The Command Approach

Article / Produced by TOW Project

As Wayne contemplates his dilemma with the car, he wonders if there is any simple rule or command that can help him decide the right thing to do. One starting point is obvious enough — do the laws of the land provide a clear answer? What is the law?

What Are Wayne’s Obligations According to Law?

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Wayne knows that the Consumer Guarantees Act (of New Zealand) gives customers six guarantees about a vehicle they purchase. The critical one is that it must be of acceptable quality. The vehicle must be:

  • Fit for the purpose that type of vehicle is normally used for.
  • Acceptable in finish and appearance.
  • Free from minor defects.
  • Safe.
  • Durable — in other words, the vehicle is able to be used for its normal purposes for a reasonable time after purchase.
  • The age and price of a vehicle must be taken into account when deciding whether it meets an acceptable quality.

So what is considered a “reasonable” time after purchase? There is no clearly defined answer to this, so Wayne’s legal obligations are not precisely defined. However, for a seven-year-old Camry with medium mileage like the one Wayne has sold, three months or 5000 kilometers (km) would be considered a “reasonable” period for Wayne to be legally obliged to repair the car. A customer might well think that six or twelve months were “reasonable”. A period as long as twelve months, however, is unlikely to be upheld if it were ever tested in a court of law.

Wayne asks the customer how many kilometers he has driven in the car over the twelve months. The answer is 22,000 km. This suggests to Wayne that he has no legal obligation to repair the fault. Both the time since the sale, and the distance it has traveled, are well beyond what would be a “reasonable” warranty for a car of this age and mileage.

Legal and/or moral commands?

Even though Wayne is satisfied he is under no legal obligation to pay for the repair, that is not the end of the matter as far as he is concerned. Legality and morality, he knows, are not the same things. The law usually defines society’s minimum moral requirements for the protection of people. Wayne remembers an incident that a friend told him about recently. The Board of Directors of a particular company was discussing a business proposition. Initial comments were about the legality of the proposal, and it soon became clear that the scheme was well within the law. But then one director said, “It is legal. But is it right?”

“As soon as that question was asked,” Wayne’s friend commented, “it was followed by a long silence, because we all knew that the answer was ‘No’. Even before we had time to discuss why.”

Wayne knows that what the law says is clearly not enough. However, thinking beyond legal minimum standards is not always easy. What higher standards should a company follow? There was a time in western society when Christian ethical principles provided a higher standard that was widely — if not universally — accepted. In America, the J.C. Penney company —  a large department store chain — was famous as “The Golden Rule Store,” and it would have been considered proper to make a customer service decision based upon biblical commands. Undoubtedly something similar applied (or still applies) in societies strongly identified with a single religion or philosophy.

But as western societies have become secularized, religious considerations have become unacceptable as a basis for corporate ethics. However, no other generally accepted source of ethical guidance has taken the place that biblical ethics formerly held. This generally means that there is no source of ethical guidance beyond merely keeping the law. This is a problem for many business schools when they seek to discuss ethics. Concerned to assert their secular status and to show themselves free from partiality or religious interference, they often end up largely ignoring morality and values. The result is an arid focus around what is legal. The discussion among the company directors above demonstrates the inadequacy of this attitude.  They all knew something was wrong, but they had no way to talk about it.

Commands beyond the law

Despite these difficulties, a Christian approach to ethics looks for some command from God that will name clearly what is right and wrong. In some cases, it’s not hard to find Bible verses that speak about work and employment issues, for instance. In others, it can be very difficult to identify, understand or apply biblical verses properly. How do we know which rules and principles apply in which situations? There are lots of different systems for applying the Bible.

So where does Wayne begin looking for this sort of answer to his dilemma?

A Rule for Every Occasion?

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In desperation, Wayne goes searching for help on his bookshelf. He spots a title that could be the very thing he’s looking for — The Businessman’s Topical Bible.[1]  A quick glance indicates how this book tackles the problem. It looks for a specific Bible verse to provide a rule that deals with the particular work issue we’re facing.

