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January 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 1 · pp. 3–8 

Issues for Christians in Business

Arthur DeFehr

Christians are active in the business world, yet there is continuing ambivalence about the appropriateness of this vocation. This paper and seminar will attempt to define the issues which create this ambivalence.


Jesus displayed an incredible ability to cut through the issues of His day and address the question that lay at the very core of each personality. As I considered an audience composed of seminarians and business persons, the closest biblical parallels were Nicodemus and the rich young ruler. Nicodemus was told in no uncertain terms that the path to salvation did not pass through his intellect. The barrier between Nicodemus and God was philosophical, and Jesus answered in those terms with the beautiful imagery of the new birth. The rich young ruler also sought the path to salvation, and Jesus told him to “. . . go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The barrier between a man of wealth and God is most likely to be his wealth and Jesus did not hesitate to address that very question.

It is interesting to speculate whether the advice of Jesus would have been more readily accepted if it had been reversed. The Pharisee’s security lay in his education rather than possessions and the young ruler may not have felt his wealth challenged by the concepts of the new birth. There are many in this audience who embrace the advice given to Nicodemus and support every effort to evangelize the world but don’t appreciate criticism of their lifestyles! The seminarian will give freely of his wealth, because he assumes his books, Ph.D. and tenured position are not included. If Christ were among us today He would probably have expanded the concept of wealth a great deal.

As Christians we need a philosophical framework which puts our relationship to God, to our physical world and to our society into perspective. However, this philosophical framework is unlikely to come out of the business community. Many academics and pastors are eloquent on our relationship to God, but how many of our seminarians can dissect the competing claims of the Bible and the powerful ideologies which surround and engulf us? {4}


Our present world is dominated by two philosophies or ideologies: capitalism and Marxism, or market economy versus a directed economy. Do we understand their origins, assumptions, values to the extent that we can separate what is consistent with biblical values from the rest? Both of these ideologies are rooted in humanism, the fundamental shift in values during the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Humanism says that humanity rather than God is at the center of the universe and leads to our belief in progress and prosperity. From this it is only a short step to the position that then the human ability to reason is the driving force in our world. Descartes began with the fundamental proposition: “I think, therefore I am.” Adam Smith applied reason to the economic world and defined the power of the market as the path to human progress. Smith and others like Milton Friedman believe that if the government permitted totally free enterprise the net result would be greater efficiency, the survival of the fittest, and therefore the highest standard of living. Marx looked at the same world, started with the same assumptions about the role of man, and also concluded that economic forces were the engine of history; but he concluded that control of economic events was the essential ingredient to move to a more perfect state of affairs. Marx defined oppression of the working poor by the privileged class as the barrier to economic progress and therefore believed that the economic system required firm control and direction to prevent its domination by those with capital or power. Both ideologies profess personal freedom as their ultimate goal, but capitalism hopes to achieve this by eliminating restrictions and Marxism by eliminating oppression through the control of economic events.

The fundamental difference between the two is one of values. Capitalism assumes that the outcome of an unfettered market will be good. It puts judgment on the results, simply stating that they are better than any other alternative. Adam Smith wrote:

All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way. . . .

What does it mean to “violate the laws of justice?” Adam Smith admits to the inherent weakness of capitalism in his original writing—it is long on freedom, but short on justice. In reading Milton Friedman, one must conclude that justice is measured only on the basis of opportunity rather than on any measure of results. Thus capitalism permits Christianity to exist, in fact rides on some of its values, but lacks any value system of its own. {5}

Marxism defines personal freedom in terms of equality of results, but takes away all freedom in the futile attempt to get there. Marxism is not short of values, rather it provides alternate values to those of Christianity and is in essence another religion. For this reason Christians find the capitalistic ideology more compatible but fail to recognize that neither capitalism nor Marxism is founded on Christian values or a biblical perspective of the place of human beings in creation.

Christianity is a revealed religion. Truth is based on absolutes rather than scientific discovery or evolutionary events. It is interesting that many North American Christians will take a stand on the Creation side of the evolution-creation debate yet blindly endorse the system of political economy within which we function. I say it is interesting because the accepted champion of capitalist philosophy, Friedrich Hayek, maintains that the market economy or capitalism is a product of an evolutionary process and its ability to adapt is the fundamental source of its strength.

By now many of you may be wondering what this discussion has to do with the subject. I sincerely believe that there is a great void among our Mennonite and evangelical intellectuals. If one tried to create a list of people trained in theology, who could simultaneously discuss the philosophic assumptions of our economic and political world, the list would be depressingly short. However, just as the concept of the new birth is the foundation upon which Jesus builds the principles of his Kingdom, a genuine understanding of our world is essential to develop the fine print regarding all of the ethical and other questions which we plan to discuss. It is imperative that we develop those who can provide genuine leadership to assist us in evaluating the competing claims of the powerful ideologies within which we are immersed.


Within such a framework we must then begin to deal with the daily issues, just as Christ dealt with many of these matters as he wandered the roads of Palestine. These issues are impossible to catalogue, but it may be helpful to look at our relationships for guidance, since it is only when we deal with another person that these issues become real.

The Individual and the Family

1. Ownership. Who owns your business? God made us stewards over His creation, but if our society assumes that we are at the center of the universe, then our rights of ownership are unlimited. But if God is at the center of the universe, then our property rights are different from those of our non-Christian neighbors. {6}

2. Inheritance. If ownership has limitations, then what are the implications for the inheritance of our possessions? Did God entrust them to you or to your lineage? Is inherited wealth and power a blessing or a curse?

