The Way of the Wise: A Biblical Interpretation of Firm Strategy & Orientation

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All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.

—Proverbs 16:2–3 (NIV)

In my book, Wisdom-Based Business, I celebrate the comeback that wisdom is making in popularity. Once an ancient deity worshipped by Assyrians and Greeks alike that inspired Aristotelian philosophy, Wisdom has historically received negligible attention in applied business ethics. A concept primarily explored in philosophy and psychology, wisdom can be defined as a disposition toward cleverness in crafting morally excellent responses to and in anticipation of challenging dilemmas and decisions. However, as business scandals appear to be on the rise it seems that wisdom has been not only neglected but ignored when it comes to ethical decisions making in business. Evidence points towards the inadequacy of an amoral approach to utilitarian business ethics that weighs outcomes in favor of fraud and corruption when profitability is perceived as the greatest good.

In the past 30 years, we have seen scandals like recent allegations against GE, Arthur Andersen, Enron, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and Martha Stewart defraud billions of dollars. A staunch belief in the separation of church and state, church and public life, or church and business seem to have set the stage for Christians in the marketplace to separate their “spiritual” faith from their “secular” work. However, if you explore the concept of Wisdom as it was understood before the Greeks and Aristotelian philosophy, you will find that wisdom was far more integrated into all of life. Wisdom was a holistic concept that included both the practical and the divine as it shaped both spiritual life and worship as well as civic life and trade.

Wisdom literature from Biblical Scripture in the Ancient Near East and the Analects in the Ancient Far East both compare the way of the fool and the way of the wise. With practical and divine reflections – the ANE and AFE Wisdom literature is both lofty and relates to everyday life. Wisdom in Proverbs is inseparable from the fear of God, knowledge, counsel, competence, resourcefulness, and heroic strength or power.

“I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.

To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.

Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have insight, I have power.

Proverbs 8:12-14

Wisdom is personified as a guide on the path of the righteous; a path defined by moral practices in the way of righteousness, justice, and equity. Like the “Psalms of Orientation” that utilize lofty language to speak of wisdom, creation, and the favor of God – the proverbs orient us onto a higher path, the path of righteousness. As wisdom guides us on this path, we find an understanding of the kingdom of heaven, practical wisdom that guides us in everyday decision making, and a right relationship with God that helps us to achieve the great commands – to love God and others. Unlike the Ancient Far East proverbs, the outcome of Biblical Wisdom is a loving relationship with God the creator and an ability to love others as Christ loved us.

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.

Proverbs, King Solomon

Written ca. 1000 B.C.E.

Proverbs 3:13-18

The Master said, “The way of the superior man is threefold, but I am not equal to it. Virtuous, he is free from anxieties, wise, he is free from perplexities; bold, he is free from fear.”

The Analects, Confucius

Written ca. 500 B.C.E

Section 3 Part 14

As a former soldier in the US Army, I love the orientation, navigation, and war counsel language. I spent many hours as an enlisted soldier and later in ROTC conducting land navigation training. We would be dropped off in the woods with a map, a compass, and ranger beads to set our pace as we found our way through the wilderness to a set destination point. The destination was marked on the map; it was our responsibility and mission to find our way. While land navigation is a useful skill to have as a soldier, the training was also geared toward preparing us to problem solve, work together, and achieve a goal. As Christians, our end goal is to honor and glorify God, our starting point is the gift of grace and faith that allows us to love God and to be in awe of his holiness (or fear him). It is wisdom that orients us along the way of righteousness to achieve blessing and honor.

Like military counsel that the mighty men in scripture pursued from God, counselors, and prophets, business strategy is all about gathering insights and then creating and achieving goals. The concept of strategy was introduced by the Greeks, it is not used anywhere in the Old Testament. Instead, Old Testament scripture speaks of counsel, counsel with God, the counsel of the wise, and the counsel of scripture itself. For example, the word of God is wise counsel in Psalm 119:05 when the psalter writes, “your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.” Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for counsel is interchangeable with advice, plans, schemes, and purpose. As companies began to mass-produce products and grow in revenue, market share, and size after the industrial revolution, they also began to become more strategic about their purpose and competitive differentiation – this became known in business research as firm orientation or strategic orientation.

An orientation of a company is a company’s philosophy that defines the scope of the business purpose. Simply put, the orientation of the firm defines the end goal and nature by which the company will achieve it. An orientation captures the beliefs and norms of corporate leaders. In the 1990s, the predominant orientation of the firm was recognized to be a strategic orientation. A strategic orientation includes the directions implemented by a company to create behaviors for continuous superior performance, i.e. the way of doing business to achieve corporate goals.