Wayne scans through the pages. In them, the author Mike Murdock lists 1550 verses from the Bible, to “provide God’s insight into situations and circumstances encountered every day in today’s business world.” These are grouped under sections, such as “Your Attitude”, “Your Work”, “Your Daily Schedule”, “Your Family”, “Your Finances”, “The Businessman and Integrity”, or “When a Customer is Dissatisfied.”[2] Nearly 100 topics are included, covering a wide range of common business situations.

As he looks at some of the sections, Wayne notices that the author doesn’t try to outline any particular method for making decisions. He simply lists Bible verses he thinks are relevant to each situation, without any explanation or commentary. The implication is that they apply directly and are self-explanatory.

Wayne finds some topics that he initially thinks might help with his problem:

  • “When a customer is dissatisfied” includes verses such as 2 Timothy 2:24: “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” and Luke 6:35: “Love your enemies, do good to them, lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great.”
  • “The Businessman and Integrity,” where Psalm 112:5 is quoted: “Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely, who conducts his affairs with justice.”
  • “The Businessman and Negotiation,” including 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”[3]

On closer inspection, Wayne finds that such random Bible verses give him little help. 2 Timothy 2:24 seems to give opposite advice from 2 Tim. 1:7, and, anyway, 1:7 is about teaching, not refunds.  Luke 6:35 is about enemies, not customers. These verses don’t really seem to apply to Wayne’s situation. In fact, one of the problems with such an approach is that if the Bible is seen as an “answer book” for all the various situations we might encounter, we can easily slide into taking verses out of context and make them mean something different from that intended by their original author. (This is often called “proof-texting.”) 

When we start with a “problem” and go looking for an “answer,” we’re really using the Scriptures in a back-to-front way. The risk is that we simply take what fits into our pre-formatted scheme and ignore everything else, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself and allowing the consistent themes and messages to make themselves evident in the reading and re-reading of the text.

For example, when Wayne takes a closer look at the section “When a customer is dissatisfied,” he notices the verse in Luke 21:19: “By standing firm you will gain life.” When he reads the passage it is a part of, he realizes it has absolutely nothing to do with a dissatisfied customer in business. Luke is quoting the words of Jesus to his followers, telling them what they should do when they are arrested and persecuted for their faith! The verse has been taken out of context, as have many others in the sections Wayne looks at.

There’s another danger from hunting out a scriptural rule for every occasion. Such an exercise can easily descend into a kind of reductionism and legalism. We only have to look at the scribes and the Pharisees to see what this might look like. In their genuine desire to obey God, they elaborated the law into a set of specific do’s and don’ts, that in the end, blinded them to their own legalism and arrogance, rather than assisting them to follow God.

If this sounds like a severe criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, let us just note briefly here that what they were attempting to do was admirable. They were some of the few people who seriously sought to apply faith to the whole of life, including business. They realized that faith wasn’t just about observing temple rituals and attending synagogue meetings. They were trying to define what it meant to be godly in every aspect of life. The trouble is, the only way they knew to go about this was by trying to define a rule for every occasion. And this led to an explosion of rules that went way beyond what Scripture actually said, yet still failed to cover every situation.

For example, take their desire to fulfill the commandment about keeping the Sabbath. In seeking to nail down how this might look in practice, they completely missed the point of the exercise, even berating Jesus for having the audacity to heal on the Sabbath! They became captive to their own self-constructed rules, and in doing so found themselves obstructing rather than assisting others to fulfill the intention of the law.

So attempting to formulate a complete book of rules based on Scripture that will speak to every conceivable ethical dilemma we face in our work contexts, is a hopeless and pointless quest. Not only does the Bible fail to account for the thousands of situations that arise in business, but in trying to make it do so we risk forcing it to say something it was never intended to mean…or even worse, trivializing Scripture and missing the point altogether.

However, while the Bible can’t and shouldn’t be turned into a comprehensive rule book for ethics in the marketplace, it still does contain some important and relevant commands/rules. Many statements in Scripture are straightforward and easily applicable. Not every situation we face at work is complex. In many business activities it is not difficult to discern the Bible’s counsel.  If Scripture tells us (e.g., Colossians 3:22) to work wholeheartedly for our earthly masters (similar to “boss”), then we need to do it. If it warns us against laziness and not taking responsibility for earning our keep (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 3: 10-12), then that should be our aim. When it tells us to deal with conflict by talking directly with the person who has offended us, there’s the guideline we need to follow. When it tells us not to steal and not to slander people, we should adhere rigorously to those commands.

