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Competition, Honesty and Dishonesty in Business as Mission?

By David Skews - A few good people met in Singapore to talk, think and listen about BAM in SE Asia. A discussion developed on the topic of competition and as a result we thought we might submit this paper for feedback...

We submit that the result of competition is that customers and resources are attracted to those businesses that best meet purchasers’ wants. The other side of the story is, of course, that other businesses lose customers and therefore require fewer resources. Some of these firms lose so many customers that they have to close.

If competition gives rise to both winners and losers, how can we decide whether, overall, competition is desirable or undesirable? A study of economic history shows quite clearly that on almost all measures of economic welfare, nations fare best when resources are allocated in accordance with the interplay of market forces, ie. when firms are free to set up in business in response to the demands of consumers. By contrast nations where most decisions on the allocation of resources (what should be produced, how it should be produced and for whom it should be produced) are made by a central authority (the government or the state), have lagged behind. It is therefore not surprising to find that when the Bible refers to economic activity it speaks about a market economy, with decisions being made by individual businessmen, not by a central authority.

God told Moses what the Israelites were to do when they reached the Promised Land: ‘For six years sow your fields and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops’ Lev.25:3, a reference to the private ownership of resources to be used for business purposes. God also saw that land would be sold by one person to another and he gave instructions about the price to be set (Lev.25:14-16). In fact the buying and selling of land would later be a sign of God’s blessing and the restoration of the nation’s fortunes, Jer.32:42-44.

In recounting the parable of the ten minas Jesus implied that conducting business in order to earn a profit – a feature of market economies – is desirable, even when it results in inequality of wealth (Luke 19:16-19). ( It is interesting to note that the Bible speaks well of women who engage in business: The wife of noble character, Prov.31:16, and Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, Acts 16:14).

However it is also clear the God is displeased when businesses behave dishonestly: ‘Do not have two differing measures in your house – some large some small. You must have accurate weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly’. Deut.25:14-16.

James denounces rich employers who have not paid wages for work done for them: ‘The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty,’ James 5:4. There are many other scriptures which testify to God’s desire to protect the poor from exploitation, which must of course include exploitation by businesses. If money is loaned to needy people, no interest is to be charged, Ex.22:25. A cloak taken as a pledge must be returned before sunset so that it can be used as blanket, Ex.22:26-7.

Many of the prophets thundered against injustice and the exploitation of the poor, perpetrated by the rich and powerful. Amos, in particular, warned that God would not bless businesses which exploited the poor. ‘You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them, though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine’ Amos 5:11

John tells us that ‘the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’, John1:17. It is therefore not surprising that, rather than condemning businessmen for their ungodly behaviour, Jesus said more about the behaviour that is pleasing to God: ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you’, Matt.7:12. However, this is, of course entirely consistent with the commands given to Moses. I want to be treated honestly, so I treat others honestly. I do not want to be exploited, so I do not exploit others. Let us look at what this might mean in business today.

Honesty and dishonesty - If I am honest I will always tell the truth. I will never make claims for my products unless I believe them to be true. Is it really true that the furniture that I make always uses ‘timber matured for several years’ so as to minimize the chance of its warping in the future? Is it true that my household cleanser ‘will clean your house better than any other cleanser?’ (If this is not true I am telling a lie about my product and also about my competitor’s products.)

In countries such as the US or the UK where untrue statements can be banned, firms often try to influence purchasers by means of suggestions or hints. For many years when a new model of a car was unveiled it was usual to have a beautiful woman leaning against the car or sitting on the bonnet. The message that the manufacturer was hoping to put over was that men who bought this model of car would be more likely to attract the attention of beautiful women.

In India many of the posters advertising women’s beauty products feature light-skinned Indian women. Advertisers obviously think that many Indian women would prefer to be light skinned and so would be more influenced than they would be by advertisements featuring darker skinned women. (This contrasts with the many advertisements in the UK where the people featured are deeply tanned.)

Even though no untrue statements are made, such advertising cannot be said to be honest; it suggests or implies a relationship (model of car and attraction of women) that exists in only a tiny minority of instances, if at all. It is as if the advertising is seen by consumers as containing a promise, a promise that is seldom fulfilled.

This leads to a consideration of situations in which actual promises are given. For example to win an order we may promise earlier delivery of our product than is being offered by our competitors. If we know that we cannot possibly meet the delivery date, we have told a lie. But what if we are simply unsure of being able to meet the date? We may reason that if subsequently we find that we cannot deliver on time we can provide an excuse, knowing that our customer is very unlikely to cancel the order at that late stage.

This may seem to be a plausible argument, but if we search our hearts we will see that we have not treated others as we would wish to be treated; we want to be sure that promises made to us will, as far as is possible, be kept. As we see this we will know that making such a promise would not please God. As James says ‘Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No’ be no, or you will be condemned’. James 5:12.

