The Poor and Christian Business Owners

No matter what economic system is tried, there are always some who are considered “poor”, meaning that materially, they barely have enough to “get by”.  In socialistic or dictatorial economic/political systems – those that are “extractive” in nature where political power is vested in the hands of few individuals (here and here) – the vast majority of the population is poor because those with power take most of the country’s wealth for themselves. (This is, incidentally, why the cause of freedom and the federation of political power is so important to the core principles espoused on this site. The four core purposes of business cannot be performed in a political environment where freedom, private property and the rule of law are not found.)

Who are the poor? Well, there are some who are perpetually poor, meaning that year after year, they have little to live on. The reasons for this vary and won’t be discussed in this post. But some move in and out of poverty rather swiftly. Based on our economic system here in the US, a person can be “rich” or “poor” for relatively short periods of time. For example, a farmer who has earned little throughout his life might choose to sell his land to a housing developer. In that year, the farmer is thought to be “rich” according to the IRS because he sold his land for a high price and he’ll be taxed at the same rates as the rich. By the same token, a business owner whose business once brought in considerable income can swiftly become “poor” if sales dry up due to market, regulator, technology and/or competitive changes. In both cases, you may not be able to discern who is “rich” or “poor” in a given year by looking at the clothes they wear, the house they live in, their behavior or mannerisms or other external factors. Our long-term economic trajectories usually have more to do with how we “look” than our present financial state. The larger point is that people can move in and out of “poor” categories – sometimes rather swiftly. Let’s bear this in mind as we work through this post.

As Christian business owners, we are not exempt from understanding and following the passages discussed in this post. A proper interpretation of these passages will help us all understand our broader role in the Christian community as well as our unique status of being stewards of businesses that God has entrusted to us.  This post is intended to help us understand how to relate to those who are poor in our roles as Christian Business Owners. We have unique stewardship responsibilities because of our opportunities to create vast sums of wealth. Each section will tackle a different relationship/role and each section (except the last one) is founded in Scripture.

It is to these passages that we now turn.

Destitution of Some is a Collective, Moral Failure of Society

In Jewish thinking, having people who were materially destitute was a moral wrong and a collective failure of their society. Deuteronomy 15.1-15:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you [emphasis added], for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

In this chapter, the Old Testament Jewish law discusses the regulations for cancelling debts every seven years.  The cancellation was applied only to a “brother”, meaning a fellow Israelite.  The cancellation of debts was not applied to “foreigners”, meaning a non-Israeli person.  By analogy today, we would interpret “brother” as a fellow believer in Christ and a “foreigner” as one who does not believe in Christ (i.e., is not trusting Jesus Christ for his/her salvation).

But why would these debts be cancelled?  Very simply stated, in verse 4, the Lord tells us: “…there should be no poor among you….He will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God….”.  Within my spirit, I sense that us Evangelicals have a long way to go when it comes to financially helping our fellow believers who are Christians and who are poor by giving them what they need to live a decent life. One of the elements that should characterize the Christian community is that we have no poor among us. We take care of our family.  Mind you, this community is world-wide and there are Christians in other countries who are totally destitute. Giving to some might be nearly impossible given political realities, but we must try. Christian business owners have a responsibility to create wealth through profits.  Out of those profits, we have a responsibility to give to those who are in need.

There are two sides to this: good stewards notice the plight of others and step in to help. But if they are unaware, those in need can also ask. Good stewardship doesn’t require us to give simply because someone asks, however (notwithstanding Matthew’s “give to him who asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”). Not all who ask will use the assistance wisely. I recall one man who literally had no food for his family, so his church gave him a sum of money which was intended to help him feed his family for a couple of months. Imagine their dismay when he showed up at a church function a few weeks later with an expensive video camera he purchased with their funds. Wise stewards don’t give to irresponsible people like this, so first ask God how His profits should be spent and then follow the Lord’s leading.

Some Christian business owners give only to organizations, rather than to individuals. I was once in this camp. Go to the Lord and ask His leading on this, but it seems to me that the flavor of Deuteronomy 15 has a more personal touch than simply writing a check to an organization.

Who’s Responsible?

What I’m arguing here is that destitution is a failure of society, but the institution responsible for fixing it is the church, not the government. Perhaps we can have collaboration between the two, but with our hyper-insistence on a high firewall between government and the church, it appears that our society will not allow the two institutions to work together in any meaningful way.

I don’t support the government mandating fixes to these things that I’m talking about. Living out these principles is a discipleship issue, not a political issue. These are matters of the heart, not politics. It’s the church’s responsibility to ensure that our society has these values baked into our culture, not the governments’. Once the government gets involved, then the discussion pivots from obedience to God to who is getting “their fair share” and “what’s legal” and the rest. Church members by the millions retreat from their stewardship and discipleship responsibility once the government gets involved. The reality is that forced charity is not charity and governments are incapable of “caring”.

In a pluralistic society such as ours, surely we can find common ground among most religions to support the notion that we should not have destitute people in our society. But again, it is the churches, synagogues, mosques and so forth who should collaborate to eradicate our deepest social ills – including poverty. And frankly, one of the best ways to ensure we eradicate poverty is to teach people how to start and grow healthy businesses. But with our recent losses of small businesses in America, one wonders if this can be achieved without significant government reform. Governments cannot start businesses – but governments can shut them down and discourage new business start-ups through onerous tax and regulation policies as well as creating an uncertain legal environment.

The macro solution is to make the government’s efforts at combating poverty irrelevant by:

  1. Collaboration among churches, synagogues and other religious and community institutions
  2. Robust teaching and support of small business, where nearly all new employment is generated – poverty cannot be eradicated without a strong, growing business environment
  3. Getting the government out of the business of micro-managing every aspect of our lives – freedom is essential to growth and problem resolution at the micro level

I realize this notion of working with those who do not believe as we do is appalling and offensive to some who read this blog. I get that. I’ll leave this to you and the Lord to wrestle with. I won’t try to convince you otherwise.

Do Not Oppress the Poor

Those who have money have power, status, and access. I’ve seen it time and again where the rich collude with each other and the politically powerful to create opportunities for themselves that further extract wealth from the poor. This is sin. In some cases it is legal. But just because something is legal doesn’t mean that God is pleased. In the Old Testament, whether a man’s poverty was due to his own sin or to someone else’s, poverty was seen as an evil to be combated, and the law made many provisions for the relief of it. God cared for the needy, and expected his people to do the same:

Exodus 22.21-27: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

Leviticus 19.9-10: ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

Deuteronomy 24.10-22: When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God. Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin. Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin. Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Isaiah 10.1-2: Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people

Jeremiah 22.13-14: Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.

Ezekiel 22.29: The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.

Amos 2.2-4: For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.

Amos 5.22: You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

Amos 8.4-8: Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.” “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn? The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt.

The temptation of the rich to oppress the poor is ever-present. Corporations – often in league with governments – oppress the poor on a regular basis. And yes, even governments can oppress their own people – including the poor. While the Republicans extol the virtues of business and the Democrats extol the virtues of government, neither sees their own as part of the problem. When big business gets in bed with big government – watch out. No one is safe.

