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July 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 3 · pp. 21–26 

Business as a Christian Calling

Arthur J. Block

It is with considerable trepidation that I accepted your invitation to speak at the Seminary. I assure you I had good reason for hesitation. After all, Socrates rated my profession as the lowest rung on his ladder of honorable professions. I do think he showed a little bias when he placed the philosopher-teacher on top. But Socrates isn’t the only one who didn’t think much of the trader. Thomas Aquinas considered us an unfortunate necessity when he described the function of a city. “It is better, therefore, that the supplies of food be furnished to the City from its own fields than that it be wholly dependent on trade. Still, traders must not be entirely kept out of a City. . . .” Luther was less tolerant.

I have wished to give a bit of warning and instruction to everyone about this great, nasty, widespread business of merchandising. . . . For these three errors, that everyone may sell what is his own as dear as he will, borrowing, and becoming surety—these, I say, are the three sources from which the stream of abomination, injustice, treachery and guile flows far and wide: to try to stem the flood and not stop up the springs, is trouble and labour lost.

The respected Hutterian theologian Peter Riedemann in Rechenschaft declares, “We allow none of our number to do the work of a trader or merchant, since this is a sinful business.” Even Benjamin Franklin didn’t rate my profession as honorable when asked about the source of wealth:

Finally, there seems to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbours. This is robbery. The second is commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way. {22}

I won’t quote Hegel or Marx. The more I consulted the wisdom of philosophers and theologians, the more apprehensive I became. However, I am not easily discouraged and will try to give you my reasons why, as a Christian, I have pursued a business career.

The creation account in Genesis describes the explosion of creative energy by which God is revealed as the rational designer of the cosmos. The culmination of his work was to create human kind “in our image.” If Genesis says anything about God’s purpose in this it is that he intended us to reflect his own creativity.

But even more explicitly, God instructs man to “subdue the earth.” We are challenged to solve the puzzles of existence around us. It is God’s gift to humankind that we should desire to create, build, and understand both the physical and spiritual world. I can find no more convincing argument in favor of economic involvement than Genesis and creation itself.

We are not left without examples. Joseph and Daniel are probably two of the most explicit demonstrations of participation in economic affairs. Both gave economic leadership, and that outside the safe enclave of God’s chosen people. As chief administrators both Daniel and Joseph survived the intrigues of politicians, competition, and economic problems.

Jesus used economics as a vehicle for teaching spiritual values. Why did Jesus choose the vineyard, the gold pieces, the talents, and the sowing of seeds to convey spiritual thought? Jesus knew we were destined to examine and utilize the material things around us. In fact, he knew we were given these attributes and drives by God at creation. Far from condemning economic involvement, Jesus appears to accept the inevitability and acceptability of such participation. In fact, Jesus said, “Make friends with the Mammon.”

More directly, we are instructed to be our brother’s keeper. In describing the final judgement, Jesus described the righteous as those who responded positively when faced with the human need for a cup of water or a coat. Governments have, more or less, underwritten the basic rights of food, shelter, clothing, education, and health through the tax system. But government’s source of income is the productive sector of the economy. If the economy falters so does the government’s ability to actualize these rights for its citizens. Therefore unemployment, productivity, capital investment, and all those other economic problems become part of meeting human needs. Are we being “the salt of the earth” if we isolate ourselves? With the help of God, the Christian can, and in my opinion ought, to make important economic contributions. {23}


A growing problem in Western society is its commitment to the adversary system: management against labor, student against teacher, young against old, and poor against wealthy. Confrontation is the method and waste is the result. Canada has surpassed Italy in lost days at work due to work stoppages. T. C. Douglas says:

The essence of industrial relations is conflict. It is a confrontation in which the workers through their collective economic power seek to wrest from the employer what they deem a fair share of the wealth they helped to create.

Place this view up against the prevalent notion that the purpose of a business enterprise is to maximize production and profits, and one begins to see how the conflict develops. Such a materialistic view of human enterprise is no different from the Marxist view that justice and harmony can only come when the workers gain control of economic power from the ruling class. All three views are steeped in materialism and picture the protagonists as being incompatible, as having conflicting goals, as participating in a class struggle: oppressor against oppressed, capitalist against labor, rich against poor, employer against employee, manager against managed. We grant that the methods for achieving their goals vary from legitimate bargaining in democratic countries to violent revolution in Marxist socialism. However, their dedication to the materialistic goals of economic power is not far apart, and the inevitable result is conflict.

A significant shift from this black and white view has taken place in recent years. The mirage of materialism is being exposed. A discussion of labor relations in The Harvard Business Review by O. H. Ohmann puts it this way:

I am convinced that the central problem is not the division of the spoils as organized labor would have us believe.

Is our industrial discontent not in fact the expression of a hunger for a work life that has meaning in terms of higher and more enduring spiritual values? How can we preserve the wholeness of the personality if we are expected to worship God on Sundays and mammon Mondays through Fridays?