We can envisage some of the ways in which we may reap the fruit of this dishonesty. Breaking the promise will make it less likely that we will gain future orders from this customer and from other customers with whom he shares his experience. Furthermore if we have been deceitful at first we are likely to be deceitful at a later stage; we may blame our failure to deliver on time on a fictitious late delivery of materials by one of our suppliers, (a supplier who will not be pleased should he find out.)

We can also make promises to our suppliers that we are unlikely to fulfil. ‘Reduce the price for this order and we will give you a much bigger order next time’. Or we may tell an outright lie. When a firm is unable to pay its suppliers on time it may try to buy time by saying ‘the cheque is in the post’ or ‘the cheque must have got lost in the post.’ This practice became so widespread that such statements are now met with disbelief.

We might also make unrealistic promises to workers. In order to obtain greater production we may say ‘keep working long hours and we will make sure that you get promoted next year’, although we know that very few opportunities for promotion will arise.

Exploitation - We have seen that God is displeased when the poor are exploited and that particular reference is made to the exploitation of workers. In fact this is part of a bigger picture. The poor are often weak, in one way or another, and God desires that the weak be protected, not exploited. ‘Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him in time of trouble’, Ps 41:1. ‘In everything I did I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’, Acts 20;35.

The workers that James mentions would be men hired by the day who would be in a very weak position, unable to stand up against an unscrupulous employer who could employ a new group of workers on the next day.

Lenders are usually in a stronger position than borrowers, especially when the borrowers really need the money. God, speaking through Moses, told the Israelites, ‘If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest’, Ex.22-25. ‘You must not lend him (a poor countryman) money at interest or sell him food at a profit’, Lev.25:37. Moreover the needy would benefit from the requirement that at the end of seven years ‘Every creditor should cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite,’Deut.15:2.
The majority of the Israelites worked on the land and anyone who sold his land would become poor, economically weak. Although not against trading land as such, God laid down the terms of that trading; the price was to be set according to the number of years until the next Year of Jubilee. The greater the number of years, the more crops could be harvested and therefore the higher the price that should be paid.

When the Year of Jubilee arrived (every fifty years), land that a family had sold to clear its debts was returned to its original owners. Also, people who had sold themselves as slaves or indentured servants because of indebtedness were released and set free. These provisions gave everyone the opportunity to start all over again.

Today exploitation of the weak might take the form of paying unduly low wages, or making workers work very long hours under the threat of dismissal. A large company might use its strength to beat down the price paid to its suppliers. A firm which supplies a large number of products might threaten to cut off supplies to a customer who wished to buy one of its products from a new small supplier, thus denying the weaker firm access to the market. (This practice is illegal in many countries.)

Competition often times creates too many shades of gray and posses challenges to every Business as Mission leader. So how do we manage it? How do we be unashamedly competitive while also sharing the love of Christ and keeping our integrity?

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posted by Justin Forman | 6.01.2009 - 7:44 AM


An excellent paper applying Neihbur's five models of Christ and Culture to Christ and Competition may be found at http://www.cbfa.org/bhtml/2004_conference.html: God of the Games by Smith and Johnson and Perspectives on Competition at http://www.cbfa.org/html/2005_conference.html.

Your brother in Christ,
Mark Washington
National MBA Ministry Coordinator
InterVaristy Christian Fellowship
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9:02 AM  

As a founding partner of a school in Asia, I have had the privilege of modeling honesty in business decisions. It is challenging and often at a high price of losing favor from the authorities, but it stood the tests of time. Many principals who have become personal friends, have commended us for our transparency and acknowledged that they wished they had the courage to do the same, for it has become stressful and costly to maintain relationships which is based on how much is given to remain in favor. They have seen how we continued to do our job honestly without giving, and remained in business for 7 years now.

Good teachers are in great demand and like all schools, we face a high turnover. But it is often consoling to hear feedback from those who had left, affirming that they were happier working with our school that practices honesty than in their new workplace where they have to cover-up their supervisors' false reports. Amen!
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 7:06 PM  

Your writing shows great prayer and consideration of biblical concepts. Excellent work! I wonder if we are asking our BAM efforts to do something which we can not really do. Can we really manage this in businesses we help start in indigenous settings? Are we even supposed to?

There is reason to believe that items of real concern existed in Paul's day which he did not want to contribute to. For example, consider slavery ... Paul did not support the institution. But Paul had a coviction which I think comes into focus in your question. He did not address directly slavery ... he addressed salvation and devotion to Christ. He emphasized personal discipleship in Christ. Paul believed that God could do more with a person's behavior than we/church could through management and rules. Man is changed from the inside out rather than from the environment he dwells in.

A BAM model of ministry is not a perfect area of ministry. There is no perfect ministry arenas. We are working with humans which will always be challenging. However our God can change behavior ... He can manage the challenges. We can not very effectively.

So, my counsel to you is set high expectations and make them solid through biblical references and teaching. Let God do the managing of the business.
commented by Anonymous BCrowe, 11:48 AM  

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