The goal of my personal theology of business is to explore how a faith-led individual can go about growing a business while applying Biblical principles that facilitate “business success.” In order to understand what drives business success, we have to first explore what is a Biblical understanding of success and Biblical examples of business. I believe one of the most articulate and conclusive pictures of business practice in the Bible is hidden in a metaphorical picture of a husband and his worthy wife in Proverbs 31:10-311.
What if the famous Proverbs 31 wife can be applied as a picture of Christ and His church in the marketplace? At a closer look, this could even reflect how an identity in Christ can enable believers to be impactful, successful, and sustainable business leaders. I’m a business scholar not a theological scholar, but I really believe there might be something to this. The husband, Christ, sits at the city gates and trusts confidently in all the works that His wife does, without need or worry. Meanwhile, His wife is empowered in His name to build an industrious supply chain. She seeks out suppliers of wool, manufactures fabrics, and sells them downstream to merchants who come from all over to buy her goods (this is pretty much the modern day definition of global supply chain management). Essentially, if read in the light of the empowerment of Christ for works in the marketplace, Proverbs 31 is like a roadmap for sustainable business management and impact. I love this scripture!
I have recently read articles arguing that pure capitalism isn’t necessarily the Christian standard of business2. I can understand the appeal of capitalism vs free market vs other economic systems. However, if adopted without a kingdom worldview any worldly system can be shortsighted in exploring the outcomes of faith-based business practices. If pure capitalism were the standard, I have a hard time believing Jesus would have laid down His title (CEO?) and throne (right to the wealth) to die for us (not capitalistic, competitive, or profitable). So, if short-term gains frequently defined by the current marketplace are not our mindset, what is? I believe that the outcomes of faith-based business practice are four-fold (in Figure 1 below):
Figure 1 – The Outcomes of Faith-Based Business
When the Proverbs 31 wife first established her reputation, foreign traders knew her in a time when trade did not include container vessels, cargo planes, trains, or well-built transportation infrastructures. Business research indicates that reputation is one of the strongest drivers of profit. So with her reputation, she was able to increase her profits to the extent that she never had to buy on credit (with the excess she purchased land). Finally, economic capital, reputation, and relationships are all business resources that are hard to imitate, likely providing this Proverbs 31 entrepreneur with a comparative advantage over others in the marketplace. These business outcomes, built on Biblical tenants, not only effect the short-term outcomes of the business, but also impact her employees, suppliers, customers, and the community that she ministers to with her excess. This is how a business can have an Eternal Impact (impact for unforeseeable generations to come), and not only make disciples of employees but change the cultures in which it operates.
What drives these outcomes from a Biblical (i.e. Proverbs 31) perspective then? It all starts with leadership. Leadership drives the orientations of the business. Recent business research has tested the impact of servant leadership and found that not only does it impact the overall profitability of the business, but it also positively impacts operational performance3. Further, decades of research have shown that leadership is pivotal to the culture of a business and to the adoption of firm orientations (main interests, qualities, or goals). Therefore, building on a foundation of servant leadership, Proverbs 31 highlights 5 main goals or orientations of a faith-based organization that also are recognized as best practices in the business industry (see Figure 2 below): a sustainable orientation, a quality orientation, a stakeholder orientation, a supply chain orientation and an eternal orientation.
Figure 2 – The Antecedents to Faith-Based Business Outcomes
- A sustainability orientation is defined as the business goal of making a profit while preserving the planet (resources for the future) and people (having a positive impact on society)4. When she buys fields and considers the development of vineyards (Judaic law prescribes very environmental management of those fields), let’s just say that as a Godly woman she’s environmentally friendly. With the surplus of her profits, she feeds the poor and provides for the needy (further socially sustainable and stakeholder orientation).
- A quality orientation is defined as the business goal of ensuring that the customer will be satisfied with the product in every respect5. All the products she sells are of fine quality. Actually the quality was to a standard that was fit for royalty (quality orientation).
