When Partnerships Go Bad

Almost no company can survive warring partners – even if they have great employees and great products. When there is entrenched conflict at the ownership level, it is predictable that the company’s top talent will grow weary of managing the office politics that is a result of the conflict and find greener pastures in which to graze. Moreover, if the conflict gets nasty, the partners may fight just to “win” and sacrifice their company’s reputation and customer base in the process. If the “throat slashing” stage is reached, it nearly impossible to revive the business outside of a sale of its’ stock or assets.

Teaming with the wrong partner will only lead to heartache and pain. The “right” partners must have more than just complimentary skills. They must have a relationship that is synergistic on a number of levels. If there is a mismatch in only one of these levels, the partnership will likely survive. But two or more mismatches and that business is doomed. Here are the key elements that will make a partnership (and business) thrive.

While this post is focused on business partnership, it applies equally well to family-owned businesses, especially when the ownership is multi-generational.

Character

Both partners must have good character. In my book, this means honesty + humility + graciousness + trustworthiness. It means being able to face into the negatives of the partnership and the business and find ways to resolve, end or transform into opportunities conflicts so that they don’t fester and injure the business. It means holding personally to a similar set of core values.

True partnerships build trust through honesty – yes – but also through the knowledge that each partner is genuinely looking out for the other guy. It takes a while to build such trust. But then again, it takes even longer to build the type of character that is needed in such an intense relationship as a business partner. Don’t look for someone to use the business ownership experience to build their character. Only partner with those who already have the character necessary to be in a healthy partnership.

To this end, if the other person is married, spend time with them as a couple. Observe how s/he treats his/her spouse. If they argue a lot or if they are dishonest with each other, then don’t partner with him/her. Why? Because the dysfunction that exists in their marriage will be replayed in your partnership with them. Count on it. Don’t gloss over taking time to observe them in multiple, dissimilar social situations with their spouse.

You are picking your partner for the long haul, so be careful in who you choose. Don’t jump into a partnership swiftly – if you do, you’ll likely look back on your decision with whom to partner as the single-most injurious decision you ever made in business.

Communication and Civility

Good partnerships maintain a level of decorum that is never violated when the stress and emotions run high. This means that good partners aren’t just blatantly honest: sheer honesty, by itself, is not terribly helpful. Instead, the honesty needs to be coupled with humility. I’ve seen countless people justify clearly arrogant and uncivil honesty with the phrase: “Hey, I’m just being honest!” It’s as if a person is let off the hook for any incivility or injurious behavior as long as they are honest. Such is not the case. Incivility and/or dishonesty in a partnership is a business killer. It will inevitably ask your staff to take sides and that, in turn, leads to horrible office politics. Only partner with those who can be graciously honest and civil in *all* of their interactions.

Contribution

Each partner needs to make a continuing, valuable contribution to the business. Otherwise, resentment builds up between those who are carrying their weight and others who aren’t. Don’t partner with another person for the long-haul in order to solve a short-term need. You can always contract out short-term needs. Only partner with someone who can make a real contribution in at least three ways:

  1. Financial
  2. Management
  3. Technical skills

If your partner won’t invest real money – not only sweat equity and have the ability to manage their part of the business while bringing a complimentary set of technical skills to the table, then consider hiring contractors to fill your void. Don’t partner for only one or two of these elements. Be sure to partner only when all three elements exist.

If the work and rewards are not equally shared, resentment will grow within the partnership and that will be particularly disastrous to your business.

In terms of their financial abilities, don’t be afraid to ask for a credit score and credit history and be willing to share your personal financial situation with the other party. The reason for this is because I’ve seen more than a few businesses where one partner thought the other was credit worthy and they later found out that partner couldn’t get a JC Penny credit card, let alone qualify for a large business line of credit. Insist on partnering only with those who have both the capacity to take on additional debt and who are able to qualify for such debt.

Do your due diligence in these areas.

Compatibility

You get what you see. Don’t count on your partner changing. Give up the notion that if they treated you with distain in the first 90 minutes that they won’t continue to do this in the next 90 years. Keep your eyes open and walk away as soon as you can when a potential partner exhibits serious incompatibility.

Also, each partner should hold the other accountable for meeting performance goals. This requires a type of mutual submission that is difficult to find in the business world today. If one partner refuses to be held to any type of performance goals, you can count on the business losing money on that partner’s work.

