Man writing "Business Plan" with markerOne of the benefits of being part of a Christian university is the opportunity for collaboration with colleagues across the disciplines. For theologians this is gold. Questions for integration of faith in science, history, politics, or psychology? I’ve got specialists across campus, all with the same mission, who have been thinking about such things for a long time. One recent opportunity in this direction was participating a colloquium with the faculty of Biola’s Crowell School of Business. Among many topics opened that day, one in particular has haunted me these days in the interim. It was a question that revolved around a start-up competition the Business School sponsors. Students are encouraged to submit business plans for the hope of some start up seed money to launch. But what should be the criteria for judging “better” proposals? Beyond certain received best practices for the business side, does God prefer some business plans to others? Following is my original Yes and No answer to the question; what comes after is now another rather late Yes for the conversation. God does prefer some businesses to others.

The question of how God judges different human ventures is one fraught with many difficulties for the human observer. Indeed on its face one might rightly dismiss an attempt in this question as futile given the vantage point any human person might have to speak for a divine one. This is why judgment is finally reserved for God and his Christ alone. Nevertheless, as the Living God has revealed himself in his word, the person of Jesus Christ, and with the apprehension of both quickened by his Spirit, there are grounds to approach the question of God’s view of business ventures positively and negatively.

Yes, God delights in some businesses and not others.

“In the beginning, God created…” -- the words that lead off the divine record of God’s creative act—introduce 2 narratives (Gen. 1-2:3; & 2:4-chapter 3) that offer initial soundings for evaluating human work and business. This is because these narratives reveal the divine intention in creation—to bless the creation (Gen. 2:3, “Sabbath” blessing is the crown of the 1st narrative)—and the means to achieve that intention as an Image empowered and called for that purpose (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15). Image of God language is where human activity, work and business, enter the picture and without great elaboration the image functions relationally in 3 dimensions with one modus operandi.

Three Dimensions. The three vectors of relationship established in the image of God texts are first toward God, then toward one another, and finally toward the creation itself. To the first, humanity is called as God’s steward to administer his kingdom. Mankind is the priest-figure of the temple-Garden of Eden God has created. They are charged to be fruitful, multiply, fill, rule and subdue (Gen. 1:28), tend and keep (protect/guard, Gen. 2:15) what God has made—including the spirit-realm (Gen. 3:15). As Van Duzer writes, they are God’s co-laborers in providing for the creation’s blessing.[1] They do so in fellowship with God, empowered by his own Spirit.[2]

The second relational dimension concerns the internal dynamic of the image itself. Adam and Eve are created as complements to one another, who were in union together to prosecute their commission—the failure to confront the Adversary together should be noted as part of their transgression in Genesis 3.

The final dimensional realm for the image is about the stewardship of the creation itself. Ruling, subduing (use of the word elsewhere in Scripture means putting down something hostile), tending and keeping are all imperatives of the human inhabitants of God’s garden. Humanity is made accountable for the flourishing of the Master’s created possessions.

One MO. As noted above, Adam and Eve, as God’s stewards, were to administer their Lord’s possessions in partnership with him. They were to do it also in a manner characteristic of him. That is love. God is holy love (1 John 4:8) that is why his desire for his people is that they love him (Deut. 6:4, … You must love the Lord your God …) and why this love and love of others is the sum of all of his instructions to us (Matt. 22:35-37). Thus, Adam and Eve’s commission in each relational dimension is fulfilled in love. This means active, other-preferring, self-denying service to the object loved to promote its fulfilling of the Creator’s intention for it. In the creation narrative this manner of action is contained in the concept of blessing noted earlier. Toward the creation and one another, Adam and Eve were to do all to empower the flourishing, success and prosperity of the creation and one another in the presence and power of the Creator.

The implication of the three dimensions and the one modus operandi for human work and business is that there is a clear criterion in God’s view for evaluating legitimate and illegitimate business. Van Duzer and Wong and Rae, all hit on this, and we could call it the love or blessing test.[3] Business or work in violation of the blessing intended for any of the 3 dimensional relationships—like slave-trafficking, for example—cannot claim divine sanction, nor should it claim ours.

No, God delights in all business equally.

Beneath the criterion of love or blessing it seems difficult and even dangerous to establish a comparative hierarchy for different work and business. Dangerous because such rankings tread close to the sacred-secular misunderstanding of ministry and stewardship. The absence of any such ranking for the “human” tasks in the creation narratives or elsewhere in Scripture for that matter (see Eph. 4:12 where ministry is what the “saints” do, not the people-gifts of v. 11 [apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers] together with the various ‘imported’ but subjectively derived cultural definitions of “ministry”) all neglect the so-called ‘intrinsic’ goods of work. Any work or business that profits or serves human beings and that in the least is not unsustainable for the creation brings delight to God. It is human life living its calling as steward of God’s intention for the worker herself and the beneficiary of the work.[4]

small figurines of businesspeopleThe intrinsic goods of work and business do have some biblically qualified “external” goods by which the intrinsic good is realized. These are three: 1) To obtain the necessities of life—1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2) To provide for the needy—Eph. 4:28 (We note that supporting the needy through diligent work is a demand of justice, not just generosity according to 2 Cor. 9:9); 3) To promote the general welfare and prosperity of human society—Jer. 29:6-7 (In God’s design for humans as social beings, work is a kind of debt we owe our fellow men and women in contributory repayment for the benefit we gain from living in human society with them.)