Perhaps even more significant is the renaissance in the quality of religious thought and experience. Quite evidently our religion of materialism, science, and humanism is not considered adequate. Man is searching for anchors outside himself. He runs wearily to the periphery of the spider web of his own reason and logic, and looks for new “skyhooks”—for abiding faith around which life’s experiences can be integrated and given meaning. {24}

Here is where traditional labor and management leaders have failed and where Marxist socialism is an empty fraud. Materialism can only move toward dehumanizing manipulation and away from justice and love. Materialism cannot satisfy the ultimate need of man. The Christian can offer an alternative. Why have we failed? Why has our witness been so weak?

As Christians we are called to be the salt of the earth: we are to be our brother’s keeper, to do justice, and to conciliate. We are instructed to have no other gods before our Creator. These and other biblical imperatives must guide the Christian’s involvement in labor-management relations. Too long we have split the work world from our faith. The dichotomy between confession and practice has been accepted in the repugnant phrase “business is business” and has produced severe schizophrenia, crippling our witness. Too many of us try to honor the claims of Christ in church and home and fail to integrate and permeate our daily work with the ethics of Jesus Christ. We have not relied on scripture for our norms and models but have resorted to practicality when faced with labor/management problems. We too have accepted the “conflict” psychology with too little application of the basic Christian principles of conciliation, equity, and love.

How can the Christian insert such lofty and ultimate principles into the raw labor/management relations which embrace power struggles and conflict to gain materialistic goals? Is it possible that God wishes to achieve the impossible by expressing His love for humankind in situations such as this? I believe a Christian’s answer must be in the affirmative. The traditional Mennonite stand of non-involvement must be re-thought. If we can begin to accept the basic posture that Christians are God’s instruments not only for equity and justice but also of his grace and love, then we can also begin to examine how the Christian can participate in labor/management relations with conviction and freedom.

We can then begin to examine the complicated issues which burden our society: income distribution, exploitation of the weak, the meaning of work, and the significance of productivity and wages. We can seek to understand the hardships of unemployment, poverty, welfare, sickness, and insecurity. Those with exploitative motives, those hungry for power, use these conditions to further their selfish personal and political goals. Unfortunately, Christians too often find themselves opposing worthy goals because they do not wish to be found even remotely close to socialism. We cannot Christianize unions or management, but we can let the influence of Jesus in our lives be felt in these circumstances. Such an influence cannot be effectual if we do not understand the issues, or if we fail to offer positive alternatives, or if we insist on non-involvement. {25}

Christians ought to be in the business of building bridges of peace between individuals, between groups, between labor and management, even between countries. Christians, particularly Mennonites, ought to be experts in this area. But peace has flesh and blood. How can there be peace if equitable income distribution is lacking, or when working conditions are unsafe, or when people are treated like machines without the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process? Real peace can only come from God, but Christians can be the instruments through which God can draw others toward peace. Our faith is based on a vertical relationship with God, but Jesus taught and exhibited that the vertical relationship has horizontal results.

Notwithstanding Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Riedemann, and Benjamin Franklin, the trader-merchant profession provides a marvelous opportunity through which Christians can express their calling to be peacemakers.


One of the most rewarding learning experiences has come from my association with the Japanese people. Though after fifteen years of business dealings and extensive visits in Japan, I still do not count myself an expert, I am attracted by some Japanese ideas about labor management and productivity.

The West has looked upon Japan as a plastic Asian country which copied Western technology and rejected its own heritage. And yet, in spite of a devastating war, rapid change since the war, and increased wealth, the Japanese society now meets every criterion of a stable society. Its institutions are effective, its cities are safe, crime rate is low, and economic benefits are widely distributed. The individual Japanese knows and understands his roots. Japan has surpassed the West in productivity without losing its social values or stability.

Japan’s meteoric post-war recovery and its continued prosperity relies heavily on its labor management concept. Even the use of the phrase “labor management” is misleading in that it denotes two groups. The emphasis is on unity not division. To the Japanese it is disturbing and repugnant to think in terms of opposing groups within the same entity. Although the worker belongs to a union and management has a distinct function, both groups see themselves as part of a whole. For a Japanese labor leader to ignore the competitive strength and profitability of his organization would be considered a betrayal of his fellow workers. And management accepts the responsibility of security for all the workers for life. So sophisticated and civilized are the inter-personal relationships of management and workers that labor union leaders often transfer to management and become senior executives in the enterprise. {26}

The source of these underlying principles is not Western, nor did they come with the technology package. Rather, historical Japanese social values underlie these relationships. Japan has adopted technology from the West but its social structure and values are still uniquely Japanese. Japan has developed a new and powerful synthesis; it has adopted western technology but retained most of its traditional social values: respect, loyalty, honesty, continuity, harmony, and responsibility.

In seeking to understand the strength of the individual commitment to harmony in Japan, I asked a Japanese executive whether the values I have listed fairly described the individual’s highest goal. He smiled and said rhetorically: “Yes, but are these not basic Christian principles?”

I am convinced that Christian ethics and economic creativity are not contradictory. On the contrary, a business profession can be a true expression of the mandate given to humankind in Genesis. I am convinced that we may use a business career to fulfill the teaching of Jesus that we are responsible in love for our brothers and sisters, both spiritually and physically.

Arthur Block is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Vancouver-based Block Brothers Industries and Chairman of the Board of Tree Islands Steel Company, Ltd. He is a member of the Board of Management of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren. This article is a condensed version of an address given in Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary chapel, Fresno, California, on March 2, 1979.

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