On Christian Businesses: A Friendly Rebuttal to Jonathan Merritt

by
June 18, 2014

The idea of following Jesus certainly involves more than just the way that you spend an hour of your time on Sunday mornings. For most Christians, it will involve working as a Christian in some sort of a secular enterprise. Doing so raises some difficult ethical questions. I know the feeling first-hand.

I spent my high-school years working for a business that my father had started. Ashley Lighting manufactures lamps for hotels to place in their guest rooms. That lamp beside your bed in that Residence Inn? It’s possible that I wired it up with my own two hands.

Small family businesses are short on job descriptions and long on flexibility. I got to try my hand at a lot of things. I managed aspects of our process to obtain listing with Underwriters Laboratories, designing and wiring testing stations to comply with UL requirements. I selected and installed our first computerized accounting, distribution, and manufacturing computer system (we started with Cougar Mountain software, and then eventually migrated to Macola). Of course, I also manufactured lamps, packaged them, loaded trucks, unloaded trucks, and did a thousand other things. You know that you’re the owner of the business when you drive in to the factory at 2:00 am because you’re housed in an old, leaky building and you need to check for water leaks during a severe rainstorm to make sure that your brass parts aren’t ruined.

Along the way I faced a lot of spiritual challenges. Early in the life of this business we began to receive orders from hotels in Las Vegas. The first genuinely enormous order that I recall went to the Roman Tower in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Those were hand-cut lead-crystal lamps. The crystal was produced in East Germany (that’s how old I am), exported to West Germany, then exported to a broker in New York City, and then shipped to our facility (at the time) in Monette, Arkansas. In my young conscience I worried that we were buying parts from communists in order to sell lamps to gangsters. It made me uncomfortable.

Of course, it helped me tremendously that I had grown up in a Bible-preaching church and a Bible-believing family. When I looked at the pages of Scripture, I couldn’t find the verse telling me to refuse to do business with sinners. The closest thing to a marketplace boycott that I could find involved the economic isolation of those who refused to take the mark of the beast. We were doing honorable work. We were treating our employees fairly. We were being honest in our business practices. We were paying our taxes. We were not under obligation, I concluded, to accomplish any sort of economic isolation from sinners or infidels in the marketplace.

I did not come to this conclusion, however, without retaining some wariness about the dangers of business liaisons. Look at whence God sourced materials for the construction of the temple: Apparently God has no problems with our purchasing or vending our wares rather broadly. But look at the sexual temptations to which Solomon fell while doing business with unbelievers. Marketplace temptations are serious temptations that call for circumspect living, to be sure.

A later emotional struggle came for me when more and more of Ashley Lighting’s products began to be manufactured in China. From a business standpoint, operating in China was a foregone conclusion. You can purchase a lampshade in China and have it shipped to the United States for less money than it costs to purchase the raw materials to manufacture your own lampshade in the United States. That’s right: If your employees agreed to work for you for free and you determined to make no profit at all, you still couldn’t compete with a Chinese lampshade. The business case for Chinese manufacturing, however, troubled me more, not less, over the prospect of conducting this kind of business. How little must they be paying workers over there for prices to be so low? Do I really want to be involved in that kind of business?

The decision was not mine to make (God called me to leave that life behind and enter ministry), but I’ve come to see that the launch of manufacturing operations in China was a God-ordained move. I don’t throw around terminology like that lightly. I don’t try to vindicate all of my decisions by making God responsible for them. I don’t want to have to explain before God why I besmirched his reputation by pinning all of my mistakes upon him. But on this matter, I have no doubt. Why?

God used our move to China to advance the gospel. Can a business be Christian? A business is neither more nor less than human beings going about their work. If human beings can be Christian while they are working—can work in ways distinctively informed by their Christianity—then a business most certainly can be Christian. For obvious reasons I probably ought not to go into excessive detail, but Ashley Lighting’s operations in China have been used by God to spread the gospel and plant churches there. My father is already in Heaven, and I’m absolutely confident that this is a topic of conversation there.

Jonathan Merritt argues that we should “Stop Calling Hobby-Lobby a Christian Business.” The sole criticism of Hobby Lobby in the article is that they buy products that were manufactured in China. According to Merritt, the Green family should “quit doing business in China” since doing business there “flouts Christian values.” Merritt does not allege any specifically heinous practices among Hobby-Lobby’s suppliers. If he has done any research about the specifics of their involvement in China, it does not appear in the article. The argument, it seems, is that doing business with China is ipso facto the flouting of Christian values.

I can’t imagine that Merritt’s article is popular among the throng of Christian missionaries who are doing business in China. Where would Christian work in China be today if Merritt’s position were to win the day?

American manufacturing in China has IMPROVED conditions for Chinese workers. Our going to China has not made Chinese workers more poor, more oppressed, or more harshly treated. On the contrary, consider this graph from Reuters depicting changes in Chinese wages roughly over the period of time during which Ashley Lighting has been involved in China.

china-average

When are people better-off? When they have a job that only pays a little money, or when they are unemployed and make no money at all? Few things are more obvious facts of history than the realization that American investment in low-wage manufacturing in China has improved the economic circumstances of individual Chinese people and the Chinese economy at-large.

What would happen to the well-being of Chinese citizens if all American businesses took Merritt seriously and quit doing business in China? You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Economics to grasp the enormity of suffering that would fall upon that nation.

Our move to China has saved the jobs of our American employees, not eliminated them. If we had not opened Chinese operations we would be out of business today. That’s not speculation; it’s a fact. The parts to manufacture lamps are no longer readily available in the United States. Our entire industry moved to China. If we had been the lone holdouts, what would we have done when our suppliers stopped selling in our market? All of our employees would be out of work.

As things stand, although we have reduced (not entirely eliminated) manufacturing jobs in the United States, we have added jobs in management and distribution. Our domestic payroll is higher than it was at many points in time when we were solely a domestic manufacturer.

Conclusion

Perhaps Mr. Merritt would reply that these are just the sort of self-serving rationalizations that greedy businesses spout when someone prophetic like him calls us to task. Perhaps he would quickly cast me as the “other” and wish that I were more conscientious like he is.

But here’s how conscientious we are: My father, my brother, and I once made significant political contributions to our congressman (a Democrat) to gain a few minutes of his time to implore him to consider tougher sanctions against China for their treatment of Chinese Christians. This was before we were doing business in China. We were the poster-children for conscientiousness about Chinese oppression. We put our money where our mouths were.

Do you know how our Congressman replied? He said, “Billy Graham himself asked me not to put economic pressure on China. He is of the belief that economic punishment against China would lessen opportunities for the gospel and bring down more persecution, not less, upon Chinese Christians. Should I listen to Billy Graham or you?”

Not long after that Ashley Lighting was manufacturing in China. Measured both by our intent and by the results, it has proven to be one of the most Christian things we’ve done.


Bart Barber
Bart Barber is the pastor First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas.