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Business and legal history are not the most likely sources of Christian illumination. In this post, however, I will expose the contrasting viewpoints of God and fallen humanity through the tiny lens of a single legal form of business organization, the partnership.

Partnerships, in one form or another, have been around since ancient times. One could describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot as a partnership, which ended when the organization became so large that its flocks could not be sustained by a single grazing range (Genesis 13). It was the business form of choice in proto-industrial America before the legal infrastructure for corporations had been fully developed. Businesses needing to concentrate more capital than an individual could afford would form a partnership that would enable the business to continue to grow. Investment banks in particular adopted the partnership form of business and gave us venerable organizations such as J.P. Morgan & Co., Lazard Freres, and Salomon Brothers. Today, Brown Brothers Harriman may be the last notable survivor of financial firms utilizing the partnership form.

Professional services businesses, such as law firms, accountants, and architects, also chose the partnership form of business. Partnerships allowed capital to be pooled while avoiding taxation at the organizational level. They were easy to form and relatively easy to dissolve. One of the downsides to partnerships was that they required a significant amount of trust. Each partner in a partnership can commit the assets of the entire organization and of each partner. If one partner makes a bad decision, all the partners pay for it, not just to the extent of the partnership’s assets but out of their personal assets as well.

For industrial companies, however, partnerships were less workable. Industries such as railroads and steel mills could not tolerate the partnership form, and the need for those types of businesses helped push corporation law through state legislatures. Companies like the Carnegie Steel Company and the New York City and Hudson River Railroad did not need a collection of individuals who could commit the business and the personal assets of Andrew Carnegie or Cornelius Vanderbilt. Those companies needed to be able to raise money from strangers who wanted a strictly financial return, not from other professionals who wanted to join the business. Corporations came with their own disadvantages. They suffered from taxation at the business level and were relatively expensive and cumbersome to form and maintain.

It is the endless search for the perfect organizational model that has led to modern hybrids such as limited liability companies and Subchapter S Corporations. These organizational forms combine some of the best attributes of partnerships, like avoiding business level tax, with one of the key benefits of corporations, owners not being liable for the debts of the business. Each of these forms, however, has its own drawbacks and the search for the perfect business model continues.

Hoping to evoke the sense of trust and cooperation encompassed in the term, “partner,” businesses have begun to employ that terminology to describe many of their relationships with employees, customers, or suppliers. Starbucks refers to its employees as “partners” in some of its internal communications. Customer relationship gurus like Chip Bell have long held that treating customers as “partners” has benefits both for the business and its clients. The McDonalds Corporation refers to its suppliers and the companies who deliver those supplies as “third party-partners.”

Another important development for our purposes has been the adoption of partnership terminology for relationships outside of business, particularly for marriage. Referring to one’s spouse as a “partner” is now common in the American experience. In other Occidental countries, it is even more established. In Australia, Canada, and the UK, “partner” can be the preferred term for referring to someone with whom one is married or in a marriage-like relationship. Under Australian law, spousal abuse is referred to as “partner abuse.” The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a partner as, among other things, “either member of a married couple or an established unmarried couple.” When BBC News reported the marriage of Prince Andrew’s younger daughter, it referred to Mr. Jack Brooksbank as Princess Eugenie’s “long term partner.”

This use of the term partner is not just a linguistic device. Approaching marriage as a kind of partnership has certain advantages in modern society. It is more inclusive than spouse, husband, or wife. It can refer to an individual with whom one lives, shares a bank account, or has children, without having entered into marriage. Particularly in jurisdictions where same-sex marriages are illegal, the term partner can refer to someone of the same gender with whom one lives in a marital-type relationship. It is also a convenient analogy for marital relationships. Like partners, husbands and wives share one another’s fortunes. In the U.S., they have the option of being taxed together. Upon marriage, their property is generally combined. Either spouse can commit the assets of the entire family and, for most kinds of property, the assets of either spouse are available to satisfy debts incurred by the other.

