What Is A Christian Business Anyway?

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(Credit: Nicholas Eckhart, Flickr Creative Commons)

In keeping with Holy Week, I had originally intended to write about to resurrection today to go along with posts I’ve already written about Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But I’ve decided to do a little schedule tweaking because I really want to talk about the idea of a Christian business. But fear not, my post on the resurrection will still run, more appropriately, this Sunday.

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As I was reading through Indiana’s controversial (and since amended) religious freedom bill, I was reminded of another somewhat recent political controversy: the Citizens United case.

If you’ll recall, in Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court “held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation” because, they essentially argued, corporations are people with constitutionally protected rights. Although the idea of “corporate personhood” apparently dates back to at least 1819, the idea that a corporation has the same sort of rights as a person outraged countless people, not just because it sounds strange, but because it meant that corporations could use their disproportionally powerful financial strength to influence elections in ways no actual individual person (or at least not many) ever could.

Indiana’s religious freedom bill takes a similar stance on corporate personhood and defines a person as “an individual, an association, a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a church, a religious institution, an estate, a trust, a foundation, or any other legal entity.” But rather than focusing on influence in an election, the motivation behind defining a corporation or business as a person in this instance is, obviously, to grant them the same religious freedom that regular actual people enjoy under the First Amendment. But given that adherence to every religion I am familiar with entails some sort of conversion and/or declaration of fidelity by an individual to that particular religion’s beliefs/God/whatever, how exactly would a corporation or business “come to Jesus,” so to speak?

In other words, speaking from my own religious tradition, what is a “Christian business” anyway?

Personally, I find the idea of Christian business in general to be a bit bizarre. Not because I don’t think Christians can be involved in business, but because I’ve never seen a business accept Jesus as its Lord and Savior or pray or be baptized or receive communion or do any of a number of other things that every Christian I’ve ever met or heard of has done. Maybe if those businesses, especially small businesses, that were trying to communicate those Christian values to their audience could do with some assistance in making their message more consistent and clear? Maybe they should look at their marketing for small business but I digress.

But it doesn’t seem like we can escape the idea of a business being Christian, so it’s worth asking, “What makes a business Christian if the business (an abstract concept) can’t actually covert to Christianity?” Is it Christian because the owner is a Christian? Does the business sell explicitly Christian oriented products? Is it because they’re closed on Sundays? Or because there are certain things they won’t do? All of the above? Some of the above? You could compare and contrast fine institutes like Christian school PVCC. Are they Christian because of their curriculum? Or values as an institute? Regardless of the industry you find yourself in, knowing how to run a professional business could help you out in the long run. From making a list of your business goals and outsourcing, to sales and using tools like an invoice template to handle financial tasks is what takes your business from being an idea to eventually becoming a success.

I think if you took a survey of folks on the street, they would say it’s a mishmash of those things (and maybe a few more) that makes a business a “Christian business.”

But, the truth is, if it’s being closed on Sunday or an owner’s church attendance or, worse, an owner’s refusal to serve gay people and/or provide complete healthcare to women that makes a business “Christian,” then there’s really nothing particularly Christian about that business. It’s just a politically conservative place to work. After all, plenty of non-Christian owned businesses are closed on Sundays. As the old saying goes, being in church doesn’t make someone a Christian anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car. And there are good, faithful Christians who both proudly serve the LGBT community and adamantly support women’s health.

In practice, being a Christian business is far too often just an excuse to allow one person to force all of their employees (regardless of their own faith convictions) to conform to their particular (typically very conservative) interpretation of the Bible. But there’s nothing Christian about forcing others to conform to our beliefs. Conquistadors do that sort of thing and I don’t think there are very many among us who would argue that they are the ones we should be modeling Christian discipleship after.

But if we are are going to label some places of work as Christian businesses then what makes them Christian?

Well, at the very least, I think we can all agree that the priorities and practices of that Christian business can’t be identical to every other business.

