A Rule for Every Occasion?
In desperation, Wayne goes searching for help on his bookshelf. He spots a title that could be the very thing he’s looking for — The Businessman’s Topical Bible. 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.” 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.”
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.