For example, many reading this post have had money extracted from them by the force of government to pay for the offices and ball fields of billionaire owners and millionaire players. When the government agrees to subsidize an NFL franchise (mind you, the NFL rakes in over $9B in profits each year even though they are organized as a non-profit) by levying taxes on the general population so that the billionaire owners and millionaire players can have higher salaries and profits and a new stadium in which to play, this is the rich and powerful oppressing the poor. When certain corporations gain tax breaks or access to coveted licenses or waivers from the government that small business owners can’t get because they are, well, too small to matter, this is the rich and powerful oppressing the poor. When high-paid ministry leaders use guilt-tripping manipulations to (essentially) extract (even though it is in the form of an “ask”) more money from people who are struggling to survive, this is the rich oppressing the poor. When colleges accept gifts from large donors to pay for museum artifacts while cutting the positions and wages of their staff, raising tuition rates and turning away students unable to the education that supports their call to ministry, this is the rich oppressing the poor. When politicians use their position to gin-up one constituent group against another and then use that group’s anger as a basis for fund-raising, this is the rich and powerful oppressing the poor. I could go on – but you get my point. Incremental oppression occurs every day.

Christian Business Owners need to closely walk with God to ensure we do not engage in oppressing the poor. As Christian business owners, there are at least three ways in which we can oppress the poor:

  1. Oppressive pricing of our products and services that are considered inelastic. When it comes to pricing our products and services, that pricing must be fair and should take into account the poor who are among us.  While you may not take this principle into consideration if your business is selling yachts to millionaires, you should take a look at this principle if your business is selling insulin. This is why it is entirely Biblical to have pricing for non-profits and for Christian organizations that include deep discounts.  Part of supporting the church and our fellow believers who are poor is to help them obtain goods and services with pricing that meets their economic needs. You might even go so far as to offer free products and services to those under a certain income. That would be honoring to God.
  2. Unlivable wages: we pay as little as possible to ensure we create as much profit as possible. This is the American way of doing business, but it is not always the Lord’s way. When we hire someone, we should pay them, in part, based on what they need to sustain themselves. If we require a full-time commitment, then we should be willing to ensure that they are not dumpster diving for food or having to live out of a car. Christian organizations are especially guilty of this. In nearly every church, Christian school or non-profit, I’m constantly amazed at how little people are paid – and as a result – valued. For example, I know of one Christian college here in the upper mid-west who starts their full-time theology professors at $28,000/year while the President of the college makes well over $100K/year. I know I’m stepping on toes here……
  3. Not giving to the poor when the Spirit tells us to do so is hoarding and a form of oppression.  In John 16, we are told that the Spirit speaks only what He hears from the Father.  To not obey the Spirit’s leading is to not obey the Lord.  When we are prompted to do so, we should give to others – even to the point of sacrifice. Remember, wealth is a renewable resource.

Is Poverty a Sign of Righteousness or Sin?

The short answer: its’ neither. If you want the long answer – the read on.

There are some who believe that poverty is a sign of righteousness. Others believe it is a sign of sin. One can argue from Scripture either direction. Life experience would say it’s not one or the other: it is more complicated than that. Let me quote at length from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible:

This thought—that so far from being prosperous, the good man may often be poor—is sometimes curiously inverted. The righteous may be poor, but Scripture sometimes appears to reckon that to be poor is to be righteous. Of course it is not automatically so (Prv 30:8, 9), but such references are frequent enough, especially in the psalms (e.g., 9:18; 10:14; 12:5; 34:6; 35:10; 74:19), to deserve careful consideration. And on reflection they are not so strange. As God is specially concerned about the poor, so the poor may be specially concerned about God, for two good reasons. If there is poverty in Israel, it is because those with power are misusing it; so the poor will claim God’s help first because it is his rule which is being flouted, and he must vindicate himself, and secondly, because in the circumstances there is no one else to turn to. In this way “poor” becomes almost a technical term. “The poor” are the humble, and the humble are the godly (Ps 10:17; 14:5, 6; 37:11; Zep 3:12, 13). Just as being rich can foster self-indulgence, self-confidence, pride, and the despising and oppression of one’s fellows, so being poor should encourage the opposite virtues.