Mike Murdock, The Businessman’s Topical Bible: Wisdom and Inspiration for Today’s Businessman (Tulsa: Honor, 1992). There’s also a companion Businesswoman’s version.

Each “chapter” within the sections is headed up, “When…” or “The Businessman and ….” For example, “When a customer does not pay his bills” or “When you face illegal or unfair competition” or “The Businessman and Negotiation,” etc.

Murdock uses the NIV in each of these verses.          

Larger Principles?

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Disappointed, Wayne puts the book back on the shelf. As he does so, he glances at another title that grabs his attention — Business By The Book.[4] Intrigued, he picks it up and quickly discovers that the approach of author Larry Burkett is to identify principles in the Bible. By “principles,” he means precepts wider and more general than rules, yet still in the form of biblically-derived commands about the right thing to do.

The subtitle of the book, Wayne notes, is “The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for Business Men and Women.” This seems promising. So he begins to read. It’s clear that Business by the Book assumes that God has laid down in principles the necessary ethical instruction for “doing business His way.” According to Burkett, the Bible contains statutes, commandments and principles that provide “God’s plan for His people in business.”[5]

Fundamental to this are the Ten Commandments — which Burkett considers to be the minimum standard separating God’s people from those around them. Then there are “other minimums that set apart God’s followers from others in the business world.”[6]

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

  • Reflect Christ in your business practices.
  • Be accountable.
  • Provide a quality product at a fair price.
  • Honor your creditors.
  • Treat your employees fairly.
  • Treat your customers fairly.

These are not rules found in the Bible, but are principles that Larry Burkett believes can be directly deduced from the rules in the Bible. The intent is that they will cover more of the actual situations that arise in the workplace because they are not so narrow as specific rules.

Does this help Wayne?

Clearly the two “minimums” of “providing a quality product at a fair price” and “treating your customers fairly” are relevant to Wayne’s problem. But while it’s useful to identify these principles, this doesn’t actually get Wayne any closer to what he should do. He is still left struggling to determine exactly what it is in this case that might be “fair” treatment and what process he might use to establish what is fair? He readily agrees with both Burkett’s principles — but this doesn’t help him proceed any further. This is a common problem with command-based methods. If the set of commands is specific, it will not cover the huge range of situations that occur in the world. If it is general, it will not provide actual solutions to the problems it covers.

However, the book does offer the suggestion of talking with friends about what they think might be fair in this situation. This, Wayne decides, would be a useful thing to do. He likes the idea of developing a more communal environment to help him gain perspective on his dilemma. Doing this works against some of the intense individualism we all battle with, and it also recognizes that many ethical challenges are complex and need insightful others to give perspective and support. 

Wayne is less enthralled by what he considers to be a quite prescriptive approach to using the Bible. It seems to reduce Scripture to a series of easy-to-understand principles and rules — like a “how-to” manual. While it is encouraging to see approaches like Business by the Book taking seriously the challenge to let our faith influence the world of business in practical ways, sadly it is built around a limited selection of principles, shaped by Burkett’s particular perspective. Hence, like most other similar attempts to summarize the Bible’s approach to business, it provides helpful insights into some issues, but also promises more than it can deliver.

Larry Burkett, Business by the Book: The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles For Business Men and Women (Nashville: Nelson, 1990).

Burkett, 15.

Burkett, 16.

A Single Principle or Command?

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Wayne is still struggling with his dilemma. He returns to his bookshelf to see what else might be of assistance. John Maxwell’s There’s No Such Thing as “Business” Ethics almost jumps out at him!

John Maxwell thinks we have made Christian decision-making far too complex. It’s his belief that all the Bible’s moral imperatives can essentially be reduced to just one overarching command. According to Maxwell, there’s no such thing as business ethics: there’s only one rule for making decisions.[7] This is the “Golden Rule,” proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount — “Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12 NIV).

