What is the purpose of business from God’s perspective?

IMG_20140103_103553_497Jeff Van Duzer, provost at Seattle Pacific University, turned the discussion this morning to the nature of business, it purpose, its limits and the obstacles within it. He began with a key question:  What is the purpose of business from God’s perspective? Van Duzer notes that there are often easier answers for other professions like justice (for law) or healing and wholeness (for nursing).

Van Duzer argues within the grand narrative of scripture (creation, fall, redemption, new creation) there are several reasons:

From creation: we were made – in part- for work (Genesis 1:26 our early vision of God is that of a worker so our imago dei is that of being a worker) and our work is to grow out of and return to relationship (via the relational view of the triune God and the need for humanity).

Business exists to provide opportunities for individual to express aspects of their God-given identities in creative and meaningful work.

In addition, from creation, we know the material world matters to God and that humanity labors of a garden that is not complete, but perfectly prepared so that the garden was ready to flourish (Gen 2:5).

Business exists to provide goods and services that will enable the community to flourish.

IMG_20140103_103555_902Van Duzer does note that these principles tend to focus both on employees and customers, but resists this. What Duzer did note is that, in  business, the inevitable question revolves around profit… that businesses are designed to provide a return on investment. Duzer notes profit is critically important (“no margin, no mission”) but not as the purpose… instead profit provides the means to accomplish the purposes. So good jobs and good products are not designed to create profit, but profit is designed to resource both.

How should business be practiced? Here Van Duzer is headed into the issue of obstacles via the limits of business practice. Limits appear in the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil in the Genesis account as well as the limit of time via a day of rest. Yet, when humans choose to be “limitless” (like Gods), then creation was broken in all dimensions.

IMG_20140103_083311_201So businesses should limit its activities when it is no longer sustainable (basically all stewarding resources for growth and relationships) for everyone involved (shareholders/owners, employees, customers, suppliers/vendor, community, environment).  Van Duzer noted that business tends to think only in legal limits, but calls for a self-regulation in business so that firms would not use up resources even if they are legally allowed to do so.

So business exists to serve (goods and relationships) but limited by the sustainability of the business.

IMG_20140103_083109_263So, as Christians, can we do this? Van Duzer says “no.” Our inability rests not in our own individual sinful motivation but really in the fact that we live in the “already and not yet” of the Kingdom of God based on the systemic brokenness of our current world.

So there are obstacles to businesses to being all that business should be, including the imperfect social frameworks

  • laws and regulations, and
  • market limitations

Van Duzer notes that there is a problem of regulations since they are not always oriented towards the “common good” or “human flourishing” (often motivated by political concerns).

Yet, even when focused on a larger perspective, regulations face the difficulty in figuring out what is best for the “common good” based on limited knowledge (what might be called imperfect information). Often regulations cannot anticipate the systems-like changes that often create unintended consequences when trying to comply to the regulation. In fact, Van Duzer notes that all regulation suffer from over or under-inclusiveness (who gets left out or pushed in) as well as the cost of monitoring and compliance.

IMG_20140103_103607_070Rather than assume regulations are always the answer… or never the answer… we need to have a nuanced understanding of regulation, and recognize that self-regulation by a virtuous person is best.

Van Duzer then turned to market limitations as an alternative. He notes that the market is a remarkably effective tool at self-regulation, but it is not God’s perfect plan since it operates upon assumptions that do not appear to be Kingdom principles:

  • Scarcity (as opposed to abundance)
  • Power of individual self-interest (rather than moral action based on the communal greater good)
  • Productivity (rather than grace)
  • Profit (rather than gift)

Adam Smith’s invisible hand is NOT the hand of God so we must not idolize the market. However, but we must not condemn the market.

Rebecca Blank: “The role of the church is not to be “anti-market” or “pro-market” but life-affirming.”

Reflecting on the EWP statements over Value CreationVan Duzer offered a visual graph that incorporates all of the statements

IMG_20140103_111612_570Through economic exchange, we work together and create value for one another.

  • 4.       Real economic success is about how much value you create, not how much money you make.
  • 5.       A productive economy comes from the value-creating work of free and virtuous people.
  • 6.       Economies generally flourish when policies and practices reward value creation

IMG_20140103_103553_497Van Duzer then offered some closing thoughts:

First, business is unique in that it is the only the institution that creates economic value (though it draws from other institutions that create spiritual, moral, intellectual, etc. resources).

Second, seminaries need to move beyond the “win-lose” mindset of zero sum growth and recognize economic theory includes models of growth. While there may be issues of wealth distribution in places, theologians need to understand that business can “grow” the pie via productivity rather than merely redistribute existing wealth.  (See the 1990 Oxford Institute Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics)

Finally Van Duzer sees the church accepting a goal of freeing up business to redress poverty and enhance human flourishing. The church could help businesses rethink their purpose beyond profit, but the church could do a better job of moving to the “messy middle space” between idealism and pragmatism, accepting a “growth in grace” mindset in helping people move forward in their everyday lives.

Van Duzer also provided a case study for small groups that sparked a deep conversation around pastoral advice to business people. While the faculty enjoyed this engagement IMG_20140103_154225_996they were also pleased when joined by local Phoenix business leaders that IMG_20140103_154239_703expanded the conversation and added a valuable business perspective. The leaders also offered sound advice through a panel discussion, particularly in what they hope to hear from IMG_20140103_154317_389pastors in sermons and teachings. Particularly panelists asked that pastors develop sermons that provide for both the dignity of work but also give ethical guidance appropriate to IMG_20140103_153355_417the workplace. The panel presentation closed the afternoon… a good one where business took center stage as a key concern for ministry.

About Dean G. Blevins

Dr. Dean G. Blevins currently serves as Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary. An ordained elder, Dean has ministered in diverse settings and currently also serves at the USA Regional Education Coordinator for the Church of the Nazarene. A prolific author, Dr. Blevins recently co-wrote the textbook Discovering Discipleship and edits Didache: Faithful Teaching, a journal for Wesleyan Education.
This entry was posted in Clergy, Culture, Discipleship, Economics, Leadership, Practical Theology, Theology, Vocation. Bookmark the permalink.

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