding and forgiving if we slip up. Before long we can justify almost any action and make ourselves out to be an exception to rules that govern ordinary people.
This is an error that David made. He started to believe his own press. Perhaps he was taken in by the myth of invincibility. But God’s standards are not negotiable. Even though David faces up to his fault, even though he humbles himself and restores his relationship with God – the consequences of that sinful act don’t just disappear. They will cost him dearly in his later years.
That a person like David, who is elsewhere described as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) could end up in such strife is scary. But such is the seductive power of success. And it should serve as a warning to all of us. None of us are immune from acting ignorantly or arrogantly when things are going well and it feels as if God is on our side.
There is something deeply seductive about success. To guard against it there are important attitudes that we need to cultivate – like growing in self-awareness, and nurturing a healthy skepticism about our own motives. It is not just for sentimental reasons that the apostle Paul includes this admonition in his letter to the Christians in Philippi: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus ... who being in very nature God ... made himself nothing.”
We have referred previously (in Chapter 7) to the collapse of the Enron empire – a recent example of Christian humility being eclipsed by the cult of celebrity, in a way that gave rise to spectacularly tragic results. Ken Lay, CEO and Chairman of the Board for Enron appears to have been a devout Christian, although a long-time friend and co-worker of Ken Lay described him as “schizophrenic” when it came to his faith. He sought to live an upright and moral life in many respects and yet was blind when it came to seeing what this might require of him in his position as the responsible head of a corporation.
Arrogant is a word that was frequently used to describe Enron. It paraded itself as the most innovative company in America. Its employees enjoyed being part of what was heralded as a winner. It has been said that the Enron culture bred a sense of self-entitlement and fashionable opulence that is reminiscent of the story of the Titanic. The magnificence of the corporation they had built blinded its directors, as they stood on the bridge, into believing that it could never sink.
TS Eliot once said that:
…half of the harm that’s done in this world is due to people who want to feel important … They don’t mean to do harm … It is just that they become so absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
Enron’s directors were blind to the signs of failure and doom just around the corner. Yale University law professor Jonathan Macey concluded:
It's Shakespearean. The CEOs who have gone down are people who literally lost touch with reality. Ken Lay had so internalized the idea of an imperial CEO that he blamed everyone but himself. He could not conceptualize that he should take responsibility. 
As Jesus' followers living in a culture fixated on popularity, material wealth and status, we need to constantly work at redefining success. Jesus introduces us to an upside-down kingdom in which the greatest are called to act as the servants of others. We will certainly need to examine and deal with our ambitions and mixed motives if we are to make Jesus’ example of humility and servanthood the pattern for our own lives.
Parker Palmer, the Quaker educationalist and writer, says: 
A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good … Leaders not only need the technical skills to manage the external world but also the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light … Failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!
Parker Palmer uses Annie Dillard’s imagery of the “monsters” we have to ride to encourage us to look at some of the hardest realities of our lives. Only by recognizing and naming the darkness “that we carry within ourselves” can we understand the “source of the shadows that we project onto other people.”
If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone ‘out there’ into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.
Palmer then describes five such monsters he has had to ride in his own quest for transformation:
The first shadow-casting monster is insecurity about identity and worth. Many leaders have an extroverted personality that makes this shadow hard to see. But extroversion sometimes develops as a way to cope with self-doubt: we plunge into external activity to prove we are worthy – or simply to evade the question. There is a well-known form of this syndrome, especially among men, in which our identity becomes so dependent on performing some external role that we become depressed, and even die, when that role is taken away.
When we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own…
A second shadow inside many of us is the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests…Unfortunately, life is full of self-fulfilling prophecies. The tragedy of this inner shadow, our fear of losing a fight, is that it helps create conditions where people feel compelled to live as if they were at war.
A third shadow common among leaders is “functional atheism”, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.
This shadow … leads us to impose our will on others and ends up stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will … We need to give up playing God and learn to either share the load with others or lay down the load altogether. We are only called to do what we are able and trust the rest to other hands.
A fourth shadow within and among us is fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life. Many of us – parents and teachers and managers – are deeply devoted to eliminating all remnants of chaos from the world. We want to organize and orchestrate things so thoroughly that messiness will never bubble up around us and threaten to overwhelm us. (For ‘messiness’ read dissent, innovation, challenge and change.) In families and churches and corporations, this shadow is projected as rigidity of rules and procedures, creating an ethos that is imprisoning rather than empowering. The insight we receive on the inner journey is that chaos is the precondition to creativity.
The fifth shadow that leaders often project is the denial of death.
Though we sometimes kill things off well before their time, we also live in denial of the fact that all things must die in due course. Leaders who participate in this denial often demand that the people around them keep resuscitating things that are no longer alive. Projects and programmes that should have been unplugged long ago are kept on life support to accommodate the insecurities of a leader who does not want anything to die on his or her watch.
Within our denial of death lurks fear of another sort: the fear of failure. In most organizations, failure means a pink slip in your box, even if that failure, that ‘little death’, was suffered in the service of high purpose. The best leaders in every setting reward people for taking worthwhile risks even if they are likely to fail. These leaders know that the death of an initiative – if it was tested for good reasons – is always a source of new learning.
The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that death finally comes to everything – and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.
When Jesus chooses not to grab for status and success, but rather to walk the road of humble service in spite of the danger of making himself so vulnerable, he models the pattern for our discipleship:
If anyone would come after me let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…For the last shall be first. (Luke 9:23 and Luke 13:30)
But this looks nothing like the formula for success in business – least of all, the one that most “How to...” books would encourage us to adopt.
In this chapter we have mainly looked at the dangers of power for those in management. But what does it mean for employees further down the food chain? One lesson is that all of us can easily end up exploiting and abusing those over whom we have some power. It is often those who experience abuse from above who end up practising abuse from above. Destructive patterns of behaviour are reproduced. So none of us is free from the temptation to use whatever power we have over others in ways that are manipulative and controlling and ultimately destructive, whether this be related to colleagues, employees, or our own children.
But there is another ethical dilemma that Christians often face when they feel exploited and abused by others. Here we are, trying to live as humble servants of those we work under and alongside – but sometimes it feels more like we’re being used. Are there times for showing more assertiveness and less humility?
Consider the following case study…
Robert is a very clever computer software developer. He has been with his present company for several years – in fact, since they began. It wasn’t an easy start-up, and the original staff members made significant sacrifices to get it going, accepting low wages and working long hours. It is now a very successful company. The trouble is, while the other original staff members have now received pay rises and perks and better working conditions, things haven’t changed that much for Robert. He was just a new Christian when he began working for the company – and as far as he knew, the only Christian on the staff. He was very keen to prove that he was a good and loyal worker, going to great lengths and putting in extra hours to make sure the products were successful. Now he is beginning to feel that his humility and good will are being exploited. On the other hand, he loves his job and doesn’t want to undermine his Christian witness, or cause unnecessary conflict or offence.
But is he being taken for granted? Are his feelings of growing resentment just selfishness, or is there a need for more assertive action? What should he do?
1. The story of David’s fall is shocking. What was missing that led him to do wrong? And what will save you from doing the same thing?
2. Chris Seay suggests that not all the blame for Enron’s demise should be laid at the feet of Ken Lay. He posits the idea that Lay may just be a convenient scapegoat for something we all need to take some responsibility for. Maybe we have all helped to create and perpetuate this culture that permeates our society. Haven’t we all elevated material success and celebrity? Don’t we all promote and pursue the sorts of dreams that led to Ken Lay’s downfall? What do you think about this? Are we all to blame?
3. When Parker Palmer talks about “monsters” he has had to learn to ride, which ones do you personally identify with? Can you identify some other “monsters” that you find yourself wrestling with?
4. Look at the case study about Robert. What are the issues? What do you think Robert should do? What do you think Robert needs to learn?
5. Is servant leadership a matter of just being warm and encouraging? When might leadership require us to take control and make demands?
