At one of my previous jobs, there was a running joke in the office that said, "If you see the Jesus fish on your contractor's business card, turn around and run!" The idea was that unscrupulous individuals operating in the Bible belt would put the fish symbol on their cards to help sell everyone on the idea that they were trustworthy. Unfortunately, that is almost certain to be true in some cases. But, when is it legitimate to have a business with a prominent Christian element or theme?
Before you say, "Never!" Consider that you probably already frequently use Christian businesses. There are Christian radio stations, TV channels, schools, magazines, websites, movies, books, bookstores, and bands. By contrast, there are undoubtedly many Christian business owners who don't feel right using any sort of indication of Christianity in their marketing. Romans Chapter 14 (and quite a few other scriptures) advises us not to quarrel over such differences of opinion. But it's fine to explore a topic and consider different views before making up our minds.
Maybe some people think the tax status makes a difference. If an organization has the tax status of being non-profit, that doesn't mean the people working there aren't financially benefiting from it. God is concerned with what is in our heart, not how we filed our articles of incorporation. So, I think the only legitimate distinction to be made is as follows. Am I using my business or professional activities to point people toward Christ? Am I using the Christian label, imagery, or theme for my business because I am producing something that I believe my brothers and sisters in Christ will find beneficial? Does my product or service appeal primarily to Christians? Is it that I personally only want to do business with other Christians?
I could see that making sense for a Christian attorney, for example. A Christian attorney could possibly decide that working with non-Christians too often leads to conflicts with their own values, and therefore exclusively seek out like-minded clients. Personal application and interpretation is fair game for any business that doesn't explicitly contradict biblical teaching (such as a strip club). As believers, we are instructed to examine our own motives. Anyone considering the idea of a Christian business should explore these questions thoroughly before making a decision.
The ultimate question is, do I have a legitimate reason? Or, am I only using it for a selfish reason, such as trying to drum up more business? Worse yet, am I using it to deceive people into believing I'm an honest person? If I'm a Christian who is doing either of those things, I don't think I would get very far. God disciplines, corrects, and refines his children. He will thoroughly handle us if we step outside of his will in such a bold manner.
But, there is also the strong possibility that someone doing the latter isn't a true believer at all. Rather, they're simply trying to prey upon Christians. How are we to know the difference? I think the answer is found in 1 John 4:1, where we are instructed to test the spirits. For example, when I review other Christian investing and finance sites, products, or teachers, I believe that I can normally discern the true from the false. Fortunately the false are relatively few, but they share common attributes. They tend to contradict themselves a lot. They also tend to glorify themselves rather than God. More than anything else, in my particular line of work, they tend to appeal strongly to people's sense of desperation, fear, guilt, or greed. They accomplish this in sneaky or subtle ways, even while claiming to do the opposite. Some of them charge egregious amounts of money to do all of this. They also often quote the Bible out of context. There are biblical gray areas which are open to interpretation. Furthermore, no one is perfect. But, someone consistently quoting the Bible out of context, or twisting it to fit their own agenda, is giving you a good sign that they're a false teacher. So, when it comes to businesses that seek to instruct Christians in some way, maybe there is plenty of material through which to discern the spirit behind the business.
What about the Christian plumber, mechanic, or electrician who has the Jesus fish on his business card? Normally you get to meet and talk with those guys face to face at some point. So, you should be able to glean some insight by talking to them. If you're walking closely with God, your spirit will normally alert you when something is amiss. With others, maybe it's not quite so easy. How am I to know if the furniture store with a Jesus fish on their billboard is actually trying to glorify God through their business? I would either have to investigate them further, or ignore them altogether. Otherwise, especially if I react with a critical spirit, I've passed judgment prematurely. That is not only unfair to them, but explicitly wrong on my part.
What do we think that does to the heart of the Father, to watch his children hurl insults and criticism at each other? Do we even care, or are we just trying to puff ourselves up? Personally, I would rather reserve grace, giving my brother or sister the benefit of the doubt, if any question remains in my mind. I would also rather err on the side of supporting my brothers and sisters, rather than act out of fear that something I supported will turn out to be a ruse. That kind of fear is normally selfish. I'm concerned of what people will think of me if I support something that later turns out to be counterfeit, so I'm just not going to do it. That's probably not the best approach.
So, we shouldn't let fear stop us from supporting Christian business. But we can still apply wisdom to the matter. So far, we've got four ways of categorizing Christian businesses and their owners.*
1) True believers with traditional business ventures that we can all get on board with, such as Christian musicians, authors, or bookstores.
2) Those we don't quite get, but we're convinced they have good intentions nonetheless. I'm sure Christian investing falls into that category for many people. Christian medicine falls into that category for me. I only mention it because lately I've seen advertisements in which doctors are explicit about their Christian faith. My knee jerk reaction is "How do they apply Christian teaching to being a doctor? That seems weird." But they've probably put more thought and study into the matter than I have.
3) There are those whose intentions we question, but whose faith we do not. If there is a serious issue, we are supposed to go directly to them and address the issue with them. We fail them when we don't.
4) There is also the false believer who uses Christian language, imagery, themes, labels, etc. only in an attempt to turn more profit by deceiving people.
But, there is one last category of business, and business owners, we haven’t really mentioned… companies that are upfront about the fact that they aren’t a Christian-owned business, but that market to Christians nonetheless. An example would be Christian Mingle.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with them because they aren’t trying to trick anyone. Plus, they are actually providing a service that is beneficial to Christians. Single Christians can avoid unnecessary temptation by using Christian Mingle, assuming it is largely used by other genuine Christians. Most of us could probably agree that a Christian dating service is beneficial and proper. But, this particular one is not a Christian-owned business.
To me, this type of business is no different, philosophically, from a secular publishing company that prints Bibles or Christian books. Secular publishers, makers of Christian art, apparel, jewelry, etc. provide a needed or desired product/service to Christians. If they do a good job of it, we do business with them. The only real difference is that business concepts such as Christian Mingle are relatively new. So, because we are unfamiliar with the business concept, it’s easy to have a knee jerk, emotional reaction that says, “They’re taking advantage of Christians.” No, they’re not. They’re selling a needed service. If they aren’t very good at it, or they do something that offends Christians, they won’t last very long. If they conduct their business responsibly, in a way that benefits Christian customers, they will have success.
There is nothing inherently wrong with such a structure that should make me refuse to do business with them. Still, if I had a choice between Christian Mingle and a similar site that was actually Christian-owned and managed according to biblical principles, I personally would choose the latter.** For me at least, those two things are what make them a true Christian business, and most deserving of my support.
*Categorizing things is just a way to help our feeble human brains organize information. We have to be careful when doing it with people. It can be useful, as long as we are aware of the potential for prejudice.
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