As attempts to rank work or business cannot be made at the level of the intrinsic goods of legitimate work—by definition no harm to the love or blessing test—they are invariably left comparing external goods of a business. But this is a much trickier proposition it seems for several reasons. First, definitions of what promotes the flourishing or welfare of society, for example, quickly become the property of subjectively amassed arguments. Is the defense industry necessary for promoting the welfare of a society? A military? A police force? (pace Van Duzer’s pacifist points and even the “need of the times” argument, too, I think).[5] On this level it’s too easy to use the Bible as one’s marionette: set it on your knee and make it say what you want. Second, there are many levels by which external goods of the business are produced and hence that can be measured. A company that makes luxury cars still gives its employees the opportunity to provide their needs, offer generosity and relief of poor, etc., not to mention fulfill the intrinsic goods of providing a venue for human creativity, pursuit of beauty, technique and diligent work. Finally, the level of heart attitude that Wong and Rae address—of no little importance to God (2 Chron. 16:9)—is not accessible to us.[6] God does not judge things as man does (1 Sam. 16:7). A company that may not seem to have a strategic mission statement by measure of an external standard may shine in the unseen level of the heart level of its people. Or another company that is strategic in its mission may not be sustainable in a given employee climate, for example. All throughout Scripture we are witness to God’s concern for “being” categories of the heart over the “doing” categories of the workers’ hands.

And again, Yes, God does prefer some businesses to others [new addendum]

In the late 60’s a particular kind of political theology known as Liberation Theology broke on to the world’s stage. As a conversation that first began within Roman Catholicism in the economically poor countries of Latin America, one of the hermeneutical lenses for doctrine and practice in Liberation Theology was the preferential status of the poor. The materially poor were dear to God, a special object of his concern, unique bearers of the Gospel, even God’s “elect”, etc. The ensuing conversation with Liberation Theology chastised some unbalanced exegesis of Scripture (every mention of “poor” does not refer to materially poor; there is “poor of spirit” too) and a particular captivity to the Marxist political critique popular at the time, but the affluent Church in the West was again forced to soberly face its neglect and even complicity in oppressive social structures.

hand holding cartoon of work-related itemsAs I ponder further the criteria for my business friends at Crowell in evaluating the different entries for the start up competition, I wonder if there’s not something else that needs to be added to the conversation. It is for business to be radically God-like and prefer the poor. I’m thinking that if intrinsic and external goods of two competing plans are equal (see above), the call to prefer the poor rings nearer to the heart of God. There is something profound in our God’s Way that is for the weak, the oppressed, the fatherless, and the marginalized. Israel’s prophets over and over show the heart of God burdened for this (Isaiah 3:3-15; 58:1-8; Amos 8:5-6, etc.). And Jesus’ “inaugural address” aimed for release of captives, good news for the poor, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). If work is the means by which culture is produced, as Barth says,[7] then should not our work when possible aim for cultural goods that reflect particularly God’s heart in this? In this world it is natural to serve and prefer those with this world’s power and wealth. But it is supernatural to serve the outcast and the invalid—those invisible to this world’s power structures and this world’s elite.

Andy Crouch in his significant book, Culture Making: Rediscovering our Creative Calling, offers a stinging observation that might guide the jury for the best business plan over just good ones. Of the natural tendency to prefer the rich over the poor, he says:

So it is no surprise, for example, to discover that two-thirds of American philanthropy actually goes to institutions (whether museums, orchestras, or churches) that primarily serve the rich—essentially, the wealthy underwriting their own cultural experiences with the benefit of a tax deduction… It is also no surprise that most money is made on Wall Street providing financial services to people who already have extraordinary amounts of money, that most advertising targets a thin (literally and figuratively) slice of prosperous young people, and that much of the rich world’s research into new medicines target the disorders that disproportionately affect the rich world.[8]

I get it that there is such a multiplicity of factors by which the external goods of a business can be evaluated—some of which are unseen to us—to make it extremely hazardous to judge. But if all of what can be seen is equal in two plans is there something Christianly strategic and culturally significant for a business to pointedly target its service and goods to the poor and the outcast over the rich and the powerful?

The heart of our God … Hmmm, food for thought.

[1] Jeff Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God (and What Still Needs to be Fixed) (InterVarsity, 2010), 36.

[2] Images in the ancient Near East were understood to bear the spirit of the one imaged, according to Clines (D. J. A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 [1968], 89-90).

[3] Van Duzer, Why Business Matters, and Wong and Scott Rae, Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace (InterVarsity, 2011).

[4] For a good exploration of this topic further, see Robert G. Kennedy, The Good that Business Does (Christian Social Thought Series 9; Acton Institute, 2006).

[5] Van Duzer, Why Business Matters, 44.

[6] Wong and Rae, Business for the Common Good, 58.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4; cited by Richard Bouch, The Faith-Work Window: Why Work Matters to Christianity in A Fallen World (Pleasant Word, 2009), 86.

[8] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Rediscovering Our Creative Calling (IVP, 2008), 209-10.