I want to begin with a question with which the UK evangelical business world has struggled in my lifetime: “What on earth do Christians think they are doing in business?” To answer it, I want to start with a more fundamental question: “Where does work fit in God’s plans?”
Evangelicals need to face a problem here; a story might help to illustrate this problem.
Older folk will remember Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in the 80’s, and may recall an evasive reply she gave at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons to what she considered a difficult and vexatious question. She cleverly made a difficult question appear to be time-wasting, and even ridiculous, by replying that when she was sitting on a cloud strumming her harp, she may have time for such trivialities! But not now, she implied, on earth, as a busy PM.
What do people think about life after death? She obviously thought that heaven was a place without time constraints – indeed without much to do at all – and the idea of sitting on clouds represents the popular concept of the immateriality of the soul, of a disembodied eternity, which reflects the loss of our physical bodies when we die and go to heaven.
I think her concept of heaven is widely accepted within the church, and is almost universally thought by those outside the church to be its official doctrine. It is a concept which devalues the material, physical, existence we experience, and which is central to our work as business people. It is a concept which separates the spiritual and heavenly from the physical and worldly; in which the work of the church is spiritual and of permanent value, whereas the world of business is material and of significance only until Christ calls time and brings the world of physical life, including our business lives, to an end.
This concept has contributed to an awareness that the church doesn’t value business folk except as a mission field and a funding agency. This implies that if I go to church on Sunday without taking a colleague to hear the gospel, or without a large cheque to support the church’s evangelistic mission – to which I otherwise contribute only in my spare time – I am a failure as a Christian. I continue going to church, but sermons and house groups are focused on a spiritual life which disparages the greater part of my working life.
Such thinking is sub-Christian and unbiblical. There is good news in the gospel for business folk, and this good news – when I finally allowed it to marinade in my business life – has transformed my purpose, my whole reason for being in business.
This paper will therefore begin with a scamper through the big picture, the story of the world as I think scripture presents it to us, before focusing on the place of work, and finally looking at what I understand to be God’s calling for our business lives. It ends with some examples of people who model the Christian vision for good business.
Theology: The Big Picture
At the beginning, God created the world and humanity and declared it all “very good”. Also at the beginning, God ordained work as a good for humanity. Work had several elements – to subdue the earth, to work it and to care for it. And for global success in God’s creation project, we would have to be fruitful and multiply! This ordering of the world comes before the Fall.
The Fall – human rebellion against God’s good order – brought a decisive break in relationships between God and humanity, which implicated the whole earthly creation. The mission of Jesus was the restoration of these relationships, the re-affirmation of the original order and the re-establishment of God’s universal kingdom or rule. The possibility for this restoration was achieved by his sacrificial death, and inaugurated or commenced in his resurrection.
As a result, the hope for creation and humankind which is promised to us in Christ is for the restoration of God’s rule, also called (by Matthew) the kingdom of heaven. Just as this started on earth, so it will be completed on earth, as described in the Lord’s prayer:
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth, as in heaven.
This means nothing other than that God’s will is for his kingdom to be realised in the earthly realm as it already is realised in the heavenly. In other words, it is the renewal of the creation which was once declared very good, and will so be declared again, when Jesus returns to earth in glory and in power to judge sin finally, and to establish his rule de facto.
So God’s plan is, and has been since the Fall, to re-institute his rule on earth through Christ. His people are those who collaborate with his vision of a world of wise order, glorious beauty and transparent justice. They are those who hate the sin and evil which destroy good relationships and the earth’s abundance. And when he returns in judgement he will finally remove all that prevents his kingdom being realised on earth in practice, and transform or perfect all that helps to build it.
The Place of Work
Working the earth is about using the abundant capacities of the earth to grow food, rear animals, extract minerals, develop and fashion products – so that humankind can be fed, clothed, housed and enjoy rest. These activities, along with a myriad others, are the stuff of our work and our business lives.
