2005-03-18

Priorities and Corporate Stewardship

For as long as Paul's first letter to Timothy has been in circulation, the admonition "a root of all the evils is the love of money" (1Tim. 6:10, YLT) has been a catch phrase for the Christian attitude toward material wealth. Rightly so, for Paul also tells us that "some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs... But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness" (1Tim 6:10-11, NIV). This verse, as it is commonly interpreted, seems clear: money is evil and will corrupt you if you try to pursue it. But is this what Paul meant? How would that interpretation mesh with Paul's earlier admonition that "everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer" (1Tim. 4:4-5)?

Rather than being an admonition against wealth, it is better to see 1Timothy 6:10 as an admonition for a right view of wealth, a right priority of wealth, and a right use of wealth. Contrary to every English translation of this verse, the word "money" is not a separate noun in the sentence, but is part of the compound noun "philarguria", which literally means "friendship-with-wealth". It is a term that Walter Bauer defines as avarice, miserliness, and greed (Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 859). It is not the money that is the problem, but the attitude and the inclination of the heart toward it that is "a root" (not "the root") of all evil. When wealth is valued for its own sake, above real, live humans and above our relationship with the Giver of all wealth, then it becomes a root, or source, for evil. Paul's admonition gives us a right view of wealth in two major ways: First, wealth is to be put in a subordinate place to the Giver of wealth. It is better not to see wealth as a possession, but as a loan from God. Not as something we have rights over, but as something we are given stewardship of (and will be held accountable for). Second, wealth is to be put in a subordinate place to those who are benefited by it. Wealth was given to be put in the service of humans, not for humans to be put in the service of wealth. Like Abraham, we are given material blessings, not to hoard to ourselves, but to become a blessing to others (cf. Gen. 12). We are blessed to be a blessing, and made wealthy in order to share wealth with others.

This brings us to having a right priority of wealth in our corporate stewardship. The current philosophy of most corporations in regards to wealth could be summed up by Michael Douglas in the 80's classic movie "Wall Street". In all honesty and candor, he said: "Greed is good. Greed works." Thus, the purpose of corporate wealth is to become more wealthy. Wealth is seen as an end in itself, and the primary beneficiaries are the executives and the stock holders of the company. The workers, the resources, and even the customers are often seen as mere means to the end of attaining and possessing more wealth for the few who are at the top. Workers are paid whatever the minimum is to maximize profits. Consumers are given a product that is just good enough to maximize profits (often with "planned obsolescence" built in to make sure they come back for more). The created environment has often been raped and pillaged as a means to maximize profits. Why? So profits may beget more profits, and for no other reason. While this has not been the modus operandi of every corporation, it has been the priority of many, and it truly is a root of all evil and suffering we find in the world today.

As a reaction to the conspicuous consumption inherent in this model, a number of Christian movements have risen that eschew corporate involvement altogether (cf. Mennonites and the early Jesus People Movement). Perhaps one of the most notorious Christian politico-economic movements that has arisen in the last three decades has been "Liberation Theology", as put forward by such leaders and thinkers as Gustavo GutiƩrrez and the martyred bishop Oscar Romero. Rather than starting with a commitment the priority of profits, these modern day prophets start with commitment to the priority of the poor, the disposed, the "non-persons", and those left behind by the current economic systems. While this is an admirable corrective to western corporate greed, there is a certain neo-marxist strain that comes through in most Liberation movements which allows it to demonize wealth, entrepreneurship, and private ownership of the "means of production". In short, despite all of the positives Liberation theology brings to the table, it falls too easily into a sort of Christianized Communism, the failures of which are evident in Europe today and in the failed secular Communist systems of the former USSR. If the various forms of Communism and Socialism in the world today were truly a viable remedy to western consumerism, you would see healthy socialist countries filled with economic abundance. Yet, in socialized countries you find a general economic malaise and stagnation. It is the radically free-market and capitalistic countries that are growing across the world, with immigrants from all over the world coming to the United States to pursue the "American Dream". All of this is to say that while free market systems have definite problems, especially as regards the "love of money", they are still the most effective system to date at delivering wide-spread prosperity.

So, is there a way past this impasse of a failed communism and a vibrant, but greedy, western consumerism? Perhaps so. Sociologist and "economic missionary" Tony Campolo has outlined in several of his books a way of doing business that is unabashedly capitalistic, entrepreneurial, and free-market, yet it has as its starting point a communal interest to do business for the sole purpose of becoming a blessing to all who work for corporation (or entrepreneur) and all who consume its product.

The end goal of business in Campolo's thought is to make a product that genuinely blesses and benefits people who consume it, rather than enslaving them to a system of consumerism and planned obsolescence. The goal of the corporation is not to make as much profit as possible, but to make the best product possible, with a constant eye on whether or not their product is really needed and really beneficial. It is creating a product that truly "loves our neighbors as ourselves".

The second goal of business in Campolo's thought is to be a benefit to all who work for the corporation. That is, to make a careful estimation of one's income and expenses, and to save enough money to ensure the company's survival and grow the company, while at the same time spending enough money to maximize the employee's benefits. Notice, this is not an externally governed process, as with labor unions, where the executives and labor leaders battle constantly, leaving the workers as nothing more than pawns in corporate politics. It is not the labor unions trying to drain as much money as possible from the corporation, while the corporation in turn tries to reduce employee benefits to the minimum permissible level. Instead, it is a corporate philosophy, from the top to the bottom, based on trust and putting others before ourselves (cf. Phil. 2). It is a vision of the corporation as an extended family and as a part of the Body of Christ, instead of merely a profit-maximizing machine.

Perhaps the best illustration of this comes from a story about economic missionaries in Tony Campolo's book "Partly Right". This organization goes into third world nations and gives small business loans at low or no interest to people who want to start cottage industries. The only requirements, other than paying back the loan, is to come in for mandatory Biblical stewardship training, which includes presentation of the Gospel. In one third world village in Africa which was near a garbage dump, a man received a loan to start a small factory producing sandals from disposed tires. Within a couple of years, not only did he come to Christ, but his factory wound up employing nearly his entire village and they made quality shoes that benefitted the whole region. If we were able to implement a corporate philosophy like this across western corporate culture, we would truly become a people who are blessed in order to be blessers.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.