The Command Approach in Practice

Article / Produced by TOW Project

What Are God’s Rules? Is There a Command For Every Occasion?

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Christians from most church traditions are agreed that the Bible plays an essential role in determining our understanding of such commands and principles. And it is not hard to find Bible verses that speak about work.

  • In the first two chapters of the Bible, men and women are given work to do, both caring for and cultivating natural resources given by God (Gen. 1:26-29; Gen. 2:15; Gen. 2:18-20).
  • God models a seven day pattern of work and rest (six days work, one day rest) that God’s people are called to emulate (Gen. 2:2; Ex. 20:9-11; Mark 2:27). There is also a daily pattern of work and rest (Psalm 104:19-23).
  • Earning one’s living by honest work is commended (Psalm 128:2; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-10).
  • The Book of Proverbs contains many exhortations to work hard and warnings against idleness (e.g., Prov. 6:6).
  • Manual work is not to be despised. Even a king works with his hands (1 Samuel 11:5). Jesus did the work of an artisan (Mark 6:3).
  • The prophets denounce the idle rich (e.g., Amos 6:3-6).
  • Like the prophets before him (see Isa. 5:7-8; Micah 3:1-3; Amos 5:21-24), Jesus denounces those who profess faith but act unjustly (Matt. 23:23).
  • The apostle Paul supported himself as a tentmaker to preserve his independence and self-respect, and to provide his converts with an example of diligence and self-reliance. Paul encouraged them to share with others in need (Eph. 4:28). He saw honest labor as a way of commending the gospel (1 Thess. 4:11). He reprimanded those enthusiasts who wanted to give up daily work to get on with what they considered more urgent gospel work, only to end up living off other people (2 Thess. 3:10 ff.).
  • Work is to be approached as an act of worship (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17, 23).

The Bible also expresses concern about employment issues.

  • We don’t just work to please our human bosses. We work for God (Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5-8). Work is to be approached wholeheartedly and done well (Eccl. 9:10; Col. 3:22-24).
  • God intends that people should be adequately paid for the work they do and enjoy food, shelter and clothing as part of the fruit of that work (Luke 10:7; 2 Thess. 3:10; Psalm 128:1-2).
  • Employers are told to treat their employees justly and fairly, knowing that they themselves also have a master that they will ultimately answer to (Col. 4:1).
  • They are to recognize that “workers deserve their wages” (Luke 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).
  • Employees are reminded of their responsibilities towards their employers (1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9).

Beyond these injunctions, there are a multitude of other Bible verses that speak about relationship and integrity issues at work. The Businessman’s Topical Bible[11](and its companion Businesswoman’s version[12]) identifies 100 common workplace problems and then uses 1550 Bible verses to point to answers. The topics include what to do when a customer is dissatisfied, when you lose a key employee, when you feel betrayed, when you feel tempted to cheat and when your employee needs motivation.

Can You Do This Job to the Glory of God? (Click Here to Read)

In this post from The High Calling, Ann Kroeker comments on this article here at TOW, and particularly considers Biblical principles that can be applied to our decision to take or turn down a job opportunity.

Nonetheless, the attempt to formulate a complete book of rules based on Scripture that will speak to every conceivable ethical dilemma would seem to be a hopeless quest. No set of commands can be vast enough to cover every issue that arises. And there are situations in today’s workplace that have no precedent in Biblical times. Is it ethical to award stock options based on performance? Is it ethical to advertise a product to entice people to buy more of it? Is it ethical to have hiring preferences for under-represented ethnic groups? Is it ethical to buy a competing company? None of these situations would seem to be covered by a biblical command.

Moreover, this is the problem that the scribes and Pharisees ran into as they tried to come up with a comprehensive code and ended up not only overwhelmed by trivia, but also missing the main points. Yet, at the same time, it would be foolish for us to ignore the fact that Scripture does offer clarity on many issues: stealing, lying, loving the other person including our enemies, acting justly, caring for the poor and oppressed, etc. As Chris Marshall says, “The exclusion of any normative authority for Scriptural commands, laws or principles can also threaten to undermine the distinctively Christian character of Christian ethics and allow too much place for subjective judgment.”[13]  The Bible can’t be turned into a comprehensive rule book for ethics in the modern marketplace. But that is not to say that it doesn’t contain some important and still relevant rules.

Mike Murdock, The Businessman’s Topical Bible (Tulsa: Honor Books 1992).

Mike Murdock, The Businesswoman’s Topical Bible (Tulsa: Honor Books, 1994).

Christopher Marshall, "The Use of the Bible in Ethics" in Voices for Justice, edited by Jonathon Boston and Alan Cameron (Palmerston North, N.Z.: Dunmore Press, 1994) 125.