The description of Ken Lay and Enron in this section draws heavily on material from Chris Seay’s book, The Tao of Enron (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002).
Jonathan Macey quote from the Washington Post “White-Collar Crime's New Milestone” by Brooke A. Masters and Carrie Johnson, Friday, May 26, 2006; Page D01.
These are excerpts from Chapter V, entitled “Leading from within” in Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: listening for the voice of vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).
Gary and Sue started a business three years ago. They bought a carpet cleaning franchise and have been working incredibly hard to establish it. Previously Gary had worked long hours as a manager of a small department in a bank head office. He commuted two hours each day and rarely saw their children during the weekdays. The dramatic change to their own cleaning business was seen as a way to gain more of a work-life balance for Gary, and for both of them to eventually release time and money to serve in a couple of voluntary organizations they are passionate about.
Gary and Sue appreciate the flexibility that working from home brings. However, the business has turned out to dominate their lives in ways they had not expected. Customers can ring at any time of the day or night; they seem to have little regard for Gary’s and Sue’s private life. The level of compliance and accounting means much of their energy is given to paperwork. It regularly takes up what’s left of the evenings after the kids have gone to bed.
The carpet cleaning industry is a competitive market, so margins are not high. If they were to calculate their return on an hourly rate over the three years, it would not be great. But they always knew that the first couple of years would be demanding, getting the business on its feet. In the medium term they are looking to reduce the energy it requires so they can do other stuff. The problem is, they are finding it difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel. The demands of the business show no sign of abating.
Jane is an excellent young lawyer who aspires to become a partner in her law firm. She loves her work – so much so that she puts in many late nights, and even goes to the office two or three weekends a month, to demonstrate her loyalty and support for the firm.
Jane’s hard work, perseverance, and intellectual smarts may soon pay off. Her boss has given indications that she is being considered for partnership in the firm. This will add substantially to Jane’s professional stature – as well as to her income.
However, for some time Jane has sensed that her life may be somewhat out of balance. She feels nagging guilt over being away from her husband and three children so much. He is terribly proud of her achievements, but recently he’s complained that she is becoming a stranger to him.
Meanwhile, Jane’s children are growing up fast! Her son is almost a teenager already. Jane worries that the boy appears so shy and insecure around his peers. And her two little daughters seem to quarrel constantly. Their behaviour irritates her when she comes home, tired and just wanting a quiet rest. Recently she’s even found herself looking for excuses to stay at the office until after their bedtime.
In her few private moments, Jane finds that her relationship with Christ is superficial. She almost never has time to read her Bible, and prays only at family meals or at church. On the other hand, she contributes what she feels is a sizeable amount to her church and to a local youth home. Her pastor has even thanked her on occasion for her support and told her, “We really rely on you, Jane!”
Jane frequently reminds herself that she is on the verge of success. True, she has her nagging doubts about her family life. “If I can just get that partnership,” she tells herself, “I’ll be able to spend more time with my family. We’ll be able to afford all kinds of activities together.”
Steve is the principal of a large city high school. He’s an exceptionally able leader – innovative, caring and a good team builder. When he first took on the job eight years ago, the demands were manageable. Steve and his family had agreed that while working long hours during the week was okay (he leaves home at 7 and rarely returns before 7), as long as the weekends were “school-free” they could survive. However, progressively the demands of the position have increased and it is taking its toll. He physically cannot contain his workload to 5 days per week and his energy levels are also sagging. Each term he survives the last couple of weeks on adrenaline and willpower, squeezing a few days break in the “holidays” to re-energize.
Steve’s own workload is not his only concern. He is becoming increasingly worried about the growing expectations placed on teachers by the system – so much so that he openly states to his staff that teaching should not be the sum total of their lives. He has backed this up with all kinds of mechanisms and processes to ensure his staff are not “owned” by school demands. In spite of his very best efforts, however, two of his most gifted teachers have resigned, and some others are seriously contemplating a change of career.
Steve is frustrated at his failure to achieve the sort of “wholeness” that he and his wife Liz aspire to. But they have always accepted that during this stage of their lives – as Steve invests himself in leading a school – there would be a cost to pay. For them it has been viewed as part of Steve’s calling. (And this has raised a very frustrating tension for Steve regarding his involvement in his church. He has never really felt affirmed for his leadership role in the education sector. Nor has he experienced any validation for his belief that the school community is his primary missionfield. Instead he has often been made to feel as though he should be contributing significantly to leadership within the church.) However, the stress this is putting on their family, on their significant friendships, and on their capacity to contribute to the kingdom in other ways is becoming intolerable.
Gary and Sue, Jane, and Steve have all got more than they bargained for. They’re seeking to follow Jesus in roles that are taxing and exhausting.
Demanding roles such as these are increasingly common in our developing society. They have been fuelled by a number of factors such as unrealistic expectations from employers, the rapidly increasing pace of life, a cultural fixation on productivity, and lifestyle expectations that grow with each passing year and each new product.
Many jobs can become all-consuming. They end up owning us – rather than liberating us to serve.
For Jesus followers, all too aware that paid employment is only one of a number of ways we could potentially serve God, this creates all kinds of dilemma. A major tension develops between the job that dominates our time and energy, and the other competing commitments in our lives – such as family, church involvement, voluntary service, etc.
What do we do with all this?
The usual answer is that we have to make some degree of trade-off. But that’s the dilemma. We struggle to know where we should employ the gifts God has given us, how much we should commit ourselves to, and where to draw the line. This is a problem not just for those of us with a super-enriched personal ambition – or a driven personality! Lots of Christians genuinely want to make a difference. We’re often just not quite sure how much of our energy should be consumed by our paid employment.
This dilemma is particularly acute in certain industries and professions – careers, like Steve’s, where a high minimum of hours and effort is required if we’re going to contemplate it as a worthwhile venture.
For example, take the world of politics. The sheer demands and expectations of public office mean that it must command the majority of a person’s time and energy. Nothing less will allow a reasonable shot at making a success of it. The question deserves to be asked: Are those expectations reasonable and fair? But the question doesn’t change the reality. If you want to be a successful politician, the job will inevitably take the lion’s share of your time. Even more so if you reach cabinet and party leadership levels.
This means that people contemplating such a career are faced with difficult choices.
It’s not surprising that in this context some career politicians have chosen to remain single or childless, so as to give the majority of their energy to the role. And it’s very easy to understand why so many politicians struggle with failed marriages and relationships. The job becomes all-consuming, and a life outside of it is difficult to maintain.
Many CEO’s and high-end managers in the marketplace experience the same challenges. A close friend of ours in his mid- to late-forties was offered a dream position – one that in a sense he had been preparing for all his working life. It was to lead a midsized international company. He had the skills, having previously run a smaller company. He also had the passion to genuinely make a difference. His faith had substantially shaped the way he viewed leadership and the management of staff.
The major sticking point came in the form of two primary commitments. First, he would have to change cities. Second, the new challenge would demand a very high focus of his time and energy – even higher than his current position called for.
Caught in the dilemma of whether to accept or not, he and his wife visited several close friends to get some perspective. On one level it was enormously tempting – with great potential to serve God and others. However, ultimately they decided the cost was too high – to the family (their children were in the teenage years), to the church they were committed to and serving in, and to the wide-range of voluntary and community roles both of them played. These relationships and opportunities for service were too important to surrender.
Our friend’s decision to turn down the opportunity should not be interpreted as the only way to deal with such a tension. For others the sacrifice of wider dimensions of life may well be appropriate – at least for a period of time. No rule can be applied.
The tension between the demands of our paid work and the rest of our lives is not one many of us will resolve completely.
If we’re in the business of employing others – either as an owner or a manager – we also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that our employees are not consumed by their paid work.
But to achieve this we will often have to go against the trend. Increasingly employers are looking for more than their pound of flesh from their workers. It’s not uncommon to find bosses demanding that employees make work their first priority, with anything else in their lives getting the leftovers. This pressure becomes particularly acute in times of high unemployment and shortage of work.
