Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed)

Written by Jeff Van Duzer Reviewed By William G. Messenger

Most Christians spend most of their time working, often in business. Many feel their work is meaningless in God’s eyes. But Van Duzer argues the opposite. Business is an essential sphere in the unfolding work of God in Christ.

Van Duzer grounds his theology in the “creation mandate,” God’s call to people to “till and keep” the Garden of Eden and to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). In fulfilling this mandate “business appears to be uniquely well situated to work the fields, to cause the land to be fruitful, and to fill the earth—what we might in modern parlance characterize as ‘to create wealth’” (p. 41). The Fall has corrupted the world, including business, but business matters to God because the creation mandate is still in effect.

Given such a noble mission, maximizing shareholder wealth seems an inadequate purpose for business. Could the creation mandate really boil down to, as Milton Friedman put it, that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” (“The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970)? Van Duzer says no: “Nothing in this Genesis model supports the conclusion that business should be operated for the purpose of maximizing profits” (p. 45). Instead, he derives two purposes for business from Genesis: “(1) to produce goods and services that enable the community to flourish, and (2) to provide opportunities for meaningful work that will allow employees to express their God-given creativity” (p. 42). Profit is a necessary means to achieve these purposes.

In the fallen world, business fails its noble mission again and again. Van Duzer examines dumping in India, sweatshops in Nicaragua, fraud at Enron, child labor in Chinese kiln factories, racism at Texaco, cigarette ads featuring Joe Camel, and deaths due to faulty fuel tank design in the Ford Pinto. He argues that maximizing shareholder returns causes—or at least exacerbates—these failings. The Ford Pinto seems a clear-cut case. Ford estimated that fixing the problem would cost about $140 million, while paying death and injury damages would cost only $50 million (p. 54). The duty to maximize shareholder return meant Ford was ethically bound to leave the hazard unfixed, which resulted in several hundred burn deaths.

God wants more from business—or at least from Christians in business. Christians in business should participate in the redemptive work of Christ in their business work. Although we cannot reproduce it here, Van Duzer makes skilled use of the work of R. Paul Stevens, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Andrew Crouch to develop practical implications for business. In particular, business needs to be transformed from self-enrichment to service, sustainability, and partnership with the rest of society. He concludes by demonstrating that his model would not destroy a viable business sector, but actually strengthen it.

Why Business Matters to God is a major development in the theology of work. Van Duzer realistically applies the best theological materials to the actual practice of business. You could actually make business decisions based on his arguments. He works within the market system, but he assesses it not by its own idolatries but by God’s word. His writing is clear, his argument rigorous, and his conclusions specific.

But has he cracked the nut? I’m not convinced. On the one hand, I’m not sure the major paradigm shift he proposes is worth the effort. The practical difference between Friedman’s model and Van Duzer’s is less than you might predict. Friedman acknowledges that profit-seeking must be constrained by the laws and ethical norms of society. Van Duzer acknowledges that business needs to make a reasonable profit. The two diverge only when a business could legally and ethically make a higher profit by not providing needed goods and services or not providing meaningful jobs. How often is that?

On the other hand, if it turns out that Van Duzer’s and Friedman’s outcomes frequently do diverge, are Van Duzer’s really better? His argument is theoretical. He starts with principles from Scripture and applies them to business practices as best he can, not an easy task given the change in economic conditions over the past 2000 years. Friedman’s argument is empirical, taken from Adam Smith. History shows that society is better off when each business seeks to maximize shareholder return, paradoxical as that may seem. When theory clashes with data, theory usually loses.

Perhaps searching for only one or two purposes of business is futile. Within society, there are competing interests such as generating tax revenue, providing jobs, producing needed goods and services, and protecting the environment. Within any business enterprise, there are competing interests such as shareholder wealth, innovation, meeting social needs, and growing market share. And individuals want a variety of things from the business they work for, including a high salary, an interesting job, social prestige, or a chance to create products that serve society.

Rather than defining one or two purposes of business, perhaps we should search for better ways to mediate a great variety of purposes. Two major mechanisms already exist for social mediation: markets and governments. A business enterprise is a kind of market where many individuals exchange items of value, such as labor, pay, dividends, intellectual property, and emotional engagement. Does God have anything to say about how markets should operate? A business enterprise is also a body politic in which elected and appointed officials (boards, managers, team leaders, etc.) set goals, resolve disputes, administer justice, and provide for a flourishing common future. Does God have anything to say about political governance amid competing interests? Van Duzer is a lawyer with business experience. He writes with clarity, theological rigor, and practical wisdom. Would he be willing to write a sequel: Godly Ways to Manage the Many Purposes of the Business Enterprise? I’d buy a copy.

William G. Messenger

William G. Messenger
Theology of Work Project
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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