Larger Principles?

Article / Produced by TOW Project

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.