Colossians 4:1 is a clear reminder of our responsibility when we direct the lives of others:
“Masters, treat your servants considerately. Be fair with them. Don’t forget for a minute that you too, serve a Master...” (The Message)
- Some questions that are useful for employers in this regard, are:
- What is reasonable to expect from my employees? (We recommend undertaking a dialogue with them on this question. You might begin by getting them to identify what they think is reasonable.)
- What can I do to assist my employees develop a healthy work-life balance?
- What example am I modelling of a healthy balance?
- Is the working environment I’m creating one that encourages growth, development and fulfilment for my workers?
Of course, biblically there are mutual responsibilities in the employer/employee relationship. Justice and fairness for both is the goal. Workers are worthy of their hire, but on the other side of the equation, they must be fair to their employer. It cuts both ways.
All too many Christian employers we’ve talked with tell stories of Christian employees who fail to give of their best, and shirk their responsibilities. It’s important to reflect regularly on Paul’s words to believers in the employ of others. Admittedly, the master-servant relationship is not directly parallel with today’s employment situation, but the challenge is still relevant…
Servants, do what you’re told to do by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being Christian doesn’t cover up bad work. (Colossians 3:22-24 The Message).
As we’ve already noted, employers can have quite unreasonable expectations of their employees. That being the case, as employees we need to develop some benchmarks – what do we believe is a fair and reasonable effort to give to the job? If our boss is continually taking advantage of our preparedness to go the extra mile, guidelines of this sort will help us make a considered response when we need to draw the line.
Two questions will help us establish a fair perspective on this:
- What am I prepared to give (in time and energy) as an employee? What are my bottom lines?
- Is what I’m prepared and able to give, fair to my employer? And what kind of remuneration and conditions would reflect that?
There’s no substitute for discussing this directly with the boss and working out some common understanding. To be sure, many people find the prospect of doing this rather daunting. If there is someone you trust who can be part of these discussions, to act as a support person or advocate, you will find that hugely helpful.
Regardless of whether we employ others, are employed, or are self-employed, a question worth pondering regularly and prayerfully is this:
- There are certain roles and responsibilities that I have (in my family, in the community, in my church…) or that I feel God wants me to undertake. Is there anything about this job that is going to work against me fulfilling them?
This is a question of priorities … and also of stewardship. How much of my time and energy should I give to this job?
Each of us is unique, and there is no standard answer to this question. What might make it right for one person may not necessarily make it so for someone else. Furthermore, the full demands of a role are not always visible to begin with (both in our paid employment and in our voluntary roles). Our own skills and abilities may draw us naturally to a deeper involvement. And our circumstances will change many times throughout our lives; what might be appropriate in one season may not be in another.
Nevertheless, a genuine “Where and how does this role fit for me right now, Lord?” is the right question. It will give us something to reflect on, a perspective that will widen our insight and understanding. And, like our friends who chose to consult others in order to get some perspective, so each of us should be developing relationships with a select few who can ask the questions, offer thoughts, and pray for us. Ultimately, of course, the choices are ours to own and make. But thank God for others to help us along the way!
We’ve sought in this chapter to reflect a little on the ethical issues of what is reasonable and fair in our obligations to one another as either employers or employees. And we’ve also considered the need to steward well our time and energy.
There are of course, significant related issues surrounding matters of work-life balance and the exhausting cycle of busyness that we often find ourselves caught in. We’ve addressed both these matters in a previous book of ours – SoulPurpose: Making a difference in life and work (NavPress NZ) – in particular, the chapters entitled “Learning to be an effective juggler” (chapter 8), and “Mind your own busyness” (chapter 9). You will find much to help you there.
1) Read again the three brief case studies at the beginning of this chapter. What questions/issues would be most relevant and helpful for each person to reflect on?
- Gary and Sue
2) Do you think it’s ever appropriate for a Christian to take on a job that is all-consuming? If you were to contemplate such a step, what criteria could you use to determine if such a position was right for you?
3) Think back over the short sections entitled “Employing others”, “Being an employee” and “For everyone!” Use the questions listed in each section as a basis for your personal reflection. Then, if you are part of a group, discuss your thoughts.
In the eighteenth century a substantial revival occurred across Great Britain. Thousands of working class poor came to faith – people for whom the Church was a closed door and a completely alien environment. One of the leaders of this “great awakening” was John Wesley – an Oxford-educated Anglican priest.
When churches barred him from preaching his messages of new birth, he took to the fields and streets. This was a brilliant move. Most of his audience would never have been accepted and welcomed in the churches. It was a simple equation: he wasn’t allowed to preach in churches … and the poor weren’t in the churches anyway … so he would go to where they were. For Wesley, “the world became his parish”.
Part of John Wesley’s genius was his vision and ability to organize the growing numbers of the poor who were coming to Christ. He grouped them into small communities (called bands and classes) where they began to be transformed by the gospel. These small groups were greenhouses for change. People who were previously completely ignorant of the gospel began to discover and work out a discipleship that transformed every area of their lives.
The movement mushroomed. Hundreds of thousands of working-class poor became Jesus followers. And as they did, some very significant social and economic changes occurred in the fabric of British society.
Their growing faith established a strong work ethic and a freeing from addictions such as alcohol and gambling. This made upward mobility almost inevitable. As they worked harder and spent less of their money on damaging and wasteful pursuits, families discovered they were able to save and dramatically improve their physical circumstances. Their thrift and work lifted substantial numbers of these Christians out of poverty and into a burgeoning middle class.
One could easily assume that John Wesley would have been well pleased with this upward mobility. After all, it showed that faith was making a demonstrable difference in people’s day-to-day lives. And to a degree he was pleased.
But he also became increasingly disturbed. He noticed that with such upward mobility his converts’ passion for radical discipleship mellowed. “Comfortable-itis” frequently took root and the zeal they once had for following Jesus was replaced by a fading of their desire to live passionate, selfless lives of risk and faith. The growing affluence of John Wesley’s converts began to undermine the vigour of their discipleship.
Wesley’s own approach to money was totally different. It was summed up in his statement: “Earn all you can; spend as little as you can; give as much as you can.” This was his maxim, and being the highly disciplined and organized person he was, he lived it out right through his life. Though his income increased dramatically during his 50-plus years of itinerant preaching and organizing (mainly because of the royalties from material he authored), Wesley’s lifestyle changed little. By the time of his death he was still living on little more than he had been spending decades earlier. And he died with little left over.
What kind of lifestyle do we think Christians are called to pursue? While there is something very challenging and even appealing about John Wesley’s example, it does raise a number of questions about the inherent tension between wealth and charity.
John Wesley’s unease about the effect that increased disposable income was having on his disciples also highlights some of the tension implicit in our work in the marketplace.
On the one hand, developing a good work ethic is very much a part of our call to follow Jesus. It is important for us to be industrious and conscientious and to utilize well our gifts – and our ability to create, to add value and to make a difference. If we have a gift of creating wealth, then certainly we should use and develop it. And of course the result is likely to be that we will earn more than we need.
How does this fit in with what we know about the call of Jesus – to give away our lives for his kingdom?
And how does it fit in with the question we asked in the previous chapter? There we pondered how much of our time and energy we should give to the creation of our wealth. Now we face the question of what we should do with our wealth.
Or to put it another way:
How much is “enough”? And
How do we use the excess (over and above what we consider to be enough)?
We’ve probably all heard the quip from multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller (one of the famous family of bankers and entrepreneurs). When asked how much wealth was enough, he replied, “Just a little bit more!”
Exactly! The problem with the seduction of our materialist culture is that we’re constantly being encouraged to earn and keep for ourselves “just a little bit more”.