They have to actually be Christ-like.

So, what did Jesus have to say about business being done in his name? Well, not much, at least not explicitly. But the closest example we do have is rather illuminating, not just in the context of religious freedom bills, but for all businesses, organizations, universities, or any other corporation that would call themselves Christian.

In the twentieth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find the parable of the vineyard workers. It can be a frustrating parable to hear if you’re a get to work early and work hard all day kind of person and can’t stand people who sleep past 10am and have a leisurely approach to life. But what makes the parable of the vineyard workers interesting and relevant in the context of Christian business isn’t a focus on making profits or good financial management. It’s Jesus’ emphasis on extending grace to people that his religious audience didn’t think deserved it.

In other words, to the extent that Jesus talks about what we call Christian business, what makes a business Christian (if that is even possible) is not the goods it sells or where its owner hangs out on Sunday mornings. Its Christian identity is found in the way it conducts business, how it serves its customers, and the manner in which it treats its employees – especially when no one is looking.

If “Christian” is going to be a defining mark of a business, then that business must be markedly different from their non-Christian commercial neighbors and focused on much more than the bottom line. Or, to put it another way, the bottom line for a Christian business should be found not in money, but in things like giving felons second chances, meeting people’s needs regardless of appearance or way of life or ability to pay, extending grace to employees in the face of mistakes, and making sure the people who work for them have adequate access to healthcare.

The reason people get so frustrated and disappointed with Christian businesses and organizations is not because they might be closed on Sunday (though that is really frustrating when I want Chick-Fil-A), nor is it because Christians are being persecuted by the liberal media. Folks (both Christians and non-Christians) alike get so frustrated sometimes with supposedly Christian businesses and organizations because they expect more from them than they do the sleazy bankers on Wall Street or the head honchos of Wal-Mart. When a business or organization claims to model itself after the ways of Christ, that’s exactly what people expect and hope for, which is why there is so much outrage when those same businesses and organizations seem to go out of their way to treat people – both customers and employees alike – in astonishingly un-Christlike ways.

Regardless of whether it’s a Christian baker, Christian university, or even a church, the mark of our Christianity is and always will be found in acting like Christ. Which means loving, serving, extending grace, and embracing everyone, not just LGBT folks, but everyone, particularly the marginalized and especially those who have been marginalized by religious people.

The fundamental or at least the most glaring problem in recent appeals to Christian values in business is that they ring hollow when only one particular group is singled out and marginalized as unworthy of service while countless other people who live lives in direct violation of that business owner’s faith are served without question or hesitation.

In other words, the reason cries of bigotry ring out when Christian business owners refuse to serve gay couples in particular is because those same sorts of Christian owners conspicuously ignore their biblical principles when it comes to baking a cake for a couple remarrying after a divorce or delivering flowers to a guy who plans on giving them to his girlfriend that he’s sleeping with or selling cheap, foreign-made products that are only that cheap because they were made by an exploited workforce that is little more than slave labor.

The fact of the matter is if you participate in business, no matter what the business is, you will almost assuredly provide a good or service that in some way contributes to someone else doing something you think is a sin even if you don’t realize it.

But even if you did avoid selling wedding services to a gay couple or found some way to refuse business to anyone participating in any sort of sin, if one of your employees uses their paycheck – which you gave them based on the work opportunity you created – to sin, then by the gay wedding cake baking rational, you’re implicit in their sin.

But no one argues that.

No Christian business owner can or should or actually does monitor what their employees do with their paycheck. Why? Because in almost every case but gay marriage, no one supporting religious freedom bills believes they are contributing to sin through their business transactions. No Christian pizza store owner believes they are contributing to the sin of gluttony by selling pizza. No Christian jeweler believes they are contributing to the sin of coveting or pride by making beautiful jewelry. And no Christian florist believes they are contributing to the sin of adultery because their flowers might one day be bought by someone having an affair.

