Although many readers of this blog are in full time ministry, most Christians aren’t. Many Christians inhabit the world of business, a realm that pastors frequently berate and misunderstand. There are dilemmas faced in the business world that go unnoticed by other Christians. Recently I preached a sermon on business ethics from Proverbs that touched on some of those issues.
I structured my sermon around four priorities of business. I can’t recall where I first encountered these 4 P’s, but they have been useful to me in articulating a concise vision for business ethics.
Here are the four P’s in ascending order of importance.
A profit is what you get when you sell a product (goods or services) for more than the cost to produce it. Products do not have intrinsic value. Beckett Monthly can say that a baseball card is worth $100, but it’s not really worth anything unless someone would rather have that card instead of $100. There is nothing wrong with making a profit.
If the system is fair and you’re fair, profits show that you are providing people with a good or service they find valuable. In many case, you actually help others as you seek to help yourself. Not all self-interest is selfish.
We know profit is not evil because the woman in Proverbs 31 was commended for making a profit (Prov. 31:16-18, 24). In fact, Proverbs understands human nature and that people are motivated by the promise of material gain (Prov. 16:26). Being rewarded for labor is the way God designed the world. To frustrate that design is to spit into the wind.
Every business that lasts will find a way to make a profit. This is a good pursuit, so long as this pursuit is not ultimate. There are other priorities for the Christian that must be more important than profit.
A Christian aims to glorify God in everything (1 Cor. 10:31). This means Christians in business should design goods and provide services they can be proud of. This doesn’t mean Christians only make top of the line products. It means, however, that Christians should seek to provide people with goods and services that add to human flourishing, whether that is a bouquet of flowers, a breakfast cereal, or an investment tool.
We must not draw the circle too tightly around the phrase “human flourishing.” Certainly there are some products we know are not worthwhile (e.g., pornography), but in a diverse world there are many ways to “give people what they want” without giving them the idolatrous version of what they want. Just because you hate television doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for Christians in the industry.
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to being a Christian businessperson: don’t look out only for your bottom line. “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenue with injustice” (Prov 16:8). This may mean you don’t close on a sale that would help you, because you’re pretty sure it would hurt your customer. Or it may mean you do business in a bad part of town because the neighborhood needs it, even if you won’t make much money there.
There are hundreds of ways in which Christians in business should make people a priority. For example, Proverbs tells the rich person not to hold on to all his grain in the midst of a famine (Prov. 11:24-26). You can imagine the temptation to hold on to your surplus until prices rise even higher. But God expects us to put the well being of people above the well being of our margins. In a different vein, Proverbs 26:10 encourages employers to hire wisely. This too is a way of caring for people. Employers have a responsibility to make wise decisions, to manage well and hire intelligently. If they are fools who hire fools, the public will suffer and so will the other employees.
Christians in business must be true to biblical principles above all else. I see at least three business principles in Proverbs.
First, we must obey the law. “The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice” (Prov. 17:23). There is nothing more important for general economic prosperity than respect for private property and the rule of law. These are the building blocks of social capital and the way God expects us to manage our business.
Second, don’t promise what you aren’t willing or able to deliver. Proverbs often warns against putting up security for someone else (6:1-5; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27; 27:13). This may not mean it’s always wrong to co-sign a loan, because these are probably instances where the security could not be paid (Prov. 22:26-27). But at the very least, the Bible has nothing good to say about putting up security. Better to give the money if you have it or avoid altogether the entanglements of securing a loan. The folly is in promising more than you can deliver.
Third, always tell the truth. “A false balance is an abomination to the lord, but a just weight is his delight” (Prov. 11:1; see also 16:11; 20:10, 23). Christians do not lie, not even in advertisements. We will not bait and switch. We don’t cheat, and we won’t hide the facts that consumers have a right to know. Note also that buyers can lie, saying “Bad, bad” at the point of a sale, but then boasting as he walks away (Prov. 20:14). No matter our part in the transaction, we must tell the truth.
The four points can be summarized with two general rules:
1) Love your neighbor as yourself. Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer (or buyer) and think how you would like to be treated.
2) Look to Jesus. Not only does he provide the grace for walking in the way of wisdom, he also is the perfect example of putting people before profit and honoring God’s principles before his own desires.