Placing limits on our consumption goes against everything our society is bellowing out at us. The messages – some of them half-truths and others just patently mistruths – tell us:
You need this
You deserve this – treat yourself
This will make you happy
This will make your life better
It was your hard work and intelligence that created your wealth
These messages are reinforced and supplemented by many we hear within the church, such as:
“God wants you to have this.”
“God has really blessed you!”
“If you’re successful in business you must be doing what’s right spiritually.”
If we are “blessed” financially, then we need to regularly remind ourselves that we are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. Which includes far more than just our family and friends!
We can’t answer for each other how much is enough. It is simply not appropriate or helpful to suggest some sort of calculation or rule. And yet we daren’t dodge the question. Some of the following perspectives may be helpful, as will the questions at the end of the chapter.
Even if we consider our financial resources to be somewhat limited (“We’re just getting by”), we do well to remind ourselves that any excess makes us rich by global standards. That we have choices in how we use our money means we are in the top 10% of the world’s population.
A new focus in our reading of the Bible should have an effect on our thinking. While there is no one consistent attitude in the scriptures regarding wealth, nevertheless the Prophets, the Gospels and the New Testament letters carry strong language about it.
These books are full of warnings to the rich, and support for the poor and marginalized. When Jesus declares that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (he means this literally!) than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he’s speaking to us. When the Prophets lambast the establishment of the day – the landowners and the well connected – we would do well to include ourselves. When James teaches that faith without works is useless, he has a message for us.
Jesus seems to look on wealth the way the rest of us would look at a stick of dynamite. Sure, it has the potential to do some good – but it’s incredibly dangerous and may blow us to smithereens if we don’t handle it with the utmost care. If we’re to believe Jesus, the more wealth we have, the more danger we’re in.
There’s a particularly troubling parable that he tells – the one about the rich man who builds bigger barns…
“Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
Then he told them this story. “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather all my grains and goods, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!”’
“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods – who gets it?’
“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” (Luke 12:15-21 The Message)
Strong language from Jesus! Why does he call the man a “fool”? The context suggests that’s its not just his greed and selfishness that earn him that label. It’s the fact that his growing wealth has seduced him into believing that he is self-sufficient. He doesn’t need God. The man has believed the lie that his life is in his own hands, that he is in control – “secure” in the knowledge that he is well insulated from the unpredictability of life.
The rich man’s foolishness can be contrasted with the biblical call to stewardship – or trusteeship (which is illustrated in the description which Jesus gives of the “faithful servant” later in the same chapter). Jesus makes it clear that we are managers, stewards, trustees of the Master’s resources. They are not our own. We are simply called to be faithful caretakers of what we have been given to look after.
And this task carries a warning or challenge from Jesus: “Great gifts mean great responsibilities; greater gifts, greater responsibilities" (Luke 12:48 The Message). Or to put it another way: the more you have, the greater the obligation to steward well.
So, with wealth comes significant responsibility to manage carefully the Master’s resources. That’s why we really like Andrew Carnegie’s statement:
This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependant on him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called to administer…in a manner which in his judgement, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community…
Carnegie’s comments (which he lived out so well in his lifetime by pouring his wealth into the Carnegie Foundation) provide an ideal and practical paradigm for Christians. When we are able to generate excess income, then we have the opportunity to steward that wealth well and so “produce the most beneficial results for the Kingdom”.
One example of this is New Zealander Stephen Tindall, founder and majority shareholder of The Warehouse. A number of years ago he established the Tindall Foundation by gifting a substantial number of his shares to this charitable trust. Having extracted himself from the management of The Warehouse some time ago, Tindall now gives much of his energy to running the Foundation.
Currently the largest independent private foundation in Australasia, the Tindall Foundation is “driven by a desire to support initiatives in New Zealand which assist communities to help themselves and to heal problems rather than manage them”. Its five main areas of focus are:
Supporting families and social services
Encouraging enterprise and employment
Caring for our environment and preserving biodiversity
Strengthening the third sector (the not-for-profit sector), and
Promoting generosity and giving
Whatever we might feel about the complex ethical issues associated with running a large “big barn” retail operation (such as its impact on small businesses, and matters of fair trade in the global sourcing of products), Stephen Tindall exemplifies much of what Wesley and Carnegie aspired to. He has understood well his capacity for wealth creation, he lives a life of relative simplicity, and he finds his greatest joy in using his wealth for the benefit of others.
One of the problems with looking at the Tindalls of this world is that they are so wealthy. We can easily dismiss their example. After all, it’s no problem for them to be so generous – they have so much excess!
Jesus, we think, would disagree. “To whom much is given,” he said of the faithful servant, “much is required.” It seems it is actually a greater challenge to steward well for those with significant wealth than those of us with much less. Many wealthy Christians find that the complexities and challenges of being trustees for such large resources can at times be a significant burden. Determining where and how they invest their considerable resources is rarely simple.
So let’s be a little cautious when we compare our situation with theirs. Let’s not romantically assume that the more excess we have, the simpler it will be to be generous. And let’s not excuse ourselves from making good use of whatever resources we have. In his parable of the talents Jesus reminds us that it isn’t how much we have been entrusted with that determines our obedience, but what we do with it. The person with just one talent wasn’t castigated for only having one – but he was reprimanded for not investing it.
The majority of us are not Tindalls and probably would not aim to be. However, we still have to undertake the same prayerful reflection regarding what we do with what we have been given. Let’s seek out and value any structure or habit that helps us keep this thought at the forefront of our hearts and minds: what we have is not ours but is in trust for the purposes of the Kingdom. Here are some suggestions…
Some business people establish a charitable trust (as opposed to a family trust), into which is channelled a percentage of the profits of the business. They appoint a select number of family and friends to act as fellow trustees. And they determine the criteria they will use for working out what to support, and how much capital base to retain each year.
Others give a percentage of their company’s resources (time, skills, expertise and/or goods) at no charge to people or groups who can’t afford their services or products.
Still others decide to run their business part-time, or to be engaged in paid employment on just a few days a week, thus releasing time and energy for serving in other, voluntary capacities.
There’s more than one way to channel our excess wealth. The important thing is that we do it, and avoid believing the lie that it is ours to do with as we please. It’s certainly something that Nehemiah understood well.
Nehemiah was overseeing a large contract – rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He was also the governor of the city, working as a delegated leader for a foreign government – Persia. There were all kinds of pressures on him – the threat of war from outside the walls, and conflict and injustice inside the walls. If ever you’re looking for someone in the Bible who struggles with work-life balance the way many of us do, Nehemiah is surely your man!
Somehow he managed to keep things together with a strong sense of God at the centre. He was able to maintain a balance between prayer and practical justice.
The challenge of juggling many concerns is particularly evident in chapter five of the Book of Nehemiah. There we are told how he is approached by a group of Jews who are finding themselves oppressed by their own brothers and sisters. These people complain that through exploitation they have lost everything:
We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain…we are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine…we have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards…Although we are of the same flesh and blood as the rest of our people and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others. (Nehemiah 5:2-5 NIV)
We are told how angry Nehemiah was when he heard this. But he paused to ponder what he should do. Finally, he gathered the leaders together and denounced their injustices in public. He challenged them to give back what they had gained to the people they had exploited.
Believe it or not, they agreed to do so!
Then Nehemiah arranged a relief programme providing food and money for the people, encouraging others to do the same. However, knowing that this kind of help usually only provides temporary relief, he also tried to work on some longer-term solutions. He challenged those Jews who had taken land to give it back. Not only that, but he suggested they also give back olive trees to help these people develop a livelihood again. And he urged them to lend out money at no interest for those who needed assistance to get restarted in business.
Finally, knowing that good intentions alone don’t ensure action, Nehemiah also asked the leaders to covenant before God and each other that they would be true to their word and act.
So Nehemiah established a comprehensive, long-term community development scheme. Quite a feat. And this was all in his “spare time”, because his main “job” was overseeing that massive building project.
