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A Christian Approach to Commerce

Jonathan Cornford

The Social Foundry: a not-for-profit social enterprise in Kyneton, Victoria. In addition to great food and coffee, they offer teaching, encouragement and experience in life skills, hospitality, and building trades.

A few years ago, I wrote a five-part series in Manna Matters (Oct 2016 - August 2018) that attempted to theologically describe one of the master processes that shapes world affairs - capitalism. I argued that capitalism represents a spirit that is ultimately destructive of life and love and that followers of Jesus are called to walk to the beat of a different drum. But what is ‘capitalism’? It is a controversial term that is often confused and conflated with other things, and especially with the world of commerce and profit. There is no doubt that commerce and profit are central to the operation of global capitalism, but that does not mean they are the same thing. If Christians are called to reject capitalism, does that mean they must also reject commerce?

This is a question that has troubled Christians, on and off, for the last 2000 years. At times, the church has seen commerce in almost wholly negative terms, while at other times it has had almost nothing critical to say about it. In our own time, the fragmentation of the church represents virtually the whole spectrum of these attitudes to commerce. On the whole, however, it seems to me that, irrespective of where we sit on this spectrum, there is real difficulty in trying to think Christianly about this realm of life.

As argued in the previous articles, commerce is not the child of capitalism, nor is it necessarily captive to it. Commerce is a far, far older phenomenon than capitalism and, indeed, has been fundamental to what we call ‘civilisation’. To this day, it is still possible to engage in commerce in ways that are not beholden to the spirit of capitalism. But it is not easy.

Here I will make an attempt at providing a basic conceptual framework for a serious practice of Christian discipleship while making a living through commerce. These will only be top-level principles and frameworks – the beginning of a discussion that requires much more detail.

Commerce as work

One of the great problems with how we think about commerce is that we tend to see it as an entirely different category of activity from other forms of work. At its most basic level, however, commerce is just one of the ways by which a household seeks to provide for its members. Keeping this in mind is critical if we are to have a healthy view of commerce. I have argued elsewhere (Manna Matters, April 2013) that a biblical perspective of work is grounded in, and gives a fundamental dignity to, the reality of the human condition – that we must work (in some shape or form) to sustain ourselves and our families. But the biblical view of work goes much further: the mind-blowing message of the New Testament is that we are, each and every one of us, called and invited, in the deepest sense, to participate in God’s great work of healing the world. Thus, while each of us continues to be faced with the basic economic question of how we will materially sustain ourselves, even this basic question has become reframed to consider the question of how we might also, through our work, serve the world.

This framework applies to all work, whether paid or unpaid, and whether or not others recognise it as ‘work’. This should also be the basic framework in which we think about commerce: it just one more way by which we can sustain ourselves, but also, simultaneously, seek to serve the world.

The criteria of beneficial commerce

    

Green Collect provides employee training opportunities as well as recycling services.

Whether or not commerce fits within this framework, as with all work generally, is dependent on exactly what is being undertaken and how it is undertaken. There are some forms of commerce which a follower of Christ should simply never become involved in because they are intrinsically destructive. For the last few hundred years, commercially-minded Christians have tended to draw this category of exemptions very narrowly: as long as it is legal and does not involve slavery, sex, gambling or alcohol, then it is fair game. However, following Christ requires us to see much more deeply, and weigh much more seriously, those things which are not only legal, but considered normal, but which nevertheless destroy life. Dorothy Day thought that Christians should not be involved in the advertising industry.

Today, more than ever, we need to give very serious consideration to both the social and the ecological impact of our activities. This must also include not only the visible economic impacts of our actions ­– such as the impact of predatory real estate investment on housing costs  – but also the less tangible aspects of social, mental and cultural health. In particular, to what extent is a form of commerce just contributing to the vast weight of nihilistic consumerism that is filling our lives with crap and emptying our souls of substance … not to mention contributing to the mounting ecological cost of this fleeting and frivolous consumption?

