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January 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 1 · pp. 9–18 

Biblical Faith and the Business World: The Crisis and the Challenge

Howard J. Loewen

THE CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

In preparing this paper I have experienced somewhat of a crisis in determining how biblical faith and the business world interrelate. I have had to struggle on this one. I suspect that this struggle is experienced by all of us when we begin to think seriously about the question at hand. We are a people who have only recently moved from an agrarian culture to a business culture. Only yesterday did we move from the village to the town and to the city. We are newcomers to a critical area of Christian experience and ethics.

However, through my own wrestling with this issue I have come to appreciate more deeply the problems and potentials that exist in the sphere of business, which is now at the heart of our culture and of which so many of you are an integral part. I come with no pat answers. But I do offer to you some perspectives that may foster further reflection and greater faithfulness to the Lord whom we serve.

We could focus this discussion on issues such as personal business ethics, economic justice, or capitalism vs. socialism; and many discussions do begin here. We could discuss profits, property, stewardship, vocation, labor relations, or competition; and such discussions are necessary. However, I see the issue that we are dealing with to be of such magnitude that studying a single issue from a Christian perspective, or probing several passages from the Bible, is not entirely adequate.

I believe that we are dealing here with a foundational problem that needs to be approached from a larger context, one which takes into consideration the general tensions we face in our business civilization—tensions that are aggravated when viewed from the perspective of biblical faith. Therefore my task will not be to address all the specifics of business as such but to provide a foundational perspective. In other words, I want to paint on a broad canvas an outline of how biblical faith {10} relates to the business world. My task is to sketch a theology and ethic for the Christian entrepreneur.

One of the things that has impressed me while preparing for this conference is the strong sense that we are living in critical times, as is reflected in a sampling of recent book titles; The Moral Crisis in Management, Business Civilization in Decline, American Business Values in Transition, Economic Crisis: A Christian Perspective, The Twilight of Capitalism, Legitimation Crisis, The Emerging Order: God in the Age of Scarcity. Whether we are directly aware of it or not our civilization is experiencing a critical time. So it will be instructive to work within a crisis paradigm.

Since you business persons are involved at the very center of what makes our culture what it basically is (a business culture), you are living and working at one of the most critical points where faith and culture meet. In this area you experience some of the tensions that a Christian must face in expressing a life of biblical faith in our culture.

In keeping with the tone of challenge I want to make four basic affirmations that characterize the life of biblical faith in the business world: the goodness of God’s world, the wholeness of human life, the unity of God’s people, and the centrality of God’s kingdom. I will deal with each affirmation in a threefold manner. First, I will pose the contemporary problem against which this affirmation can be understood more clearly. Secondly, I will provide a biblical/theological basis for this affirmation. Thirdly, I will present some of its ethical and practical applications.

THE GOODNESS OF GOD’S WORLD

The first affirmation that should characterize the life of biblical faith in the business world is that God’s world is good.

The Problem of Progress: Growth vs. No-Growth

It is helpful to understand the affirmation of the goodness of God’s world against the backdrop of the problem of progress.

How can we even begin to address this question when the very economic foundations on which our business culture is built virtually demand a growth economy and mentality? Is more and bigger always better? Are there dimensions of life that are sacrificed when progress and growth are pursued at any cost? Do you business people have to wrestle with this kind of question? Is your response different now that we are being told that our world and our communities are finite in their resources? How does progress in your business affect the quality of life in the communities in which you work or operate? {11}

A Biblical View of Creation: The Goodness of God’s World

The critical problem of growth vs. no-growth must be addressed with a theology of creation. A Christian in the business world must begin with a resounding yes to the goodness of God’s creation. Of first importance is not a philosophy of progress but a theology of preservation and celebration. It is God’s good world that has been given to us as a gift. We have also been given the privilege of having an important function in God’s creation. We must keep in mind:

1. That God is both at the center of creation and distinct from it. We should therefore be taken up by the creator and not by our own images of creation as such.

2. That we who are living in the garden of creation are not ourselves its center, although we are centrally important.

3. That our role in creation is to be gardeners. That is what is meant by the language of subduing and having dominion over the world. We are to tend and care for the garden. To neglect this is a serious violation of God’s calling.

4. That we possess creativity and skill so that we can care properly for the garden of creation. We are given the responsibility of fulfilling tasks which require ingenuity, insight, organizational skills, adaptability, and innovation.