Using, or subduing, the earth is less fashionable today than the requirement to care for it. Care for the earth is about not subduing it to the point of destroying its capacity for future abundance. It is worth asking yourself which requirement is most relevant to the business each of us works in.
However, work was spoiled by the Fall and, alongside the good of work, we also experience frustration and selfishness, ugliness and injustice in our work as a result. Indeed we can find ourselves – despite good intentions – building empires which are quite alien, even antagonistic, to God’s purpose.
This is what Brueghel illustrates in his painting of the Tower of Babel.
Is it possible that one of these builders is a hard worker who – unlike his colleagues – works solidly from clocking on to clocking off? Perhaps he spent last evening leading a house group? And this morning he spent an hour studying scripture and praying; only to spend the greater part of his day building, not for God, but against Him.
We need to establish what impact our work is having on people as individuals and communities – whether customers, staff of suppliers – and on our planet. Is this impact universally positive? What would Jesus say about it?
Quite apart from the fundamental purposes being corrupted with the Fall, there came also a rupture in our willingness to share fairly the labour of work, and the fruits of that labour. The human condition is now one in which we tend to prioritise for ourselves and our own family or business the fruits of work; and similarly we tend to leave for others the tidying up of our own mess.
However, just as God desires to renew creation so He desires – not that work should stop in an endless holiday – to renew our work.
How should Christians approach their work, in the light both of the fundamental good which God desires that we find in it, and the selfishness and frustration which attends work after the Fall? What are our proper priorities?
Jesus analysed human priorities in the Sermon on the Mount. In the second half of Matthew 6, he talks about our desire for wealth, our need for clothing and food, and our tendency to worry about providing for our own needs. His instruction was stark and challenging:
“Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and your other needs will be provided for as well” Matthew 6:33.
God’s kingdom comes where his fallen creation is restored to his rule – his rule of the rich but unworked earth; his transparent justice which precludes greed; his kingdom of restored relationships and glorious beauty which subdues the earth to make it productive, and cares for the earth to ensure abundant and sustainable production into the future. God’s righteousness is his quality of right living in delight and obedience, humility and service, which rejects the rebellion of the Fall and the injustice and greed and ugliness which is its legacy.
This is the kingdom and the righteousness which we are called to seek as our first priority. This is the kingdom rule to which those who come to Christ choose to submit and to work for; this is the kingdom which will be extended unreservedly throughout the earthly realm when He returns in power and glory to judge us and our work, and to eliminate sin and establish finally his ownership and leadership.
Paul describes judgement as like purifying metal in a smelting process in which the dross gets burned or removed. If our work is like straw, then it will not survive, though we shall escape “as if through flames”. But work which reflects the trust, values and priorities of God’s kingdom will survive and be perfected and transformed for service in the kingdom.
This is what St Paul meant when, in 1 Cor. 15, at the end of a 58-verse chapter on resurrection, he returns surprisingly to the subject of work and he says: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that all your labour in the Lord is not in vain” – (1 Cor 15:58). How often has this text been spiritualised into the church’s work against the world’s work? No, the context is our earthly struggle until death, and God’s transformation and resurrection. Our work will be a struggle, but the struggle will prove not to be in vain if it is transformed into a part of God’s kingdom.
This brings purpose to our work. Work for the kingdom will be transformed to become part of the kingdom. This brings meaning to our toil and hope in our frustration. Your work may be toilsome and frustrating – but it need not be in vain!
Work in Business
I come now to work in business. I want to be more specific about the impacts of the Fall in our business lives, and to offer a vision of what kingdom service might look like.
What are some of the impacts of the Fall in business? Firstly, I notice in myself a frustration at the narrow objectives which many businesses have set me, and the poor measurement of my performance in them. In my experience, measured performance omits a good deal which should be measured but which is hard to measure. As a result, I’ve often felt very flat both when I’m given targets and when my performance is assessed against them.