The story of Nehemiah doesn’t finish there. He saw another challenge. It was the danger of adopting a lifestyle that can only be supported while others live in poverty. His solution – Nehemiah decided to identify with the needs and aspirations of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. He chose to live in a way that expressed this concern, so that his own lifestyle could echo his ideals and be an example to others. We read about it in the second part of chapter five (vs. 14-18 NIV):
Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. (verse 14)
Each verse emphasises a different strategic step in Nehemiah’s response.
But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. (15)
Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. (16)
Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. (17)
Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. (18)
In verse 14 Nehemiah chooses to live more simply than his predecessors. Then he consciously resists being sucked into the cycle of oppression (v.15). This is followed by his getting on with the job that will benefit everyone (overseeing the rebuilding of the wall), instead of spending his energies accumulating more wealth and possessions for himself (v.16).
In verse 17 Nehemiah invites others to come and share what he has – in a significant display of hospitality not only to his own countrymen, but also to foreigners. Finally (v.18) Nehemiah chooses not to claim all that he is entitled to. In fact, he deliberately forgoes many of his rights and privileges to help relieve the burden on others.
The story of Nehemiah presents us with quite a challenge. As a high-level public servant, he was well rewarded materially. It would have been easy for him to just enjoy the privileges that went with his position. Instead, he made some quite deliberate choices to use his influence and wealth so that he could (in the words of the prophet Micah) “act justly and love mercy”.
Nehemiah really did “put his money where his mouth was”. He took seriously both his faith and his everyday work, successfully integrating them and living in the tension between his growing wealth and his commitment to stewarding his resources for God’s purposes. Here is a man whose tombstone could justifiably have said:
Respected political leader
Outstanding project manager
Man of prayer and faith
Compassionate, hospitable, lover of justice and peace
Lived what he believed with great integrity
For many of us, one of the most difficult issues to resolve is not just “how much” I should give, but “where?” We genuinely want our giving to make a difference, but often we find ourselves confused. It can be de-motivating if we later discover that much of what we provided is not really achieving what it was intended to. Worse still if we find out that a great deal of our gift didn’t actually get to the people or project targeted.
Sadly, when some “Christian” organisations and individuals promote causes, their claims can be exaggerated and overblown. We in the Church are not immune to being hoodwinked by the same marketing and spin-doctoring that occurs in our wider society. Some outfits even rely on the naivety of Christians when they trundle out their promotional machine. Getting the truth can be difficult. Certain organizations and individuals don’t appreciate probing questions. They fail to respond to requests for financial accounts and/or external assessments of effectiveness. (A reluctance here should be an indication that maybe this group is not going to use our gift with the integrity it deserves.)
This is not the place to give in-depth analysis regarding the complex issues of determining how and where we give, but it is worth noting in brief that many of our choices are not either/or’s. Instead, they span a continuum.
For example, some of the decisions about where we target our giving include such choices as the following, each with its own range of possibilities:
cross-cultural missionaries……indigenous missionaries
1. What do you think of John Wesley’s maxim: “Earn all you can; spend as little as you can; give as much as you can”? Do you think it’s relevant to our situation and culture?
2. Is the idea of “placing limits on one’s consumption” something that is commonly accepted in your Christian community? If yes, how is it expressed? If not, why do you think it isn’t part of your community’s worldview?
3. What kind of factors might help us determine “how much is enough” – both in terms of how much wealth we accumulate and/or how much time and energy we expend in accumulating wealth?
4. Discuss the pros and cons of various ways of channelling wealth into charity (trusts, reducing our own hours of work, targeted giving, etc.). What might best fit your situation?
5. What part of the story of Nehemiah do you find most challenging? Why?
6. Developing a healthy perspective about the importance of money is harder in some industries than in others. For example, these reflections come from Jim Kubik, a financial advisor:
I am paid to think about money. That’s my responsibility to the client. How can I not value it and stay responsible as a businessperson? That’s a particularly hard dilemma in my industry. It would be a lot easier if I were in manufacturing. If you nail some boards up and put up a house, there’s a lot of satisfaction just in doing that job. But for me the carrot is the significant factor, and keeping that in balance with your faith is not easy.
What advice would you give Jim, in helping him work through the claims of wealth and charity?
7. What challenges do you face in determining who to give money to? Discuss the possibilities listed at the end of the chapter, and the range of needs within each continuum. Are there any others that you think need to be taken into account? What principles do you think are most helpful in deciding where to give?
A number of years ago Alistair conducted an extensive survey of Christians related to their daily work. One of the questions he asked was, “What is it that you struggle with most as a Christian in your work?”
The results were startling, even shocking. Many responded by noting not the challenging work environment or culture, nor that they were asked to do things that compromised their faith, but rather that they were deeply embarrassed and often annoyed by the behaviour of other Christians in their place of employment.
The source of such difficulty was varied. For some it was the “super-spiritual” and often insensitive utterances and behaviour of excessively zealous believers, who often seemed to take very seriously their faith, but not their work.
For others it was the “sub-Christian” behaviour of some who publicly identified themselves as believers. Still others noted the poor ethics of certain “Christian” firms who had a sour reputation within their industry for not paying bills on time, for treating their employees poorly, and for indulging in dubious competitive practices.
Alistair was also surprised by the number of employers who said they were wary of hiring staff who were Christians! Many felt that Christians often expected to get preferential treatment and special exemptions from Christian bosses. This gave rise to tensions with other staff. And for others the wariness arose from past experiences. They had had some “Christian” employees who were poor workers – who did not seem to take seriously their responsibility to work hard and well for their bosses.
Some of these concerns are sadly echoed by Wayne’s experience in the car industry.
In the early nineties a couple of Christians set up a car yard in a New Zealand city. They seemed determined not only to make money but also to spread the gospel through their business. They even chose a trading name that was a not-so-subtle play on words, indicating to customers what they could do for them.
It was a very lively yard and in the boom days of Japanese importing did a roaring trade. True to their trading name, they took seriously their intention to evangelize, reputedly even tuning car radios to the Christian station and placing tracts underneath windscreen wipers!
However, below the surface all was not well.
Wayne was friendly with the car dealers who owned the neighbouring yard, having sold the occasional car to them. They weren’t Christians but were sympathetic to the faith. One of them also happened to be on the local dealers’ board. He told Wayne of the number of complaints they were receiving from disgruntled customers of the company in question. Not only that, but every time Wayne visited they would give him updates on the dramas occurring over the fence. They had a ringside seat and couldn’t help but see some stuff going on that set their teeth on edge.
Sadly, this “Christian yard” became the laughing stock of the car-dealing fraternity in their area. The gap between what they said they stood for, and how they operated, was unbelievably wide. The fact that they were Christians only added to the “joke”.
This distinct lack of integrity was confirmed to Wayne when a relation of his took them to task. At issue was some strong-arm, bully-boy tactics that a couple of their salesmen had used on a friend of his. Wayne’s relation was appalled by their whole attitude and their less-than-honest way of operating.
Not long afterwards it became public that this same company was being investigated for the winding back of odometers on imported cars. The resulting bad publicity eroded what remained of their business, and they eventually closed down their operation. Thank God for that!
Alistair’s survey and Wayne’s experience raise some interesting and important questions. Such as:
What does integrity look like in the workplace?
What does it mean to be a “witness” in the workplace?
Is there a place for “sharing our faith” in the workplace? If so, in what ways?
Are there specific issues we need to take a stand on because of their potential to compromise our faithfulness to God?
The movie The Big Kahuna touches on all of these questions, raising issues about both the implicit witness of Christians in the workplace (character, behaviour, relationships, work habits, etc.) and the more explicit forms of witness (conversations about God, sharing of our stories, interacting over issues of spirituality, etc.).
Based on a play called The Hospitality Suite, written by Roger Rueff, The Big Kahuna is the story of three industrial lubricant salesmen as they try to land a big sale at a business convention. Two of the men are veterans – the nearly divorced and rather disheartened Phil (played by Danny De Vito) and the hyperactive, fast talking and smooth Larry (Kevin Spacey). The third salesman is a fresh-faced young man named Bob (Peter Facinelli), who has been teamed up with the old pros so that he can learn the trade.
