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July 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 3 · pp. 3–13 

The Church’s Responsibility in the Marketplace

Responses by Arthur Jost 8/3 (1979): 14; Vern Ratzlaff 8/3 (1979): 15; Carl Wohlgemuth 8/3 (1979): 15–16; Herbert D. Neufeld 8/3 (1979): 17–18; Norman J. Ewert 8/3 (1979): 18–19; and Arthur DeFehr 8/3 (1979): 19–20.

Calvin Redekop

Many of us grew up in rural communities where going to church was an all-day affair. In my home church at Lustre, Montana (Evangelical Mennonite Brethren), we arrived at church at 10:00 a.m. and listened to two sermons. After the long-anticipated noon fellowship meal, and after an hour’s time for visiting and fellowship, we participated in Sunday School, which sometimes lasted until 3:30. And yet, all week long, everyone looked forward to Sunday. It was the weekly occasion to be renewed emotionally, morally, and spiritually, for eking out an existence on the prairie during the ’30s was hard and posed many problems. Because the life of the church was integrated with the community, the church informed the “business” of making a living even when that business included difficult ethical problems like defaulting on loans that could not possibly be repaid.

Today the church is almost a stranger in the world of business. Many of us resent any preacherly interference in our business activities (after all, he doesn’t know anything about the world I face). The Sunday school class is resented if it gets too specific. And the demand for openness is felt to be meddling, for what we do with our wealth, how we live, and how we run our businesses is our personal affair. One of the best indicators of this gradual but dramatic shift is that we now resent any business involvements on the part of our pastors! I know of a congregation which strongly reprimanded a pastor for becoming interested in buying a house for “future hedging against inflation.” In my youth all the pastors were theologically untrained businessmen, often the best farmers or merchants in the community. Today, pastors are to be specialists in spiritual activity, while business is for lay people.

What concern or influence does the church have in business, which is no longer simply agricultural but is complex, secular, national, {4} and even international in scope? In this article I hope to propose some areas and issues which Christians in the marketplace need to face, for it is our responsibility to “take up our crosses daily” and follow Jesus. And since the church is the larger fellowship of believers, it becomes the responsible body to help us to evaluate these issues critically and realistically.

THE ECONOMIC PHILOSOPHY BY WHICH WE LIVE

Many of us are justifiably “turned off” by “academic egg-heads” who espouse high level theories of economics, often radical or leftist in nature. These impractical “experts” have never met a payroll, so they do not know what the real life of economics is all about; often they do not show up too well in managing their own financial affairs. There are also the young idealists, college graduates, who have varying degrees of socialist philosophy which stress profit sharing, collective management, and related ideas.

But the professors and young radicals are not the only theoreticians and ideologues. Most of us rank and file Christian business people are probably just as dogmatic and ideologically biased. Most Christian business people hold strongly to conservative political and economic philosophies. We tend to be Republicans who support Adam Smith’s view of free enterprise. 1 Often we are conservative socially, opposed to social programs (from social security to social welfare) and to any type of subsidies for the poor (but not to subsidies for farming or business or mining). Hard work, frugality, and support for the system is the typical Christian answer for economic theory.

But defending the status {5} quo is as much an ideological position as criticizing it or suggesting an alternative. As long as Christian business people insist that they are not ideological but the “leftists” are, there is little hope of ethical advance. To enter the business arena, the church must first of all recognize that both Christian business people and their “radical” opponents are secularly and philosophically informed and motivated. Both the professors and the Christian business people are constantly drawn into developing a “secular” socio-economic philosophy to justify their own positions rather than discerning what the Gospel says about “making a living” and managing the material wealth we mine or produce.

Christian business people are more subtle and powerful rationalizers of the status quo than they realize, and the “radical” types are more polemical and unyielding than they concede. What is needed is a Christian approach to business and economics which is based on Christian values and beliefs. Christians should not approach business and economics with either a cleverly rationalized defense of the status quo designed to benefit those with wealth nor with a shrill over-reaction on political and philosophical grounds to the dominant economic system, no matter how “evil” it may appear to some. Nor can they think of Christianity as either so blandly “spiritual” that it can have nothing to say to “secular” concerns or assume that personal faith and piety are so private or so adequate that the church need not be involved in the ambiguities of ethical problems.

