Our teenage son once worked at a Christian bookstore to learn biblical principles of business. Or maybe not.
The store ran a Christmas raffle where customers put names into a bowl. At the end, the staff drew the winning name.
And tossed it out.
The staff had hoped to reward one of their loyal customers. Sorting through the names, they found a customer they preferred and declared her the winner.
The bookstore staff were sincere Christians. But what made them think cheating is acceptable for followers of Jesus? Had they thought about how biblical ethics applies to business? Or does business belong in the “secular” realm, where Christian principles do not really apply?
This vignette illustrates why Christians have surprisingly little impact on society. Many are trapped in the sacred/secular split — the assumption that Christianity belongs in the private realm of “religion,” while saying little to the public realms of business, marketing, finance, etc.
Another example. A man underwent a dramatic conversion in midlife, eventually rising to leadership in a Christian ministry. But secular methods of doing business were so ingrained that he applied them without thinking. For example, to impress the public and attract donor dollars, he used statistical tricks to shade the numbers to exaggerate the ministry’s effectiveness.
How common do you think this is? The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary found that “250 of the 300 largest international Christian organizations regularly mislead the Christian public by publishing demonstrably incorrect or falsified progress statistics.”
These Christian leaders may be sincere. But the sacred/secular split leads them to think it’s acceptable in business to play by a different set of rules.
To overcome that split mentality, we must ask fundamental questions about what it means to be human. In Genesis 1:28, God gives what we might call the first job description. Having created humans, God assigns them their tasks and responsibilities: “Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth.”
Unpacking the Bible’s highly compact language, the phrase “Be fruitful” means to create not only families but also the other social institutions that historically grow out of the family: school, church, business, government. To develop the social world.
The phrase “subdue the earth” means to develop the natural world. Plant crops. Build buildings. Design computers. Compose music. Theologians call this verse the “cultural mandate” because it means God created humans to build cultures, communities and civilizations.
God created humans to work.
This Christian view of work has the resources to address poverty and inspire entrepreneurship around the globe. A development organization called Disciple Nations Alliance tells the story of the Pokomchi Indians, descendants of the Mayans, historically among the poorest of the poor in Guatemala.
The traditional religions in the region are animist, teaching that nature is controlled by powerful spirits. Animism creates a passive, fatalistic, fear-based mindset. You might perform rituals to placate the spirits, but you have no real control over your life. The common assumption is, if you’re poor, you will always be poor.
A generation ago, missionaries planted churches, and many Pokomchi converted to Christianity. But they stayed poor. They knew they were saved and going to heaven, but they were still passive and fatalistic in their attitudes to this life.
We could say that they were converted in their theology, but not in their worldview.
Later, secular development organizations with government funding built things like schools and latrines. But when the groups left, the Pokomchi did not use any of the expensive projects that had been built. They had not changed their fatalistic worldview. If the poor will always be poor, why send your children to school to create a better life?
Finally, in the early 1990s, a young Peruvian pastor named Arturo Cuba came to the Pokomchi. He taught the cultural mandate — that humans are made in the image of a Creator to be creative and to practice stewardship and dominion in this world, not just wait for the next world.
For example, one reason the Pokomchi had so little to eat was that they did not have effective storage for their crops, which were being eaten by rats. The pastor asked the farmers, “Who is smarter: you or the rats?”
The farmers laughed sheepishly, and one said, “I guess the rats are.”
“So who has dominion here: you or the rats?” The farmers had to acknowledge that, in a real sense, the rats did.
Arturo Cuba taught biblical principles of stewardship: that God created humans to be active instead of passive — to take initiative, to exercise caring control over nature.
The farmers developed new methods of grain storage, the food supply increased and their children enjoyed better nutrition. Eventually, they developed better farming techniques and sent their children to school, and the Pokomchi began their climb out of poverty.
But it all began with a shift in worldview — from a sacred/secular split, where Christianity is only about how to get saved and go to heaven, to a comprehensive worldview that applies biblical principles to our daily work.
That is God’s job description — for them and for us.
• Nancy Pearcey, Ph.D., is professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University. She is editor at large of The Pearcey Report and author of “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity” (Crossway, 2008) and “Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism and Other God Substitutes.”