- A stakeholder orientation can be defined as the business goal of treating stakeholders as ends as well as means while creating ‘value’ (social as well as economic) for all stakeholders – not just shareholders alone6. Members of her household (presumably servants, i.e. employees) are all taken care of, are well clothed, and have no fear about the future (positive social impact on stakeholders).
- A supply chain orientation can then be defined as the recognition by a company or individual of the systemic, strategic implications of the activities and processes involved in managing the various flows in the supply chain7. We know that the Proverbs wife not only bought products from foreign merchants (suppliers), but her customers also came from far away to buy her quality goods, implying that she understood the processes and activities necessary to integrate foreign supply with local demand.
- Finally, an eternal orientation can be defined as the business goal of not operating for short-term gains (my biggest complaint against the capitalistic system we operate in), but for long-term (even eternal) impact. We see this as the Proverbs 31 wife rejoices over the future (definitely a long term orientation & feasibly as a faith-based business leader, an eternal orientation).
Throughout my research, I constantly find support for the idea that “best practices” in business stem from Biblical principles. For example, secular business leaders adhere to social and environmental responsibility as a means of differentiating their firms from the competition. Think of the impact then when Christian business leaders apply social responsibility to empower their employees to do their jobs, interact fairly with suppliers and customers, and positively impact the communities, in which they operate through philanthropy, feeding the poor, and providing for the needy. Christian business leaders can also drive performance through stewardardship of the environment, extracting necessary resources and taking the care to dispose of waste so as to not rob future generations of land and resources. All this together creates a business that is more likely to have longevity of profitability, access to human capital, and natural resources.
Figure 3 – A Conceptual Model of a Theory of Faith Based Business Practice
In summation, whether you are a captain of industry or an employee with conviction, you can apply Proverbs 31 to your day-to-day business practices. As is proposed above in the conceptual model (Figure 3), be a servant. Having an others orientation not only reflects Jesus’s servant leadership but also is the standard of the Christian faith (love God with all your heart, mind, & strength, and love others as you love yourself). It is also the most effective path to leadership. Second, have goals that reflect Biblical principles (they are the best practices in the marketplace anyway). Be aware of the economic, environmental, and social impact of your decisions. If they are detrimental to any of these three tenants, your decisions will not sustain profitability for your business. Do all things with excellence, so that nobody can question the quality of your work. Always keep all of your stakeholders in mind (not just your shareholders) and influence the cultures you are in for the better. Finally, make decisions based on the long-term and building a legacy and not on short-term gains. Servant leadership is foundational to Biblical business success. If your orientations are aligned with eternal/Biblical principles, your servant leadership will drive the reputation of your business (or individual career), the profitability of your business, the comparative advantage, and the ultimate eternal impact.
- Shearer, Daniel (2016). Capitalism and Socialism vs. The Great Commission. http://www.theologyofbusiness.com/capitalism-socialism-vs-great-commission-christians-compete-business/
- Defee, C. C., Stank, T. P., Esper, T. L., & Mentzer, J. T. (2009). The role of followers in supply chains. Journal of Business Logistics, 30(2), 65-84.
Overstreet, R. E., Hazen, B. T., Skipper, J. B., & Hanna, J. B. (2014). Bridging the Gap Between Strategy and Performance: Using Leadership Style to Enable Structural Elements. Journal of Business Logistics, 35(2), 136-149.
Kuckertz, A., & Wagner, M. (2010). The influence of sustainability orientation on entrepreneurial intentions—Investigating the role of business experience. Journal of Business Venturing, 25(5), 524-539.
- Warne (1987). Developing a Quality Orientation. http://www.ame.org/sites/default/files/target_articles/87Q2A2.pdf
Ferrell, O. C., Gonzalez-Padron, T. L., Hult, G. T. M., & Maignan, I. (2010). From market orientation to stakeholder orientation. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 29(1), 93-96.
Mentzer, J.T., DeWitt, W., Min, S., Nix, N.W., Smith, C.D. and Zacharia, Z.G. (2001), “Defining supply chain management”, Journal of Business Logistics, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 1-25.