Control

Someone must be clearly in charge. I usually advise against 50-50 partnership because in the end, no one can win. Assuming other things are equal, if one partner is investing $25,000 and the other $35,000, then the higher investor should get the majority of the stock in the company. The majority shareholder wins. Stay away from equal shareholder arrangements. If the relationship heads south, the inability of one person to make decisions can paralyze the company into bankruptcy.

Corporation: Act Like One

Get incorporated. Hold annual shareholder and director meetings. And above all else, have a shareholder agreement (commonly known as a “buy/sell” agreement) that specifies what the rights and responsibilities of the partners when certain events happen, such as a divorce, filing for bankruptcy, gross negligence and so forth. Paying attention to the legal aspects of the partnership will ensure that neither partner is taken advantage of.

Cash

I used “cash” because I couldn’t think of a “C” word to talk about how you plan to leave your business. Talk about your long-term personal and business goals as soon as possible. If one partner wants a lifestyle business and the other wants to grow the business for a sale, then those two shouldn’t partner. But neither partner will know if they should partner until they have talked about it and reached an agreement.

As Christian Business Owners, we should not be in the position of yoking ourselves to another who doesn’t know the Lord. I’ve seen it happen multiple times in business – where one or two Christians partnered with one or two unbelievers. In most cases, the value differences become so prominent and sharp that the business is forced into a sale or it dissolves under the weight of the conflict. In a few situations, the everyone walked away happy, with more money than they had when they started. Regardless, the Bible is clear that we shouldn’t be entering into intimate relationships with those who don’t have Christ as their Lord. It’s not that we’re better than them – far from it. It’s that we submit to a higher power that, at some level, our unbelieving friends don’t submit to. It’s really that simple.

Business is tough, as the papers and news reveals every week. It’s much too tough to be fighting with your partners. Pick well. And if you find yourself in an entrenched conflict, consider contact me to help with the resolution of that conflict at bill.english @ theplatinumgrp.com.

Seven steps to take as a small business owner in conflicted employment relationships with passive/aggressive employees.

One of the most difficult parts of being a small business owner is when personal relationships with an employee goes south. When conflicts arise, it is in everyone’s best interest to have the conflicts resolved swiftly in a win/win scenario. But what do you do when you don’t know a conflict exists until the relationship is so damage that it’s unrepairable?

Believe it or not, this can happen.

Some employees are so passive with their anger and so choreographed in their behavior around you that you, as the owner, can be caught unaware of the employee’s true thoughts and feelings. As a small business owner, what should you do? I offer some advice from my own experience of owning a business.

#1: Focus on what you can control

You can’t control another person’s attitudes or actions. And you certainly can’t control what they think about you, what they say about you or any coalitions they build against you. What other people think about you is not your business and since you can’t control it, don’t focus on it.

But you can control your own attitudes and actions. You can control how you interact with that employee.  And you can control how you react and learn from the situation.  So, focus on controlling yourself.  That’s step #1.

#2: Assess the severity of the conflict and if necessary, take immediate, responsible steps to protect yourself and your business

When you first learn that an employee is not being honest with you about a conflict s/he has with you, assess the severity of the conflict and, if necessary, take immediate steps to protect yourself and your business.  In this vein, be sure to document how you learned about the conflict, who told you what and so forth.  If the conflict leads to a termination, you’ll want to be sure you’ve documented what you said and did after learning about the conflict in case the employee brings a legal action against you.

If the conflict represents potential legal action, be sure to take steps to protect yourself and your business.

#3: Control your tongue

When you find out about the conflict, you might be deeply hurt, very angry – or both.  When emotions run high, sense runs low.  So do whatever you have to do to limit your “venting” to those who are trusted advisers.  Be very careful about venting to other employees, even if they enjoy your full trust. It’s just too risky. Save your “venting” for your trusted advisers.

