Acton Institute Powerblog

Advent lifts the veil of judgment and mercy in the divine economy

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Christians in the marketplace are motivated by more than profit. They seek also to be worthy of the public trust so as to avoid divine judgment. […]

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One of the more disturbing aspects of the way the market economy works is the ability of, at least some, participants to avoid responsibility for their decisions and actions. The manner in which this works is through the concepts of corporate personality and limited liability.

The corporation is deemed to have a separate legal personality. Consequently, the company can sue and be sued, enter into contracts, and be recognized as a separate legal person in its own right. There is what is called a “veil of incorporation,” which separates the members, shareholders, or owners of the company from the corporation itself. In essence, there is a cloak of invisibility behind which they hide. Added to this is the idea of limited liability—the concept that the members of a corporation are limited in their liabilities in the case of losses or bankruptcy to the amount invested. If you buy a share for $1, then that is the most you can lose even if the company goes into liquidation owing $1 million. One might think that these characteristics of the corporation enable individuals to avoid the responsibilities and consequences of their actions in the marketplace, sharing in the rewards but only to a very limited extent in the losses.

Nothing could be further from the spiritual and theological themes of Advent.

Advent lifts the veil. There is no hiding. Advent calls us before God. Advent encourages us to take responsibility for our actions. Advent reminds us of our accountability for our behavior. Advents teaches us faithfulness and discipleship.

Judgment is an Advent theme. When the Lord returns, he will sit on the throne of judgment. We will all bow the knee and give account for our lives and actions, regardless of role: business owner, executive or entrepreneur, investor, customer or supplier.

Christian observers have often seen the market as the place where we receive in this world the rewards and punishments that are a foretaste of the judgment to come. The problem with too many (though not all) of the structures of corporate ownership is that they enable the rewards but not the punishments. Bankruptcy was seen as a natural punishment in the market for failed, misplaced, or corrupt business practices. Wealth was the reward but, of course, led to significant responsibilities. Bankruptcy was viewed with considerable negativity, for example, by the Quakers, who produced so many great business merchants, and usually led to expulsion from the Quaker meeting.

A particular problem was what came to be seen as the indiscriminate pursuit of wealth, reflecting a long-standing resistance among Christians, not to wealth itself, but to what one might call the arrogance of wealth. The arrival of limited liability (in the U.K. in 1856) may have encouraged this outlook.

Certainly, mainly evangelical preachers, writers, and commentators in the 19th century objected to what Humphrey Lyttleton, in his Sins of Trade and Business: A Sermon (1874), referred to as “immoderate eagerness” for speculation and moneymaking and the “ravenous and insatiable, and ever-hurrying greediness in pursuit of it, this intoxication of love of it.”

He was not alone in the theme. The Reverend J.B. Owen, lecturing to the YMCA on Business Without Christianity, in 1855 noted how “fatally is wealth set up as a standard, as though it were the measure of right and wrong, greatness and meanness, virtue and vice.”

Montague Villiers, a noted evangelical preacher, in his 1853 lectures, Gold and Gold-Seekers: Lectures Delivered Before the YMCA, noted that “in the search for gold, the golden rule itself is forgotten.” Humphrey Boardman in The Bible in the Counting House in 1854 criticized luxury and extravagance, noting that the “money which is hurriedly made, is wastefully expended,” adding that the “contest for gain in the arena of business is carried forward as a race for ostentation in social life.”

Sin was sin. Business may indeed have been ordained by God, but its practitioners were not exempted from the judgment of both the invisible hand in the market and, ultimately, the visible hand of judgment.

The arrival of limited liability was problematic, certainly in England. An increase in fraud and unfair trade practices appears to have followed. Many Christians thought that the limitation of liability constituted the defrauding of the creditors of a failed company. The right to make profits should surely mean unlimited responsibility for losses as well. For Christians it was a matter of accountability, reputation, honesty. Business failure represented divine judgment and was an essential part of a system in which economic sin would be atoned for through bankruptcy.

The judgment seat, though, is also a mercy seat. Advent is dominated by themes that sit in creative tension with each other: waiting and anticipation, first coming and second coming, victory and sacrifice, judgment and mercy, even reward and punishment. Personal responsibility, being held to account for one’s actions in this world, presents an opportunity for repentance, forgiveness, and mercy. Most entrepreneurs fail before they succeed.

Reflecting the creative tension set up by Advent, the Christian has understood the market in terms of faithful discipleship in this world in preparation for the next, a “school of discipleship” or a field in which to exercise. This is entirely consistent with the themes of Advent. In other words, we learn in the market and apply our faith, our moral character and moral judgments, to the market. We model and demonstrate Christian behavior and Christian truth. This is seen in the way in which the market deals with the idea of competition. There are numerous benefits to competition in pricing and resource allocation, but the benefits do not accrue equally. For the Christian, the appropriate response to wealth is the responsibility toward those in need. This reinforces the idea that our time on earth, an idea reflected in the themes of Advent, is a time of probation, testing, and discipleship.

This was all well summarised by James Baldwin Brown in his 1855 lecture on The Young Man’s Entrance Upon Life and Commencement of Business, in which he argued:

I would that you young men would enter into business with the resolution to take the whole of your moral nature into it with you … to make it a school of moral discipline.

We will investigate more fully the ideas of call and calling further in our final Advent piece next week. This theme, however, of bringing the Christian moral character to bear upon the market and the business enterprise lies at the heart of our Advent reflections. One writer, J.B. Owen, whom we mentioned earlier, described business without Christianity as like trying to navigate an unknown sea without any aids of navigation.

The idea of discipleship, though, surely is also intended to lift the heart, raise the vision, to be concerned for the welfare of others. Thomas Gisborne, in his Enquiries into the Duty of Men, in 1795 referred to the Christian businessman as looking beyond “his own emolument and advantage.” He gave the example of a banker who should “exert himself in doing good by benevolent loans,” which would do more good than simple philanthropy. The accepting of small deposits was part of this responsibility.

The quest for unmitigated integrity in trade, however, carries a price for Christians in business. They face scorn and ridicule for standing up for their principles, because this means that their policies and actions must be beyond reproach and a witness to the community at large, and are almost always under scrutiny. Herbert Spencer, in his The Morals of Trade (1874), sums the matter up:

When not only the trader who adulterates or gives short measures, but also the merchant who overtrades, the bank-director who countenances an exaggerated report, and the railway-director who repudiates his guarantee, come to be regarded as of the same genus as the pickpocket, and are treated with like disdain; then will the morals of trade become what they should be.

Disciplined moral behavior was not restricted to the narrowly legal.

May the Lord bless you in this time of Advent.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.