5. That all creativity should lead to the praise and worship of the Creator. In blessing the sabbath God was affirming that we too are to experience deep satisfaction and a great sense of accomplishment. Our task is not solely one of work. We are also to enjoy the blessings of work and to enjoy the creator by and under whom we exist.

The Response of Stewardship: Being Grateful for God’s World

The ethical and practical response of God’s people to the problem of progress in our business culture (a response based on a theology of creation) is one of stewardship. While creatively working out our ethical responses, we must keep in mind:

1. That stewardship is not primarily a matter of personal giving. Giving is important, but it is secondary and derivative. Rather, stewardship means the recognition that all our goods, not only some portion of them, belong to God and we hold them in delegated trust.

2. That if this principle of God’s sole ownership and our stewardship is taken seriously we will have a less acquisitive and a more just society. Our vast disparities of wealth and poverty, wasted natural {12} resources, and the use of God’s good gifts solely for selfish ends will not survive the divine scrutiny.

3. That stewardship in our business civilization has more to do with the way we use the power that is associated with money and property—and the political control that that implies—than it does with the money and property in itself.

4. That in the final analysis stewardship does not aim primarily at power, property, or possessions, but at the cultivation of one’s own life (and the church’s) in the way of Christ so that we can be his body in the world bearing witness to the good news in deed and in word and challenging the values of our culture in his name.

I would like to challenge all of us, in the face of the problem of progress, to be creative in our stewardship as we gratefully tend and care for God’s good world.

THE WHOLENESS OF HUMAN LIFE

The second affirmation that should characterize the life of biblical faith in the business world is that human life is wholistic.

The Problem of Secularization: Sacred vs. Secular World

It is helpful to understand the affirmation of the wholeness of human life against the backdrop of the problem of secularization.

This problem is really a sub-species of the first. Does religion work in business? Can Christianity actually be applied to an aggressive secularized business civilization? Has there not been a tragic separation of the sacred and the secular in our business world so that the business person becomes schizophrenic, alternating between the realism of the business world and the idealism of Christian faith? Has the Protestant/Mennonite work ethic become “secularized?” Do we still have a strong sense of vocation, or calling, or meaning in our work? How does a business person struggle with the dilemma of sacred and secular?

A Biblical View of Culture: The Wholeness of Human Life

I believe that the critical problem of secularization in our business civilization must be addressed with a theology of culture. A Christian in the business world must respond with a resounding yes to the wholeness of human life. It is no answer to try to retain separated sacred and spiritual realms in the face of an increasingly secularized business world. We must, instead, integrate Christian service with our regular vocations and avocations. We observe: {13}

1. That the wholeness of human life finds its basis in the goodness of the whole creation.

2. That for the Christian there is only one service, that offered to the one creator God. All of our work and each of our obligations are subjected to the claims of God’s creation and kingdom.

3. That the Christian must be concerned about the relevance of the gospel in every area of life. If Christ is Lord, he is Lord of the whole of life.

4. Therefore the plea that the church should stick merely to spiritual matters and avoid involvement with political, economic, and social questions is wrong. It finds little sanction in the prophets and contradicts the fact that the Word became flesh.

I believe that a proper focus on a theology of culture will help us to address—as well as to transcend—the problem of secularization in our business culture.

The Response of Integration: Living Wholistic Lives

The most basic ethical and practical response of God’s people to the problem of secularization is to live wholistic and integrated lives of faith. A number of things can be said about this response:

1. That a theology of creation which sees all of life as demanding the response of stewardship will also foster a view that does not separate the so-called sacred and secular arenas of life. Our work and vocation in this business culture will also be viewed as arenas of God’s activity.

2. That failure to take the implications of the creation mandate seriously is one of the fundamental reasons for the loss of meaning in our daily work. If our work is not part of our calling, the sphere in which and through which we are to exercise faith and godliness, then our life develops a secular-sacred division which is reflected in a divided set of values and ethics.

3. That not only possessions but our ability to work is a gift of God to be held in stewardship. Thus work should be chosen, where choices are open, with regard to the greatest possible service in it.

4. That there are a number of very practical things that we can do to integrate the areas of our life. We can let our roles intermix and sometimes fuse; we can confide in Christian colleagues, especially when the claims of work seem to pull us away from a primary loyalty to Christ; we can admit our business into the church fellowship, talking about the stuff of everyday life in the assembly of God’s people; we can pursue social justice, helping other people to reach their full potential; we can testify about God’s wholeness in deed and word; and we may be able to give a period of full-time work to a church agency. {14}

I would like to challenge all of us, in the face of the problem of secularization, to be integrative as we attempt to live wholistic lives.