The entire movie is set in a hotel hospitality suite, which the men have hired in order to entertain potential customers. But there is only one sale they are really after – the account of Mr Fuller who is the company President of the largest user of lubricants in the country – the man referred to by Larry as “the big kahuna”. If they can snare his interest, and sign him up, then not only will their weekend efforts be worth it, but they’ll be lauded by their bosses for landing “the big one”. If not, they fear their jobs are on the line.
Two problems exist, however. One is whether or not he will attend. The second is – they have no idea what he looks like!
Industrial lubricant is clearly not a sexy product to sell. The vets know this and explain to Bob that really it’s not lubricant they’re selling – they’re selling themselves.
Larry is crass. He’s also a cynic, and he constantly talks down to Bob. To his credit, Bob responds without becoming offended. However, as the conversation continues and Larry discovers Bob is “religious”, he begins to bait him mercilessly. Bob struggles to relate to Larry and resorts to quoting Bible verses and making statements such as, “Maybe I just have different standards!”
Eventually, the party begins and the suite is alive with the sound of reps chatting over wine and nibbles.
Soon the function is over and the three salesmen are reflecting on the events of the night. Larry and Phil presume that the “big kahuna” did not turn up, but as Bob reflects on a lengthy conversation he had with one guest he realizes that this man was, in fact, the very Mr Fuller that Larry and Phil were looking for. Mr Fuller even left his business card with Bob.
Larry is excited. He quizzes Bob over what they talked about. Bob initially replies that the guest gave him a life history on the various dogs he had owned. But when Larry probes him further, Bob innocently mentions that all the talk about dogs gave him a “lead-in” to the subject of his faith. When Larry accuses Bob of manipulating the conversation for his own ends, Bob defends his actions. “I just think it’s important to tell people what you believe.”
“Yeah,” mutters Larry, “but is it the interests of the company or our faith that’s important here?”
Interrogating Bob further, the others discover that Mr Fuller has invited him to a private party. Bob must go, say Phil and Larry, so he can reconnect with Fuller. And also so that he can pass on Larry and Phil’s business cards – and ask Fuller to call and make an appointment. Bob agrees to all this, and heads off to the party.
Back at the hotel, Phil is in his own, introspective world – struggling with the aftermath of a marriage breakup, a late mid-life depression, and even thoughts of suicide. His past choices haunt him and he is filled with regret. Over dinner he attempts to engage his best mate Larry in some of the questions of life he has been thinking about. Larry is hardly the kind of friend to confide such feelings and thoughts to. His shallow cynicism conceals a man who’s afraid to think too much about life, fearful of what he might find.
Phil wants to talk, but Larry refuses to look beneath the surface. Phil even confides, “I’ve been thinking about God.” He asks his mate, “What do you believe in, Larry?”
“I believe what I believe.”
“Which is what?”
“How the hell should I know!”
Finally Phil confesses, “I always had this haunting feeling that I had some kind of mission on earth.” However, when Larry inquires, “What kind of mission?” Phil can only admit, “I have no idea.” He really is a searching but lost soul.
In due course Bob returns from his reconnoitre with Mr Fuller. It has been several hours, and Larry is eager to find out what has happened. When he asks how the conversation went, Bob replies, “Oh, we just talked.”
“What did you talk about?”
“We talked about Christ – about Jesus”
Larry snorts, “Did you ask about what kind of industrial lubricants Jesus would have endorsed? What did you say to him, Bob?”
“We just discussed things.”
“So the subject of lubricants didn’t come up?”
“Well, the nature of the conversation steered itself away from that.”
At this point Larry loses his cool and challenges Bob, “Who raised the subject of Jesus?”
“Because it’s very important to me that people hear about Jesus.”
“Understanding that it was very important to us being here to talk with Mr Fuller about industrial lubricants, why did you choose to talk about Jesus instead?”
“Because I think it’s more important.” Bob stops and thinks through what he has just said. He tries to justify himself. “I didn’t mention lubricants because I didn’t want him to think that I was using the subject of religion to cosy up to him. I didn’t want him to think I was insincere.”
“But you were insincere!”
Bob tries to explain what he believes. “I don’t see how we can have a conversation without talking about God.”
Larry counters, “At issue here is not your belief in God or your desire to spread that belief, but what we’re here to do.”
“Which is what?”
“Industrial lubricants, Bob! We’re not here to save souls!”
The increasingly heated conversation quickly dissolves into a shouting match with Larry yelling at Bob, and Bob responding angrily with Bible verses and the Apostle Paul! Suddenly the verbal aggression turns into a physical fight. Phil has to try and pull the two protagonists apart.
Awkwardly Bob apologizes and Larry says goodnight.
Phil and Bob are left standing in the suite. As Bob prepares to leave, Phil tells him he has a few things he wants to say. Top of the list is defending his friend Larry. Larry is an honest man. Someone Phil can trust. “You too are an honest man, Bob. Deep down you want to be honest. But the question you have to ask is, ‘Has it (honesty) touched the whole of your life?’”
Bob responds, “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you preaching Jesus is no different than Larry or anybody else selling lubricants. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or real estate. That doesn’t make you a human being. It makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to someone honestly as a human being, find out what his dreams are. Ask him about his kids. Just to find out. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s no longer a conversation. It’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being. You’re a marketing rep.”
Larry and Phil are clearly individuals struggling with their own tragedies. But in many ways, from a Christian perspective, Bob is also a tragic character. Though his young, innocent life bears none of the deep disappointments, relationship meltdowns and depressing self-analysis that Larry and Phil have gone through, nevertheless Bob’s narrow view and experience of life (and of faith) doesn’t connect with his older colleagues. He tries genuinely to relate, but often ends up quoting a scripture which just “bounces off the wall”, and causes him to be viewed as a naïve and odd young man. Which he is.
His actions and words signal many questions – about integrity, about what it means to bear witness, and about the tensions inherent in serving both God and an employer.
Perhaps most of all, his well-intentioned attempts to convert Mr Fuller reveal that he too, like the others, views himself as a salesman. He is trying to “sell” Jesus. That’s a problem for him professionally – it raises the question of how he can do his job with integrity. But it’s also a problem in his relationships. His narrow understanding of what being a witness is all about means he misses real opportunities to express genuine compassion and care for his colleagues.
We have previously (in the introduction to Part 2) mentioned the survey conducted by Laura Nash. One of her interviewees told her, “I’m nervous about people who wear their faith on their sleeves. In general, my experience with these people has been so bad.” Christians have very different ideas about how overtly we should advertise our Christian beliefs in the marketplace. Elmer Johnson, former executive vice president of General Motors puts it this way: “If you flaunt your religion, it has lost its power in your life. On the other hand, you don’t really hide it, because it is too integral. It’s the foundation of everything.”
One coping device for Christians who want to avoid conflict is to relegate their faith to the “private” parts of their life, to what they do outside of work hours. An opposite approach is to charge into every encounter with the zeal of a crusader, determined to publicize your beliefs and to say your bit no matter what the consequences. Yet another approach is to minimize conflict by limiting your business associations – as much as possible working only with those who share your values.
Personally, we are not attracted to any of these strategies. For Jesus followers trying to take seriously his example of engaging with others in the world, there must be a better way.
Robert Webber has explored the life of Jesus by identifying three different themes: identification, separation and transformation. According to Webber, all three are present in the incarnational approach that Jesus adopted.
Jesus entered our world mixing with a great deal of freedom among all sorts of people. He befriended some leading Pharisees and honourable business and political families (such as those of the women who supported him – see Luke 8:3). He also went out of his way to spend time with lepers, prostitutes, drunkards, Roman soldiers, Samaritans and Gentiles. (He even befriended some unscrupulous business people! We know specifically about tax gatherers Matthew and Zacchaeus.)
