Advancing a Christian Work Ethic

A lot of hot air has been flooding the atmosphere since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. Two common complaints I’ve heard are “Business are people? Ha!” snide remarks and “Christian businesses? How can a business be Christian?” I dislike the adjectival use of the word Christian in front of nouns ad nausea as much as the next guy. Christian bookstores. Christian gift stores. Christian pinterest (this is a thing Christian movies. To the Christianizing of normal things there is no end.

An example of the former complaint, at HuffPost Religion Derek Penwell writes “11 Questions for Christian Companies in Light of the Hobby Lobby Decision.”

1. What is the rubric for catechizing, baptizing, and confirming companies that want to become Christian? . . .

3. Do mergers between Christian companies fall under the purview of ecclesiastical wedding policy? . . .

5. If a Christian company wrongs someone, should that company be subject to church discipline? . . .

8. Is the primary business model of Christian companies to refrain from storing up for themselves treasures on earth, in favor of storing up for themselves treasures in heaven? (Matthew 6:19–20).

9. To be considered a Christian company do you actually have to live like Jesus said to live, or is it sufficient to produce bumper stickers with crosses and Jesus fish and stuff?

10. Does the fact that companies can be Christian open up a whole new raft of opportunities to adjectivally Christianize other non-personal nouns--like, Christian tether balls, or Christian parakeets, or Christian mints in Christian waiting rooms for Christian lawyers who practice Christian law? (The possibilities are endless!)

11. And perhaps most importantly: Should Christian companies be expected to view their Human Resource policies as an embodiment of Galatians 3:28--“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female?”

As you might have already guessed this is a tongue-in-cheek satire, but the satire is ineffective in this piece for two reasons. First, the Church has always had strong and developed doctrines of work—part of which includes the way Christians must do business in light of what God has done for them. The Old Testament is replete with this kind of ethical impetus for doing business as a Christian. Second, the satire misses because, especially as a Christian, Derek writes with a bit of chronological snobbery. The above doctrines are well known and established—and emphasized within the Protestant so much that the colloquialism “Protestant work ethic” is a thing. To dismiss this doctrine out of hand without a single argument is quite honestly arrogant. There certainly are other important considerations within arguing for/against the ruling of the Supreme Court, but as far as dialogue between Christians go this one misses the mark.

No business are not Christians, but many business are run by Christians and if their faith doesn’t change the way they do business then what good is that faith? In Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next, he writes,

“What we see here is that there is no distinction between learning how to be productive and learning how to live the Christian life altogether, for both are about how we are to live in this world for the glory of God . . . . With the specific issue of productivity, then, we will likely utilize the same best practices as non-Christians in things like processing workflow and getting our email inboxes to zero. But when it comes to the motive and foundation of our productivity, the gospel brings in some radical transformations” (66, 67).

The under lying principle applied to productivity is equally applicable to business. We often use the same tools in business, but our motives, foundations, and ethics are often different. I want to advance five ways that “the motive and foundation of” a Christian work ethic radically change the way Christians should do business.

1. Love

Ultimately, the Christian faith is about love. God existed eternally as a Trinitarian community of love. He shed that overflowing love down on us as his unique image bearers (Gen. 2:4-25). We sinned and God’s loved reached out to us in our sin and misery (John 3:16, Rom. 5:8). His love did what’s was best for us regardless of the harm and consequences to himself.

Jesus reminds us time and again in the Gospels that the first commandment is love your God and the second is love your neighbor. The God you love will absolutely impact the love you show your neighbor. If your god is a sadistic, evil being loving him means sadistic, evil overflowing out of you. If it’s naturalistic and cold, then your overflow will be naturalistic and cold. However, if the God you love and serve acts first for those he loves. If his very essence is love (1 Jn. 4:8), then your heart will overflow with sacrificial love for neighbor.

If you’re a Christian who owns a business, this will change the way you buy and sell. This will change your negotiating. This will change how you pay your employees. This will change the way you treat your employees (i.e., loved image bearers). I recall a story told by Tim Keller about a Christian he knew who owned a car dealership. After studying the amount different customers paid, he discovered that women and minorities often pay significantly more for cars than white men during the haggling process. He decided to offer fair and reasonable prices and no haggle. This is one example of how the Christian faith transforms doing business out love.

2. Excellence

Look around you for a minute. Where ever you are. No matter the place you are faced with magnificent beauty and excellence—whether it’s a dense and surrounding forest, an expansive ocean, a flood of people (extraordinary as image bearers of God), or a concrete jungle.

When God brought everything into order, he says, “This is good.” I imagine him sitting back content with the excellence his words accomplished. Consider how well orchestrated the stars, galaxies, and heavens are. How excellent these worlds were made. Consider humanity. We received, “It is good” as well. We are the imprint of God, his ambassadors on earth. Commissioned to take dominion and multiply. How else could we do these things but excellently? Consider how far farming has come. Consider how many different ways a man and a woman can multiply. That’s not the work of a utilitarian, sloppy God. That’s the handiwork of a God of excellence.

When Christians do business, when we create, when we build, we do it all with excellence. The God who created all excellently and the God who sent his only Son requires it.

3. Creativity

This point is intertwined with the previous one. We love. We do with excellence. And we do it creatively. Christians aren’t the kind of folks who are hum drum. We don’t settle for the status quo. We are on the cutting edge of creativity. History bears out Christians have created some of the most creative architecture, literature, sculptures, paintings, music, cultures, and cities the world has ever known. We embrace the imagination and the affections. We embrace bending the rules. We embrace progression of thought. The gospel is like yeast in the dough that expands and changes the way we creatively do things.

4. Mission

Our marching orders as Christians is to go into all the world—to baptize and to teach. We are teaching people to obey every thing Jesus commanded. Part of that teaching necessarily changes the work ethic behind Christians who own business.

Jesus talks a lot about fairness and equity. About caring for strangers. About greed and money. About laying up treasures in heaven. And about what a kingdom ethic looks like. Jesus also affirmed the Old Testament in every point (“not one jot or tittle of it will pass away,” he said). The Old Testament is firm about doing business honestly. About not hoarding the natural resources we have. About caring for the poor in the way we do business (living wage anyone?). About having a fair scale. About doing righteousness and justice. And about not taking advantage of others. The mission of the Church is relevant for business because that mission includes teaching people everywhere to obey all of Jesus’ commands.

5. Soli Deo Gloria

Last, Christians must do everything for the glory of God. Every square inch of this world is his including our businesses. We cannot separate areas of our life that we can give glory to him for and ones we cannot—like business ventures. We worship in all of life. We disciple in all of life. We teach in all of life. We have liturgies in all of life—including business. The way we do business reflects on the God we worship. And we give God alone glory for all of it.

Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and writes for CBMW Manual, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and other publications. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and offers freelance editing and book formatting services. He blogs at Grace for Sinners and Marginalia: On the Margins of the Writing Life. His family is covenanted at Downtown Presbyterian Church.

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