Doing Business Ethics in the Congregation

[1] For most congregations, the business world is unfamiliar terrain, and the very idea of any particular business-oriented ministry may seem foreign. But since the moral turbulence in the business world shows no signs of ebbing, congregations may want to develop some form of ministry focused upon the world of business. This ministry will look quite different than the business ethics practiced elsewhere. In the media, business ethics comes in black and white: law-breaking and high-profile profiteering. In the corporation, business ethics similarly reflects sharp distinctions between what is prohibited and what is permitted. In the classroom, business ethics comes in shades of gray, as students analyze moral tradeoffs in case studies[1]. But in the congregation, business ethics comes in a softer, sometimes liturgical hue. It involves ministry of a pastoral or prophetic nature.

[2] First I will outline three practical paths of ministry that a congregation might pursue, with no attempt to be comprehensive. Then I will explore why it is difficult to speak theologically in a church setting about business. I will close with a suggestion that ministry about business be framed within the symbol of covenant.

1. Meaning in work

[3] For many congregation members, the most important questions related to business ethics have not to do with corporate wrongdoing, but with finding meaning in their work. Preaching, adult ed programs and other “ministries of meaning” can focus, in the first instance, upon the lived experience of people within the congregation. Of course, conditions under which people work are far too varied for a sermon or a single class to encompass every job with its challenges and rewards. One size of vocation will never fit all work settings. Still, congregational members likely will be grateful that the church simply took time to listen.

[4] Such a ministry of discerning vocation at work might pursue an educational track: one Chicago congregation, for example, organizes sessions where members explain and reflect upon the work that they do. In Sunday School, children might be invited to do some homework: to query their parents, and report back, about what they do, and then perhaps frame it in artwork. Or such ministry might pursue a sacramental track: one Iowa congregation designates a Sunday where members are invited to bring forward the tools that they work with for a moment of liturgical recognition. Here congregations can nurture a sense of meaning at work through simple recognition of the tasks their members carry out.

[5] The challenge of discerning meaning and vocation in work has recently been intensified by the rising popularity of “spirituality in the workplace.” While many congregational members are likely involved with small businesses immune to larger fads and trends, some may be employed at corporations with programs aimed at engaging the deepest sources of employee motivation and commitment in service of organizational goals. A congregational setting might provide a helpful context for members to discuss and sort out what is of value and what is questionable in these programs: what is to be embraced and what is to be resisted. Lake Lambert of Wartburg College has identified the moral ambiguity in these budding spirituality programs: on the one hand, they may inspire employees to think and act more holistically, and they may be packaged with generous services for employees. On the other, they also may commodify religion and usurp control over the spiritual lives of employees. Congregations might establish discussion groups where members could test their experiences of workplace spirituality against the teaching and practices of the church, so that they might gain a firmer sense of where boundaries between work life and spiritual life need to be drawn.

2. A ministry to whistleblowers

[6] A whistleblower is someone who uncovers serious wrongdoing at work, and seeks to have that problem addressed. Sheron Watkins of Enron is only the latest in a long line of men and women with consciences who sought to call attention to issues of fraud, safety or other hazards at work. Sometimes whistleblowers are catapulted to fame; just as often, they are ignored, transferred, demoted or fired from their organizations. A ministry is needed because whistleblowers can suffer much from their witness. They can become obsessed with their causes, fearful of outsiders, irritable with their families, and obnoxious to their friends. Many forfeit their marriages and become estranged from their families and friends. Even for those individuals whose calls for change succeed in gaining public support, the vocation of a whistleblower can be stressful and lonely.

[7] Here congregations can provide a ministry of support. Any congregation is likely to harbor at least one individual who at some point sought to buck the system and spark change, no matter how obscure. Without passing judgment on the rightness of the whistleblower’s cause, a congregation might affirm the whistleblower’s membership among the baptized, provide a disinterested but kindly listening ear, and render concrete assistance as needed. This ministry may be restorative, rather than prophetic. The congregation might envisage itself as a sanctuary: it might respond to the intense suffering of whistleblowers without questioning their motives or actions, or taking up their cause. Even to maintain such neutrality may be a moral challenge in a town or city where the whistleblower’s employer is a powerful institution.

3. A ministry of prophetic vision and action.

[8] Discernment of another sort might be cultivated in forums to take up local and global economic issues. During the rustbelt slump of the 1970s and 1980s, some congregations sought to cope with layoffs, downsizings, and wholesale abandonment by businesses. They became active in attracting government programs and business investment to their communities. Now there are challenges of a different kind: huge chain stores displace local businesses, or malls drain customers away from downtown. Most recently, powerful globalizing forces threaten to siphon investment offshore, leaving communities high and dry. Congregations rightly feel in the grip of vast economic currents they are powerless to deflect. How to cope?

