How Character is Shaped: Drawing (Tentative) Connections Between Business Ethics and the Bible

[1] Very broadly speaking, there are two basic ways of doing ethics in the trenches of the business world. The first is aimed at compliance-ensuring that corporate policies meet legal standards, that executives and employees are adequately informed about those policies and trained to comply with them in their work. Along this tangent, ethics officers develop programs to instill knowledge of codes of conduct, provide lines of consultation up the hierarchy, cope with whistleblowers, and are generally responsible for a particular kind of moral soundness that can be measured against explicit internal and external standards.

[2] The second way of doing business ethics is aimed at improving achievement, rather than simply compliance. If the first is folded into the legal and human resource departments, the second lies in the broad terrain staked out by consultants charged with eliciting high performance. This way of doing ethics targets improvements in aspiration more than in obligation. As such, it has drawn the attention of scholars and experts who develop visions of excellence, explications of virtue, lists of goals, narratives of achievement, flowcharts of consultation, and a wisdom literature characterized by proverbial admonition-all to exhort executives and employees to set out on the high road of ethical goal attainment.

[3] Both paths may seem a millennial world away from the Bible. The Bible, after all, knows almost nothing of the texture of modern business: the densely interactive networks of coordinated tasks, the flat or articulated organizational structures, the autonomous practical rationalities concerned with inventorying, production, marketing, distribution. It knows nothing of the tensions between gamesmanship and craftsmanship. It is innocent of the mercurial subtle flows of resources, power and dependence amidst pervasive influence of contingencies.

[4] But the Bible does know human moral character, and so do business ethicists. On both sides, it is assumed that character is a central variable-indeed a major contingency-in human action, and that the enduring question is: How is character shaped, particularly in a moral direction? What insight can the Bible offer regarding how and why people become reliably oriented to who they ought to be-whether as law-compliers or goal-attainers?

Biblical Assumptions about how Character is Shaped
[5] To offer a claim about someone’s character is to make a prediction about how a given person will act in the future. For purposes of this discussion, character can be defined as that set of dispositions expressive of who a person is. It may not be comprehensively describable or reductively measurable in psychological terms, but character has tactile, empirical texture. Business ethicists can talk meaningfully about the character of an executive, or the character (“culture”) of an organization. Similarly, the Bible also assumes that individuals have character, even if that specific term is never used. Consider Job, or Moses, or King David, or Jesus, for that matter. For each, we can draw a picture of how they act, and in what might be a silly experiment, predict how they might respond to x, y or z. The texts are rich enough to give us a rounded sense of who they were in thought and action, and how they oriented themselves to God’s will, as an expression of their character.

[6] The Bible assumes character is not a fixed endowment. Rather, character takes shape through formative events and intentional influences from outside; H. Richard Niebuhr powerfully evoked the historical shaping of the people of Israel when articulating his “responder” motif in human character and action.[1] The Pharisees of the Synoptic Gospels have “hardened” hearts not because they were born that way, but because they became that way.[2] The prophets call Israel back to the covenant because they assume, in the soaring metaphor of Jeremiah, that a new covenant can be written on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-4, NRSV). Indeed, it might be argued that the Bible provides a long narrative of the many and various ways that God has sought to shape the character of God’s people, individually and as entire communities. [3] Moreover, the Bible assumes that character can be shaped by intention.

[7] This emphasis on shaping character provides a point of contact between Biblical narrative and the methods of business ethics. At a January 2007 Chicago strategy session for initiating a campaign to engage ELCA Lutherans in Bible reading, it was assumed by many that the moral influence of the Bible resides more properly in shaping the characters of the people who take God’s revelation seriously, than in offering specific answers to moral issues. The payoff for business ethicists is that while they always will have difficulty extracting precise guidance from the Bible for particular moral quandaries, they might profitably take away an enriched understanding of how God shapes character.

[8] The rest of this article will explore two biblical patterns of character formation. The discussion is confined to the New Testament. This restriction may seem counterintuitive, in that the Old Testament seems far richer in its accounts of moral character and agency. Still, the New Testament is more significant in the religious lives of most American Christians, and so is likely to be more relevant in explaining the two paths in business ethics sketched at the beginning of this article.

Two Patterns of Character-Shaping in the New Testament
[9] The first way that character is shaped in the New Testament is through moments of dramatic encounter with God or Jesus. The most significant such conversion experience in the history of Christianity occurred when Saul, the Pharisee, was accosted by Jesus on the Damascus road and propelled into a lengthy retreat from which he emerged as Paul the missionary (Acts 9:1-30). Another example is provided by Luke’s Zacchaeus, who when called unexpectedly by Jesus, was converted from a despicable tax collector to an upright, covenant-abiding Jew (Luke 19:1-10). In Paul’s case, the encounter served to transform him through being overpowered by a single, burning question. Zacchaeus seems to have been touched perhaps more gently; he received an invitation to table fellowship from Jesus. But in both cases the single, dramatic encounter served to shatter the old self, with its certainties-including denials and illusions. Saul was revealed to himself as the persecutor of righteousness, Zacchaeus as an extorter of fellow Jews.

