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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.