[9] The ancient Hebrew prophets spoke to powers of their day with death-defying courage. These days, the benefits and costs of tumultuous economic change are harder to disentangle. The challenge is to figure out how globalizing economic currents might best work to the benefit of all-and not just at home. As members of Christ’s body, we are called to extend our moral vision beyond the welfare of our own communities, to affirm and support the struggle of God’s people everywhere to achieve higher material living standards and more robust and participatory economies. The affluent, whether west and north or east and south, rightly are called to cut their consumption, while the poor are rightly encouraged to increase theirs-within the carrying capacity of the planet. This is an uncomfortable message to hear, although it is familiar to anyone who experienced a hunger banquet by sitting on the floor and eating plain rice. For one thing, it directs our attention back to the question of what our work means, in a disturbingly powerful way.

[10] Congregations will be doing business ethics in the broadest circumference when they study the currents of globalization. For this, the wider church can provide a starting point for reflection. The Lutheran World Federation is engaged in a prophetic analysis of the world economy. Similarly, the Division for Church and Society developed a comprehensive vision of economic life in its social statement “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood For All.”[2]

Three distinct economies: force, gift and exchange

[11] These three practical suggestions for ministry may seem unduly ambitious. After all, it is rare that a pastor touches on the “real world” of business in sermons, or that adult ed sessions refer to the lived world of work. The problem is that there is no well-beaten theological path connecting the world of business with the world of worship. Within the parameters of Lutheran theology, it is difficult to see what God is doing in the business world. The basic challenge, therefore, is for congregations to gain a concrete sense of how God is active in the business world. The rest of this article will review three basic economies in which we live, to propose a theological framework for thinking about business ethics in a congregation. I will suggest that as inheritors of Martin Luther’s vision, we traditionally see God at work in only two ways-what I will term the economy of force and the economy of gift. I will suggest that we need to stretch our thinking to encompass a third-the economy of exchange.

[12] First, our tradition tell us that God is at work sustaining and protecting Creation. Here God operates through human roles and laws in the kingdom of the world. Just as the God of Genesis, Isaiah and Job channels the waters that enable plants and animals to grow, so we have the vocation of designing and sustaining the institutions of order and governance which enable our civilizations to flourish. These institutions, to be effective, are founded ultimately upon the power of compulsion and consent. God endorses, in principle, the economy of force with its work of sustaining social order in a world governed by law and institutions. “Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval,” counseled Paul to the Romans[3] (13:3a). In the political sphere, for example, we are confident God is with us in resisting both the Scylla of tyranny and the Charybdis of anarchy. We believe that God stands behind justice; we refuse to see evidence of God at work where human rights are violated.

[13] Second, we see very clearly that the God revealed through Jesus Christ rules the kingdom of the spirit, where the good news of the Gospel liberates and shapes Christians. This is an economy energized by not by force but by gift-the supreme gift of God’s incarnation in Jesus. The mainspring of the gift economy is love freely offered, with no payment expected. “Give without expectation of return,” says Matthew’s Jesus.[4] Gift-giving answers our need to be generous, to live beyond ourselves in generative ways. Like a desert flower, the gift economy blossoms with an awe-inspiring beauty in the wake of sudden disasters, as when thousands of volunteers poured into Ground Zero. On a more mundane level, it is visible in the work of volunteers, those thousand points of light who bathe the harsh realities of the world in a softer glow of care. We find the gift economy in the oddest places. It thrives in the cracks of rational bureaucratic structures, where individuals find deep joy in performing acts of unrequited kindness. More visibly, whole organizations are founded upon gift-giving. As a result, it is relatively easy for us to have faith in a God who is at work in the giving of gifts. We see a direct correlation between God’s care and human caring.

[14] In the economy of force, command holds sway, while in the gift economy, love reigns. But business belongs principally to a third economy, that of exchange. The exchange economy is that dimension of our lives which operates on neither force nor love but upon quid-pro-quo. In the market, we buy or barter what we need and want. We sell our labor to organizations, and buy other labor-from website designers, accountants and the host of other services required for a business to flourish. Further, there are the ordinary reciprocities of our personal and social lives, which usually are organized more along the lines of exchange than gift. The Johnsons had us to dinner last week; surely we will invite them over sometime before September. Our lives would be immeasurably poorer if we were not able to discern who owes what to whom, and to carry out the myriad of exchanges, large and small, which weave the fabric of our daily lives. Business is but the most thoroughly calculated expression of the many reciprocities by which we order our lives.