It’s well known that Jesus was roundly criticized by religious people of his time for mixing so indiscriminately. From their point of view Jesus compromised his holiness. But Jesus was redefining what holiness is about. It does not just mean separation from ordinary people and from ethically dubious circumstances. Jesus was loud in his denunciation of what he saw as the ethical hypocrisy of the Pharisees in the marketplace. They put on a pretence of holiness in terms of personal morality, but they failed to act justly or to love mercy. They cut themselves off from others for the wrong reasons.
Unquestionably there is a time for separation. It was not just the Pharisees that Jesus condemned. He also separated himself from many of the beliefs and practices of the Sadducees, criticizing their theology. He mounted an alarmingly violent attack on the money changers who exploited worshippers in the temple precincts, overturning their tables and literally cracking a whip. This is no Jesus meek and mild, the gentle friend of everyone.
So Jesus did separate himself from others when he felt it necessary. But at the same time, he was not willing to just maintain the status quo. He pursued the dream of creating a different world. Constantly he talked about the Kingdom of God and how it is the values of the Kingdom that we are now called to live by. He encouraged his disciples to pray to our Father in heaven, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The world that Jesus is a citizen of is a world transformed by Kingdom values. And he invites us also to live as signs and transforming agents of that Kingdom.
So the ministry of Jesus can’t be reduced to a single approach. Sometimes he willingly fits in with the circumstances and people around him, including the good, the bad, the sick and the succeeding. Sometimes he challenges the people or circumstances, refusing to accept what they stand for or to be identified with them. And sometimes he acts assertively to see people and circumstances transformed.
The actions of Jesus can't be reduced to a simple formula or rule. The closest we get is in John 5:19 where he says, “I do what I see my Father doing.” Jesus chooses to act in accord with his knowledge of God. He chooses to cooperate with what he sees God doing in each person he meets, and in each situation he encounters. As a result we find that all these dimensions – identification, separation and transformation – are present in the incarnational approach that Jesus adopted and modelled.
Consequently, it is Christian discernment that we must pray for – to know what is the most appropriate response at any particular time in the ethically complex marketplace in which we operate. We need to know when to identify with freedom, when to courageously separate, and when to push persistently and determinedly for transformation and change.
It was in the inhospitable and very strange land of Babylon that four young Jewish men sought to live out this tension. Their story is found in the first six chapters of the book of Daniel – and it’s quite a story. Trained in the ways of the host country’s culture, each of these men were given leadership positions within its government.
Daniel is the prominent member of the foursome, and all but one of the events in these chapters involves him. On two occasions he displays astonishingly courageous integrity. In the first, Daniel is required to interpret a terrifying dream of the king’s. When Daniel becomes aware of the dream’s meaning, he too is terrified. But he braces himself and explains the distressing message, and then even goes as far as to say:
“So, king, take my advice: Make a clean break with your sins and start living for others. Quit your wicked life and look after the needs of the down-and-out. Then you will continue to have a good life.” (Daniel 4:27 The Message)
In spite of his very responsible position, we must remember how risky it would have been for Daniel to voice these sentiments to an oriental despot – ruler of the most powerful empire of the time. No wonder Daniel was terrified. But he holds back no punches … and survives.
Some time later, Nebuchadnezzar has a gigantic golden image erected. At the dedication ceremony, an event that all the important leaders were required to attend, everyone is ordered to bow down and worship the statue. The alternative is to be thrown into a roaring furnace. No ifs or buts!
It’s at this point that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have a problem. They determine that the limits of their acceptance of the state’s authority don’t extend to offering worship to the king’s monument. Even when given a second chance to comply, they refuse. The furious ruler has them thrown into a white-hot furnace – and we all know how this part of the story turns out!
Daniel too, faces imminent death in the incident that has become synonymous with his name – the lions’ den. It comes about because of the scheming jealousy of the other high-level government officials. They determine to find a way of bringing him down. However, Daniel’s behaviour has been impeccable. As the story states:
The vice-regents and governors got together to find some old scandal or skeleton in Daniel’s life that they could use against him, but they couldn’t dig up anything. He was totally exemplary and trustworthy. They could find no evidence of negligence or misconduct. (Daniel 6:4 The Message)
In desperation they convince the new king, Darius, to issue a decree insisting that everyone pray only to him. Disobeying this law is made punishable by death in the lions’ den.
Remarkably, Daniel continues to pray openly to Yahweh daily and is duly arrested.
Daniel’s faithful witness has clearly had a huge impact on Darius. He is mortified at what his decree has produced. Unable by law to retract the decree, he reluctantly has Daniel thrown into the den, but not before saying to him, “Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this.”
Daniel is indeed saved, much to the huge relief of the king. Angry at how he has been manipulated by his officials, Darius has them thrown to the lions. The story of Daniel finishes with a final proclamation by the king:
“I decree that Daniel’s God shall be worshipped and feared in all parts of my kingdom. He is the living God, world without end. His kingdom never falls. His rule continues eternally. He is a saviour and rescuer. He performs astonishing miracles in heaven and on earth. He saved Daniel from the power of the lions.” (Daniel 6:26-27 The Message)
Remarkable stuff indeed! For Daniel and his friends, maintaining integrity meant bravely putting their lives on the line as they lived true to their beliefs.
However, an earlier incident – related to us by the writer of Daniel in the first chapter of the book, also offers us some insights into how these exiled Jewish men grappled with the tension of being faithful to Yahweh, while also seeking the peace and prosperity of their host empire:
Daniel made up his mind to eat and drink only what God had approved for his people to eat. And he asked the king’s chief official for permission not to eat the food and wine served in the royal palace. God had made the official friendly and kind to Daniel. But the man still told him, “The king has decided what you must eat and drink. And I am afraid he will kill me, if you eat something else and end up looking worse than the other young men.” The king’s official had put a guard in charge of Daniel and his three friends. So Daniel said to the guard, “For the next ten days, let us have only vegetables and water at mealtime. When the ten days are up, compare how we look with the other young men, and decide what to do with us.” The guard agreed to do what Daniel had asked. Ten days later, Daniel and his friends looked healthier and better than the young men who had been served food from the royal palace. After this, the guard let them eat vegetables instead of the rich food and wine. (Daniel 1:8-16 CEV)
To us, the food that Daniel and his friends ate might not seem like much of an issue. But it did to them. This was because the Jewish Law laid down some clear rules about food. (Which is why we find Jewish and Gentile Christians so fiercely debating food issues in Acts 15.)
So how should we act when we face some issue of conscience where we determine we should take a stand?
Daniel and his friends provide a valuable example. They were careful. They didn’t want to antagonize the Babylonians unnecessarily, but neither did they want to feel seriously compromised themselves. They had to decide how far they would go and where they would draw the line.
We need to pray for courage to act. But we also need wisdom to know when to act and when not to act. For as Christians we often seem preoccupied with just a few issues – and they’re not always the most important ones. Sadly, often we are only known for what we denounce and stand against, rather than what we stand for. Generally we’re on the back foot – responding negatively to moves that others have made, rather than proactively making a positive difference ourselves.
Daniel and his friends provide us with a much more positive model of people who want to serve God with integrity. They are very clear about the real issues, but they are also concerned to work them through in a way that even unbelievers will understand and admire. They are not defensive about living as the people of God in this pluralistic environment. In fact they seem to view Babylon as a place full of opportunities for exercising faith – rather than as a place of restrictive barriers. They don’t get uptight about every problem. (For example if they protest about the fact that they are renamed after Babylonian gods, we are not told about this. Apparently it is not a big enough issue.)
They think carefully about the problem and seek to explain their point of view in ways that others can understand. They ask for the opportunity to prove that their faith can produce results. And they trust that God will turn up and make a difference where they work.