#4: Look back and learn what the warning signs were – then learn to recognize them moving forward

In nearly every case where I had an employee leave on negative terms, there were warning signs that I either discounted or ignored. Learn what these signs are and then pay attention to them. I offer some here for your consideration:

  • Irritation: The employee gets overly irritated or annoyed with you about small things
  • Distance: The employee talks to you less and less
  • Coalition Builder: The employee spends more time with other employees who start to act negatively toward you
  • Productivity: The employee’s productivity goes flat or diminishes
  • Enthusiasm: The employee’s enthusiasm becomes muted or dampened
  • Gossip: The employee openly talks negatively about you or your business
  • Displacement: The employee gets openly, overly angry with other employees in excess of the situation as a way to displace their anger toward you

There might be other signs, the types and variations are nearly limitless.  The point is that you need to be aware of the quality of your relationships with your employees and be aware of the danger signs that your relationship is deteriorating probably due to an unresolved conflict.  You also need to be aware of some feeding off the negativity of others and take steps to nip that negativity as fast as possible.

#5: Use your experience to improve your hiring practices for future candidates

Learn from what went wrong with your former employee and then look for those elements when you interview others. Get your radar “up” high – very high – and walk away from those who will impress you during the interview, but who also have the potential to cause you real pain and agony. They are not worth it. Star employees can achieve much but also do significant damage to your organization and cause you a truck-load of pain.

I recall a time when I interviewed a top-performer candidate for my company. She came with serious credentials and references to the interview. She was (is) smart, disciplined, focused, goal-oriented and willing to work hard until she achieved results. She’d made other owners millions of dollars. She’s ethical in her business dealings and her customers spoke highly of her. After 20 minutes, I ended the interview. I didn’t hire her. Why? Simple:  she can’t resolve conflict. In the first 20 minutes of the interview, she gave me three different examples of when she had quit – each time because she had a conflict with the owner and couldn’t get it resolved in the manner and form she expected.

It was her way or the highway. She couldn’t handle getting “no” from an owner and then adjusting to a decision with which she disagreed.  Moreover, she made two different comments about her need to have people do things her way in the sales and business development process or “there will be problems”. So I ended the interview early and told the referring person that I wasn’t interested in her candidacy.

The referring individual was literally stunned and didn’t see my point. That’s OK. She will go from job to job, owner to owner, business to business, cycling through each one every 1-3 years, never resolving the most important conflicts that she faces and never learning from her own mistakes. My decision was to protect my company. I’ll take less in revenue and profit in the tradeoff. That’s an easy decision.

In another interview, my gut told me we should not to hire this individual. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I just felt an unease about it. But since the final decision belonged to another person on my staff, I gave my input and let that individual make his decision. The candidate was hired. It took less than six months for us to start noticing a passive-aggressive behavior on the part of this person. We found that the closer one worked with this individual, the less cooperative this individual was. “I forgot” was a common phrase. “That’s not how I do things” was a persistent theme. Finally, staff members came to me – individually and confidentially, one-by-one – to tell me that they couldn’t work with this individual anymore. Even though this person was doing a terrific job with our customers, this individual was clearly damaging internal relationships and our culture. I wish I had been more assertive at the beginning – insisting that my instincts were right and that this individual should not be hired. Lesson learned.

Take a cue from me, if you even have a whiff of unease about a candidate – regardless of the reason – don’t hire them. In the long run, you’ll find that it’s not worth it.

#6: Assess Yourself. 

Take time to assess how you handled yourself in the entire scenario. Run it by a trusted advisor – your personal coach or someone else.  Recount all of the details – including anything you said or did that helped cause the problem – and get their input and advice.  It would be wrong to assume that in these types of conflicts that you were not a contributor to them.  Have the humility to look at yourself and see what you can do to improve your performance and interpersonal skills.  If you have wronged your employee – even if you’re terminating their employment – have the maturity to admit to him/her and yourself and apologize. It will do you both good.

#7: Improve your “soft” reporting processes so that these types of passive conflicts are surfaced more quickly

Use regular surveys and other tools to surface the conflicts your employees might have that they are not talking about.  Do what you can to ensure that conflicts are not festering and causing damage on your team.  Use your experience to improve your company’s ability to surface conflict and deal with it in a mature, straight-forward manner.

By following these steps, not only will you be doing what you can to resolve and/or manage the conflicted situation as best you can, but you’ll also be increasing the likelihood that you won’t be hiring passive/aggressive people on your staff in the future.