Whether we admit it or not, all of us have tended to accept prevailing secular economic philosophies. Are they all equally anti-Christian? Is there a Christian economic philosophy and system? What is the Christian stance in the contemporary post-industrial society? These are issues which now are being resolved by default. But by avoiding them we are not solving them, and we are in peril of having sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. These questions require the context of a believing congregation. Because an individual philosophy is often self-justifying, these questions cannot be solved by the individual alone.

A CHRISTIAN BUSINESS ETHIC

If we have adopted any of the inadequate stances indicated above, our ethical behavior will reflect that of the environment in which we find ourselves. But if we are willing to apply Christian values to our economic life, we then come to the question of what this means in practice. We need to ask a number of basic ethical questions.

Property

The prevailing Western philosophy has assumed that property, including land, minerals, crops, and produce are there for the getting, and the most powerful get the most. Force, intrigue, and violence took the vast lands of “virgin America.” Of course we paid money for parts of it, but money did not mean anything to the Indians. 2 Oil, like other minerals a God-created resource, was taken by those who had the knowledge and the money and sold to the rest of us. But who really owns the oil?

A Christian view of property raises some peculiar issues: What is property and wealth? Who has the right to appropriate the air, water, land, oil, and ore which God has made? What responsibility do Christians have for the way these resources are used? Are future generations also involved? What about the rights of people in other lands whose resources we are enjoying? What is my responsibility to my neighbors even if all these other questions are resolved satisfactorily? What if I have more than they do? Do I owe them anything? {6}

A Christian approach to the meaning, use, and distribution of wealth would have to look different than the typical approaches held to in the West. How can we come to a position which would be more in line with the Gospel? Is wealth a stairway to heaven or is it a millstone? What is the meaning of Jesus’ words, “How hard it is for a wealthy man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”? The Judeo-Christian faith has not rejected the material aspects of existence; on the contrary, it has been called the most materialistic religion in history. How can we harmonize this with Jesus’ teaching?

Competition

If by competition is meant the survival of the fittest, it is a fact of life. A weak plant or animal does not survive. The runt of the litter starved unless I interfered. In nature each individual entity finds its niche or it dies. Do humans fit into this scheme as well? Even if not, we who have “survived” must admit that we have competed, and continue to compete, on various levels. Even societies which did not have competitive economic systems invented games to express their need for competition.

The New Testament does not say much about competition except in doing good works of compassion. “Don’t do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Normally, however, the New Testament is not referred to when competition is discussed.

Competition in the economic sphere varies from the most benign and salutary forms which encourage the best in all of us to the most brutal types which result in destruction of personality and body. In its most unbridled form, competition can destroy a struggling merchant who is helpless against a larger company which simply wants a monopoly.

Competition may be most problematic in the “zero-sum” situation, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss. When one person gets an “A” in a class in which only one “A” will be given, the others have been systematically excluded. Probably the most relevant example is access to land; if one farmer buys up land for his children, this effectively excludes another farmer from doing the same.

Competition therefore needs to be carefully evaluated, for where it is conducive to growth, performance, and creativity it is more desirable than where it is disruptive of interpersonal relationships and personal self-worth. How competition affects the Christian view of economic life would depend upon how the following questions among others, are answered: Does the competition allow the persons {7} involved to do their best work, physically, psychologically, and spiritually? Will the relationships between the competitors be enhanced, or will hostility be created? Does competition contribute to the most effective, efficient, and peaceful means to achieve the most desirable ends?

The near universal presence of varying degrees of competition does not allow for any one of us to deny both its positive and negative aspects. Athletes, doctors, nurses, and educators need to wrestle with the issue just as much as do business people. Most of us assume that if competition is good in some cases, it cannot be bad—an argument no better than asserting that if fire is sometimes good then it is always good. All Christians need to work at sorting out the myriad forms and uses of competition.