Which brings us back to the fact that whether we want to admit it or not, it is bigotry, not biblical principles that drives so many so-called religious freedom bills because it’s not sin in general that is being targeted.

It’s just the LGBT community.

At the end of the day, the simple fact of the matter is that if we as Christians enter the secular marketplace, then we are obligated to follow the law. Which means we can’t discriminate against people no matter how much we might disagree with their “lifestyle.” Nor, as recent days have proven, can recreate the law to accommodate our desire to discriminate.

So, if you do find yourself unable to serve and treat everyone equally because of your religious beliefs, then remember this: the same Constitution which guarantees you the freedom to practice your religion, also guarantees you the religious freedom to find a new line of work.

But if you do decide to start a business, whether you overtly identify that business as being Christian or not, the true mark of its Christ-likeness in business – and that of yourself – will not be found in the products you sell or the hours you keep or even in the services you refuse to provide.

It will be found in how you treat people, particularly when you don’t like them and especially when no one is watching.

17 Comments
  • Jen Crowder Noricks
    April 3, 2015

    Very well stated. Thanks so much.

  • Steve Robinson
    April 4, 2015

    I’ve been a Christian business owner for 35 years. Amen. Well said. If your business doesn’t lead you to being crucified for your “worst” employees or clients, then you got it wrong. http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/stevethebuilder/in_the_company_of_sinners

  • Narcis
    April 4, 2015

    I keep reading all this material about this situation in the West (I am more to the east by the way), and something strikes me…
    People keep saying that Christian businesses deny service to LGBT, but from what I have heard in the cases most presented is that they did not deny services to gay people. In the case of the Christian bakery in Northern Ireland, they did not deny the gay couple the cake, they denied the message that was to be put on that cake. I think that is quite a different thing.
    You say, that Christians exercise no care in serving adulterers and people committing other sins, so they should not deny service to gay. But I seriously doubt that an adulterer asked for a cake on which to have the message “Adultery is great” and still be served. I believe the terms of your comparison are a little bit off.
    I do believe that any Christian business should serve all customers, regardless of race, sexual orientation, etc., yet no Christian business should be forced, or even expected to promote a message that goes against their beliefs.

    • Eva
      April 5, 2015

      Well said Narcis. Its nice to see people standing up for the truth.

    • ZackHunt
      April 5, 2015

      In the United States the issue is over denying service in general, not simply the wording on a cake. So while the comparison you’re drawing in your critique may apply to the situation, it is not as applicable in the United States.

      • Narcis
        April 6, 2015

        Just to make it clear for me… In the US there are businesses that refuse to serve gay people just because they are gay, and that is all? And this is the kind of attitude that is condemned in general? Not that somebody refuses services of a certain type that would contradict their conscience? Because that makes a big difference. Yet, I believe things should be clearly stated by both sides, otherwise, one side will refer to the first instance while the other two the second. I am a Christian and I work as a translator. I would not refuse to translate documents for a gay person. But I would refuse to translate material that goes against my beliefs from any customer (regardless of race, religion, sex orientation, etc. – actually I do not ask my clients what their beliefs are) And here I would include a lot more things than just materials supporting gay marriage. Would you say I am discriminating in my decisions?

    • Steve McElroy
      April 11, 2015

      What was the message though, unless it was “Homosexuality is great” the argument doesn’ hold water. I’m sure if it was a wedding or anniversary cake it just said “Congratulations _____________.” like the majority of cakes in it’s type. That’s no different making a cake of the same message to a second marriage, which with a divorce rate of 50% in America, the bakery has no problem with, even though the Bible preaches against divorce. The truth of the matter, is humans love to exclude, and if you can exclude and feel self righteous while you do it, then y’know bonus.

  • Joey
    April 5, 2015

    “Personally, I find the idea of Christian business in general to be a bit bizarre.
    Not because I don’t think Christians can be involved in business, but
    because I’ve never seen a business accept Jesus as its Lord and
    Savior or pray or be baptized or receive communion or do any of a number
    of other things that every Christian I’ve ever met or heard of has
    done.”

