Thoughts on Biblical Business Management Skills
The presupposition that this article is based upon is that the Word of God provides the epistemological foundation for all knowledge and actions in every realm of life. The practitioners of every discipline, if they are to seek and discover legitimate truth, self-consciously glorify God and extend His kingdom, must submit to this reality. For instance, an archeologist who desires to discover and reconstruct knowledge of the past must start with a confession of God as Creator, belief in a literal six-day creation and the reality of an actual world-wide flood. However, archeologists who reject God’s revelation build instead upon false suppositions, and as is the case today, draw conclusions from an uncritical acceptance of evolutionary theory. As evolutionary theory crumbles (and it is unraveling extremely quickly now), of necessity so too does most of the archeological “knowledge” that has been established upon that doctrine. The same can be said about studies in cosmology, mathematics, sociology, psychology, environmental science, medicine and everything else.
Perhaps lumped into the “everything else” category falls the study and practice of business management, under which comes the skill of managing employees. Some may ask, “Is there a Biblical foundation which informs us and regulates our actions in terms of employer/employee relationships? Does the Bible provide us with an epistemological starting point to construct the way in which we think about managing?”
I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Unfortunately, while there are many books out that say they’re about Christian management there are not many that are theologically solid and not tending to silly simplification. Authors have written on the supposed “management techniques” of Jesus; others on managing through “Biblical goal setting”; some on being a visionary leader. Many sermons and articles focus in on Paul’s admonition to masters and their actions and attitudes towards their slaves as a model for business owners or managers to emulate. Many books, even while utilizing scripture and select Biblical “models” in their presentations, tend towards a stylized reductionism or apply uncontextualized and sometimes downright silly versification.
While the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and God’s word is the prologue to all wisdom and understanding, it appears that we’ve only skimmed the surface of what it means to conform management concepts to Biblical concepts. Perhaps it’s because we have been distracted by searching for specific techniques, methods and “management secrets” rather than simply (“simply” in a limiting way rather than denoting ease) applying God’s word in totality. Or maybe we’ve forgotten that first and foremost, “employees” are in reality self-employed businessmen in their own right and should be viewed and treated as such.
Viewed through this lens, management becomes focused on seeing each individual become self-managed through self-government and personal responsibility. In effect, everyone in the workforce should consider themselves self-employed and therefore self-managed. And, it is management’s job to see that this happens to the fullest extent possible.
By speaking of employees as “self-employed businessmen”, the emphasis is being put on the fact that all employees can and do freely shop their skills, abilities and strengths to many business operators who need workers (while this is always the case it is especially true in this tight labor market). Pay scales of any contracted person are determined by the productivity promised and the unique qualities required for the project’s successful completion, or whether there are many or few people who can perform a particular job (supply and demand). This is definitely not a master/slave arrangement!
Employer, employee relationships should be more properly viewed as two responsible businessmen negotiating for the trading of goods or services. The contractor (business owner) is negotiating to acquire a skill or ability (a product or service) and the contracted (the holder of the desired skill or ability —or an “employee”) is negotiating to acquire money or valuable compensation in exchange for his labor-product. Some have seen this in terms of power (employer) vs. weakness (employee). Gary North writes, “The employer-employee relationship reflects God’s relationship to man. God provides us with an arena: life and capital. Similarly, the employer supplies an employee with capital that makes the employee more productive. Man is dependent on God . . . God employs us as His stewards. He gives us the tools that we need to serve Him and thereby serve ourselves.” While this is true in regards to our relationship with God (we are dependent upon Him, He does ultimately hold all the cards), it does not necessarily follow that it is true for our mundane employer-employee relations.
In other words, God is the owner of all things and delegates responsibility to man and then demands an accounting. Using a business situation is a good way demonstrate this fact. However, unlike the relationship of God to man, God is omnipotent and we are not and there is nothing we can do to benefit Him. There is nothing we can add to His kingdom or glory. It truly is a King-subject relationship in which God is absolute Master and we obey His commands. It is a relationship in which we acknowledge God’s majesty and power, but also sing out His praises for His amazing grace and mercy.
But the employer-employee relationship is different. There is no superior-inferior relationship here. Rather, it is two equals who require each other in order for both to benefit. There is a harmony of interests that brings two equals together laboring in a common endeavor.
The employer, even holding a great deal of capital, cannot exploit its potential unless he has the cooperation of other men whom can help him succeed. The employer needs the employee just as the employee needs the employer and God has set forth a process that makes it possible for both to increasingly prosper to an amazing degree when they work together. Again we find that this brings our starting presupposition into play, a presupposition that must be identified, taught and reinforced in the home, the church and especially in the workplace; both parties, not simply the employer or manager, must be mature and responsible, capable of self-government and self-management. Only when the Biblical teaching of the harmony of interests is understood will self-government and responsibility become the foundation for what we desire to call “Biblical management.” Self-motivation and self-government is the backbone of Biblical faith in every realm of life.