Looking for Guiding Principles

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A variety of attempts have been made to reduce the multitude of biblical commands to just a few overarching commands or principles. Some examples of this emphasize the importance of the Ten Commandments of Moses,[14] or the Beatitudes of Jesus[15] or quotes from the book of Proverbs.[16]

Larry Burkett’s Business by the Book, rather grandly subtitled The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for Business Men and Women,[17] announces Six Basic Biblical Business Minimums:

  • 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.

There are many other attempts to do something similar. Most of these include numerous useful insights, but they also often end up creating contrived schemes more than announcing fundamental biblical insights that really help to focus our attention on the heart of things.

Building on some more fundamental biblical principles, Business Through the Eyes of Faith[18]takes the command to love our neighbor as the primary ethical concern.  Then it develops this by using Micah 6:8 as the organizing principle for determining how God would have us apply love in business: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”[19] Thus, love, as applied through justice, kindness and faithfulness becomes the foundational ethical principle. And we find Jesus himself emphasizing the importance of these same three elements in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” This would seem to be getting closer to the heart of Christian ethics as well as transcending the gulf that often exists between personal and social ethics. If following a few fundamental commands seems to be a better approach than looking for a specific command for every issue, then the question becomes, “Is there one biblical command upon which all the others are built?”

Usually condensed versions of Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:6-21. For example, see a useful summary of some of the economic implications of the ten commandments in Max L. Stackhouse, “The Ten Commandments: Economic Implications” in On Moral Business, edited by Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann and Shirley Roels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 59-62 and also David Gill, Doing Right (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).

David Gill, Becoming Good (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000).

Michael Zigarelli, Management by Proverbs (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999) and also Clinton W. McLemore, Street Smart Ethics (Louisville/London: WJKP, 2003).

Larry Burkett, Business by the Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990).

Richard C. Chewning, John W. Eby and Shirley J. Roels, Business Through the Eyes of Faith (London: Apollos, 1992).

Ibid, 26.

From Guiding Principles to One Clear Command

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There is an undeniable attraction in reducing all the Bible’s moral imperatives to just one overarching command.  For John Maxwell, this is The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This involves only asking one question, “How would I like to be treated in this situation?”[20]Maxwell acknowledges that putting it into practice may also require a number of other principles, including:

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

Regrettably, this increases rather than reduces the number of fundamental commandments. It also introduces principles that are not directly from the Bible.

Joseph Fletcher, with his Situation Ethics,[21]subjected everything to Jesus’ “love commandment”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). He then ran into a similar problem, being forced to devise a number of other principles (four presuppositions and six propositions), to clarify how the most loving thing might be determined. Maxwell is anxious to distance himself from the “moral relativism” of Situation Ethics and, unlike Fletcher, doesn’t say that the love commandment is the only absolute moral principle in a way that reduces all other moral rules to becoming only helpful “illuminators.” But Maxwell and Fletcher both demonstrate that, while the simplicity of choosing to elevate one principle is attractive and helpful in some ways, it is simplistic and deceptive in other ways.

They also demonstrate the inadequacy of utilizing only one approach to doing ethics; in their cases, the command approach. Both of these examples begin by promoting one absolute biblical command, but then quickly move to consider circumstances and consequences in order to decide which other qualifying commands are required to provide clarity. And the way they talk about love suggests that its demonstration will largely depend on the character of the actor anyway.

John C. Maxwell, There’s No Such Thing as “Business” Ethics (USA: Warner Books, 2003).

Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (London: SCM, 1966).

Three Balancing Principles

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For Alexander Hill, “the foundation of Christian ethics in business is the changeless character of God.”[22] The commands or principles that humans should follow are defined by the character of God.  Note that although Hill starts with God’s character, his method is not considered a form of character-based ethics, as will be described a little later. This is because when it comes to determining how humans should act, Hill’s method is to develop rules and principles. Rules and principles are the hallmarks of the command approach to ethics.

The most common recurring descriptions of God’s character in the Bible are holiness, justice and love. Our laws, rules and practices should bring about holiness, justice and love. Hill maintains that Christian ethics requires that all three principles be taken into account all the time. Each, like a leg on a three-legged stool, balances the other two. Overemphasizing the importance of one at the expense of the others always leads to a distortion in ethical thinking. For example, an overemphasis on holiness can easily lead to rules that require Christians to withdraw from the world into a kind of impotent isolationism. An overemphasis on justice can easily produce excessively harsh penalties for breaking the rules. An overemphasis on love can sometimes lead to vagueness and lack of accountability.

Hill’s approach would seem to provide for a better balance than those that just focus on a single principle. It does provide some help to explore both personal and social ethical dimensions. However, the concepts of love, justice and holiness still need explaining by referring to other principles. The hope of reducing the vast mass of rules to a few master principles remains once again unfulfilled.

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