    Sure you have Zack, this business is called “church” 🙂

  • Ma Hester
    April 5, 2015

    I will absolutely not find another line of work. What an uncharitable, hateful thing to say.

    • ZackHunt
      April 5, 2015

      No, what is uncharitable and hateful is discriminating against people because you don’t approve of who they love.

      • Eva
        April 5, 2015

        Its not a question of who they love, that is their own business. But when the law of the land changes to accommodate Same-sex marriage that is wrong. Especially since it means that gay people can adopt children. Every child deserves a father and mother. Although it may not always be possible, it is the best model for the welfare of children. Children’s rights are of paramount importance and should be placed first above adults rights. In the case of a business, Christians cannot go against their belief system nor should they be expected to. If the business in Northern Ireland had been asked to provide a cake, they would have. It was what they had to put on the cake that was the problem. Any Christian that would have followed through with that request would be going against their belief system and the bible. To say that a person should ignore their conscientious when in business is false.

        • David
          April 10, 2015

          Actually, the best model for the welfare of the children has been shown (scientifically) to be that in which they are surrounded by multiple generations of extended family. On that basis, it would seem we should prohibit families from relocating away from their relatives. A preposterous proposal? Yes, I completely agree and nobody in their right mind would agree with mandating that. However, there are societies in which living in close proximity to relatives is customary and it is frowned upon for someone to leave the community. So–remember there is a distinction between what should be customary and what should be legislated.

          Going back to sound psychological research, it has been found that children do in fact do better when there are two parents because the children have more care, more social interaction, and more support in general. It has NOT been shown that it is necessary for those two parents to be of opposite sex. Having two parents of opposite sex is customary, but should not be legislated.

          Many children have grown up in orphanages and foster care because of prohibitions against adoption by same sex couples. It’s ironic that on one hand conservatives will argue against any kind of gay rights to “protect the children” yet espouse policies which are damaging to children.

          • Narcis
            April 17, 2015

            I am sorry, but your phrase “Having two parents of opposite sex is customary” does not really sound right. I believe that it is a little bit more than just customary.

        • boomergran
          April 12, 2015

          How about an abusive father and an alcoholic mother? Is that better than a loving gay couple? I mean, when you make a blanket statement like that then you’d better be careful that it really means what you think it means. A business is subject to the laws under which it operates. If the law says you can’t discriminate, and if you can’t abide by the law, then you need to find something else to do. Period.

      • Ma Hester
        April 5, 2015

        What a luxury, Mr. Hunt, to be able to follow the requirements of your own conscience, but demand that others violate theirs. And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

        • Eva
          April 7, 2015

          You are priceless. I don’t know if you’re joking or not in your posts. But sometimes you are really funny.

  • Joey
    April 5, 2015

    Great article, Zack. I think some of the bloggers are worked up because it’s always easy to point at what they consider to be the sin of all sins in their life time- in this case LGBT and same sex marriage- and dismiss everything else. And then, under the guise of religion, discriminate against others. Back in the 50s and 60s the big sin was divorce. Only it was not businesses that were discriminating against divorced folk: it was the Church. Churches were pretty strict back then and it was not out of the ordinary to demean divorced people, not allow them to become members, and preach about how they were under a curse. Guess what? Once divorce became and issue in the church- at all levels from ministers to parishioners-churches had a business decision to make: do we keep rejecting them and losing funds or do we change how we think? The latter won out. I believe the same thing will occur with same-sex marriages and LGBT matters. Many believe this is spiritual fight and that they cannot be made to compromise and the Government is forcing them to go against their consciences. I say: give it time. In the same manner that divorce is not a taboo matter in many churches anymore, we’ll look back at this blog and realize: hey, Zack was right. I am not saying that you are endorsing same-sex marriage. Just saying that folk will be embarrassed that they discriminated against gay people.

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