The Christian who takes the concepts of stewardship and dominion seriously is becoming a rarity in American business. This is having a devastating effect on society, as business culture becomes anti-Christian. In large part, this is due to an imbalance in the way Christians have thought about work.
Modern American Christianity has focused on recruiting for missions, the pastorate, and, lately, professional "Biblical counseling." Recruitment occurs through short-term missions projects, Christian schools, colleges, and Sunday school classes. There is certainly nothing wrong with these ministries, or with encouraging people to consider them as they seek their callings. So far, the recruitment efforts appear to have been quite effective (though we might not always be able to say the same for the training the new recruits receive). Several years ago, when I was teaching at a large Christian university, I noted the overwhelming number of students in classes related to these career goals. Meanwhile, some business-related programs attracted fewer students than similar programs at schools with one-fourth the enrollment.
Many of these students arrived at the university already convinced that they would not be completely fulfilling God's purpose for their lives if they did something not directly related to evangelism or Bible teaching. After all, if they were not in "full-time Christian service," how could they be pleasing God with their lives? Some students who were interested in business resolved their dilemma by telling themselves (and others) that they were going into business so that they might better evangelize unbelievers in the workplace. Some said that they would work in a "secular" occupation for a time so that they would be able to build wealth to fund missionary work later. Others wanted an occupation through which they could "help people," and so ruled out business — which they thought of as somewhat exploitative and inconsiderate of human needs. They failed to see that every profitable business has only become successful by meeting the needs of customers as well as the employees and owners of the business.
The guilty feelings and rationalizations associated with going into business are completely unnecessary. Business is a legitimate and honorable calling, a calling implied even in the first commands given to man by God in Genesis 1, as we will see. The morality of the business vocation needs to be driven home no later than the high school level, when young people are beginning to consider careers. Maybe, in addition to the summer mission trip to the beach, teenagers should also consider signing up for internships with Christian business leaders.
What Should the Christian Businessman Do?
Christians in business have several key responsibilities. One is to employ godly means in accomplishing the goals of the business. The Christian businessman must not defraud his customers (Lev. 19:35, 36) or his employees (Jas. 5:1-5), but must tell the truth to his customers and keep his promises to his employees. He should keep the Lord's day holy, restrain his hands from theft, and pay what he owes.
Godly means should be used to accomplish godly ends. As well-catechized children know, the chief end of man is to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever." For a Christian businessman fulfilling his calling, part of glorifying God would be carrying out the orders given to Adam in Genesis 1: "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Adam was required to go beyond the boundaries of the Garden of Eden, modifying the created order in some way. Perhaps he was to use the Garden of Eden as a model, and imitate God's creativity in his alteration of the "wilder" parts of the earth. Clearly Adam and Eve were to multiply, increasing the number of men and women who would assist in this task. Intelligent planning and tools would be needed. Many goods and services would need to be produced to satisfy the needs of people as they went about their work. Businesses of many types would be vital to the carrying out of the Biblical dominion mandate.
After the Fall, Adam was cursed with death, and with hardship in his work. He was sent out, Genesis 3:23 says, "to till the ground from which he was taken." To be obedient, he would still have to be in the business of altering the earth, though now with great difficulty. Noah, after the flood, was given a similar charge — to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1), along with the creatures that came off the ark (Gen. 8:17).
So how can a Christian businessman know when he is being obedient in his calling? People need a countless variety of goods and services to sustain their lives, carry out their work, enjoy and care for what God has created, and multiply. Which of these goods and services are needed most urgently? Which should I, as a believer with a unique set of talents, get in the business of producing? The Christian economist Paul Heyne, dealing with environmental concerns in particular, honed in on this problem of knowing how — specifically — to be good stewards over creation: "We will almost certainly fail to achieve our objectives if we simply ask people to become 'better stewards.' No one knows what 'stewardship of creation' implies for his or her own actions. Exhortations to change our life-styles just do not give us sufficient information."1 A requirement that Christian businessmen "produce what is most needed" for doing good work means that we must have some way of knowing exactly what those things are.
The Role of Prices and Profits
This information is not going to be uncovered by self-scrutiny or new divine revelation. It is found by paying attention to the constant communication from others about what they most need to carry out their goals. This communication is done rapidly and effectively through a price system. If oil supplies from the Middle East are reduced due to war, someone must reduce consumption of oil. Of course, if oil users were all polled and asked whether they would be willing to give up their usual consumption for the benefit of someone who "needed it more," we would get no useful information. No single consumer could be expected to know how the value he puts on oil compares with the value others might place on the same oil. Fighting over it would leave the oil in the hands of the strongest individual, who is not necessarily the person who can make the best use of it. So consumers agree to compare values by offering quantities of other goods (or dollars that would buy those goods) to the seller. Talk is cheap, but the willingness to sacrifice other goods to obtain the oil is evidence of the value the buyer places on it.
At the same time, people who might be able to produce oil look at the higher prices being obtained by sellers of oil, and consider entering the business. Higher profits are a signal that resources need to be redirected into the business that is generating something of high value. Profits help people determine which goods and services are satisfying the most intense needs of the moment, so that, for example, businesses are not wasting time and materials building houses when medicines are more urgently needed. A survey, or a government commission, cannot hope to solve this problem of allocating resources.
Someone will object that the goals our fellow men have are often vile and ignoble, so that items that should not have a high value do in fact attract resources for their production. And it is true enough that the market system leads to monetary rewards for those who respond to the demand for pornography or crack cocaine. What the market produces will only be as virtuous as the people in it, and a profitable business is not necessarily a moral business.
Yet the quite proper revulsion we have for certain products of a price system does not change the fact that the system is still performing its most basic function quite well — to communicate the relative intensity of various expressed needs. If pornography is for sale in the market, it is not the fault of the price system but of the people whose depravity leads them to desire it, or to offer it for sale. Our disapproval of such transactions should lead us to beseech God that He might change the hearts of men, and to act to convince others of the immorality of their actions. This is preferable to disrupting the entire market exchange process that allows individuals to seek what they value. In hindering the market's work, as socialism does, we would deprive individual entrepreneurs of information that tells them whether to produce food for the hungry, homes for those needing shelter, medicine for the sick, or clothing for the naked. Thus, any state intervention to prevent market transactions from taking place should be limited to very clear-cut cases that fit within the Biblical jurisdiction of the state — such as prohibiting prostitution or contract murder.
The Entrepreneurial Vocation
Christians in business, then, have a responsibility to use godly means to take dominion over the earth, satisfying legitimate human needs so that each person may "be fruitful and multiply," giving glory to God. We should not look upon prices and profits as a "necessary evil" that must be tolerated so that higher purposes may be achieved. Rather, we should see them as a necessary method of communicating our varying needs in a complex world. Businessmen who are involved in meeting these needs in a practical way should be objects of admiration and imitation, not contempt. And young Christians seeking their calling should not have to rationalize a business career, but should begin to see it as a praiseworthy vocation.
1. Paul Heyne, "Are Christians Called to be 'Stewards' of Creation?" Stewardship Journal 3 (1993), 21.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.