Some months ago my husband and I attended a lecture on what it means to be a Christian in the business world. My husband is a businessman and we have had many discussions about how Christians can be competitive in a sometimes ethically questionable marketplace. The person delivering the lecture has a Ph.D., had worked in the business world, and teaches at a Christian college. Given the shallow nature of previous thinking we had been exposed to, we were eager to hear what this person had to say.
Working from the biblical perspective that God had created a world that was good, this individual proceeded to tell us that “God created business,” and “God created markets.” This was his self-stated “theology of business.” Hmmm.
I decided to talk to the speaker after his lecture to determine where, biblically, he had determined that God was the creator of business and markets. Turns out he had none. He responded that since God had created a world with an uneven distribution of resources, God had created business and markets. He went on to assert that God had created music and art as well. When I suggested that there is a difference between creating the potential for certain cultural artifacts and creating the artifacts themselves, he seemed offended and disbelieving.
As is almost always the case, theological assertions not only impact the theological topic in question, but also other related theological topics. It is also the case that what we teach has the potential to impact how we act, our ethics. So if I granted his premise, how might that impact our ethical understanding of business? How should we think about and respond to the presenter’s suggestions that God created business and markets? I have a few initial thoughts.
First, it would seem that if God created business and markets (in a capitalistic sense which is what I believe he was asserting), why are business and markets not a universal phenomenon? The fact of the matter is that in any number of primitive societies, the distribution of resources operates more like a family than a market. What I mean is, that goods are shared between clans rather than bartered for or traded. This is, in fact, the model the early church seemed to operate on. (Acts 2:42-47) So if God created markets, why doesn’t every society, or even the early church appear to operate with a market driven model?
Second, and more importantly, if God indeed created cultural artifacts like markets and business, than markets and business, like all of creation, are in their essence good, although fallen. But that begs the question of whether all cultural artifacts are in their essence good. The reality is, that humanity was created with the potential to use the various resources of creation to produce art, music, and social structures including business and markets. But humanity is fallen so the structures and artifacts we produce are the result of a fallen intellect and understanding. What “good” looks like with regard to any of these artifacts and, in fact, whether these artifacts are even something that should be considered the proper use of human potential is open to question and is part of what Christians are called to discern.
Many economists admit that greed is a driving force (perhaps even the driving force) in a market economy. But greed, in the Christian tradition, is one of the seven deadly vices. So if greed is foundational to the capitalistic marketplace, is the marketplace really something good?
Maybe more to the point, is the question of how a market economy reflects love for God and neighbor, the summary of the law. I’m not saying that it cannot; only that questions about how one operates in this environment, how one promotes the flourishing of one’s neighbor in this system are difficult. If what matters most is the bottom line, what happens when the bottom line and the good of my neighbor come into conflict?
To simply state that God created markets and therefore they are good, not only misunderstands the doctrine of creation, but has the potential to whitewash real ethical difficulties that are part and parcel of operating in a market economy. We should encourage hearty discussion of these matters, not simplistic justification for our own preferences.