THE UNITY OF GOD’S PEOPLE

The third affirmation that should characterize the life of biblical faith in the business world is that God’s people have unity.

The Problem of Separation: Business vs. Non-Business Persons

It is helpful to understand the affirmation of the unity of God’s people against the backdrop of the problem of secularization.

This problem is also a subspecies of the last one. Has not the feeling that the business world is secular or at least more secularized than other areas of life led to a great division within the church? Has not the reputation of business, plus its frequent association with success and wealth and power, created two classes of people within the church? And do not business and non-business persons tend to criticize each other for things that they do or do not do? How are we to deal with the dilemma of this division?

A Biblical View of Church: The Unity of God’s People

The critical problem of separation between the business person and the non-business person must be addressed with a theology of the church. A Christian in the business world must respond with a resounding yes to the unity of God’s people. The following observations can be made about breaking down existing barriers and creating an undivided body:

1. That we must affirm the central New Testament theme of unity in the church: one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God. When a church is divided there must be reunion.

2. That wholeness and unity is built up through communal fellowship. We must work together at fulfilling our service to Christ.

3. That together we fashion a healing ministry to the world around us. We must be bridge-builders.

4. That from the standpoint of unity within the church we work at reversing the destructive divisions that exist in our business culture.

I believe that a proper focus on a theology of church will help us to address—as well as to transcend—the problem of separation in our business culture and particularly within the church. {15}

The Relational Response: Striving for Unity

The ethical and practical response of God’s people to the problem of separation in our business culture and in the church (a response based on a theology of church) is one of striving for unity, of building relationships. Christian business people must exercise spiritual gifts in the whole body of Christ. And non-business people must accept these spiritual gifts from them. When the church is healed, then we will be able to face the problems of separation beyond the church in our competitive and power-oriented culture. We need to observe:

1. That competition is a value so deeply ingrained in us that we are quite apt to see it not only as a positive part of our culture but as a part of the gospel itself.

2. That competition can be conducive to growth, performance, and creativity; but it can also be disruptive of personal relationships, personal self-worth, and the mission of the church.

3. That money is power. Business people are powerful people. Christian business people are powerful in the church. The power that comes with money is not to be underestimated or taken lightly. But we should be quick to add that we are all victimized by the principalities and powers. Money can be a corrupting influence.

4. That the gospel always builds bridges for living relationships: it never creates distance, hierarchy, or class. In Christ there must, in some sense, be neither employee nor employer, neither winner nor loser, neither rich nor poor. There will never be a total levelling of differences, for no society or group can ever achieve that. But a lessening of polarities must be a high priority among Christians.

5. That only a church thus renewed from within can help us live ethically. Not even a business person committed to the lordship of Christ can reasonably be expected to go it alone against the abuses and evils of an entire cultural system. When there is mutual support and purpose we will be able to talk about the larger issues of injustice and our obligation to do something about them.

6. That to remove the barriers of division between business and non-business persons in the church we must work cooperatively and support each other, aiding and empowering each other to use our differences as a source of creativity.

I would like to challenge all of us, in the face of the problem of separation, to strive for unity in the church, for its upbuilding. {16}

THE CENTRALITY OF GOD’S KINGDOM

The fourth affirmation that should characterize the life of biblical faith in the business world is that God’s kingdom is central.

The Problem of Poverty: Haves vs. Have-Nots

It is helpful to understand the affirmation of the centrality of God’s kingdom against the backdrop of the problem of poverty and disparity in the world.

This problem is to a large extent a result of the other problems, especially the problem of progress. To what extent has our business civilization contributed to the aggravation of the disparity between the rich and the poor globally and at home? To what extent does our business culture perpetuate systems that place wealth into the hands of the few rather than the many? To what extent should (or can) business work toward equality among peoples? How does it or can it use the power of wealth constructively? Have you had to come to terms with some of the evils of the structures of our business culture? How important is this problem in your thinking?

