Christianity is best understood as a religion that requires integration throughout a believer’s life. Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 10:31 and James 1:8 warn against compartmentalizing one’s life into sacred areas that are subject to God’s requirements and secular areas that are outside His purview. Christian business faculty have long called on our students to live fully integrated lives in which their roles in the business community evidence the same spiritual standards and commitments as their lives outside the workplace. Business for them should take on ministerial qualities. Following in the footsteps of Martin Luther, many of us consider the calling to serve God through conducting business to be of equal consecration, though not of identical kind, with the calling to professional ministry.1
Christians in the business environment can have a ministerial impact by applying their faith in the relationships they form with various stakeholders. The Denver Institute for Faith and Work publishes a blog and video series that details a number of anecdotal stories of Christians whose faith was impactful in the workplace through how they hired employees, invested capital, and engaged customers and clients.2 These unconventional approaches to stakeholder relationships can be revolutionary in the workplace and disruptive of industry norms that have contributed to human suffering. Christians who demonstrate how employees can be managed with dignity and how customers can be treated justly and with charity can positively impact industry standards beyond their own organizations.
This call to faith integration, however, creates a unique set of challenges for entrepreneurs seeking to extend their faith into their business organizations. It is one thing for a Christian businessperson to make personal commitments to serve God in and through his or her business activity. It is another thing entirely for an entrepreneur intent on building a business, who exercises control over the organization as a whole, to establish the foundational values the business will represent. From the idea stage until the first round of venture capital raising, entrepreneurs are the sole owners, and sometimes the sole managers, of the firms they create. This reality puts them in a unique position of stewardship of the entire enterprise at a critical time. Companies are conversable agents and can have a moral profile separate and apart from their owners and the employees who act on the organization’s behalf, but that profile is significantly influenced by the organization’s founders.3 While some Christian scholars would argue that the call to corporate ownership can be a devout attempt to imitate the sovereignty of God, they would also acknowledge that owners are responsible to God, who exercises a transcendent level of ownership over the created order (Psalm 24:1).4
When a Christian becomes an entrepreneur, part of her stewardship over the new entity she is creating is the decisions she must take as to the public profile it will adopt and how much, if any, that profile will reflect the entrepreneur’s Christian faith. Two generic options available to Christian entrepreneurs are for the business to either publicly declare itself “Christian” or to simply apply Christian principles in its policies and strategies without publicly acknowledging the source of its values. One of the most well-known American companies utilizing the first option is Chick-fil-A. The company publicly declares its Christian commitments by supporting Christian organizations through donations and its weekly closure on Sundays. While this approach can be satisfying to Christian entrepreneurs, it does not come without costs. Companies that openly disclose their commitment to Christian values may alienate some sectors of the potential customer base, the potential employee base, and potential investors. They may also find themselves in conflict with government policy and subject to lawsuits or regulatory actions.
Starting in 2012, Chick-fil-A began to alienate members of the LGBTQ+ community after a report was released detailing the company’s donations to the National Christian Charitable Foundation, which was helping fund opposition to The Equality Act. The controversy grew when the founder’s son released a statement that he was against same-sex marriage.5 Similarly, and also in 2012, the owners of Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services for attempting to infringe on their religious beliefs by mandating contraceptive coverage in employee insurance. The owners stated that four of the contraceptives included in the mandate violated their religious commitments and that their company would not pay for the drugs. Although Hobby Lobby ultimately won the lawsuit in the Supreme Court, it cost the company significant goodwill from certain sectors of the market.6
The relative scarcity of companies that publicly embrace Christian values indicates that some Christian entrepreneurs find the cost of identifying their companies with their faith to be too high. Christian entrepreneurs whose organizations are more discrete about their Christian values can avoid some of this potential backlash. For example, In-N-Out Burger was founded by Henry and Esther Snyder and based on Christian principles. The company does not, however, generally publicize its faith commitments beyond subtle hints, such as putting Bible verses in small lettering on the bottoms of its cups and food trays.7 This approach can allow an entrepreneur to extend her faith integration into the company without having to experience some of the economic costs of alienating people within its stakeholder groups.
Certainly, the level of disclosure a Christian entrepreneur allows her company to make of its Christian values is not a binary choice. Entrepreneurs may choose any point on a spectrum, from including faith references in the company name, like Christianbook, LLC, to studiously avoiding any mention of religion in its public communication. Generally, the greater the disclosure, the greater the opportunity to alienate vital stakeholders, but any point along the spectrum has the potential for economic benefits and detriments. While some potential stakeholders may be alienated by a company’s expression of Christian commitments, others may be attracted by them. Guidestone Funds is an investment management firm designed to financially advise faith-based organizations and their employees. The company’s public disclosure of its Christian values likely aids in attracting investors looking to reflect those values in their investment choices. The degree to which a company is dependent upon, or exclusively targeting, the Christian community may weigh heavily in this decision. Companies like Christianbook, LLC, primarily a distributor of Christian books and church supplies, may be less concerned about alienating non-Christians than companies like In-N-Out Burger or Chick-fil-A, operating in the fast or fast-casual dining space, with more diverse stakeholders.