A second impact of the Fall is the ugliness, which is the only word I can use to describe some outcomes of our work. For the last 8 years, I have worked in the construction industry, and I am very aware that many of the buildings which our industry produces have to be acknowledged to be exceedingly dull. I’m sure some of the behaviour which is exhibited in the worst housing estates is attributable to the monotonous environments we have created. Another example of ugliness is disclosed by an aspect of our businesses we rarely examine – the waste which we produce in enormous quantities, and which we demand is whisked quickly out of our sight. We don’t take our visitors to see the Yorkshire tips, but the Yorkshire Dales! Why is it that we tend to prefer the work of nature to the work of man?
A third impact of the Fall at work is injustice – for example the extraordinary poverty of many workers. Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day; yet even this statistic fails to capture the humiliation, powerlessness and brutal hardship that is the daily lot of the world’s poor. And we might think that the natural cycle of economics means that differentials will narrow over time – but they don’t: income differentials are widening. The “trickle down” effect is wishful thinking.
The great thing about business – our immense privilege as business folk – is that business isn’t a zero sum game. It is possible to meet the needs of our employers for profit, and our customers for service – and to address other needs as well. It is possible to serve God in serving our businesses.
This simple truth that the market is not a zero sum game presents business with its great opportunity to create true wealth for the kingdom of God. That is what it means to “seek first the Kingdom of God” in business.
Applying this truth isn’t easy. Most people in market economies are happy to let those who can, take the market risks and reap its rewards. But I don’t think this is good enough for the Christian who seeks first God’s kingdom. Both Old and New Testaments reveal a God who requires His people to be holy in our devotion to Him and His service – and just in our dealings with each other. This requirement doesn’t cease when we go to work. If our freedom to be holy and just in our particular workplace may be curtailed from time to time, this is a matter for sorrow and for seeking a better way; not for exoneration and the abandonment of God’s requirements.
I suggest there are two applications of God’s justice in our day, for which people in business should take active responsibility.
The first is trade justice – the problem of highly unequal access to global markets of the developed and developing worlds, which results in our highly differentiated and widening standards of living. This should be a matter of the deepest shame to all who follow Christ, as it certainly is to many who don’t. Fair trade is simply a matter of justice, business folk should support it actively, and organisations like Traidcraft are a beacon to us all.
The second is less well known as a justice issue, but touches me very deeply. Climate change for most westerners is a matter of needing more air conditioning in our offices in summer and of hearing news of occasional floods in Yorkshire, Gloucester or New Orleans. It is a modest nuisance.
But if you live in the flood plains of Bangladesh, in parts of the Caribbean or on one of 100’s of low lying islands in the Pacific, the view is very different. Climate change means more frequent, and worse, storms, and continuous, permanent rises in sea level, which gradually – but directly and predictably – result in the loss of all your land and therefore your home and livelihood. Or in other parts of the world, like Ethiopia, it means near permanent drought, mitigated only by floods. The cause of the change is now very widely accepted to be human emissions of greenhouse gases, and it is the wealthy in the developed world who pollute most and suffer least. Are Africans and Asians our neighbours? Are your grandchildren, who will suffer the negative impact of my emissions, my neighbours? I think they are. When Jesus says to us “What you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters you did to me” – what will you say?
Let me apply this to our family business, NG Bailey. The biggest part of it is the design and installation of heating, cooling, lighting and electrical power systems for buildings. These are the systems which are both essential for productive occupation AND the cause of carbon emissions which damage our planet. Seeking first God’s righteousness surely puts a heavy business demand upon me.
The result of taking justice seriously is that Christians face imperatives at work which for our colleagues are simply strategic options. Our challenge is to find means of speaking persuasively to our colleagues in language they will understand, with proposals they will be willing to support – and that is not an easy thing to do.
Examples of Kingdom Businesses
Does this consign a Christian to be no more than a thorn in the flesh of a business enterprise? Or can we make a valuable, profitable and even unique contribution to our companies?
There are some wonderful examples of businesses which understand that business isn’t a zero sum game, and have set themselves the goals of being fruitful both in terms of profit and in terms of service to the world, in a manner which seems to me to further God’s kingdom. What can be achieved by business people with a noble vision and great determination?