When faced with something they find offensive, Daniel and his friends have learned the fine art of pausing to stop and think before they overreact. This allows them to respond creatively, working towards a positive solution rather than magnifying the problem. So often we Christians get caught on the hop. When we react, our burst of righteous anger means that the truth can’t be heard. Even if the message is right, the aggressiveness of our method has already undermined it.
The final – and maybe even the most important – lesson we learn from Daniel and his friends is that God doesn’t want us left to face these ethical challenges on our own. Daniel shared his life and his questions with his friends; that way they were able to support each other. Sometimes we are forced to face challenges alone – like Joseph in Egypt. But God’s intention is that the church should be a supportive fellowship of fellow travellers. We are meant to draw encouragement and inspiration from one another. We can only do that if we have the support of committed companions.
This is not so that we can live off the faith of the group we belong to. Nor so that others can tell us what to do. Rather, a helpful Christian group will be one that encourages us to work out a faith we can own for ourselves. It is a group that has robust foundations, sufficient to sustain us for life. If that is the case, then perhaps we’ll be less afraid to put our faith to the test. Along with others, we’ll be bold enough to attempt what we would never do alone.
That’s how Daniel and his friends acted. They took a bold stand … together. They did it with sensitivity, trying not to offend unnecessarily, helping those above them to understand why they felt compelled to do it.
But they also did it in a way that meant God had to deliver. It must have seemed pretty scary at the time – though not nearly as scary as the searing furnace or the den of lions that they would later have to face! Of course that was a few more lessons down the road. And that’s important to remember. For only God knows where each of us are up to right now. He’s not expecting us to jump straight into red-hot crises or a den of man-eating critics. We’re simply asked to respond to the challenge that’s in front of us.
So what was “faith” for Daniel and his friends might seem beyond us right now. But they too got there, just one step at a time.
1. What positive and/or negative examples of Christian witness are there in your workplace or wider industry? In what ways do they affect the view your non-believer colleagues have of faith and life issues?
2. Early in the chapter we noted some key questions about being faithful witnesses in the secular city. In the light of what we have raised in this chapter, and your own experience, discuss:
What does integrity look like in the workplace?
What does it mean to be a “witness” in the workplace?
Is there a place for “sharing our faith” in the workplace? If so, in what ways?
How can we determine what issues we need to make a stand on?
3. Share your own struggles and joys regarding being a witness in your workplace. (Remember to think about the challenges of both implicit and explicit witness.)
4. Robert Webber identifies three aspects of Jesus’ incarnation as a human – identification, separation and transformation. Regarding this we wrote: “We need to know when to identify with freedom, when to courageously separate, and when to push persistently and determinedly for transformation.”
Use your own workplace experience to think about how these choices might best be made. How difficult do you find it to make these choices? Can you describe particular examples that you have been faced with?
5. What appeals to you most about the story of Daniel and his friends? What do you find most daunting?
We’ve covered a lot of ground over the previous few chapters. No doubt you’ve identified with at least some of the workplace tensions that we’ve dealt with. We hope that your interaction with them has helped stimulate plenty of thinking and discussion. Over time we also hope it will assist you to be even more faithful to Jesus in the marketplace.
It seems to us that most, if not all, of the struggles and challenges raised in this book can be gathered up into one over-arching question: “What approach should we adopt as we interact with the business world that we’re part of? How should we operate as the people of God in the world?”
There seem to be two different answers … two biblical visions … two contrasting, even contradictory, approaches. And we seem to be caught between them.
Alistair was confronted with this recently when he was asked to speak at a church service. In the Old Testament reading that day, this verse caught his attention:
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)
The New Testament reading drew on the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:
No one can serve two masters . . . You cannot serve God and wealth . . . Don't worry about life, about food, or drink, or your body, or clothing . . . Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
The first reading seems to encourage us to get involved in the world, to participate in its systems and organizations, not to stand self-consciously apart from it. In contrast, the second tells us to retain our distinctiveness, to make Kingdom values our priority, to reject worldly enticements, not to get sucked in.
The Jeremiah reading relates to that time when Israel had been overrun by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, and many of the people had been dragged off to live as exiles in Babylon. They couldn't understand why God had allowed this to happen, nor how they should live in this new and pagan environment. Israel was God’s own country – they understood what it meant to live as the people of God there. But … Babylon? That was enemy territory.
Hopelessly outnumbered in Babylon, they were forced to play according to someone else's rules. It was so hard to see where God was in these new circumstances, with all the familiar landmarks gone. No wonder we hear the Psalmist lamenting: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion.” They prayed for God's deliverance. Why was he taking so long?
But Jeremiah saw that God's purposes were quite different. God’s message for these people was: “Don't be so alarmed. God is at work in Babylon too. Make your homes here and get on with the job. Seek the welfare of the city for if it prospers, so you will prosper.”
Here, then, is a word for those of us who feel out of place in the modern marketplace: “Even in Babylon, God is still at work. Don't give up! Get on with the job!” We mustn’t let circumstances paralyze us just because they're different and difficult. They’ve been difficult before. But God was in them then, and he still is. Get on with your daily tasks, believing that we can still catch a glimpse of God and still be part of his great purposes.
However, we also need our critical faculties intact, because we have this other word from Jesus. It emphasizes that whatever our circumstances, we must also live in the light of another vision: the glimpse of a redeemed marketplace, where truth and justice and care for people are valued as much as profit-making. And where commercial realities are considered in the context of building community for the good of all. Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
So which should shape our ethics? Immersion in Babylon? Or this vision of the Kingdom of God? The Bible seems to leave us torn between the two. And we think that’s the way it’s meant to be – a tension that can stimulate the birth of new creative possibilities.
And so we come back again to those seven creative tensions between personal faith and capitalism that Laura Nash identifies – and that we’ve been exploring these past several chapters:
How do we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? Not by living tension-free. Not by pretending these tensions don’t exist. Not by running away from this tangle of belief, human failings and economic realities that surrounds us.
When we walk into our workplace each day, we wrestle with Christian conscience on the one hand and business responsibilities on the other. We are forced to be realists rather than just idealists – but realists dependent on the grace of God. For we will get things wrong sometimes. So we need to know where forgiveness is found, or we will become paralyzed and afraid to act for fear of doing the wrong thing.
But we also need to draw encouragement from Laura Nash’s point. If Christian people can learn to live more consciously at the intersection of the worlds of faith and business, some very creative solutions to ethical dilemmas are possible.
There’s another awareness we require. If we want to show the dynamic connection between faith and economic activity, we are in a delicate position. Trying to maintain a traditional biblical worldview while participating in the modern culture of the corporation … neither constructing an invisible wall between the two (as the “generalists” do), nor suggesting that they are wholly complementary (as the “justifiers” want to say) … is not easy.
And so Christian “seekers” must maintain some distance – but not too much distance – between the opposing forces of belief and business.
If faith and economic thinking are too close, then they will collapse into each other and become indistinguishable. Our Christian values will no longer be a floodlight with which to examine and critique our work practices – just a candle flickering fitfully.
But if faith and economic thinking are too distant, then our workplaces will become a separate world. Our Christian values will be restricted to our private lives and what we do with our weekends. Our faith will turn its back on our working lives, and wander off to its own self-absorbed pursuits. We may profess to be Christian, but we will no longer venture into the world as Christians.
Our dream is that we will see a whole generation of Christian “seekers” who will have that combination of biblical insight and business acumen, of lively idealism and earthy realism, who will provide marketplace leadership with integrity and creativity. We look for people who have earned the right to speak persuasively both from the church and to the church because they have heard and understood both of those challenges from the Bible:
“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city,”
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
1. Discuss the two “competing biblical visions” and reflect on how you see this tension evident in your own workplace.
2. Looking back over the last seven chapters, which of the creative tensions identified in the chapter titles have been:
3. What specific insights have you gained through reading this book?
4. Are there any particular ways in which your decision-making in the marketplace has already changed, since beginning this book?
5. Pray for each other.