Bill English, MA, MDiv, LP, CPBPM
The Platinum Group

68 Undeniable Truths of Business Ownership

The longer I’m in business, the more convinced I am that certain truths exist when it comes to leading a business.  What follows is a list of the Undeniable Business Truths.

  1. God created business for His glory. It really is all about Him.
  2. God calls some to own businesses.
  3. Your business is an entrustment from the Lord, to be used for His glory and the benefit of His kingdom.
  4. A violation of God’s commandments in business will harm your business.
  5. Success depends more on character than skill
  6. Culture trumps strategy.
  7. Incivility can kill your culture.
  8. You cannot part-time your way into success.
  9. Someone must be clearly in charge.
  10. Your company is your people.
  11. “Listening” occurs only when the other person understands that you understand.
  12. What you say and do will be scrutinized beyond anyone else in the organization.
  13. A business is not a democracy.
  14. Rumors: you’ll be the last one to hear them.
  15. You will be misunderstood, misrepresented and misinterpreted.
  16. People can and will lie to you.
  17. You will need to execute better than anyone else in your organization.
  18. The more you integrate your faith into your business, the more Satan will oppose you.
  19. You will take risks on a regular basis.
  20. Success never endures.
  21. Failure need not be fatal.
  22. What gets measured is what gets done.
  23. Hiring the wrong person for the right job is worse than not hiring anyone.
  24. The truth is never the problem.
  25. Reality is your friend, because everything else is fantasy.
  26. People will think you are rich simply because you own a business.
  27. Rarely will employees tell you the full, unvarnished truth.
  28. Your business must be profitable.
  29. Profits are good.
  30. A proper focus on process is tantamount to a proper focus on profits.
  31. Some people are incredible number two’s and lousy number one’s.
  32. Profits come as conflict is resolved.
  33. You can’t get any traction without some friction.
  34. You have the problems you tolerate.
  35. Ignoring problems leaves a lot of success on the table
  36. People will rarely work harder than you.
  37. If you can’t find it, you can’t use it.
  38. If you don’t find a way to disconnect from your business from time to time, it will consume you.
  39. Servant-Leadership doesn’t work when the one being served is arrogant or rebellious.
  40. It doesn’t matter what you want – what matters is what your customers want
  41. You must have an inner passion for the core value your business offers to your customers.
  42. Top performers take ownership of the results and do not try to excuse those or blame someone else for them.
  43. Someone must be responsible for income.
  44. Hire Character. Train Skill.
  45. Few people, if any, will encourage you in your role as a business owner.
  46. Few employees, if any, will thank you for your generosity.
  47. Over-compensated employees tend to whine about not making enough money
  48. Everyone wants the benefits of being an owner, few want the risk, stress, loneliness and exposure to liability that comes with ownership.
  49. There are only three ways you will leave your business: die, liquidate or sell.
  50. Corollary to #49: owners can’t quit
  51. It really is lonely at the top.
  52. Every person in your organization needs to be managed
  53. If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there.
  54. You will make more money working “on” the business than “in” the business.
  55. There is no substitute for effective leadership.
  56. The values you have at home are the values you take to work.
  57. You will need to separate your emotions about your employees from you management of your employees
  58. People support what they help create.
  59. People don’t leave a business, they leave a manager.
  60. Strong moral character and strong leadership are two different things
  61. Some endings are necessary
  62. Blame is the parking break for improvement.
  63. You will not grow without attempting to do things that you are unable to do today.
  64. The immature character asks life to meet his demands.  The mature character meets the demands of life.
  65. The more the business depends on you, the owner, the less valuable it is to a potential buyer
  66. If you have a partner, the buy/sell agreement is the most important document you’ll ever sign
  67. All wealth comes from profitable businesses
  68. The path of least resistance for you or one of your employees doesn’t mean it’s the best path for others in the company or  your company as a whole.
  69. The moment you hire your first employee is the moment at which you stop knowing about everything that’s going on in your business.

The Threat of Litigation Should Not Be Ignored

Small business owners live with the threat of litigation on a daily basis. Over the last 20 years, employee lawsuits have risen 400% and of those lawsuits, 42% are against privately held small businesses with between 15 and 100 employees. If it goes to court, employees win 67% of the time in State courts and 63% of the time in Federal courts. The news isn’t good for small business owners because this means that unethical lawyers can help employees make charges against the employer and then offer to settle out of court – in essence – extort their employer for thousands of dollars. I’ve personally experienced this and I’ve seen it happen to other friends who are business owners.

