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Part 8 in a series on Markets & Morality

…make it  your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. 

- I Thessalonians 4:11-12

Last week we suggested that the free market is a tool at our disposal to help bring about flourishing (Anne Bradley offers a good definition of flourishing in this post). The market is a tool we can use to answer the call placed on us by the cultural mandate.

Jeff Van Duzer gives a concise picture of how the market contributes to flourishing when, in his book Why Business Matters to God, he writes,

Business exists in society in order to provide a platform where people can express aspects of their God given identity through meaningful and creative work and to provide goods and services to a community to enable it to flourish.

The original theories of Adam Smith, which have often been misinterpreted, were based on the firm belief that business would work for the greater good of society. As a professor of ethics, Smith believed markets, by their origin, were about morality and doing the right thing.

Yet, for too many businesses and some business schools, ethics are only about reducing risk or escaping additional regulation. Greg Smith, former head of Goldman Sachs U.S. equity derivatives business in Europe and the Middle East, offered his company as a prime example in an op-ed piece he wrote last year for the New York Times. He wrote that the Goldman Sachs corporate ethos “is as toxic and destructive” as he had ever seen it.

The reason, he suggested, is that the company had become so focused on money that it routinely sacrificed the best interests of its clients.Goldman’s and much of Wall Street’s obsession to turn as large a profit as possible clouds their vision of what made them successful in the first place: serving their customers.

What if real ethics were built into the mission of a business? What if ethics meant not merely avoiding the wrong thing but instead making a commitment to do the right thing?

This should be one of the major objectives of Christians in the marketplace. Those of us who are called to work in the business world are called to be redemptive agents of the market. Scripture calls humanity to this role as redemptive agents time and again.

1. In Genesis, God called Adam and Eve to be agents of change and development when he gave them the cultural mandate.

2. Jeremiah encouraged the Israelites to be agents of shalom even while living in exile.

3. Jesus called his disciples to be redemptive agents when he gave the Great Commission, which some theologians believe is a restating of the cultural mandate.

4. The Apostle Paul exhorted the early church numerous times that they were called by God, “according to his purpose (Romans 8:28),” to be salt and light in the world.

As followers of Christ, we have the opportunity to bring back the moral compass. As we act as salt and light in the marketplace, we will have a transformational influence on those around us.

The producers of the Greater Seas blog suggest there are four ways Christians typically engage the marketplace:

1. Survivors:

- Believe the marketplace is evil.

- Their goal is to survive the marketplace unharmed.

- Their strategy is to avoid contact with non-believers to escape possible corruption.

- Others ignore them.

- Their impact is non-existent.

2. Sleepers:

- Believe they can’t change the marketplace, but it won’t change them, either. Having an impact comes down to luck.

- Their goal is to stand their ground and play to a draw.

- Their strategy is to be nice to people and not share faith unless asked about it.

- Others think they are nice people.

- Their impact is marginal.

3. Influencers:

- Believe God cares about business and the Holy Spirit will help them succeed.

- Their goal is to create value and impact at work, succeed in business and ministry, and lead people to Jesus through leadership.

- Their strategy is led by the Holy Spirit. They speak openly about faith, invite people to church, and pray for guidance and favor.

- Others are skeptical of influencers, but like them.

- Their impact is effective.

4. Leaders: 

- Believe that by engaging the Holy Spirit at work, people, businesses, markets, and cities will be transformed.

- Their goal is to change the spiritual landscape of whole organizations in favor of the kingdom of heaven.

- Their strategy is led by the Holy Spirit. Actions speak louder than words. Timing is everything, and leaders diligently pray for value and impact.

- Others trust leaders and listen carefully to what they say.

- Their impact is transformational.

The moral decline in today’s marketplace would suggest that there are far too many Christians who are either Survivors or Sleepers. We need more Leaders.

Which one are you?

How can we bring transformation to our jobs, businesses, markets, and cities? How can ethics be brought to bear on how we seek to impact our communities? Leave your comments here

Hugh Whelchel

About Hugh Whelchel

Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author of "How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work." Hugh has a Master of Arts in Religion and brings over 30 years of diverse business experience to his leadership at IFWE. Read More...

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  • RogerMcKinney

    Christians should be sleepers or influencers, but not leaders. Witnessing alone will not transform businesses, markets or cities. Christians in Muslim countries are proof. Many have died for their faith without seeing any transformation. Transformation of society requires conversion of large numbers of the people to Christ and Christians have no control over that. Christians can only witness to the truth.

    The danger of being a “leader” is that such Christians often get frustrated with the lack of response to their witnessing and decide to use the power of the state to force “transformation” on non-Christians, as they did with prohibition. That almost always turns out badly.

  • Nathan

    I think there are two reasons “rot” can happen in a business. The first is when people let sin corrupt their relationships – this is what we typically imagine. Christians in the workplace are unique equipped to combat this though sometimes we don’t step up.

    The second reason is less obvious. I believe rot happens can happen because a business is not providing true value. In the market we rely on prices and profits to signal value, but ultimately markets are steered by a multitude of human (imperfect, potentially sinful) choices.

    Goldman Sachs with its “toxic and destructive” ethos is a potential example. I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the business of Goldman Sachs but I am skeptical that the modern banking and financial services sector is providing as much value as their profits would suggest. Instead, I believe that a combination of various types of rent seeking along with the human propensity to seek out “get rich quick” solutions distorts the market such that large amounts of capital and profits are directed to actives that produce comparatively little value. (“producing value” being synonymous with God’s “cultural mandate”)

    Therefore, I believe “the marketplace” lacks not only the Holy Spirit, but also economic wisdom. In the workplace a Christian without wisdom can be just as destructive as an MBA without the Holy Spirit.