“It’s impossible to be an honest businessman.” “Well, you just have to close your eyes to some things; that’s business.”
Two common statements — the one a categorical accusation, the other a half-hearted attempt to justify dishonest. Both stem from the assumption that one must be dishonest to succeed in business. If the business world cringes a bit under this accusation, it can blame those of its own members who have added to this reputation by their questionable behavior and themselves, for business has not always been quick to discipline its own members.
Nor have farmers, doctors, fishermen, or lawyers, for that matter. However, to charge that dishonesty is a necessary requirement for success in business is unfounded and often the result of a most superficial acquaintance with business.
For example, I have been asked, “Is it Christian to covet your neighbor’s business?” and as a Christian businessman I answer, “No, it is not Christian to covet my neighbor’s business, nor his car, wife, or anything.”
“Well, then,” the conversation may continue, “you are in the advertising business; is it Christian to try to take his business away by underselling him or by some other means?” About then my would-be accuser might lean back smugly into the depths of his reclining chair while I grope for the words to explain politely that his second question is filled with all sorts of inferences which are not at all valid, etc. etc.
First, I must agree, however, that if a businessman acts competitively for the sole purpose of taking away business (used in the sense of transactions, not the physical store, etc.), then his actions are completely non-Christian; he is acting covetously.
Not satisfied, my prodding friend continues. “Even when his motives are not covetous, but rather a Christian attempt to make an honest living, isn’t every bit of business he obtains taken from a neighbor merchant?”
In a certain sense it is, just as when two children are picking berries, the berries one picks the other cannot. Are both to be accused of taking berries from the other and therefore guilty of non-Christian behavior?
Granted, all analogies limp, and nothing is proved by examples, but the parallels can be seen: neither child can be said really to own the berries until he has completed the transfer of the berry from the bush. Neither can a businessman be said really to own the business (customer loyalty and potential sales) until the transaction has been completed. So then when merchant “A” offers superior merchandise, or demands a lesser price for similar goods, and several of Merchant “B’s” customers take advantage of the opportunity, Merchant “A” cannot be said to have taken away something that belonged in any sense at all to Merchant “B.” Neither can Merchant “B” be said to have lost the business, since it never belonged to him. Every businessman knows, or finds out very soon, that customers are free agents, able and willing to take their business to any other competitor, with or without reason. They are not owned, bound, or obligated.
Yet it is often possible, through completely honest and legal means to reduce the income of a neighboring merchant to thie extent that he is harmed and this points out one of the greatest pitfalls in being a Christian businessman — the lure of unlimited business through the reduction of neighbor-competitors.
It is not a simple question.
Scripture admonishes us in various passages to be diligent in our work, so as to be able to give good account of the opportunities given us. Furthermore, a slovenly workman (or businessman) certainly does not reflect well on the name “Christian.” The problem is this: where does ambition end and greed begin? How hard does a merchant “push” before his diligence becomes nothing but pure greed?
There are various approaches to this problem (and it exists for the craftsmen as well as businessmen). One might apply the Golden Ride to the situation, or decide to grow competitively only so long as the business remained a means to his Christian witness, and to refrain from gaining business when this activity became an end in itself. These approaches have merit and are readily applicable.
But the Scriptural passage that I find most helpful in formulating a Christian business philosophy is found in Lev. 19:9. Here the Old Testament Hebrew farmers were admonished to plant and cultivate their entire fields, even the corners, but not to harvest the corners nor to pick up grain dropped by the reapers. The crops growing in these comers and what was dropped were to be left for the poor, the widows, and others who had no means of support, or perhaps a lesser source of income. This law taught the Jews several valuable lessons: it taught charity which reflects God’s charitable attitude towards His church. It taught efficiency of operation: a farmer could harvest the vast majority of his crop in a reasonable amount of time if he omitted the corners. To gather this small fraction of his harvest would perhaps double the time consumed in harvesting. But most important, this law gave the Hebrew farmers (as well as all of us) a practical guide to help us distinguish between ambition and greed.
There are corners and dropped stalks of grain in every business, and the businessman who would follow Christian principles in his business life will find them a helpful guide in maintaining the balance between ambition and greed.
Today, just as in the Old Testament, there are those with less skill in business or with reduced opportunities for growth, and it is these who complete the application to modern business of the Old Testament precept. Often, they can operate in the fringes of an industry far more effectively than could larger members of the industry. For example, a semi-retired couple can often operate a neighborhood grocery store which caters to small “fill-in orders” far more efficiently than a large chain store which tries to scale down its operation to fit the same need. And the Christian businessman will not begrudge those who “glean in the corners” but will encourage them and aid them when the situation demands it.
So much for the defense of the Christian in business.
Because business and Christianity have seemed poles apart to many of our people, it may stretch the imagination of some when I suggest that the application of Christian principles to business not only can, but has led to the development of large, successful businesses. However, these principles were not always applied conscientiously by Christian businessmen in an attempt to glorify God — but the effect of them can easily be seen.
Christ promised, “Give and it shall be given unto you.” In addition to its spiritual applications, the Christian businessman finds that when he applies this to his work, when he sells his product for as little as he can, reserving only a modest profit, or when the manufacturer builds as much quality as possible into his product without increasing the price, the consuming public responds most generously in increased trade. These businessmen gave, and they were given unto, many-fold. Whether believers or not, they illustrate the effectiveness of the application of this divine promise to business.
The application of the Golden Rule to business practices may sound both trite and naive in this super-sophisticated era of business surveys, market studies, and efficiency procedures. But while it is trite, it certainly is not naive. It is rather most basic. For what is a market survey if it isn’t an attempt to determine what “others” want? And what would be the necessity of efficiency investigations if each of us gave our employer the kind of loyalty and effort we would like to have if we were in his position? And where would be the demand for labor unions if employers practiced this same thinking? Repeatedly businessmen have adventured very successfully into fields other than their own, armed with nothing more than the determination to give to their customers the kind of product or service they themselves would appreciate.
The Christian businessman is not only possible, but successful, both as a businessman and as a witnessing Christian — and not by ignoring his Christian mandate, or in spite of it, but through it.