Two Principles of Christian Business Ethics

“Business ethics” is often regarded as an oxymoron, in the way that “military intelligence” and “open secret” are considered to be counterintuitive. Given that business has to do with promoting one’s business for profit or self-interest, while ethics concerns serving or caring for others, the term “business ethics” sounds contradictory. For this reason, important questions arise concerning the possibility of business ethics as such: How is business ethics possible? Is there such a thing as business ethics?

Philosophers would try to answer this question through the so-called bottom-line approach, according to which one is ethically good as long as he or she does not break any of the laws of society. How should a Christian, then, respond to the question? Should he or she also come up with the same passive and negative answer to the question? Is it good enough for a Christian not to break any laws in the business world? If not, what makes Christian business ethics unique and distinguishable from the general philosophical approach? Let me answer this question with two biblical principles that I believe distinctively characterize Christian business ethics.

The first principle deals with ownership in business. For Christians, all business is fundamentally God’s business. From this perspective, strictly speaking, it is wrong for Christians to say that they are serving God in their business. Instead, they would have to say that they are serving God’s business in their workplaces. While in the former, owners are concerned with their business plan, in the latter, owners are concerned with their faith and commitment to God’s business.

This, of course, does not mean that a business owner should not have a business plan. To be specific, I find an exemplary model of Christian businesspeople in the story of a Roman centurion in Luke 7, where Jesus is “amazed” at the centurion for his faith when the centurion identifies himself as a “man set under authority.” The man’s philosophy of profession is summarized in his own statement: “For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes.”

This statement gives us an insightful view of Christian identity. Simply put, Christians are no more than men and women “set under authority.” Even though a person may be a CEO of a big company, he or she is still a person set under authority, if claiming to be a Christian. It is thus critical for Christian businessmen and businesswomen to monitor themselves by occasionally asking the following question: Under whose authority am I set?

The second principle involves the philosophy of money. For Christians, money is not the purpose of their doing business; serving others’ needs is, rather, the purpose of their doing business. When it comes to money, Christians ought to confess that they earn money by serving others’ needs. As long as we are living in this world in bodily form, no one is exempt from the need to support their physical or mental needs, and business is, in fact, how human activity is used to meet the various needs of humankind. If, however, we believe that money is the purpose of business, there is no space for genuine love or care—the essence of Christian ethics—in the business world. When launching a business, therefore, a man or woman should ask: What is God’s plan for me? Then one should search the area where peoples’ needs are not being well served. If a man or woman finds a way to serve people’s unmet needs, then it will become a new business.

In other words, we can reach an understanding that Christian business ethics is basically the ethics of serving. Since the act of serving is not possible without the discovery of others and the recognition of their needs, Christian businessmen and businesswomen should make the effort to discover the existence of others. One must notice, though, that I intentionally use the verb “discover” in relation to the needs of others and our neighbors, because these others and our neighbors can only be discovered through the eyes of serving rather than merely seeing and not taking action. In this respect, the integration of business and virtue is not only possible, it is also a call to all Christian businessmen and businesswomen.