Interestingly, orientation or the way is central to both Old Testament wisdom literature and New Testament parables taught by Jesus that include business practices such as resource management, treatment of employees, and long-term prosperity and profitability. Jesus uses everyday stories about trade and business to teach eternal principles. If you think of servants as employees, you can see that Jesus taught us a lot about what it means to be a good boss, a good employee, faithful with our money and resources. While he shared these parables to teach a more eternal point, the practical point holds true for everyday life as well:

  • The Wise & Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49)
  • The Moneylender Forgiving Unequal Debts (Luke 7:41-43)
  • The Rich Fool Building His Bigger Barn (Luke 12:16-21)
  • The Servants (Employees) Remaining Watchful (Mark 13:35-37; Luke 12:35-40)
  • The Wise and Foolish Servants (Employees) (Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 12:42-48)
  • The Master and His Servant (Luke 17:7-10)
  • The Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-24)
  • The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)
  • The Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-8)
  • The Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)
  • The Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1013)
  • The Talents (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

Of all the parables, the three parables in Mathew 25 stand out as a lesson that clearly parallels and articulates the wisdom of Proverbs. In the passage, Jesus uses the terminology of the foolish and the wise three times as he introduces the characters in his stories. There are the wise virgins and the foolish virgins, the wise servants and the foolish one, and the wise sheep and the foolish goats. The principles in this passage also parallel the principles exemplified by Lady Wisdom in the final epilogue verses of Proverbs that Bible scholars refer to as “the Hymn to the Valiant Woman ” – see the excellent Theology of Work commentary titled “The Valiant Woman” for more depth of exegesis.

Waltke and Matthews acknowledge her strength as a wise worker in five sets of practices in her workplace. The five practices parallel the practices we see in Matthew 25 and best practice orientations or strategies that we see in place at highly profitable firms today!

Practice in Proverbs 31

Practice in Matthew 25

Business Orientation

Care for servants, family, and the poor and needy

Care provided by the sheep for the hungry, thirsty, foreigner, naked, sick, and imprisoned

Stakeholder Orientation

care for all people impacted by the firm including shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and the community

Profitability, growth, extra for the poor, consideration of vineyards & fields

Multiplication of talents, extra resources to care for the poor, needy, etc.

Sustainability Orientation – economic profitability, environmental care, and social impact

No fear for the snow or laughter for the future

The oil that burned through the night

Long-term orientation –

valuing both the past

and the future rather than deeming actions important only for their effects in the here and now or the short term

Investment in Quality work & products – makes fine linen garments and sashes

Investment in the resources (oil) necessary to achieve the goal (meet the bridegroom)

Quality Orientation –

commitment to developing a competitive advantage

based on a quality focus

Merchants (customers) and suppliers from whom she buys food, flax, and wool

Recipients of the sheep

Suppliers to the virgins

The market for the talents

Supply Chain Orientation

implications of the activities and processes involved in managing the various flows between buyers, suppliers, and end customers

Building on the example of the Noble Woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 and the Wise people Jesus portrays in Matthew 25, I conclude that a wisdom orientation in business must contain a combination of stakeholder (reflecting a love for others), quality (reflecting honesty in the benefits versus the cost of a product), supply chain (engaging others in creative activities), sustainability (in the stewardship of creation and love for others), and long-term orientations (in response to our anticipation of his return). An orientation of the firm that draws from ancient Near East Wisdom Literature is based on both pragmatic and divine wisdom. Biblical wisdom starts with a fear of God, thus the foundation of wisdom is knowing and loving God.

From Wisdom-Based Business (2021) Hannah Stolze (Harper Collins Christian)

I define a wisdom orientation of the firm as the set of beliefs that prioritizes a love for God (faith) and others (through servanthood) as the end goal; this love-centered philosophy will direct organization strategies toward:

  • understanding the needs of stakeholders;
  • viewing time holistically in the long-term, valuing the past and the future;
  • co-creating quality products;
  • recognizing and strategically managing the various flows of products
  • through the supply chain;
  • and balancing the sustainability of economic health, social equity, and environmental resilience.

Make faith integral to your business as you respond to the cry of Wisdom:

Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square;

on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech:

“How long will you who are simple love your simple ways? How long will the mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? Repent at my rebuke!

Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings.”

Proverbs 1: 20-23