For instance, the Bible assumes that a person will or should be first and foremost self-managed, and speaks of one who is not as immature and irresponsible. It’s startling to see the extent this is so and is clearly manifested in the blessings promised to those who exhibit self-control and the curses placed upon those who fail to take a responsible course of action. A quick summary of this view is set forth in Proverbs 6:6-8 where the ant is the example to follow, for the ant “having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer and gathereth her food in the harvest.” It is further demonstrated in Christ’s parable (Matthew 25:14-30) about the man “traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them.” This is the parable of the businessman who turns his capital over to stewards and then leaves it in their hands for a long time. Now in Christ’s parable there is no direct management set over the servants. In fact, there is a conspicuous lack of management! He gives them the tools to succeed and leaves for “a long time.” Upon returning to see how they had fulfilled the mandate set before them, he only looked for and judged results. The two success stories were promoted while the lazy and slothful one was stripped of his talent and fired.
However, today many people refuse to embrace maturity, seek out areas that best utilize their talents and find opportunities to prove their responsibility. Instead, they have a childish attitude – “What will you do to take care of me?” This paternalism is now the norm where employees look to their employer to provide for them in ways that would have horrified earlier generations. For instance, employees now think that their entire health care should be purveyed to them by their employer rather than taking responsibility for their own welfare. Of course, this attitude is now engrained in the political system via Obamacare. In a sad commentary that speaks volumes about how extensive and pervasive the collapse of self-government has been, many workers choose jobs and even occupations based not upon pay or their own interests, but upon the health benefits provided “free” by their employer. Many workers are successfully pushing their employers to provide child-care (i.e., babysitting services) while they work rather than secure it themselves. Unions now exist almost solely to win more and more paternalistic services from companies for their members, such as more comprehensive dental and optical insurance, free counseling for psychological well-being (whatever that means), financial aid for college students, earlier retirement programs and ever increasing pensions, just to name a few.
The good news is that the Christian employer/manager has the opportunity to once again raise the bar in finding and encouraging those who are up to the challenge of working in a self-governing manner. Paternalism goes against the very nature that God placed within man and called him to obtain: the spirit of dominion. Young workers, our future, are far more willing to step up to be counted and held accountable if given the right opportunity and incentives.
To take advantage of even this small crack in the dominant paternalistic culture, Christian employers should keep an eye out for these motivated individuals, give them big, exciting opportunities and diligently advance those who meet or exceed expectations by turning ever more assets and responsibility over to them. An employer, through these actions, can subtly, yet strongly influence society and our culture by praising, rewarding and promoting self-government at every level.
I am not advocating a heartless ruthlessness in which the ends justify the means and people are discarded without thought or care for their well-being (Indeed, what I am advocating is a compassionate recognition that most people are capable of far more than we now expect!). We must remember that the Christian, in any relationship, including the workforce, is called upon to love his neighbor as himself and this alone will serve to eliminate arbitrary firings and trivial dismissals. A Christian is also called to edify (teach), and employees who make good-faith efforts and fail are to be helped, not destroyed lest it be us the next time (Galatians 6:1).
To assist the employee in growth toward self-government the Christian businessman must take responsibility to hire and place people with discernment and wisdom as he evaluates the gifts of those he wishes to employ. Rather than implementing the newest and hottest managing techniques and motivational methods, the Christian businessman should be leading his community by raising the banner of Biblical manhood and the Scriptural emphasis upon personal responsibility. This would free him to pursue areas of interest and profitability that will benefit even more people as God increases his “talents.”
So rather than spending time managing and continuously motivating employees, the Christian employer or “manager,” should start with a change in mental paradigms. In terms of “Biblical Management,” I have come to believe that this means teaching, promoting and expecting self-management. While he holds a responsibility to clearly articulate what he wants to accomplish, an employer is most successful if he has self-managed employees whom he can confidently release to fulfill his mandate in their work with the powerful promise to treat them as responsible men, equal to himself and equal to the task at hand; achievers of the highest caliber!
The incredible thing is that God Himself establishes the incentives for the individual to get his act together and be productive. For instance, if you work hard you will prosper but if you are a sleep-loving sluggard “poverty [shall] come on you like a prowler” (Proverbs 6:9-11), and the command to all Christians is “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and the lazy man is cursed because someone who doesn’t provide for his household is worse than an unbeliever. The flip side of this, of course, is that a responsible, mature man in the faith will not only be financially a success, but a trusted counselor who stands before kings!
While I’m sure Jesus used what could be called excellent management skills, the fact is He stated His mission, taught His disciples the law and its meaning and more often than not rebuked them, sometimes gently and other times harshly, if they failed to live up to His expectations. In other words, He expected mature self-government and responsible action. So confident was He in the Holy Spirit in allowing those He called and trained to fulfill His mandate that He left them alone (physically) and has not returned to this day—although that day of reckoning is promised and will take place where there will be a division between good and bad stewards. If this all important mission could be left in the hands of men, who were just as frail as we are, without minute supervision and constant motivation, perhaps our employees can be trusted to achieve great things in our workplace if we raise the expectations for self-management and turn them loose with a day (or regular days) of accounting.
Terry Applegate writes from Utah in the winter and Michigan in the summer. He is CEO of Applegate Insulation, serves on the board for Citizens for Traditional Values, Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association and the European Theological Seminary and is married to Val with three children and four grand-children.