Moreover I’ve recently witnessed a company pull back from asserting their rights under a (non-employment) contract because they are afraid of how the other party to the contract might respond – they are afraid that the other party will sue them and they don’t want the public exposure, even though they are clearly in the right. Such fear has driven them to cower and make poor decisions that further weakens their position with the other party in their contract.

The threat of lawsuits changes how we make decisions. It changes how we hire, how we fire, how we sub-contract and how much risk we’re willing to take on. Consider this fictitious example:

“In 2008, I hired Pete as an auto technician. I utilized a legal State job application and job description which asked old Pete if he could perform all the functions of the job. Pete not only assured me he could—he signed all forms saying he could.

Turns out Pete forgot to mention an old back injury. When a co-worker found him on the ground squealing in pain, not only did I wind up in a lawsuit, Pete also called the EEOC claiming I wouldn’t make appropriate accommodations for him. Remember, any time an employee calls the EEOC, there will be a lengthy investigation that will take up a lot of your time.

Pete got an attorney to fight for his rights. “They screwed me! They made my back worse! I told them I had a bad back!”

Turns out that although I had Pete sign the necessary forms before hiring stating he could perform the job functions of an auto technician, the court and legal fees would have gone into the hundreds of thousands. As a small business owner, I couldn’t afford that—let alone a jury award—so I settled with Pete for, well, that’s my business, but it wasn’t pretty. Not to mention, I had the EEOC on my doorstep for two weeks after Pete wasn’t even there making sure I was playing nice and not breaking labor laws. I’ll always remember Pete.”

If you think this is an odd example, think again. Events like this happen every day, which is why small business is so wary of lawyers, employees and the Federal Government. I know of one small business owner that spent $3M defending himself only to have the court side with the plaintiff and awad the plaintiff a $1.2M judgement. He could have settled it for under $1M, but chose to fight it.

Here are some other statistics:

  • Most litigation events will cost between $3000 and $150,000, with on-third of them being under $10,000.
  • Business owners will attempt to “recoup” these expenses by cutting operating expenses, acquiring new customers or expanding their services to existing customers
  • Business owners will not attempt to “recoup” these expenses by raising prices
  • Those who have been engaged legally by an employee or customer are more wary of these relationships as a result of their litigation experiences
  • The average $1M/year business spends $20,000 on lawsuits each year
  • 52% of all civil lawsuits target small businesses

Most small business owners are not aware of the real costs they face if they have never been involved in a lawsuit. But nearly 25% of small businesses are involved in some type of litigation effort within a single year. The median costs of litigation by case type is as follows (from www.courtstatistics.org from their Caseload Highlights, Volume 20, Number 1, January 2013):

  • Automobile – $43,000
  • Premises liability – $54,000
  • Real Property – $66,000
  • Employment – $88,000
  • Contract – $91,000
  • Malpractice – $122,000

For many businesses, one $88,000 claim would put them into bankruptcy. And in many of these cases, the small business owner has done nothing wrong. It’s the seriousness of the claim and how it would play in court that often decides whether or not there is a pre-trial settlement.

The two most common areas where small business owners will be sued include:

  • Employee complaints – EEOX complains, workers compensation claims, employee theft. While some of the complains were due to employee negligence, employees still filed claims and/or made demands hoping there would be a financial settlement or an increased level of responsibility/salary to close the matter
  • Business-specific problems/claims – Issues of intellectual property were common for software and technology companies. Issues of customers blaming the contractor for structural problems or results the customer could not initially envision were mentioned by small construction companies.