[10] What is revealed in such dramatic encounters is moral failure-sin. In New Testament terms, the only appropriate response to the revelation of sinfulness is surrender to the overwhelming rightness of the judgment. The revelation of such judgment can be fatal; witness the mysterious deaths of Ananias and Sapphira when confronted with their deceptive accounting practices (Acts 5:1-6). Even if not fatal, the conversion experience is nonetheless momentous. In terms of business ethics, it marks the transition from a way of thinking permeated by expedience and self-serving rationalization to one marked by zeal to do the right, including humility and respect for external standards.

[11] The second model of character shaping in the New Testament is the slower, uneven and less dramatic pedagogy of discipleship. Jesus drew his disciples along a way which became for them the way as their understanding increased and their hearts were engaged. Here the transformations were achieved not in single dramatic events, but episodically through a series of teachable moments. The disciples may have failed over and over to get the message; their failure was met not with accusations of disloyalty or calls for repentance, but rather by Jesus’ perduring expectation that they try harder to understand. Contrast, for example, how Jesus addresses the disciples and how he addresses the Pharisees and lawyers: the disciples and other followers are exhorted; the Pharisees are accused.[4] For the disciples, teaching proceeds by parable, rarely by accusation. From the disciples Jesus expects improvement; from the Pharisees he expects surrender and conversion.

[12] This second model has its admittedly distant analogue in business ethics where consultants and others seek to shape the character of managers and employees in the direction of improved performance. Sometimes Jesus himself becomes the shaping agent, offering much helpful advice for grooming a state of cooperation and orienting everyone in the organization to high achievement. See, for example, the endless aphorisms of common sense extracted by Laurie Beth Jones from the gospel accounts.[5]

The Underlying Question: Is the Human Will Congruent or Opposed?
[13] No doubt this interpretation and application of discipleship should be far more complex and subtle than the stark contrast drawn here suggests. Still, there is one basic distinction which nonetheless might survive further analysis: namely, whether the will is assumed to be basically congruent with and malleable to the will of God, as in the case of the disciples, or whether it is assumed to be deeply opposed, as in the case of Saul, in which case the hammer blows of dramatic confrontation are needed, leading to conversion. Luther, of course, assumed the latter, with his second use of the Law.

[14] This distinction plays out in business ethics as well, in a lopsided way. Most business ethicists suppose that wills can be aligned, that the character of the organization can be shaped and infused into executives, managers and employees; that all can be recruited to a united effort to reach particular goals, while staying within the fence of the law and morality. This optimism is not surprising. Business corporations, after all, in their essence are constructed behaviors. Tthey are constituted by the molding of action to achieve particular ends. Their character is the composite of all the various actions undertaken related to those ends.

[15] At the same time, any business ethicist knows that human character is resistant as well as resilient, bent as well as malleable, and that any strategy of recruitment needs to be rounded out with a strategy of containment-that neither of the two styles of business ethics stands on its own. One builds fences while the other seeks to till the soil within. Here the Bible is, and always remains, a stark reminder that human character is a maddeningly irreducible contingency. Perhaps the most constructive suggestion the Bible makes to business ethics is that it never seeks closure on the question of how character is shaped. It never dissolves the implicit tension between strategies of judgment and conversion, on the one side, and strategies of recruitment and encouragement, on the other. Perhaps, ultimately, the Bible has shaped our characters as people of the Word by forcing us to be thoughtful, by harboring two models of character formation in a dynamic tension where their contradictory assumptions can neither be resolved nor ignored.

End Notes

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (NY: Harper & Row, 1963), 67.

Biblical episodes of “hardened” hearts admittedly undercut this simple voluntaristic account of what causes resistance to God. In Exodus, for example, Pharaoh arguably was not the agent of his own hardening (Exodus 7:3, 13, for example). The New Testament appears more nuanced. Mark’s Jesus chides his disciples for failing to understand, and in the process strongly implies that their hardening is by their own choice (Mark 3:5, 6:52, 8:17). Paul in Romans asserts that God is the agent of hardening (9:18), while the author of Hebrews does not (3:8, 13; 4:7).

See my Durable Goods: a Covenantal Ethic for Management and Employees (University of Notre Dame, 1997), chapter 4.

Luke 11:37-52. Witness how freely Jesus flings around the accusation of hypocrisy (Luke 6:42, 12:56, 13:15-and even more in Matthew). In contrast, Luke 9 is a particularly rich chapter of exhortation aimed at those able and willing to hear-spiked with condemnation of those who will not (Luke 9:37-43).

Laurie Beth Jones. Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership (NY: Hyperion, 1994).

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.