Think back 150 years: suppose you lived in Dublin in the 19th century potato famine and saw the ruin caused by gin addiction. What might you have done?
You may have started a brewery to produce a less addictive, less costly and more nutritious alternative drink. This is what a young man called Guinness did – and he made a huge contribution to the alleviation of poverty as well as developing a fine business for many generations of staff and shareholders.
What about today? Maybe you work in retail, and are appalled by the tragedy and injustice of third world poverty. Might you be able to create opportunities for sourcing goods from 3rd world suppliers whose economic development you could thereby promote? This is the calling for Paul, a friend who runs a mail order business which has led the supply of fairtrade produce in the UK.
Perhaps you’re in the world of manufacturing. Ray Anderson is the recently retired Chief Executive of the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer, called Interface Inc. Ray tells the story of how he realised in the 1990’s that while his business was highly successful in conventional terms – market share, profits, share price – there was a huge amount of carpet manufacturing waste, which was filling up the rubbish dumps near his manufacturing plants. As he researched the issue, he learned how many hundred years it would take for this waste to decompose; and how the oil which was his main raw material was irreplaceable. He was deeply shocked by what he discovered, he wept, and decided to stop “plundering the earth” – his words. So he launched his 2020 vision – that by 2020 his business would have a zero impact on the environment, by reducing its waste, recycling what was left and recovering old carpet tiles from customers so that his product, both before and after it was sold, left no legacy of pollution for future generations. He struggled for some years to bring shareholders and staff with him, but has now won them over. Incidentally, his strategy sharply reduced his business’ costs, which enabled it to weather the 2002 downturn better than its competitors. Interface is now well on the way to its 2020 goal, and is a world leader whom many have followed.
Or suppose you work, like me, in construction, and are disgusted by the quantity of builder’s waste you send to the local tip. The building industry currently buys materials for 7 houses, but builds only 6 – the rest is over-bought or damaged, and is scrapped. Could your calling be to manage the ordering process to avoid over-buying, to improve site processes in order to reduce waste on your projects, to recycle what’s left and eliminate waste to land fill in your company by 2010 – so saving your company a lot of money, motivating staff and improving our environment. This is the calling for Rachel, who works for a major builder – a customer of ours – and has gained the support of her directors to work fulltime doing this, because it will save so much money.
Perhaps, after persistent trying, we find that we cannot persuade our colleagues or employers where we work to change to a kingdom way of working. Is it time to shake the dust off our feet and move to another place of work where our new colleagues may heed a call to build a better empire? Or maybe we need to start our own business with like-minded colleagues?
The story of Grameen Bank is an example of this. Its founder is a man called Yunus who approached several mainstream banks to ask their help in launching a new form of finance aimed at enabling the poor in Bangladesh to purchase animals, sewing machines and other tools to enable them to work. This proposal had the potential to open up substantial new credit markets to these banks, but the absence of good security was a drawback. The banks universally rejected him. So he experimented with a loan of $27 from his own pocket in 1974. Grameen Bank has since lent $7Bn in microcredit to the poorest people in the world. It has a repayment rate of 98% despite the complete absence of collateral – considerably higher than the average of AAA-rated western banks who today have serious bad debt. Yunus has enabled no less than 7.5 million of the poorest people in Bangladesh to find dignity and income through work. He has developed a highly successful banking model developing new banking markets, which is now being copied in over 100 countries, including the US; he has also made money for his shareholders. In 2006, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In summary, I contend that God’s will is for his original creation plan, which we now call his kingdom, to be realised in the earthly realm. “Thy kingdom come … on earth”, we say when we pray. Seeking first His kingdom means that our priority at work is to bring about this kingdom by diligent, humble, wealth-creating, justice-seeking service: this can render great wealth to our employers, to our customers, and to our neighbours – and so also to God.
In conclusion, then, if we liken our work to building an empire, we need to ask ourselves “Whose empire are we building?”