Organization

Organization is a rational way of relating means to ends. Management and organization are almost synonymous; in fact, the American Management Association defines management as “getting things done through and with other people.” An organization is the key to managing and manipulating people. Hitler was able to organize millions of people to his own ends. Henry Ford did the same, and his very powerful organization lives after him. St. Ignatius Loyola organized the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), whose influence is still felt all over the world.

Again, the central issue is how organizations function for their members and how organizations affect non-members. Internally, organizations can serve a host of useful functions. They provide individuals with a structure which can offer security and stability, and they have the resources to maximize the gifts of individuals, whose impact would otherwise be limited. On the other hand, organizations can tyrannize individuals, undermine trust and openness to others in the competitive atmosphere that may be fostered, and destroy personal morality in those who relinquish their own values and goals for that of the organization. 3

The external influences of organizations can also be both good and bad. Even an organization which intends to produce a good product may produce unfortunate byproducts. Thus a General Motors plant which produces automobiles may be destructive to its community if it provides more jobs than the community structures can handle. An organization may also engage in ruthless competition or immoral business practices. Finally, regardless of how moral an organization is internally, a serious moral issue is raised if it produces napalm or tanks or anti-personnel bombs.

Even though organizations are neither Christian or non-Christian, {8} what they do can be judged by Christian teaching: Is the organization directed toward Christian goals or, at least, toward goals which are in harmony with them? Are the operating principles consistent with Christian teachings such as those on love and forgiveness? Is there a way in which failure, alienation, and hostility can be worked through? Is the organization beneficial to the community and the environment?

Probably most Christians are involved in organizations that do good and work harm, both internally and externally. But how do we judge them, and how do we go about changing an organization if it is not what it ought to be? For the Christian the organization cannot be a “weapon” but must be a “basin and towel.” It must serve. How can we nudge the organization to pursue values which are consistent with our faith? Do we align ourselves with the status struggles, competition, exploitation, and blackmailing that can characterize an organization, or do we participate in the cooperation and mutual assistance which organizations are capable of promoting?

Work

Work on the prairies was essential for existence. As a teenager I was angered by the fact that my mother often had to help my father with hard outside jobs such as making hay. But my mother understood the nature of work and its meaning better than I did. Work has a long history and includes the forced labor of untold millions of slaves in imperial Rome and our plantation south as well as the feverish activity of scientists trying to perfect the first atomic bomb. It includes the untiring efforts of missionaries in China and the unbelievable sweat and tears of our Mennonite ancestors invested in the soil on the lands where they settled.

Our problem as Christians is twofold: to develop a philosophy of work and then to embody it in our work. 4 Work can be seen as an end in itself, or as a means to an end. For centuries our ancestors have seen it as both a means (to make a living so we could glorify God) and an end (as God’s will for us, farming was itself a way of glorifying God). There was pride in work, quality work, because work expressed God’s order and will for humankind. A well-kept farm was a testimony of faith.

But work in the West has been separated from fulfillment; it is seen as a means to fulfillment. One works so that one can retire; one works to buy the things that are enjoyable, living for vacations or for the evening with friends at the local bar. The tragedy is that work has largely become meaningless for many moderns.

Since we have understood work only as a means to an end, we have adopted the attitude toward our work which is consistent with {9} this view—we avoid it whenever possible. We have downgraded work, classifying it as more and less noble, and as a result we have become reluctant to do the menial tasks (I recall the embarrassment I once felt when a pastor met me just after I crawled out from under a house where I had fixed the soil pipes).

If work is only a means to an end, we are not likely to do good work. We will try to evade it when possible, and will impose it on others when we can. If work is primarily a means to make money, we will not enjoy work, nor will we allow it to enrich our lives. If work is not structured to allow interaction with people, it will become a form of solitary confinement. If work is not humanized and dignified, it will be understressed and treated as menial. Humanizing a dignifying work can make the difference between persons who are self-respecting and those who think little of themselves.

Almost all great leaders and thinkers have gloried in work. Even Jesus did the work of his father. Work is central to our personal, social and economic well-being. It deserves a central place in the theology and ethics of the church. It does not now have it, if our actions are a gauge.

