Let’s face it: business has an image problem.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, businesses in the United States gained 732,000 jobs in 2014. Business growth is clearly leading the U.S.’s economic recovery. And yet a recent Gallup study asking Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of various professions found that the only ones ranked lower than businesspeople were politicians—specifically members of Congress.
This generally unfavorable attitude toward business often extends to churches, where an implicit hierarchy places “sacred work”—such as ministry and missions—above the “helping professions”—teachers, nurses, doctors, and social workers. Both of these categories are regarded more highly than the “secular” pursuits of people employed in business. Unfortunately, we’re also likely to hear business characterized from the pulpit as an expression of sinful greed. Meanwhile, people who leave the business world to do something “more important to the kingdom” are praised.
Why is this image problem something we should care about? As Christians, we’ve been called to love our neighbors as ourselves and serve one another out of gratitude for God’s amazing love. Business is the social institution through which people serve more human needs than any other. This includes providing places where the vast majority of your congregation works. Business also provides the funding for all other institutions—including government, nonprofits, and the church. Clearly we need to take a closer look at how God can and does use businesses and businesspeople for good in his kingdom.
So how do we make sense of this? How does business fit into God’s plan to redeem the world? The idea of common grace, popularized by the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, is a good place to begin. Common grace, according to Kuyper, refers to the God-given capacity in each person—not just those who believe in God—to serve the common good. As James Bratt pointed out in his article “Conscious Christianity,” “Common grace not only makes society possible but makes it possible for Christians usually to live in society alongside people who don’t know or outright reject Christian teaching” (The Banner, Aug. 2014).
Businesses as Agents of Shalom
This idea of common grace suggests three ways that businesses can be agents of shalom to the world.
First is the principle that the good gifts of a loving God are for all people. This is illustrated in Matthew 5:45b: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” All people, including believers and nonbelievers in business, benefit from these loving gifts.
Second, common grace suggests that God influences nonbelievers as well as believers to do good things in the world. We all know of many businesses that work for the good of society by serving their customers well through creating good jobs, using resources sustainably, and supporting their communities. Here are just a few examples:
- Chipotle, a fast-growing “fast casual” restaurant chain, is committed to “Food with Integrity” by using the best ingredients they can find while caring for animals, farmers, and the environment. They also strive to care for employees well through promotion from within, training, and good compensation.
- TOMS, a shoe company, serves people in need by providing shoes, vision care, clean water, safe birth, and bullying prevention services. Under the heading “Improving Lives,” the company website notes, “With every product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need. One for One.”
- Patagonia, a supplier of outdoor clothing and gear, takes responsibility for the impact of its activities on customers, employees, communities, and the environment. They are committed to fair labor practices and safe working conditions as well as producing high-quality products.
Third, this understanding of common grace suggests that Christians in business can be instruments of God’s grace in society. Common grace motivates us as a call to action. Common grace is not simply a passive exchange between God and humankind—it can be our ministry. It is, says theologian Richard Mouw in his book He Shines in All That’s Fair, a way in which “God can use us to restrain the power of sin in the larger human community and to perform our own works of civic good.”
The examples we’ve already mentioned illustrate that businesses can contribute to the good of society. But why do they act that way? We need to recognize that Christians and non-Christians may pursue similar ends without having the same motivation. For instance, secular businesspeople might focus on their customers’ long term well-being for a variety of reasons: because they truly care about them, or they feel it is the right thing to do, or it makes them feel better about themselves. Alternatively, they may foster good relationships because they believe doing so will provide them with higher long-term profits. Regardless of the motivations driving the business, in each of these situations customers and employees may be treated with respect and honesty.
Let’s look at Patagonia again as an example. Under the heading “Becoming a Responsible Company,” its website states:
We are in the earliest stages of learning how what we do for a living both threatens nature and fails to meet our deepest human needs. The impoverishment of our world and the devaluing of the priceless undermine our physical and economic well-being. Yet the depth and breadth of technological innovation of the past few decades shows that we have not lost our most useful gifts; humans are ingenious, adaptive, and clever. We also have moral capacity, compassion for life, and an appetite for justice. We now need to more fully engage these gifts to make economic life more socially just and environmentally responsible, and less destructive to nature and the commons that sustain us. . . .
It is easy to see the principles of stewardship, justice, and care for others in Patagonia’s statements—even though they are not attributed to a belief in God. These similar views and activities between believers and nonbelievers allow us all to work together toward common goals for the betterment of society.
In his book Why Business Matters to God (see “Digging Deeper” sidebar, p. **), Jeff Van Duzer proposes that from God’s perspective, the dominant business paradigm needs to be turned on its head: instead of customers and employees being the means of serving shareholders, shareholders and their capital should serve customers and employees. The purpose of business, he says, is to serve the community by making useful goods and services available at reasonable prices that will enable the community to flourish and provide meaningful and creative jobs for its employees. Of course this doesn’t mean that profit is unimportant. Generating profits is critical, because without profit the business dies. A biblical perspective allows us to see profit as the means to service rather than the purpose of the enterprise itself.