The use of “partner,” however, for marriage relationships reveals a disconnect between the modern understanding of marriage and that which is visible in Scripture. Aside from questions of affirming or disaffirming intimate non-marital relationships or same-sex marriages, partnerships hold attributes that are incongruous with a Biblical view of marriage. While marriages and partnerships are both easy to form, marriages are intended to evidence a level of permanence completely absent from partnerships. Christ advised in Matthew 19:6 that there was a moral element to dissolving a marriage. While it was possible to do, one generally should not do it. Dissolving a partnership, by contrast, has no categorical moral implications. One reason for this lack of moral criteria in partnerships is, that while each partner is bound by the demands of the partnership, each partner is, at the same time, expected to pursue her individual best interests. The conduct prescribed to spouses throughout Scripture suggests a sacrificial relationship in marriage (see e.g., Ephesians 5 or Colossians 3) that would be economically inefficient in a business partnership.

Conflating marriage with partnership also undermines the ontological and sacramental aspects of marriage. Genesis 2:24 expresses the relationship of marriage with the mysterious phrase of becoming “one flesh.” The totality of what it means to be one flesh in a marriage is hard to plumb but it clearly indicates a level of identification and combination beyond what one would consider in a partnership. St. Paul employs marriage terminology when trying to explain Christ’s equally mysterious relationship with the church in Ephesians 5. In Catholic tradition, marriage is one of the estates in which Christians are to be sanctified. It can be the very burdens imposed within the marriage that lead husbands and wives to grow in humility and self-sacrifice. The teleology of partnerships in business would usually exclude this kind of sanctification. They are relationships intended to create mutual benefits and will last only as long as those benefits endure. When a partnership is unprofitable or inconvenient for either partner, the partnership is expected to be dissolved. Identifying marriage as a partnership is to misunderstand much of the unique Scriptural value and character of marriage.

Whether the use of partnership terminology for marriage reflects marriages becoming more like partnerships is a worthy concern but unknowable with any certainty. It may be ripe for reflection, however, to consider how the Scriptural revelation of marriage could inform our other relationships with workplace colleagues, community members, and others with whom we “partner” in daily life. Many of the Scriptural instructions that we are pastorally encouraged to apply in marriage (loving one another, forbearing with one another, serving one another) are also applicable in other relationships. While relationships other than marriage do not carry the ontological or sacramental qualities that marriage does in the Bible, they can contain many of the same behavioral requirements.

Whether or not we worry about a societal trend for marriage becoming more like partnership, we would do well to consider how we can encourage students, and others under our care, to make their business relationships, and other relationships of cooperation and community, more like a marriage. These relationships need not allow for the same identification as marriage but could benefit from the anticipation of permanence and sacrifice required in marriage. Relationships within the Christian Community are intended to be eternal relationships. This is true, and maybe just as true, if those relationships are spousal, familial, communitarian, or economic. Business associates and community members would both be within the definition of “neighbor” provided by Christ in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The context for loving those “partners” would be different from loving one’s spouse but the requirement for self-sacrifice would be the same.

Treating one’s business customers, employees, or suppliers with the same sense of sacrifice and permanence as one’s spouse could limit much of the ethical failure presently visible in business transactions. One would never want to mislead one’s spouse into buying an inferior product, even if one satisfied the disclosure requirements of the relevant legal regime. One would not discriminate against one’s spouse or put him or her at risk of injury, even if one could do so in a way that avoided legal liability. Treating all our business “partners” like we would our spouse in this sense would provide a more demanding ethic than many presently utilized in business. Even a Kantian ethic might be less demanding, as we are often willing to accept worse treatment for ourselves than we are for our spouses.

The conflation of marriage with the concept of partnership represents a potentially dangerous move for the institution of marriage. It also provides an opportunity for those training future business, and other professionals to discipline their activities in a way more parallel to Scriptural commands and utilizing one of the few relationships still understood to be beyond the scope of the Ethical Egoism that currently governs most business relationships.

Larry G. Locke

University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Larry Locke is a Professor and Associate Dean of the McLane College of Business at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a Research Fellow of LCC International University.