Labor Relations

Work done by someone who is hired comes to be treated as a means to an end by both the employer and the employee. This profound fact is at the heart of much management-labor difficulty. The employee who does the work tends to dislike the work and dislike the “master.” And the employers have already proved that they dislike the work since they value wealth more than work, and they put a distance between themselves and the workers by the very fact that they employ the laborer to do their work. A hired hand is just that, a hand, not a person.

Although Marx may have overstated the case, the main reason we employ others is because we think we can make some profit from their services. It is this issue—that of being used by others for their benefit—which makes labor relations so sensitive and acute. A fair share of pay for a fair day’s work is not the issue which creates the problems, rather it is the feeling by employees that employers are profiting from their labor. Of course, if employing others did not provide the employers with some benefits, they would not bother to enlarge their business. In fact, many businessmen are purposely remaining small because the complications resulting from an increase in the number of employees are often greater than the benefits obtained.

The New Testament does not speak to these issues very {10} concretely. It appears to assume that there will be employers and employees but it does not have much to say about how the groups will treat each other. It speaks of love of neighbor and of giving when a neighbor asks; it speaks of preferring one another in love and of serving as better than being served. It also speaks of slaves serving their masters cheerfully.

In general, therefore, the following elements are as relevant for the employee as for the employer: there must be no exploitation. The employee must not steal tools, materials, or time. For the employer to steal the wages, benefits or health of the employee is equally wrong. The contract must be clearly spelled out and adhered to. Clearly spelled out stipulations of work to be done, conditions under which it is to be done, and the rewards which are to result are necessary and any reneging or evasion from either side is a breach of the promises made. The day-to-day negotiations and relationships must be fair and equitable. There is the temptation to be biased and self-oriented, especially for the person in the more powerful position.

Christian labor relationships can be achieved if the conditions outlined above are worked out in the context of a biblically informed study of the following questions: What is my motive for employing others? What rights do I have regarding the labor of others? What standard of performance and other obligations do I have to my employer? What share does each of these partners have in the profits or rewards of work? 5

Economic Life Styles

One of the most profound impressions I gained from my life among the Old Colony Mennonites in Canada and Mexico was the fact that though there were tremendous differences in land holdings among the villagers, one could rarely tell who were the wealthy ones on the basis of life style. The farmyards, homes, clothing styles, and self-indulgence of the wealthy did not differ noticeably from that of the poor families in the villages. Though they may not have reached a decision on the biblical teaching concerning wealth, at least the Old Colony Mennonites had addressed the problem of the alienation caused by wealth.

Almost universally life styles tend to alienate and estrange people from each other. As soon as we can possibly afford it, we buy a new car to “set ourselves apart.” Even before a family can afford it, it will buy or build a house that is conspicuously elaborate and expensive—though it may be impractical—in order to prove something to the community. Some people need several thousand dollars more than they earn to remain at their level of living and must constantly fend creditors from their door. {11}

There is little need to recite the tension, distrust, envy, and conflict that life styles, and the attempt to achieve “higher” ones, engender among families, neighbors, and members of communities. This alienation is not limited to the nouveau riche but includes people at all levels of income. The family of meager means which enmeshes itself in obligations to friends and others who mean to help is as much involved as the wealthy family which buys the best home in town and drives the biggest and newest car.

The search for a Christian point of view regarding life styles will involve these questions: What levels of consumption do I have a right to expect given the needs of my community, nation, and world? Am I aware of how my life style affects my relationships to my neighbors, and is it consistent with my profession of faith? It is apparent that many “ostentatious” life styles would not be so offensive if the persons involved would not mouth so many pious utterances regarding their concern about others, their religious commitment, and their contribution to the world’s needs. Am I aware of how my involvement with material things and creaturely indulgences affects my own perceptions and reasoning? If social science has taught us anything, it is that human beings are nowhere as brilliant as when defending their own position or justifying their way of life. I have yet to meet a person who does not have a “watertight” system of logic to defend the particular life style he pursues, be it buying expensive cars every year, taking the annual ski trip to Aspen, building a six bedroom house just when the children are leaving home, or willing the entire estate to the children.

