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.