3. Stewardship. Does God want you or your money? Are we really open to the fact that God may sometimes value our gift of ourselves more than our donations?

4. Family Relationships. Where does your family fit into your list of priorities?

Relationship to the Church

1. Communication and Understanding. Does your church and your pastor understand you? Based on what we are likely to hear later, the answer is probably no. It might be helpful, however, if we some times tested the hypothesis that those of us in business are misunderstood because we cannot articulate our philosophy, and our life practices may in fact not make sense to our neighbors in the pew.

2. Status and Influence. Does our status in secular life transfer to our congregational status in inappropriate ways? Many of us are large donors, sometimes a major employer, and we generally have more discretion with regard to the use of our time. This often results in power and influence which is not always supported by the spiritual quality of our life. We must also ask whether the church reinforces these false values by rewarding financial faithfulness? Look at the copper plaques on the walls of our religious institutions or at the boards of directors.

3. Evangelism Versus the Kingdom. If financial support can sometimes be a substitute for personal sacrifice, is it also possible that spiritual vitality or soul-winning can be a substitute for responding to the other demands of the Kingdom in terms of lifestyle and ethics? This does not suggest the primacy of one over the other, but I recall a panel discussion of four Christian businessmen who had just given glowing testimonies about their life of witness. The question they were asked was: “Does your being a Christian make any difference in the way you run your business?” After great confusion and discussion, they concluded that they couldn’t think of any way in which being Christian affected their business practices. I venture a guess that Christ would have had a pithy comment at that point.

4. Unique Role of the Business Person. It has been observed that anyone in business must anticipate events to survive and as a result is more astute at perceiving changes and trends in society. Unfortunately the business person is often less articulate, especially on paper, and as a result these insights are often not utilized. {7}

Relationship to Employees

1. Definition of Justice. What standard of justice do we apply? It is often argued that if we comply with the law of the land, then justice has been accomplished. If we go back to my earlier premise that capitalism is efficient but not just, then we need to question whether the law of the land really represents justice.

2. Profit-Sharing. Is profit-sharing an obligation or an option? If our ownership rights are limited, this suggests that our right to the fruit of that ownership may be limited.

3. Income Levels. How do you value your contribution compared to that of your lowest-paid worker? Remember that every person is part of God’s creation and has equal value in his eyes. If we could today ask Christ what the salary relationship should be between the top and bottom of an organization, he would respond with an appropriate parable.

4. Selling a Business. Should you sell your business or take in non-Christian shareholders? God has entrusted you with the capacity to initiate or operate a business. When we sell that business we essentially capitalize the future contributions of the employees. Does it matter how large your business is? The pressures of our society to grow, expand, develop are difficult to resist. It is sad to observe situations where growth has taken the business beyond the capabilities of management and an enterprise run by Christians is turned over to a secular organization because it could not sustain itself internally.

In addition there are innumerable questions on unions, employment policies, information-sharing, participation in decision-making, quality of the work environment, etc., which grow out of the proposition that our standards of justice are more demanding.

Responsibility to Community, Society, and the World

1. Christian Model. Are Christians expected to operate businesses in such a way that they represent an alternative to the humanistic value system implicit in both capitalistic and Marxist ideology? If such a demanding performance is expected of us we first need to understand the points at which our values differ and secondly need a sense of commitment and discipline which is seldom in evidence. There are Christian business persons who do attempt to express this alternative value system in their practice, but the list is as short as the list of academics who could explain the difference.

2. Limits to Involvement. Can Christians participate in any kind of business? There are many examples of situations where something may be lawful yet not be a suitable profession or practice for a Christian. {8}

3. Economic Justice. How do we deal with trade associations or international trade matters? The underlying assumption in these situations is invariably self-preservation and collective selfishness. It is interesting that American and Canadian business champions free enterprise only until genuine free enterprise begins to hurt; then they turn to controls and restrictions. We seem to believe in the market economy only if we can be assured of being winners.

4. Investing in Society. What portion of our profit is required for reinvestment, how much for us and our employees, and how much for the rest of society? Mennonite business persons are generally noted for their generosity, and this suggests that they are thinking seriously about many of these issues.

5. Directing Resources. Given that we dedicate a substantial portion of our resources for charitable purposes, who should decide where these resources will go? Dag Hammarskjold, the former secretary general of the United Nations, provided some helpful advice on this question: “Be grateful as your deeds become less and less associated with your name, as your feet ever more lightly tread the earth.”

This presentation of the issues relating to the Christian in Business is not exhaustive, and the answers are not simple. It has been my intention to step back from the more easily defined issues which assault us daily and, where possible, to suggest that there is a more fundamental question of philosophy underlying most of them. In order to deal with practical matters, we must be grounded in a proper understanding of our faith and the competing values which inundate us. If our pastors and theologians are expected to give us answers, they will have to develop the capacity to comprehend adequately the economic and political environment and should be encouraged to do so.

The paramount issue which lurks behind almost every question is the same one which saddened the rich young ruler. The world grants us the right to wealth, power, and prestige whether material or intellectual in origin. The teaching, command, and example of Christ calls the resulting self-sufficiency or self-reliance into question. Dag Hammarskjold also grappled with the temptations of pride and power. All of us would benefit if we prayed his prayer.


Art DeFehr is Vice President of Palliser Furniture, Limited, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and is active in numerous Mennonite ventures.

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