The materialistic, self-gratifying life style of the West is very attractive, but the end thereof is bitter. As recent migrants to the land of wealth and plenty, that bitterness can be avoided only if we take the message of the scriptures seriously. This is one of the crucial issues of our time.

WHAT DOES IT PROFIT A MAN . . . ?

There are many ways to analyze the role Christianity plays in the economic world. There have been those like Walter Rauschenbusch who believed that the economic order could be Christianized and suggested that “A Christian economic order would aid in training sound and strong individuals by its assimilating influence, would place men in righteous relations to one another and to the commonwealth, and so promote the Christian purpose of giving all a chance to live a saved life.” 6 There are others like Karl Marx who felt that religion was used to justify the oppression of people: “Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” 7 {12}

Few would take either pole of this extreme. Few of us believe that any economic order can be Christianized. Yet most of us are probably not too concerned about the way the economic structure measures up to the biblical message. We are too busy in the day-to-day manipulation and operation of the system to ask questions about its morality. But therein lies the danger: we can be so involved in the nuts and bolts of making a living and “working the system” that we forget about the bigger issues. As the cartoon character put it, “It’s hard to focus on draining the swamp when I’m up to my ears in alligators.”

Socrates is to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” For Christians to act as though the economic system in which they find themselves is beyond judgment is to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to Christ. Almost every parable, every teaching, and every act of his had either direct or indirect economic implications. We have avoided their impact by assuming that statements like “No! Love your enemies and do good to them; lend (money) and expect nothing back” (Luke 6:35) are to be taken only symbolically or spiritually, not literally.

We can ignore or evade the instruction of Holy Writ. We can also ignore the lessons of history. But six thousand years of economic history could provide us with some guidelines and rules of thumb. Have we taken the time to listen, read, and learn? Solzhenitsyn has said, “Dig up the past and you lose an eye. Forget the past and you lose both eyes.” The history of economic relationships is not pretty, and may cost an eye. But when we are summoned to face the consequences of our economic actions, we will not be permitted to plead ignorance. Neither history nor the policeman is much impressed with the timid plea, “I was not aware of the limit.” Nor is God impressed. Jesus tells us that it will not suffice to say, “When did we see thee hungry and did not feed thee?” For he replies with the haunting economically-oriented statement, “I tell you whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me” (Matt. 25:45).

What does the market place have to do with my faith? Everything. My life depends upon it. {13}

NOTES

  1. It is not possible to summarize the views of Adam Smith in a few sentences, but the “invisible hand” of self-interest is a central theme in his philosophy.
  2. If this seems a bit harsh, it is because the truth is hard. That people deal harshly and unjustly with each other is illustrated in the Old Testament, where the prophets unequivocally condemn all exploitation and oppression. The way Christians have exploited their neighbors in America (Negroes as well as Indians) has not yet fully come to light.
  3. See G.F. Hershberger, (The Way of the Cross in Human Relations (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1958), p. 250). His book is the best statement of the Christians’ relation to the socio-economic sphere now available. For a statement of general economic and social challenges to the Mennonite brotherhood in particular, see Donovan Smucker, “Gelassenheit, Entrepreneurs, and Remnants: Socioeconomic Models Among Mennonites,” in J.R. Burkholder and C. Redekop (Kingdom, Cross and Community (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1976)).
  4. A theology of work is desperately needed because, as V. Obenhaus says, work has been separated from the community of faith. “The Bible’s primary concern is the relationship between God and man, and the final criterion of man’s life is the degree to which work is an instrument for the glorification of God” (Ethics for an Industrial Age (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 200). A glorification of work puts us in the dilemma of the Calvinist trap: the more we do God’s will (work), the wealthier we become, the wealthier we become, the more we are in danger of being excluded from heaven.
  5. See Hershberger’s chapter, “The Way of Christian Brotherhood,” in which a Christian attitude toward labor relations is discussed.
  6. Christianizing the Social Order (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1919), p. 372.
  7. Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, trans. T.B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 27.
Calvin Redekop is a former vice-president of Tabor College and Professor of Sociology-elect at Conrad Grebel College/University of Waterloo, Ontario. He is also executive secretary of the organization Mennonite Industry and Business Associates, and is an officer of several corporations.

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