This one guideline (“How would I like to be treated in this situation?”) should govern all ethical decision-making.[8] Simple, but not easy, is the way Maxwell describes this rule. However, he acknowledges that it requires a number of other principles to explain what it involves, including:

  1. Treat people better than they treat you.
  2. Walk the second mile.
  3. Help people who can’t help you.
  4. Do right when it’s natural to do wrong.
  5. Keep your promises even when it hurts.

Even though he doesn’t explicitly quote the Bible, Maxwell’s approach is clearly rooted in Matthew 7:12.[9] Over the past two centuries this saying has become known as the Golden Rule,[10] and Maxwell notes that the core of this precept is found in other religions and cultures as well. It is therefore a principle that can be commended to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Several of the explanatory principles mentioned by Maxwell are also clearly based on other elements of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “Treat people better than they treat you” seems to be a natural implication of Matthew 5:43-48, and “Walk the second mile” is a clear reference to Matthew 5:41.

One thing that attracts Wayne to this Golden Rule approach to business ethics is that it is grounded in the teachings of Jesus. Given that we are often guilty of evading Jesus and his ethics, this is refreshing.

How does this help Wayne solve his problem?

The Golden Rule is certainly a very useful clarifying principle for Wayne. It causes him to think, “How would I want to be treated if I were in my customer’s shoes?” And the associated principles of “treating people better than they treat you” and “walking the second mile” do challenge Wayne to go beyond what is legally expected of him. However, Maxwell’s approach still does little to help Wayne determine the specifics of what he might take responsibility for.

There is no doubt that the Golden Rule is close to the heart of Jesus’ ethical teachings. The simplicity of elevating the significance of one principle is attractive, and it is obviously helpful in some ways. However, it may also prove far too simplistic and quite deceptive in other ways. Maxwell’s need to flesh it out with further qualifying rules shows that this is, in fact, true.

Some of Maxwell’s fundamental assumptions are also questionable, such as his belief that ethical behavior pays (at least in the long-term). There is no convincing evidence that this is the case.[11] In fact, as Scott Rae and Kenman Wong point out, if this were always (or even mostly) true:

…there would be no need for books or courses on business ethics, as nearly everyone would practice solid moral behavior because of the prospect of financial reward.[12]

There is another limitation to Maxwell’s approach. It assumes that there are only two players involved in the decision (the person making the choice and the person being affected by it). As long as it works to the advantage of these two people, according to the Golden Rule it is the best thing. Wayne realizes that in his particular current situation that’s largely true. However, his mind turns to many other decisions he has to make, where other people are impacted indirectly, and/or the environment is also affected.

For example, not so long ago Wayne sold a large four-wheel drive vehicle. He felt he did apply the Golden Rule to the customer (treating her with respect, giving her the best deal he possibly could, disclosing all relevant information, etc.). However, in that sale one thing he didn’t take into consideration was the broader issue of how much impact this vehicle, with its high fuel consumption, would have on the environment.

We’ll return to this point of Maxwell’s in chapter 5

Maxwell, 21.

The equivalent in Luke is 6:31 — “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Craig Keener suggests that John Wesley may have been the first to call it this, in a sermon he gave in 1750. See Craig S. Keener, Matthew, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997) 161.

Amar Bhide and Howard H. Stevenson argue convincingly that after extensive research they discovered that “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.” See their article, “Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay?”, originally published in Harvard Business Review (Sept-Oct, 1990) 121-9. Reprinted with permission by Rae and Wong in Beyond Integrity, 70-8.

Scott Rae and Kenman Wong, Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 85.

Three Balancing Principles

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Wayne is fast running out of books! But as he gazes up to his bookshelf again, he notices Alexander Hill’s Just Business.[1] Hill, a professor of business and economics, has attempted in this book to find a middle way between the simplistic single-rule approach and other more complicated approaches with multiple rules.

His central point is that Christian ethics in business should be built not on rules, but rather on the changeless character of God. As we study and observe God’s character, we can learn to imitate God. “Behavior consistent with God’s character is ethical — that which is not, is unethical.”[2]

We are called, therefore, to act according to principles that help us emulate God’s character. Few of us would argue with that, but the big question is…so what is God like? Hill’s answer is that the three characteristics of God most often emphasized in the Bible are: 

  • Holiness
  • Justice
  • Love

More specifically, he defines these traits as follows:

Holiness

Pursuing holiness involves single-mindedness, making God our highest priority. Which means considering all other concerns of lesser importance — concerns such as material goods, career goals and even personal relationships. Pursuing holiness includes zeal, purity, accountability and humility. 

