Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace

  • Scott B. Rae, Kenman L. Wong
  • May 29, 2012
  • Series: Volume 15 - 2012

Kenman L. Wong and Scott B. Rae. Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011. 288pp. Paperback, $24.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-2816-6.

BusinessCommonGoodOne day when I was reading this book in a coffee shop, an acquaintance who is a retired business person asked me, “What are you reading?”  I held-up the book, he read the title on the cover—Business for the Common Good—and said, “Sounds like a good novel.”

Books on Christianity and “the marketplace” are nothing new.  However, there currently appears to be a flourishing of interest and activity—due to both the kind of cynicism my acquaintance expressed and more positive motivators—around a cluster of related subjects such as the theology of work, marketplace ministry, business ethics, Christianity and economics, and “business as mission.”

This would be a good development at any time but may be particularly strategic now.  Large numbers of “Boomers” are doing personal soul-searching and re-visioning as they near the end of full-time business careers and, at the same time, there is a surge of interest among younger evangelicals in ministry and social engagement through vocations which have too often been viewed as non-ministerial or “secular”—such as business.  Furthermore, the many ripple-effects of the post-2008 economic recession, and concerns over the “decline” or the perceived changing shape of the U.S. economic system, including the role of government in it, have prompted the asking of “deeper” questions about business.

Whatever the current prompters might be, informed and thoughtful Christian engagement with questions related to “work” and economics is much needed.  Business for the Common Good: A Christian View for the Marketplace, by Kenman Wong, a professor of business ethics at Seattle Pacific University, and Scott Rae, a professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology, is an excellent contribution to the burgeoning conversation about “the marketplace,” the theology of work, and related topics.

The authors seek to provide not a handbook but rather a “framework,” a “philosophy or, loosely speaking, a theology of business” (pp. 35, 37).  They explore values and principles to guide one in thinking about and conducting business in a way that is shaped by biblical and theological teachings.  Yet, the book is not preachy.  Wong and Rae know about business and care about people engaged in business.  The book is not a manifesto but rather an informed, thoughtful and thought-provoking attempt to think about business Christianly.

It is important to note the authors’ understanding of what it means to do business in a manner reflective of the title of the book—“for the common good.”  “Business,” they write, “is a calling to serve the common good through transformational service” (p. 33).  In fact, viewing the book as a whole, transformation is a multi-faceted, multi-directional theme throughout.  Business should be, sometimes is—and, with proper perspective, even more often can be—an instrument for bringing about good change for people, both individually and collectively.  In order to be this kind of instrument, business itself needs to be transformed so that it is guided by values and principles consistent with a Christian worldview.  Because business itself is a product of human enterprise, the people who carry on business need—as all human beings need—to be transformed by those same values and principles.  And, rather than being inherently the enemy of such human transformation, business can be an arena for divinely ordered transformation of those who participate in it.

The dual authorship contributes to the strength of the book.  It is well informed, reflecting the combined competencies and interests of the two authors.  They appeal to and interact with key literature, some scholarly and some more “popular.”  They also draw upon interviews and conversations they have had with a variety of “business people.”  These include stories about specific people and business enterprises.  Sometimes, these stories provide example of values, principles, or practices that the authors commend as both laudatory and possible.  For example, a number of vignettes are relayed about Herman Miller, a Fortune 500 company and manufacturer of the famed Eames chair, illustrating the company’s innovative and effective business practices with respect to more environmentally sustainable practices and more equitable and generous approaches to compensating employees (e.g., p. 90).

Other stories constitute cautionary tales, illustrating values, principles, or practices that the authors suggest are incompatible with business “for the common good.”  It is clear that the authors are friends, not opponents, of business and business people.  So, they steer away from citing specific individuals or companies as “negative” illustrations.  However, from time to time they do cite already-published and documented reports of harmful business practices in the course of making larger arguments.

On the whole, the book is well balanced with respect to what might be referred to as ideological perspective.  Wong and Rae clearly favor robust free market capitalism.  For example, on multiple occasions they specifically commend wealth creation as a product of capitalism, rather than wealth (re-)distribution as the most viable path to addressing the needs of the poor (e.g., pp. 154, 158, 163).  They are scholars in this field, and so, of course, they have—and should have—an opinion about which economic system(s) is preferable to others.  However, while their view is discernible it does not dominate the book in such a way that the reader must share the details of their position in order to appreciate and benefit from the book.  In this they are, as authors, carrying out their vocation as professors, as teachers, and as educators, rather than as ideologues.  The authors do a good job of balancing their commitment to a particular view of economic systems with their desire to educate more broadly about business for the common good.

This book is accessible.  Though the authors clearly are conversant in the language and issues of “the business world,” readers do not need to be immersed in that “world” in order to understand and appreciate what they have to say.  This may be due in part to the fact that the book is ambitious and quite comprehensive.  While retaining their focus on the theology of work in general and business in particular, Wong and Rae engage an impressive array of topics—theological, ethical, formational, economic—all of them, ultimately, business-related.  In so doing, they engage business in a way that serves the series of which it is a part—Christian worldview integration.

Having offered above some description and analysis of the book, I will here venture three brief observations about its subject matter, observations which either arose or were elaborated and refined for me in the course of reading the book.

First, business is an incredibly complex matter.  For those of us not engaged with business vocationally, I think it important to state this fact, however obvious it might be to those who are business people.  Business is an incredibly complex matter, and as a result the church needs to engage and support business people with this fact in view.  Any given business decision has the potential to impact many people, in many, varied ways.  Any given business transaction has the potential to have a wide range of consequences or “ripple effects”—both intended and foreseen, and unintended and unforeseen.  And any given business practice has the potential to have personal, societal, economic, spiritual, environmental, and other kinds of implications and effects.  The people who make these kinds of decisions and transactions, and who implement these kinds of practices deserve and need respectful and wise engagement by the church.

Second, an approach to business informed by Christian perspective and principles must include thinking of the big-picture and taking the long-view.  This is not unique to thinking Christianly about business—it is characteristic of thinking Christianly about anything.  However, this pair of principles probably came to mind because all too often they appear to be missing from business as it finds expression in the contemporary consumer-driven marketplace.  Thinking big-picture includes, for example, concern, ultimately, for “the whole world.”  It includes concern for people and the planet in all their dimensions—both physical and non-physical, both economic and non-economic.  Thinking long-term means being informed by God’s vision and plan for the culmination and consummation of the world—in traditional theological language, eschatology.  This does not mean looking past or ignoring today, but always thinking about today in light of tomorrow and in the context of God’s ultimate design and work.

Finally, money is not everything, and economics is not the only or ultimate measure or point of reference.  Note that I did not say that money and economics are “nothing” or “bad.”  They are inescapable realities, very important, and they hold potential for great good—indeed, according to Wong and Rae, for “transformative” good.  Thus, they are yet another reason why people involved in an enterprise which is synonymous with “making money” and “the economy” deserve and need respectful and thoughtful engagement from the church—both its rich capacity for thought and its life-giving capacity for engagement.

I gladly commend this book.  For those for whom business is not their vocation, it provides a well-informed, accessible, and wide-ranging introduction.  And, for Christians for whom business is their way of both serving and “making a living,” this book offers some excellent insight and prompters to distinctively Christian reflection on what you do.

W. David Buschart, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology and Historical Studies
Denver Seminary
May 2012