That said, that still leaves a vast range of potential commercial activity that could be framed as either ethically neutral, or even beneficial to supplying human needs. Here the question shifts from what is done to how it is done. If we take seriously the idea of Christian discipleship in the sphere of commerce, then there are range of things to be considered:

  1. Ethical and pastoral consideration of staff: a follower of Jesus can never just think of employees as ‘human resources’. Employment of someone else’s labour is a very thick form of relationship between two people, with high potential for mutual benefit and service or for alienation and exploitation. Considerations of pay, conditions and the general atmosphere and dignity of work should never be left merely to the legal minimum, the market rate or the social norm. Of course, the details of this will vary enormously across sectors, but, in general, a Christian should always endeavour to be as generous and caring an employer as they are able to be.
  2. Environmental sustainability and social responsibility: just as it is incumbent on each of us as private consumers to take as much care for the social and ecological impact of our consumption, even more so is it critical for businesses to think through how they procure materials and services and how they handle and dispose of waste. Christians should be at the forefront of decreasing the footprint of business.
  3. Service to the customer: whether or not the provision of certain goods or services to consumers is really a service to them is dependent on many factors including, but not limited to, the quality and durability of the good or service, the price point at which it is offered at, the way it is offered or sold, and the post-sales service. In the challenges of a competitive marketplace (see below), it is easy for the real needs of the consumer to be forgotten in the drive for profitability.

There is little doubt that thinking about commerce in this way places the Christian at a commercial disadvantage to those who are not troubled by moral considerations. But this should not surprise us – this should be the case for Christians in most forms of work. When Jesus said that the road that leads to life is hard and there are few who walk it, he wasn’t making idle chit-chat.

Kokonut Pacific: non-capitalist commercial business succeeding in a capitalist business world.

Markets, competition and viability

If a business is to supply you with a livelihood, then it must be commercially viable. There have been too many big-hearted Christians who have thought very well about the above considerations, but have not realistically assessed whether: (a) it is actually possible to run a business in the chosen sector with the above concerns and be commercially viable; and (b) whether they have the necessary skills and qualities to make this possible. I think it is almost certainly the case that there are some sectors of commerce that are so dominated by the cost-cutting and unethical practices of large corporations that it is simply impossible to behave ethically and responsibly and be commercially viable. These areas might, for the time being, need be abandoned with a heavy heart – it is not worth sacrificing one’s self and family against an inevitable wall of commercial failure. Christians are called to live by high ideals while maintaining a brutally clear view of what the world is really like. Jesus’ warning to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves is especially relevant in the world of business.

Herein lies one important area of confusion for Christians thinking about commerce. As we are continually told, business requires competing in the marketplace and this naturally creates some discomfort for those seeking to follow the way of self-giving love. Here we need to differentiate between two types of competition:

(i) the ‘competition’ that takes place within markets;

and

(ii) what can be called ‘rivalrous competition’, where a person or firm is directly seeking their own advantage at someone else’s cost.

Christians are clearly called to abstain from the second of these two things, but what about the first? In this case, ‘competition’ is really a technical term for the operation of price signals within a market; it does not describe your attitude to another person. All things being equal, price signals are indeed the most efficient way for distributing goods and services to where they are needed most. In theory at least, ‘competing in the marketplace’ really just describes trying to make a fist of it in the conditions thrown up by the operation of price signals. It does not need to involve ‘rivalrous competition’ and does still allow ample scope for cooperation amongst so-called ‘competitors’.

The trouble is, all things are rarely equal in markets, especially in this age of globalised markets dominated by multinational corporations. There are all manner of forces and factors that distort markets in certain directions. And this is where wise discernment is required by Christians in the world of commerce. Can they avoid being the victim of distorted markets without becoming an exploiter of them? If push comes to shove, then the way of Christ is clear: it is better to be a victim than an oppressor.

Money, profit and temptation

Now we come to the biggest stumbling block for Christians in business. The basic tool of all commerce is money. As has been discussed previously (May 2015), money is an immensely powerful spiritual force. If it is difficult for anyone in our culture to have a healthy attitude to money, how much more difficult is it for someone who has to count money and balance a ledger at the end of every day? Anyone getting into commerce needs to be good with money - it is the basic tool of the trade - however, to do so healthily requires clarity about the enormous power it exerts over us.