Common Grace Ministry
Of course, we don’t all work for a business that is run by Christian principles. And not all of us are in leadership roles where we work. But no matter what our role, we can still practice “common grace” ministry. Consider these practical and biblical ideas:
- Pray about your work and ask God through the Holy Spirit to give you strength, wisdom, and discernment. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
- Do your job the best you can. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24).
- In your attitude and interactions with others at work, be God’s agent for redemption. “Live such good lives among the pagans that . . . they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Pet. 2:12).
- Treat coworkers and employees as people of value. Offer them respect, a fair working wage, and benefits—for we are all created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).
- Find the good things happening at work and encourage those who are doing them. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
- Respect the leaders God has placed in authority above you. Build them up, encourage them, and pray for them. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Pet. 2:13a).
- Build authentic relationships with customers and community that are built on dignity, trust, mutual respect, and true concern for them. Be honest and transparent in all communications.
- Pray about tough decisions. Establish the practice of re-examining decisions through prayerful reflection and be open to changing the decision if you feel like it is the right thing to do.
- When there’s dissonance between doing the right thing and benefit to the bottom line, become an expert in looking for a creative third way that emerges as you persist in faithful discipleship as a businessperson.
A Divine Calling
In conversation about how God uses business and businesspeople as part of his plan for redeeming the world, a long-time Christian Reformed pastor admitted that he had been remiss by failing to recognize business as a divine calling and failing to affirm businesspeople in their ministry.
So what can churches do? They can start by learning more about what their business congregants do—perhaps pastors and church leaders could start by visiting people at work. For the pastor, such visits might lead to a deeper understanding of the challenges and temptations their members face and inspire sermons and biblical teaching better targeted to their needs. In addition, this knowledge would help churches hold businesspeople responsible for their stewardship of what God has given them.
Above all, the church can celebrate these ministry workers as much as they would any missionary. Affirm, encourage, and pray for the businesspeople in your congregation, reminding them that their work has been ordained by God. When businesspeople feel the full support of the church, they will be empowered to grow their common grace ministries and encouraged to participate fully in the redemption of God’s world.
Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed) by Jeff Van Duzer (IVP Academic, 2010). Van Duzer presents a vision of business that contributes to the purposes of God. This book explores the nature and meaning of doing business and finds that it calls for much more than most think. Van Duzer integrates biblical studies with the disciplines of business and economics.
Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace by Kenman L. Wong & Scott B. Rae (IVP Academic, 2011). Is business just a way to make money? Or can the marketplace be a venue for service to others? Rae and Wong seek to explore this and other critical business issues from a uniquely Christian perspective. Business can be even more than an environment through which individual Christians grow in Christlikeness.
How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can Be Done About It) by John C. Knapp (Eerdmans, 2011). Why do so many Christians struggle to relate their faith to their daily work? Knapp argues that the church's ambiguous teachings about vocation, money, and business have long contributed to Christians’ uncertainty about discipleship in the workplace. Drawing on his own expertise in business ethics and numerous interviews with Christians in diverse occupations, Knapp offers a new theological framework for Christian life in the world of business.
Journal of Markets & Morality Vol. 18, Number 1 (Spring 2015). A special issue on “Common Grace and Business.” Presentations given at the Symposium on Common Grace in Business cosponsored by Calvin College and the Acton Institute on October 31, 2014. Articles by business professors and other Reformed thinkers on the intersection of common grace and various business disciplines.
B Corp: Redefining Success in Business
This growing community of more than a thousand businesses is committed to encouraging a new type of corporation that is “purpose-driven, and creates benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.” Their unifying goal is to redefine success in business. Member businesses volunteer to meet higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance, as certified by the nonprofit “B Lab” through meeting standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. The B Corp movement seeks to be a resource that drives the creation of higher quality jobs and improved quality of life in communities. It does so by working to pass laws, change the way money is invested, and alter where consumers spend their money. bcorporation.net
Questions for Discussion
- Why do you suppose so many North Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of businesspeople so low? Why should Christians care about this?
- The author of this article states that “Business is the social institution through which people serve more human needs than any other.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- The idea of common grace helps explain why some secular businesses are run according to the same principles embraced by Christian businesses. What are some businesses in your community that contribute to the good of society? In what ways do they do so?
- How well does your church support its members who are in business? What are some specific ways your congregation might affirm them in their calling and encourage them in their ministry?
- Brainstorm a list of ways your congregation can support and encourage secular businesses to contribute to the well-being of your community.
About the Authors
Tom Betts is an assistant professor of business at Calvin College. Previously he spent 25 years in marketing and management in the publishing industry. He is a member of Alger Park CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Bob Eames is a professor of business at Calvin College and director of the Calvin Center for Innovation in Business. He has over 20 years of experience in marketing and management roles in the insurance, advertising, and office furniture industries. Bob is a member of Monroe Community Church in Grand Rapids.
Jill Risner is an assistant professor of business at Calvin College. Jill has also started a marketing consultation and graphic design business with her husband. She attends Beckwith Hills CRC in Grand Rapids.