In the face of increasing litigation in our society, what should a small business owner do to protect their business? We recommend these minimum actions:

  • Have a lawyer assess your employment practices at least every other year. Have employment contracts. Worry about sexual harassment, discrimination and wrongful terminations – especially if you terminate someone for cause without the proper paperwork.
  • Protect your intellectual property by working with an IP lawyer
  • Only contract with corporations, not individuals – avoid the IRS claiming they were employees when they weren’t
  • Manage your contracts faithfully and tightly. For example, if a contract is coming up for renewal, the actively renew the contract or actively end it.
  • Be diligent in how electronic information is stored so that during an eDiscovery process, opposing counsel doesn’t find information that isn’t germane to the matter at hand
  • Be less trusting of employees, customers and other companies;
  • Of the ~20 million civil cases that are filed each year, roughly 60% are concerned with contract disputes, so be sure to write clear, clean contracts. Don’t rely on a person’s word.
  • Be sure to be incorporated and hold the various required board of director meetings each year
  • Be less trusting of employees, vendors, partners and customers

As a Christian Business Owner, this isn’t easy to write – “be less trusting” – yet this is the business climate we live in. You simply must assume that your Christian employees, vendors, partners, contractors and customers will sue you as fast as those who do not claim the name of Christ. I receive no pleasure in writing this, but it is the truth as I understand it.

The worst thing you can do is skip all these suggestions and carry on as usual.

Bill English

An Open Letter to Kim Davis and the Evangelical Community

The recent account of Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky who has refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses highlights several thorny problems in the continuing clash between Evangelical Christians and the homosexual community. The latter sees same-sex marriage as a civil right nearly identical to the civil rights issue of race and gender. Sexual orientation, to their way of thinking, is no different. The former sees this first as a moral issue of sin to which the Scriptures speak directly.

It is not an overstatement to say our culture has moved swiftly on this matter from once viewing homosexuality as something hidden and “queer” (as it was when I was a boy) to something fully accepted in our culture complete with the right to marry (as it is now). I can’t think of another issue on which an entire culture has moved so thoroughly from one point of view to another.

In this letter, I’m speaking only to Evangelical Christians who believe homosexuality is sin before God and who hold to the traditional view that marriage is between one man and one woman. I am in that camp. The plain reading the Bible, without the exegetical gymnastics that some are going through today to conclude God supports homosexuality, would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the God presented in the Bible defines all sexual activity outside of marriage to be sin. It misses His standard of holiness. It misses his standard for marriage, which is to reflect the unity and diversity found in the Trinity. Perhaps I will outline this in another post on another day.

Here is my letter to Kim Davis and the larger Evangelical Community:

Kim, I admire your willingness to stand for your beliefs. I support your right to not be forced to violate your values and conscious by government action. Freedom of religion is worthless if our exercise of our religion is either forced or repelled by the government. Yet, as an elected official, I have mixed feelings about your refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

It’s my understanding that your decision to not issue marriage licenses altogether is a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling giving same-sex couples a constitutional protection to marry. Rather than issue marriage licenses for heterosexual couples and deny them for homosexual couples, you (along with several other counties in other states) decided not to issue marriage licenses to anyone.

As an elected official, how do you balance your beliefs about traditional marriage with God’s commands to obey authorities that He has instituted? How do you balance your beliefs about traditional marriage with God’s commands to honor the oaths that you take? How you handle yourself before God is a more complex matter than simply asserting that you’re following God’s authority instead of man’s authority. You took an oath to uphold the laws of our land, I suspect, under the assumption that American and Kentucky laws would never ask you to violate God’s laws, an assumption which probably shouldn’t have been assumed and should not be assumed by those in office moving forward.

How would you view a Muslim in government who decided to deny a business license to a woman-owned, privately held business because his religion tells him that women should remain at home, out of the sight of any married man, so as to not cause those men temptation? How would you view a Mormon who decided to deny a building permit to a group of Buddhists who wanted to build a temple for their faith because he can’t support the furtherance of a religion that leads people to Hell? While Starbuck did not openly state that they didn’t want the business of people who believe in traditional marriage, I wonder how you’d view Starbucks if they had openly said they didn’t want the business of those who believe in traditional marriage? You have been divorced multiple times (I have been divorced once), so I ask you this: how would you react if an Evangelical, Christian judge refused to issue divorce decrees simply because she believes that divorce is sin and what God has joined together, let no man (or woman – including a judge) put asunder? Is there any substantive difference between a Christian county clerk issuing a same-sex marriage license and a Christian judge issuing a divorce decree? If you were a county official in Nevada, would you refuse to issue brothel licenses? How would you view a Catholic who refused to rent an apartment to an unmarried, heterosexual couple? How would you view a Christian mortgage broker who refused to help secure a loan to a credit-worthy, but unmarried heterosexual couple for a home they wanted to buy because the broker believes that living together outside of marriage is sin? How would you view a Christian waiter who refused to serve you a glass of wine because he believes that consuming alcohol for non-medical purposes is sin?