Instead of being an evil to be shunned, poverty thus becomes an ideal to be sought. Following the OT use of “the poor” and “the pious” as almost interchangeable terms, personal property was renounced by many Jews during the period between the Testaments. Among them were the sect of the Essenes, and the related community which was set up at Qumran near the Dead Sea. The latter actually called themselves “The Poor.” This tradition continued into NT times. Possibly “the poor” at Jerusalem means a definite group within the church there (or even the Jerusalem church as a whole; Rom 15:26; Gal 2:10). Certainly there emerged later a Jewish-Christian sect called the “Ebionites” (from a Hebrew word for “poor”).

The NT teaches clearly, of course, that what really matters is the attitude of the heart. It is quite possible to be poor yet grasping, or rich yet generous. Even so, with the OT background outlined above, the general sense of these words in the Gospels is that rich = bad, poor = good. On the one hand, the Sadducees are rich in worldly wealth and the Pharisees in spiritual pride, and men of property are selfish, foolish, and in grave spiritual peril (Mk 10:23; Lk 12:13–21; 16:19–31). On the other hand, it is devout and simple folk like Jesus’s own family and friends who generally represent the poor.

In truth, therefore, the two versions of the first beatitude amount to the same thing. Matthew’s has the depth: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (5:3). But Luke’s has the breadth. When he says simply “Blessed are you poor” (6:20), he means those who in their need—in any kind of need—turn to the Lord (6:17–20). It is to bring the gospel to such people that Christ has come into the world (Mt 11:5; Lk 4:18).

Christ himself embodies the same ideal, showing in his earthly life what it means to have nothing to fall back on except his Father’s loving care (Mt 8:20), and finally allowing himself to be deprived even of life (Phil 2:5–8). In this way both lines of teaching converge on a passage mentioned earlier: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Our helpless poverty is an evil from which he comes to rescue us; his deliberately chosen poverty is the glorious means by which he does so.

(Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.)

Clearly, then, we can surmise that being poor is neither a sign of sin or righteousness – it’s really a matter of the heart. Some who are righteous are wealthy – some are poor. Some move between being the two. Some filled with wickedness prosper financially – usually because wherever you find vice, you’ll find money. But some wicked do come to ruin. There is no hard and fast rule – no “always” in this area. So don’t use the existence of wealth or poverty to infer righteousness or wickedness. Get to know the person and you’ll find out where their heart is.

As Christian Business Owners, we walk a fine line in which we must closely follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. If poverty is a result of sin, but repentance is evident, then it’s my belief that we should give. If poverty is a result of sin and there remains a hard heart, I’m much less inclined to give. We don’t support sinful activities and lifestyles with God’s money. But there’s no hard and fast rule here – just principles that we apply as we sense the leading of the Holy Spirit.

What Should an Owner Pay Him/Herself?

It seems to me that Christian Business Owners should use the following three principles – either in tandem or individually – to set their salaries and living standards:

  1. Go to the census bureau and find out what the average salary is for your neighborhood or town and pay yourself that. Adjust your living standard to live within that salary and give the rest away.
  2. Do a survey of other businesses in your vertical that are roughly your size. Find out (if you can) what the other owners pay themselves – average it out and pay yourself that.
  3. If possible, find out what the average salary is for those who are members in your church. Pay yourself that amount and adjust your living standard accordingly.

The point is that we should strive to live at an average level – not the levels of the rich and famous. People are dying every day of hunger, malnutrition and other elements that are beyond their control. We have a responsibility world-wide to these individuals – not just those in our back yards. So instead of indulging in self-pleasure, let’s enjoy the gift of giving to others. Much of what we do and all of what we own won’t matter in 30 years or even 10 years. But giving to those in need is one of the few things we can do right now that will have eternal effects.

Frankly, I’ve come to the conclusion that living the “high life” is a form of selfishness and hoarding – both of which are clearly condemned in Scripture. Our hearts need to be bathed in generosity, not selfishness.

If you’re a Christian Business Owner – take these matters to prayer and see what God would have you do in response to this post.

Bill English
CEO, Mindsharp
Associate, The Platinum Group