Is it Wrong to Pursue a Profit? by Kenman Wong

That the primary goal of business is to earn a profit has reached the status of unquestioned cultural assumption. While people in other fields of work can readily point to the social contributions they make—physicians heal, teachers enlighten minds, and ministers bring people closer to God—business people can often only give an abstract nod to “making money” when asked about the aims of their work.

Of course, no profession is free from pecuniary interests. Nor should business people be primarily faulted for seeing their work in such narrow terms. Profit is the way to gauge success in the world of business. Churches have also unintentionally reinforced this narrow view by reducing the value of the work of business people in their congregations to supplying the wealth needed to fund proper “kingdom” work.

Prevailing cultural assumptions aside, should profit be pursued by a Christian business person? Nothing in the scriptures, aside from a literal interpretation of the Parable of the Talents, would seem to say so. What then should business be about? The broader scope of Biblical teaching provides us with an alternate vision, calling us to live in alignment with the mission of God. Thus, our work should partner with God’s transformative mission of human flourishing. Business, then, is better seen as a calling to serve God and our neighbors, seeking “the “common good.” Although much more needs to be done, business already participates in kingdom work by creating goods and services that enhance people’s lives, providing meaningful work, and helping investors save for goals such as college and retirement.

While profit is necessary to achieve these outcomes, nothing indicates that it should be an end in itself or used as a primary metric of success. Consistent with the mission of God, we should ask how our work enhances people’s lives and their relationships with each other, with God, with those least off among us, and with the natural environment. Although this may sound naïve, some historical perspectives may help. Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, thought business was a way to harness enlightened self-interest to serve the common good. The title of his most well known book is The Wealth of Nations, emphasizing a collective goal rather than an individual pursuit. Similarly, J.C. Penney, founder of the eponymous retailing company, once stated “business never was and never will be anything more or less than people serving other people.” He gave shares of ownership to every store manager long before stock options became popular and eschewed the offering of credit, fearing it would cause people to overspend.

We have contemporary exemplars too. Consider Ralph and Cheryl Broetje, pioneers of an emerging “double bottom line” business model that seeks to intentionally and simultaneously create both social and economic value. They are the owners of First Fruits of Washington, one of the largest privately owned apple orchards in America (5,000+ acres, roughly 1000 full-time year round employees and 900 seasonal employees; over 5 million boxes of apples a year supplied to the likes of Costco and Safeway). The company’s motto is “A quality fruit company committed to ‘bearing fruit that will last’” (John 15:16 NIV).

“Sure, we have to make money or we’d have to shut the doors,” Cheryl Broetje explains. “But profit isn’t our main motive. It becomes the by-product of treating people with dignity, respect, and mutuality, and as equals in every sense of the word.”

Consistent with their motto and mission, the Broetjes invested millions of dollars to build 100 homes, which they rent at subsidized pricing to their employees, many of whom would otherwise be “migrant” workers. They have built a private Christian school, a ranch for troubled youth, and a day-care center that serves employees at highly subsidized rates. They have also created after school programs and an onsite library. Children of employees can also qualify for college scholarships. In all, the company donates about 75% of its yearly profits to charitable projects. First Fruits is a business, one that grows and sells excellent apples, but as the Broetjes’ state it, they are also in the business of developing people.

While profit should not be the primary aim for Christians in business, re-envisioning business as a calling to serve God and our neighbors may offer some earthly rewards. Researchers have found that employment that can be re-crafted into a “calling” (work that is seen as contributing to the greater good) is the most satisfying because it is done for its own sake rather than for the material rewards it may bring. In a time of record low reported indicators of job satisfaction, not simply pursuing financial gain can be highly profitable indeed.

Photo credit: Andy on Flickr