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Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace

Alexander Hill
Published by IVP Academic in 2008

Alexander Hill, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, has recently released the second edition of Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, eleven years after the original edition. Previously, Mr. Hill taught in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. It is clear that the book is written for a college-aged audience.

The premise for the book is based on Hill’s identification of three attributes of God that have a “direct bearing on ethical decision-making.” These three attributes are God’s holiness, God’s justice, and God’s love (15). Hill states that “a business act is ethical if it reflects God’s holy-just-loving character” (15). (His hyphenation of “holy-just-loving” is explained as being entwined; none of the three attributes has a priority in the description of God’s character.) In speaking of holiness, Hill is referring to a type of set-apart lifestyle (he does not use the word “sanctification”) that should characterize the life of a Christian in business.

Hill states that this life of holiness involves zeal for God, purity, accountability, and humility. Zeal for God, for example, means making God our highest priority. He is careful to note that zeal for God does not exclude business success, but that it is easy to lose sight of following Christ in the daily competitive grind. He wrestles (or, more accurately, encourages the reader to wrestle) with the challenge of living a holy life without becoming a legalist, without becoming judgmental, or without withdrawing from society. Hill does not give a lot of guidance in this area – but perhaps that is one of the strengths of the book. The truth is that it is much easier to comprehend Christ’s commandments in the abstract than it is to really respond to “What Would Jesus Do” in daily life.

Justice refers to basic human rights. Hill distinguishes between four categories of justice: procedural rights, substantive rights, merit, and contractual justice (39). Procedural rights refer to due process and equal protection, stating that decision-makers must be impartial and must avoid basing decisions on preexisting biases or the potential for personal gain. It would be difficult to disagree with such a perspective. However, the argument begins to encounter practical difficulties when examples are given. Hill states that due process involves “the opportunity [for the accused to tell] their side of the story before a decision is reached” (41).

Next, Hill relates the story of “Jason” who, after 10 years of employment, is told to empty his desk and leave immediately. No other background is given, so the reader is left with the impression that “Jason” is being unfairly accused and being railroaded out of the company. Perhaps he is, but the reality of the workforce is that termination decisions are never easy and that the termination process is almost always unpleasant. Having been on the “terminator” end of several such situations, this writer believes that a quick exit is generally much preferable to dragging it out with accusations and counter-accusations. The legal system exists, imperfectly, to deal with unfair dismissals, but the management of the company has the welfare of the entire organization to consider, not just the feelings of the individual being terminated. Of course, everything possible should be done to preserve “Jason’s” dignity, but once the decision is made, no one’s interests are served by delay. In fact, it seems rather magnanimous of this hypothetical company to let Jason clean out his own desk; often this is done by security personnel with the personal contents of the desk being delivered peremptorily by UPS.

Substantive rights refer to rights protected by the law – things like property rights, safety, prompt payment for services rendered, citizenship, etc. Hill states that these are the rights protected by procedural rights. Wading immediately into deep water (or, at least, disputable territory), Hill cites alleged examples of abrogated substantive rights. Alluding to but not identifying a certain Seattle-based company, he notes that coffee growers in some companies receive only 5% of the value of a cup of coffee. Similarly, he notes that companies collect blood in Third World countries and sell it for “more than one hundred times what it pays” (42). Then he raises the question (but it is really more of a statement) of whether the “poor also have substantive rights to a living wage and life-sustaining blood” (43).

This is, in fact, an excellent point which every Christian business person should consider. However, in a book written – presumably – for students going into business, it fails to take into account the American belief in the virtues of the market as a regulator of demand, supply and price. The market is not, of course, the gospel – a fact with which every Christian free-market proponent should wrestle. But, by implying blatantly that coffee growers and poor people selling their blood are being denied their rights, readers are not faced with an invitation to constructive inquiry and dialogue. Instead they are called to recognize that companies are acting unethically. The student who enters the workforce determined to pay higher prices for raw materials will face a rude reality check!

The third attribute forming the foundation of this book is God’s love. Hill notes that, “while holiness focuses primarily on purity and justice on rights, love concentrates on relationships” (54). Therefore, this portion of the book focuses on the duty of a business executive to show empathy, mercy, and sacrifice of rights. Again, Hill faces the challenge of finding examples to illustrate his points. He tells of “Deon” who takes over his family business, inheriting a long-term non-performing employee. Rather than firing “Thomas” outright, Deon reorganizes the company, eliminating Thomas’ job – then gives Thomas a positive recommendation. This is given as an example of Deon’s empathy toward Thomas – though the reader has to ponder how Thomas’ new employer will view Deon’s integrity if Thomas performs poorly.

An example of corporate gamesmanship is given to illustrate mercy. “Marcin” is urged not to retaliate against “Linda” who is undercutting his relationship with a vice president. Most Christians will, of course, agree that retaliation is not a proper Christian response. But what is the correct response? A young Christian business person faced with the reality of politics in the workplace – any workplace – may find that the advice to have “face-to-face meetings with Linda, [pray] for her, and [do] unsolicited acts of kindness” leads not to reconciliation but to further marginalization. A little sage advice on how to be a principled Christian in a politically charged workplace would be helpful.

As a serious treatment of ethics in the workplace, this book falls a little short. It is rather light in the philosophical treatment of ethics. It is also light on the practical applications of ethical principles in various situations. The reader may come away disappointed that issues of market economics, politics, employee termination, pricing, etc. are not incorporated adequately into the author ’s pronouncements.

Despite this reviewer ’s perceptions of the book’s shortcomings, this book has several areas of significant strength to recommend it. First, the many examples throughout the book provide the foundation for good class discussions. Though there were a number of examples that led to, in this writer’s opinion, poorly reasoned conclusions, the examples themselves illustrate real-world dilemmas. A skillful class facilitator with reasonable real-world experience and a clear understanding of Scripture will enjoy the level of interaction and critical thinking these examples will stimulate. Second, each chapter concludes with a number of scriptural references tied to concepts in the chapter. In classes where the integration of faith and learning is a goal, these references are valuable for “integration” discussions. Perhaps most valuable are the cases at the end of each chapter. Each case, only a few paragraphs long, is followed by several open-ended discussion questions. The situations and the questions give the student great opportunity to wrestle with issues of faith and work.

Would this writer recommend Just Business as a text for a philosophy-oriented ethics class? Probably not. Would it be a book for a Christian business-person caught up in the daily challenges of the workplace? Perhaps, but it seems likely that many business people would find the author ’s perspective less than sufficient for the “real” world. Would Just Business work as a text in an undergraduate business class on ethics? Absolutely. It provides a wealth of material for a discussion-oriented class on the challenges a new student will encounter.

Cite this article
Jeffrey F. Sherlock, “Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:1 , 188-190

Jeffrey F. Sherlock

Taylor University
Jeffrey F. Sherlock, Business, Taylor University