Justice

“Justice provides order to human relationships by laying out reciprocal sets of rights and duties for those living in the context of community.”[3] Two fundamental personal rights are the right to be treated with dignity and the right to exercise free will. The duties or responsibilities (which are really the flip side of the justice coin) require that we treat others in ways that offer them these rights. The rights and duties exist in tension, providing a necessary counterbalance to each other. For example, a worker’s right to a livable wage means the employer has a duty to pay the employee fairly. And it also requires the worker to work faithfully for his or her pay. Justice cuts both ways.

Love

Hill acknowledges that love is generally viewed as the pre-eminent virtue.[4] However, it needs to be moderated by the other two characteristics. Its primary contribution to the holiness-justice-love mix is its emphasis on relationships, through empathy, mercy and self-sacrifice. Love creates bonds between people, and conversely, the breaching of these bonds causes pain.

A Three-legged Stool

Hill’s view then is that “a business act is ethical if it reflects God’s holy-just-loving character.”[5] (There’s no particular significance to the ordering of these three characteristics. In fact, they are completely intertwined with each other.) The image Hill uses to express this is that of a three-legged stool. If we are to operate biblically in business, all three aspects (legs) need to be taken into account consistently; otherwise, we will have a badly imbalanced stool.

For example, if holiness is overemphasized to the exclusion of love and justice, then the result will be legalism, self-righteous judgmentalism and withdrawal from society.

If justice dominates, then harsh results, emotional coldness and condemnation are the likely outcome.

When love is the only major measure, things can easily lapse into permissiveness and favoritism, because there are no other moral compass points to direct us to the limits that love requires.

Alexander Hill condemns any attempt to reduce Scripture to a book of rules that can be applied to specific situations.[6] He’s also acutely aware of the complexities of the business world. (This is something that Wayne appreciates!)

While Hill’s approach is built on three principles (broad commands implied by the characteristics of God), he frequently also takes into account the consequences — especially to determine whether justice has been produced.

How is Wayne Helped by This Approach?

Wayne struggles to get his head around exactly what holiness looks like in his situation, but he finds the balancing principles of justice and love quite useful. What particular rights and duties exist in his seller-customer relationship? And what response to the customer’s request might be just for both parties? Wayne resolves that he may have a duty to contribute to the repair — though he thinks that the customer also has a responsibility to contribute. Justice cuts both ways — being fair to both customer and seller.

Given that Wayne gave the customer a very cheap price on the car in the first place — with little profit margin — he feels it would be unfair to be expected to pay for the entire repair. But the principle of love causes him to also reflect carefully on the question, “What might it mean for me to love this person?” Again, while no definitive answer results, it does prompt Wayne to consider the customer’s own financial situation. What impact will a sizeable repair bill have on this particular customer?

Some general comments

One of the great strengths of Hill’s approach is the clarity it provides when considering more complex ethical dilemmas, without being too simplistic. The holiness-justice-love stool is more carefully balanced than the single principle of the Golden Rule, and infinitely less cumbersome than the multi-rule approaches we looked at previously.

The main limitation of the three-legged stool is that we’re still left with the challenge of determining exactly what is holy, just and loving for the affected parties. And what do you do when justice, say, conflicts with love? Which gets priority?

But nevertheless Wayne is beginning to feel he’s making progress. It was always obvious that reaching a decision would not be easy, but Hill’s three-legged stool in particular has given him something to work with. Clearly, whatever approach to ethics we adopt, discerning and balancing the relevant rules and principles is an important part. But in addition, we must also try to calculate the consequences of different courses of action to see which decisions produce the most loving and just and holy results.

Alexander Hill, Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

Hill, 13-4.

Hill, 34.

Although Hill does note that the two great commandments — love for God and for neighbour (Matthew 22: 37-39) — include holiness (making God our highest priority) and justice (taking others’ interests into account). See page 47.

Hill, 15.

Hill, 12.