A Biblical View of the Kingdom: The Centrality of Christ

I believe that the critical problem of poverty and the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots must be addressed by a theology of the kingdom in which the incarnation and redemption of Christ are seen in sharp focus. A Christian in the business world must respond with a resounding yes to the centrality of God’s kingdom, which is the new age that God in his gracious love has made available to us through Jesus Christ and his Spirit. In view of the inbreaking of the new age it should be noted:

1. That the important debate today is not between liberals and conservatives, socialists and capitalists, left and right. It is between those who are still committed to the structures of the old age and those who have been grasped by a new vision. Because of the new, the old becomes quite insignificant. One lives with passion in the new.

2. That to seek first the kingdom is to follow Jesus, to do what he said and live the life-style to which he pointed. Christian faith is a way of life, not a method of worship or a set of propositions to be believed. One’s faith is expressed in a life that conforms to the gospel.

3. That any adequate consideration of money, wealth, and property needs to be set into the framework of the “new age” which meets us in the New Testament, namely, the establishment of the kingdom of God. {17}

4. That the economic relationships of first-century Christians were a powerful sign confirming this awesome announcement that the kingdom of peace and righteousness was present.

5. That Jesus has much to say about money and wealth: it is a gift from God, “legitimate”; it is subordinate to spiritual concerns; it is a means only, never an end in itself; but there is a grave danger connected with it, for early Christianity contains a radical criticism of riches.

6. That the kingdom ethic of Jesus brings about a fundamental spiritual reorientation within and without that offers a powerful motivation for the Christian to address economic injustice in its broadest sense.

7. That the neglect of the biblical teaching on institutionalized evil or structural injustice is one of the most deadly omissions in evangelicalism today.

I believe that a proper focus on a theology of the kingdom will help us to address—as well as to transcend—the problem of poverty and disparity in our business culture.

The Response of Servanthood: Commitment to Christ and His Justice

The ethical and practical response of God’s people to the problem of economic disparity in our business culture (a response based on a theology of the Kingdom) is one of submission to the incarnation and redemption of Christ. He is the kingdom of God in our midst. He became poor so that we could become spiritually rich. At its roots poverty is a theological problem. It can only be satisfactorily addressed from the standpoint of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which broke the powers and forces of evil which are the basis of the inescapable problem of poverty.

Poverty has been explained in a variety of ways: chance or fate, natural causes, personal irresponsibility, God’s judgment, etc. Some or all of these do have their place as explanations. But one of the underlying reasons that has forcefully been brought to our attention in this generation is that poverty is also created by structural evil. Inequities that are guaranteed to favour some few and be oppressive to the majority have been institutionalized.

It is difficult to raise this subject, but even more difficult to provide some clear direction in coping with it. I am not issuing a call to support any political or social cause per se, but I do want to emphasize that there is a problem here which we as members of the western business culture and of Christ’s body cannot ignore.

So allow me to return to the theme of power, since I believe that it {18} begins to get at the basis of our structural problem. We should note:

1. That persons in business in our culture wield great power. Economic organizations are an important part of the “powers that be.” We do not appreciate fully enough the power of economics in shaping communities and the world.

2. That Jesus had a certain orientation toward power: he recognized the power of God; he rejected the temptation to accumulate power for selfish interests; he transformed power and channeled it to people in need when it was given to him, stipulating that they also channel it to others; he described his and his disciples’ role as being that of a servant rather than a lord, king, benefactor, philanthropist, or “do-gooder”; he disarmed the evil powers with his death and called us to a higher destiny.

3. That Jesus’ way is to seek first the kingdom of God, gaining power in serving others. Power should be given or withheld purposefully and unselfishly so that it can be harnessed for social justice and used to fight demonic forces.

I would like to challenge all of us, in the face of the problem of poverty and disparity, to submit and commit ourselves to the kingdom of God in Christ and to His redeeming and serving power.

THE CHALLENGE TO FAITHFULNESS

I want to leave us with a challenge to biblical faithfulness in our business culture. I would urge all of us to speak a resounding yes to the four affirmations that we have attempted to make: to be grateful for God’s good world, to live wholistic lives, to strive for the unity of God’s people, to commit ourselves to the kingdom—to Christ and his justice.

We have made these affirmations against the backdrop of four critical problems we face in our business culture. We have presented these problems as polarities, false polarities. If one or the other of each polarity is pursued as the only way, a distortion ensues. These polarities must be transcended by living within the truth of the affirmation given. They represent the basic tension between kingdom and culture, between church and world. Therefore you business people are indeed at the most critical and yet most opportune juncture at which biblical faith meets our world. May the power of God’s kingdom go with you in the marketplaces of our culture.

Howard Loewen is an Associate Professor of Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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