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Business Ethics in Biblical Perspective: A Comprehensive Introduction

Michael E. Cafferky
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2015

Reviewed by Walton Padelford, Business and Economics, Union University

Michael Cafferky has produced a book on the highly relevant topic of business ethics which seeks to incorporate scriptural teaching and scriptural themes in the discussion of ethical decision-making in business. In doing this, he answers his own rhetorical question, “Should the problem of biblical illiteracy be given to religion faculty, pastors, and priests to correct? Framed in more blunt terms, on what basis should the Christian business classroom abdicate its role … in teaching the biblical foundations for business?” (10).

Cafferky discusses a community-oriented approach toward ethical action as a better way of ethics than the highly individualistic, cognitive approach. Life in community provides context for action and ethical decision-making. The community life of Israel is presented as an example: “You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8). Decision-making in business is an integral part of the way of following Christ and engaging in discipleship.

Cafferky divides his book into five parts: The Fundamentals, Contemporary Approaches, Contemporary Issues, Widening the Perspective, and Appendices and Case Studies. “The Fundamentals” contains material on biblical themes. “Contemporary Approaches” discusses standard ethics frameworks such as utilitarianism, egoism, virtue ethics, and many others. “Contemporary Issues” presents ethical issues in management, in marketing, and in several other contexts. “Widening the Perspective” deals with corporate social responsibility and the pressure to compromise. The Appendices present biblical themes and ethical models in summary form.

Each chapter follows a similar format, beginning with a scripture passage and chapter overview. These are followed by main topics, key terms, and an opening scenario, which presents a case illustrating an event from business life. After these introductory matters, the body of each chapter proceeds with the topic at hand. Following the chapter focus, Cafferky has a section of “Evaluation: Pros and Cons,” in which he discusses the positives and negatives of various ethical approaches. This is followed in each chapter with a section called “Down to the Nitty-Gritty,” in which the student is directed back to the opening scenario and asked to analyze the business case in light of the chapter topic. Each chapter concludes with “Through the Lens of Biblical Themes,” in which the chapter topic is analyzed through the headings of cosmic conflict, creation, holiness, covenant relationships, shalom, Sabbath, justice, righteousness, truth, wisdom, loving kindness, and redemption.

In chapters 3 and 4, Cafferky discusses what he means by all these headings in “Through the Lens of Biblical Themes.” “Cosmic Conflict” is the conflict between good and evil, Christ and Satan, which appears as early as Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” The drama of the fall continues to play out in everyday business life in which two roads are open to us. The equipping of the saints with righteousness and faithfulness is meant to keep us on the right path. The creation mandate leads us to be concerned for the use of the earth’s resources in terms of human flourishing and stewardship.

Cafferky applies the theme of God’s holiness to business behavior by means of fairness, generosity, and integrity. The theme of covenant applies through making and keeping of contracts, the purposes of which include not only profitability, but also the well-being of both parties and the flourishing of the community. Shalom and Sabbath are also part of the covenant. In a business context, contract keeping fosters shalom, and the Sabbath enables us to enjoy shalom and to enjoy rest from work, just as God rested from his work. Justice honors the rights of others and opens up the channels of shalom to others. Justice has to do with fair treatment of suppliers, producers, and consumers, and is also concerned with fair pricing.

Work in business provides an opportunity to live righteously and truthfully. Indeed, business provides a perfect context for the learning and practice of wisdom. Wisdom involves understanding, skill, expertise, and prudence. Business can be a context for sanctification, a place where the marred imago Dei can be rebuilt.

In part two, Cafferky presents standard ethical approaches such as egoism, relativism, common-sense philosophy, and the social contract as per Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Also discussed are utilitarianism as per Bentham and Mill, act and rule utilitarianism, Kant’s categorical imperative, the principal-agent relationship, and justice and virtue ethics.

One of the high points of the text is the discussion of justice through the lens of biblical themes. Here are a few samples: “Justice is an attribute of God” (221); “Creation is the setting in which justice is to be displayed: his justice and our justice toward each other” (221); and “He loves righteousness and justice, the earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord” (Ps 33:5). Justice and righteousness are the two foundation stones for the divine and human kingship. The Law, a clear expression of God’s desire for covenant relationships, is identified as being justice. We can also say that justice is a sign of the covenant in action” (222).

Shalom combines in one concept the meaning of justice and peace. To know shalom requires the achievement of both justice and peace. They are inseparable ingredients of the same reality. Faithfulness to the covenant relationship with God and with each other, living according to his law, will result in shalom and justice. (222)

“Sabbath involves both rest and action. Sabbath means resting from our own attempts to achieve God’s justice. But it also means taking action to extend God’s justice to others in the community” (222). “Wisdom is one way that the community shares in the work of justice” (223). “Behaving justly is one way to love your neighbor as yourself” (223). “The foundation for God’s action of redemption is rooted in justice” (224).

In part three, “Contemporary Issues,” Cafferky treats consumer behavior, management, accounting and finance, marketing, and global business. In the chapter on consumer behavior, Cafferky presents a symmetrical relationship between sellers and buyers. In other words, both sides of the market have responsibility for the kinds of products that are being bought and used. The development of products and the development of a consumer society, for good or for ill, is the responsibility of producers and consumers. Cafferky further discusses certain character-deforming behaviors that the consumer society can encourage, such as insatiability and the search for novelty and pleasure. Some of these things sound particularly pernicious, like insatiability. It is not enough to claim freedom to spend one’s money as one desires. Rather, “When we are consecrated to God, we will avoid neutralizing tactics that make it seem as if it is permissible to lower our standards or grant ourselves an exception to principles of right and wrong that, down in our hearts, we know should be followed” (255).

The strengths of this volume are several. Cafferky relates biblical material to business ethical problems and decision-making in every chapter. This gives the professor room to expound on biblical themes or relate biblical themes to the problem at hand. There are a large number of cases at the end of the chapters, as well as in the Appendix. This gives plenty of opportunity for case assignments for the students, as well as opportunity for much class discussion. There is also a presentation of standard ethics and business ethics material so that the professor will not be omitting standard ethical discussion from the class work.

Some of the weaknesses may not actually be weaknesses. The inclusion of biblical material does not simply give us “the answer” to business ethical questions. Ethical action is part of our journey of discipleship. Our pathway is unique, and our dilemmas and actions may be unique. Therefore, the idea that the Bible will always give us “the answer” is incorrect, although I am not sure that this is really stated.

In chapter 21, “Moral Muteness and Pressure to Compromise,” one of Cafferky’s counsels against compromise is “Avoid ethical gray areas.” Well, yes, but is not this where a significant amount of the ethical pressure and dilemma come from? Is not our character formed by this ethical unsureness?

In the section in each chapter on “Cosmic Conflict,” I sometimes received the impression that the conflict being described between Christ and Satan were almost one of equality. Spiritual warfare is a reality, but since Christ is sovereign, the warfare exists by his good pleasure. Or as one scholar described Martin Luther’s view, “The devil is ‘God’s devil.’”1Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 165. [/efn_ntoe]

It may serve well to let the author have the last word, which seems to me to be a great hope for discipleship through participation in business:

The amazing part of the biblical story is that this (heart transformation) occurs when we develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is in a relationship with him that we have our minds transformed. It is in a relationship with him that we find deliverance. This is not a one-time event but becomes a continual process of restoration, character building, will strengthening, wisdom producing, and courage tempering. (364-365)

Cite this article
Walton Padelford, “Business Ethics in Biblical Perspective: A Comprehensive Introduction”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:2 , 207-209


Walton Padelford

Union University
Walton Padelford is Professor of Economics at Union University.