[15] But where is God active in the calculating behavior of the exchange economy? It is not hard to see God active in the traditional realms: the economy of force is presided over by a God who is king, who stands at the head of all government. We know we are to obey God, whether in compliance or defiance of earthly government. The economy of the gift is energized by the love of Christ; we see Christ where gifts are being given. Exchange offers a sharp contrast to both. Unlike the economy of force, it demands performance rather than obedience. Unlike the gift economy, it thrives on negotiation and economizes on love, as one economist put it. For the intensity of force and the passion of love it substitutes cool calculation. In the market, only the desparate, like auto dealer Jerry Lundegaard in the movie “Fargo,” turn to (illegal) force. And only the foolish let sentimental generosity interfere with major decisions. Businesspeople may tolerate the mushiest of decisionmaking on church councils, but when it comes time to make decisions back in the office, their jaws tighten and they run the numbers.

[16] Of course, these spheres should not be seen as entirely separate from each other. Congregations intertwine exchange, gift and even legal force in their operations. They could not survive without the leverage that cash provides, no more than they could survive without the energy that volunteers contribute-any more than they could survive without the civil security that the economy of force provides. In our individual lives as well, the operations of these three economies are deeply intertwined and cannot be disentangled. And so also in the business world: company managements rely on the economy of force to back up contracts, yet wise managers also know when to relax the strict rules of exchange, all while employees engage in spontaneous acts of unrequited generosity, such as when the employees of Delta bought their company a passenger jet. Our lives deeply intermix the operations of these three economies, and it would be impossible to disentangle them.

Covenant as a symbol for understanding business ethics from within the congregation

[17] What we need as a foundation for business ethics is a symbol which embraces and includes all three economies in its understanding of how God acts. Perhaps the best candidate is the venerable idea of covenant. A covenant is a relationship created and defined by a promise, and backed by efforts-divine and creaturely-to bring that promise to fulfillment. Our covenant with God began when God made a pledge to Noah not to destroy creation. It was given particular shape with Abraham, and then renewed with Isaac, Jacob, David, all of Israel, and for Christians, especially through Jesus Christ: the promise of whole relationships with God and with each other. To live in covenant with God and our neighbors is to be stretched between a promise and a future which is being fulfilled only imperfectly in the present. The faithful response is to cling to that promise, to keep after God, never to relax our expectation that the promise will come to pass.

[18] God’s covenant established a template which then became the form for a variety of human relationships, or “special covenants,” as the ethicist Joseph Allen calls them.[5] In the Biblical view, a covenantal relationship has moments of coercion, moments of love, and moments of reciprocity; the challenge is to discern the proper ordering and relationship of these elements. Indeed, we piece together our lives by interweaving these economies. As a society we cannot breathe the pure oxygen of a gift economy for more than a few days; we need the predictable cycles of exchange to give ballast to our lives. A life lived exhaustively in the economy of force would crush us, while a life based on nothing more than exchange would stifle our spirits.

[19] What holds our lives together across these three economies is the conviction that our lives are covenantal, with a fundamental rhythm of promise and fulfilment. The covenant that businesspeople are called to create and sustain with their customers, suppliers, regulators and communities has a different shape than the covenant between pastors and congregations, or between husbands and wives. But threaded through all is the expectation that God attends closely to the proper ordering of these relationships as covenantal bonds. So, for example, a congregation which chooses to engage in a joint discernment of vocation by reflecting on the content of its members’ work, reflects the belief that God is deeply interested in whether we construe our worklives in terms of a narrowly framed exchange, or with elements of gift-giving as well. The congregation which supports a whistleblower in its midst affirms that the responsibilities of employees and business corporations to each other are not exhausted by the commands and rules that each must obey or the performances they exchange, but by a sense of answerability to their host communities. And the congregation which commits itself to a conversation about globalization recognizes that God is moving, powerfully, to adjust the world economy to a wider sense of interdependence and even accountability.

[1] In academic settings, “business ethics” has a precise meaning: reflection upon what is morally good or bad in business practice, just as medical ethics reflects upon what is good or bad in the delivery of health care.


[3] Obedience to authorities is commended elsewhere, of course: Eph 6:5, Tit 3:1, Col 3:22, Heb 13:17, 1 Pet 2:13, 5:5.

[4] See also Mt 10:8. The theme of unreciprocated giving runs through the gospels. In Matthew alone, for example, see references to rescuing the poor from want (5:42, 19:21, 25: 35, 42), receiving bread from God’s hand (6:11), the free, unreciprocated circulation of gift from God to humans (10:8, 13:12, 16:19, 16:26, 20:28), the free circulation of gift between God and Jesus (28:18).

[5] Joseph Allen. Love and Conflict. Nashville: Abingdon, 1984.

Gary M. Simpson

Gary M. Simpson is Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.