This means that the basic practices Jesus advocated to break the power of money - renunciation, generosity and gratitude (see Manna Matters, May 2016) - become critical for Christians in commerce. But here we should make a distinction between personal finances and those of the business: the primary place to practise these disciplines is in the living that one makes from a business and not within the business itself. A business can indeed be generous, as discussed above and below, but only within limits of commercial viability.

The critical question for any Christians in commerce is whether they are simply seeking a good way to make a living and serve the world, or whether they actually desire wealth. Jesus insisted that the desire for wealth is corrosive of life, irrespective of who we are, and thus we actively need to work against it. Thus his strong language about renouncing wealth.

The dangers of commerce are heightened in this regard. On one hand, entering into business often involves financial risk that the rest of us rarely experience, and thus the fear of commercial failure can produce an unhealthy compulsion to ‘secure one’s future’. On the other hand, the attainment of commercial success brings temptations of wealth that few others experience. The great challenge for a follower of Jesus in business is to be grounded in the profound sense of gratitude and contentment - the sense of ‘enough’ that seeks only ‘this day our daily bread’ - that characterises the essential economic orientation of the people of God.

Unlike employment, where a wage level is set and must be accepted, the question arises as to what is an acceptable income to derive from the business? There is no reason why we should not bring the same critical questions about our expectations of a material standard of living to a successful business owner as to anyone else. There is no reason why someone who is successful in commerce might not still choose to live more simply than the norm, which I have been arguing over the last 10 years is the great imperative for the people of God in the affluent West. At the nuts and bolts level, the simplest way to do this is to set one’s income from a business as a fixed wage, just like the other employees. That means anything over and above this level - the profit - is delinked from one’s personal gratification.

How profitable should a Christian in business be?

As should be clear from the discussion above, the first key issue is how a business makes money in the first place. It is the drive for ever-increasing profit that is the source of so much of the bad commercial practice in the world. The first goal of a Christian in business should simply be to provide a sustainable living and to serve the world; the question  of profit - the over-and-above of this goal - is secondary. However, assuming a business meets the criteria of beneficial commerce, there should be no qualms about a business being profitable. It is entirely possible, though perhaps less frequent than we would like, for a business to be profitable simply because it provides a good service that is highly valued.

The key question, then, for any follower of Christ is, to what ends might legitimate profit be used? If profit is being sought, as is overwhelmingly the expectation in business, for the self-gratification of personal wealth, then it is not the kingdom of God that is being sought. But profits can usefully be employed to make a good business even better, with a very wide scope of meaning for the word ‘better’:

  • to provide employment for more people, perhaps even those who otherwise struggle to enter the workforce;
  • to improve the conditions (pay, hours, leave, environment, culture, fulfilment, training, etc) for those already employed;
  • invested into practices, skills or technologies that decrease the ecological footprint and increase the social benefit of a business;
  • to lower the price or improve the product or service for customers;
  • invested into supporting other beneficial commercial start-ups;
  • philanthropy.

Often, commercially successful Christians skip straight to philanthropy, which certainly has its place, but I suspect is actually the least beneficial of the above options. The key point, however, is that if you are fortunate enough to find yourself the owner of a highly profitable business, there is vast scope to creatively serve the world, if you can only resist the temptation to claim it all to yourself …

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In conclusion, there are good reasons for Christians to become involved in commerce, but they are very different to the reasons why most people engage in this sphere. All complex societies need commerce to operate, but this can be done in ways that are either more or less beneficial. We live in an age when bad commercial practice is driving ecological crisis, economic inequality, nihilistic consumerism, relational breakdown and deep spiritual alienation. How much more so today do we need forms of commerce that build up rather than pull down? But, as in all spheres of life, following the way of Christ in the fallen world of commerce requires a radically counter-cultural approach, which means that it is hard - very hard. But as numerous stories of everyday people in Manna Matters have shown (see the stories of Kokonut Pacific, August 2018;  Green Collect, May 2018; the Social Foundry and Cassinia Environmental, May 2020), it is certainly possible.

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