What I’m pointing out is that when we, as Christians, act in our “public” role, we encounter sin in a number of different transactions. We don’t always get to “pick and choose” which situations we’ll participate in and which we won’t. It’s not that simple.

It seems to me that if a Christian feels that serving alcohol, issuing divorce decrees, renting apartments to unmarried couples, refusing to issue building permits or business licenses is sin, then that person should consider not serving in that role. Our society will move forward and will do so with increasingly unchristian, unbiblical morals. We can choose to be salt and light and work within the system or step outside of it and let the system deteriorate faster without our presence. But it seems to me that we don’t have the option to take an oath and then violate that oath while saying we need to follow God’s laws.

For the larger evangelical community, I have two considerations for us that Kim’s situation highlights.

Oaths Mean Something

When we take an oath, it is something that is done before God and man, which is why we say “so help me God”. Consequently, God takes our oaths seriously. To violate one’s oath is sin. I don’t find the Scriptures equivocating on this point. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. In Kim’s case, she feels that she’s sinning by issuing same-sex marriage licenses. So my recommendation to her would be to resign her position unless she can reach some type of reconciliation between herself and the Lord on issuing same-sex marriage licenses. What she cannot do is violate an oath which she voluntarily took as part of voluntarily holding a public office and yet claim she is following God’s laws. It seems to me that if issuing a same-sex marriage license is sin (which is not clearly taught in Scripture), then surely violating one’s voluntary oath to uphold the laws of the land is also sin (which is clearly taught in Scripture). In other words, marriage theology doesn’t trump oath theology – at least not in the world I live in.

Let’s Opt-Out of Legal Marriage

Yep. That’s not a typo. I believe it’s time for Evangelicals to simply opt-out of using marriage licenses to indicate that we are married. Our public commitment before God and our fellow believers should be enough. It two people decide to commit their lives to each other in marriage before God, why do we need a governmental agency to put their stamp of approval on it? Are not our commitments and oaths before God more binding on us than American law? I would contend that if we really hold God’s laws to be above our laws, then we don’t need government approval for a legitimate marriage before God and our church.

Hence, to restate this idea: I contend that because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, it is time for Christians to opt-out of the American judicial marriage system and let marriage be only a religious, yet intensely personal event. Perhaps there are negative tax ramifications of this idea, but when has that had any real bearing on how we follow the Lord?

Now, some may say that we’d be violating the law by not obtaining marriage licenses. I disagree. It’s my understanding that our laws on marriage provide a way for the state to recognize a marriage, but that following the State’s process is not required in order for two people to be married in purely religious terms. It’s obvious that the State takes little, if any interest, in two people who live together over a years or decades. They aren’t violating any laws. If they do this and in their religious framework, they are married, what concern is there for the State?

I think the framers of our laws assumed that they two would always be congruent – state marriage laws and religious marriage beliefs – but this is now no longer the case. We can’t assume congruity between the two. So, it seems to me that because God’s laws are above man’s laws and because our oaths are more binding than man’s contracts, licenses, certifications and so forth, its’ time for Evangelicals to fundamentally change our process for recognizing a marriage by subtracting the involvement of the State in Christian marriages.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear the preacher say “Now, because of your submission to God’s authority, I now declare you husband and wife” as opposed to what we do today: “now, by the power vested in me by the State of <insert your state here>, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

From the perspective of the Evangelical institution, this idea may also have the added value of providing a realistic way to focus on Christian marriages that don’t violate our theological and religious beliefs. Lawyers need to weigh in on this, but I’m thinking there is a potential solution that solves a number of thorny problems for Christian and religious institutions. If the institution is not conducing a marriage ceremony that involves the State or violates any laws and that is purely religious in nature, it seems to me that the State would have no interest in the event and discrimination laws would not effect this either. Again, lawyers are needed here for clarification.

In summation, I think Kim’s two choices are clear: either serve the entire public or resign. As for the Evangelical church, I vote to opt-out of State sanctioned marriages entirely and make them a purely religious event before God and our fellow believers.

I welcome your thoughts and responses.

Bill English
Founder, Bible and Business

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