Can Capitalist Pigs be Pious Christians?

This is a guest post by J.K. Wall who is a writer and former business reporter in Indianapolis. His modernized abridgment of William Symington’s work, Messiah the Prince Revisited, was published in 2014 by Crown & Covenant Publications. You can e-mail him at jk.wall@gmail.com.

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The world of business has a bad name because most people—including those running businesses—don’t know why they exist.

In a 2011 survey by Rasmussen Reports, 64 percent of Americans thought the primary objective of businesses should be to create jobs while 26 percent thought that business’ primary objective should be to create profits for shareholders.

Both those answers are wrong.

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer,” wrote Peter Drucker, the famous business professor and consultant, in his 1973 book Management. “It is the customer who determines what a business is,” he added. “The customer is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence.”

How does a business create customers? By providing for their needs. If they are hungry, businesses feed them. If they need clothes, businesses clothe them. If they need shelter, businesses provide them a house or a hotel room. If they are sick, businesses provide medicines to heal them. If they are housebound, businesses provide bikes and cars and airplanes to move them.

So businesses exist to serve others. That means the purpose of business is fundamentally a Christian mission.

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” the Apostle John wrote of Jesus in 1 John 3:16-18.

Yes, I know, this passage is talking about charitable giving within the church. But if businesses have “the world’s goods” and work to get them to customers at affordable prices, isn’t that also loving? Does the mere fact that money is exchanged make that work less loving?

Martin Luther didn’t think so. Luther’s theology of vocation said that through our work, we are loving our neighbors.

Christ uses all of our jobs to love our neighbors and to give them their “daily bread.” Christ does this whether we go to work with a loving attitude or not. Christ does this whether we believe in Him or not.

Why does Christ serve the needs of people through the profit-making work of businesses?

William Symington, the Scottish theologian of Christ’s kingship, would answer this way: Because Christ is both Creator of the world and the Redeeming King of the world. He sustains the world so He can save people from their sins and gather them into His church, generation after generation. Christ uses everything—including businesses—to accomplish His sustaining, redeeming, church-building work.

“Nor is it over men as individuals merely that Christ possesses power. His authority extends to associations of every description, domestic, civil, and ecclesiastical,” Symington wrote in his 1839 book Messiah the Prince. A business is a “domestic association,” in Symington’s verbiage. And, Symington added, “Whatever power the Mediator possesses is for the good of the church; is given and exercised for this purpose.”

The Principles of Business

Since Christ is king of all businesses and service is the purpose of all businesses, we shouldn’t be surprised that companies that make service of customers their north star tend to enjoy more financial success.

Researchers at Harvard Business School showed in a 1994 article titled “Putting the Service Profit Chain to Work,” how companies that engaged their employees effectively saw those employees deliver even better service to customers, which led to higher profits for the company. And ever since, companies such as Disney, Ritz-Carlton and Southwest have been putting the service profit chain to work—with fabulous financial results.

Former Stanford Business School professors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their 1996 book Built to Last, analyzed decades of data and concluded this: companies that clearly articulated a mission greater than making money—a clear vision for how they would meet a need of customers—achieved far greater stock price growth over time than peers in their same industries that lacked a clear purpose beyond making money.

More recently, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter found that the most financially successful businesses—including Procter & Gamble, Pepsi and IBM—were pursuing strategies aimed at both serving customers and serving the communities in which they operated, so that they continued to have growing pools of workers and customers over time.

It turns out, then, that being a greedy corporation or a capitalist pig is neither good Christian practice nor good business practice.

The best practice, in both respects, is to acknowledge Christ as the king of business and to marvel at how He uses corporations—yes, even the greedy ones run by capitalist pigs—to feed, clothe and support communities around the world. Christ the Redeemer sustains the world through business so He can continue to save sinners and build His church.

8 Comments

  1. Nathan Eshelman September 2, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

    I appreciate the sentiment in this article. As one who lives in a state which seems bent on driving industry into Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, I confess with you that capitalism is good! Even the Kingdom of God is funded by those who craftily work with their hands and minds.

    We must separate the capitalism from the pig, for sure. Christians are called to think of vocation from the viewpoint of Christ’s kingdom rather than selfishly. I am reminded of the Reformed Presbyterian Testimony 4.13 which says, “We reject that form of capitalism which holds that men possess absolute property rights and that the state has no right to protect the weak and restrain evil in economic affairs.”

    Now how figure out what “absolute property rights” are rejected and how we protect the weak and restrain evil in economics will have to be for another article, I am sure! And I ain’t writing it. 🙂

    Thanks again!

    • J.K. Wall September 3, 2016 at 9:59 pm #

      Thanks for reading and responding, Nathan. The proper relationship between businesses and the state is something I’m interested in–and something that will require everyone to think through. The RP Testimony is certainly helpful in this area–because the loudest voices seem to come from a libertarian or statist perspective, neither of which strikes the right balance, in my humble opinion.

  2. Jonathan Mitchell September 2, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

    Excellent and Amen!

    I am a small business owner in the service industry and I loved reading your encouraging words. This practical, concise theology of business is much needed today. For a long time I struggled to let my business grow out of a concern for drawing attention to myself through self-promotion and a fear that growth could only occur if greed were the motivator.

    In the last several years the LORD has truly blessed our business and we have seen growth as we have focused on outstanding service as our core distinctive. There are many other companies that provide the same services we do, however, we have focused on striving for excellence in care for our customers.

    This article was a good reminder that we have gospel opportunity through having a servants attitude. It also was helpful to see I need to do more to show concern and servanthood toward my employees. I hope to find more ways to grow in this area.

    Thanks for the article 🙂

    • J.K. Wall September 7, 2016 at 11:54 am #

      Jonathan, Thanks for reading and reponding to my article. I’m glad you liked it. I am very interested in the business you run, and would like to learn more about how you’ve tried to live out your faith in your management and strategy. Would you be willing to talk more about it by phone or e-mail? If so, you can reach me at jk.wall@gmail.com. Thanks again. — J.K.

  3. Sterling September 5, 2016 at 9:45 am #

    Perhaps creating customers should be the goal and mission. However, the exact opposite is true throughout most of the business world. Profit is king. Profit over people. Profit over mission. Profit over doing the right and just thing. And many times looking like you’re doing the right thing is only pursued to increase profit in the long run.

    • J.K. Wall September 7, 2016 at 10:27 am #

      Sterling, I agree with you that many, if not most, businesses put profits ahead of their mission or purpose. But as Jack Welch said, saying the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is breathing. Profits should support whatever larger goal a business has, a larger purpose why it exists. The most successful companies–such as Southwest, Ritz-Carlton, Merck, etc.–understand the difference, and do a good job putting purpose ahead of profit–at least most of the time. More businesses should do the same, if not out of principle then at least out of self-interest.

  4. Mike Lee September 24, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    Business has a bad name because business people are always tempted to exploit markets and employees to profit off working people. Let’s not forget slavery (still happening) child labor . . .

    If Pepsi worked to provided healthy, clean drinking water to all of humanity rather than corrupting us with sugary drinks in plastic bottles they might be emulating christian values. Christ was a revolutionary, the spirit transcends our human reasonings. It is always best to be humble when making value judgements about the nature of reality and what may or not reflect the true nature of the divine, lest one blasphame the spirit.

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