Some Christian entrepreneurs may be loath to overtly integrate their faith commitments with their new businesses more because of the potential negative spiritual implications for the Kingdom of God than for economic risks. A challenging result of being more open about an organization’s Christian commitments is the potential for the business to be held to higher standards than those generally applied in the marketplace. The LA-based clothing company, Forever 21, prints “John 3:16” on its branded bags, and the founders of the firm are openly practicing Christians. In 2013 when the firm laid off employees and reduced others to fewer than 30 hours per week to avoid mandated health coverage, the public response focused on its perceived failure to live up to Christian standards of charity.8 Christian entrepreneurs who minimize their public communication about Christian values can avoid being held to these standards.
Failing to meet the Christian standards a firm has professed can produce not only a loss of goodwill among various stakeholders but also the risk of undermining the perceived veracity of the Gospel. This risk may lead less confident entrepreneurs to minimize their firms’ public Christian profile for fear that their companies’ failures will reflect poorly on Christ. This dilemma, however, ultimately stems from a misinterpretation of the Gospel, particularly on the part of the entrepreneurs themselves.
The calling on Christian entrepreneurs seeking to integrate their Christian values into their business is not a calling to unfailingly satisfy God’s standard of righteous behavior. Their calling, like that of all believers, is “to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8). The Christian identity of an entrepreneur is not based on whether he is able to maintain consistent compliance with biblical standards throughout his company. Rest assured he cannot. The Christian identity of an entrepreneur is based on his willingness to be held to a standard he will never consistently achieve and to exercise the necessary humility to be transparent about that condition. Customers, employees, and even investors will forgive all manner of underperformance if the company is transparent about its mistakes and dedicated to its own improvement. Declaring one’s business to be “Christian” can result in the company being held to a higher standard, but that very standard can allow the company greater opportunities to continuously improve economically and spiritually.
Christian businesses have the opportunity to serve as a faithful witness to the transformational power of the Gospel, even as they fail. Just as Biblical stories of redemption like Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene attract unbelievers to the possibilities of the Gospel, a business that is founded on Christian principles and faces its challenges transparently and with humility can serve as an example of the redemptive power of Christ.
The Gospel was never intended to be a set of impossible standards. It is a story of reconciliation and sanctification that each Christian must live out in meekness. When Christian entrepreneurs can exercise the humility to own their failures and transparently seek forgiveness and correction, it is a much more accurate reflection of the Gospel for the unsaved world than a seemingly perfect person who never violates relevant standards. Such humility is also a more attractive expression of the Gospel for the unsaved, revealing a pathway to peace and reconciliation rather than a hopeless challenge for perfection. One entrepreneur who is willing to walk in humility and transparency, both personally and corporately, may do more to spread the Good News of Christ’s saving grace than a hundred companies who make sure to set expectations of themselves so low that they never risk disappointing them. It may be more by their failures that they demonstrate the truth of the Gospel than by their compliance.
- Ben Witherington III, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011).
- “Why Faith & Work,” Denver Institute for Faith & Work, 2023, https://www.denverinstitute.org/why/#!.
- Philip Pettit, “The Conversable, Responsible Corporation,” in The Moral Responsibility of Firms, eds. Eric W. Orts and N. Craig Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198738534.003.0002
- Wayne Grudem, Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).
- Kate Taylor, “Chick-fil-A is under attack over its CEO’s ties to a Christian charity accused of trying to squash proposed LGBTQ protections. Here’s what we know about the chain’s donations,” Business Insider, June 4, 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/chick-fil-a-ties-to-anti-equality-act-efforts-explained-2021-6.
- Reem Gerais, “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014),” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, February 26, 2017, https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/burwell-v-hobby-lobby-2014.
- Marcia Chatelain, M, “Perspective: the Conservative and Christian roots of many beloved fast-food chains,” The Washington Post, August 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/08/09/conservative-christian-roots-many-beloved-fast-food-chains/.
- Jeff Schapiro, “Some Customers Questioning Forever 21’s Christian Values,” The Christian Post, August 21, 2013, https://www.christianpost.com/news/some-customers-questioning-forever-21s-christian-values.html.