A Model for Christian Investors
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Investing for the majority of Christians is a puzzle for at least two reasons.
First, investing is incredibly de-personalized. How many of us have actually gone into our 401(k)s or IRAs, looked at what mutual funds we own, then taken the additional step to research those fund’s top ten holdings – and then learned something about the companies we actually own a share in? In my experience, almost nobody. For everyday investors, most simply want to put the quarter in the vending machine, press “buy,” and get a bigger coin back out. In a heavily financialized economy, investing is complex and veiled under layers of lingo, financial instruments, and specialized professionals. Seeing an investment as caring for a group of people operating a business never crosses our minds.
Second, most of us feel powerless. With total investable assets in the US at an estimated $42.1 trillion – which are often controlled by mammoth institutions like Vanguard, Blackrock or sovereign wealth funds – what impact can my widow’s mite tucked away for retirement really have? Wall Street is a powerful system that is beyond our control; even many” powerful” asset managers feel powerless, ever at the whim of market forces and corporate titans that seem almost trans-human.
And yet, most of us don’t feel completely powerless when we go to work and engage in business. Business is a set of human relationships between investors, management, employees, and customers that most of us do have some say-so over. We can’t – and shouldn’t – wash our hands of responsibility for why, how and what we do working in a business; can the Christian really claim that the provision of capital for that same business doesn’t also carry at least some moral responsibility?
If investing is simply ownership over a share of a business, Christians might say that we’d prefer to both invest in and work in businesses that better reflect the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of this world. This tricky business because, of course, every business we invest in is a mix of good and evil, sinners and saints, redemptive products and depraved practices. No business (like no person) is perfectly, fully situated in the kingdom of light or the kingdom of darkness.
Yet I believe the New Testament gives us a way to understand what kinds of business better reflect (though not completely embody) God’s will for human relationships, business, and investing. The key, I believe, is wrapped up in a single idea: power.
It’s been said that all models are wrong, but some are useful. This one is no different. However, I believe we can contrast business and investing activities that function in two different paradigms: the kingdom of the world versus the kingdom of God. One is characterized by power accumulated; the other, by power given.
In this world of business, investors exercise power over managers, managers wield power over employees, and employees have power over customers. Simply put, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” It’s the way the world functions. Those with the most money exercise power over those with the least. In the ancient near east they were called “Benefactors.” Today, we’d simply call them investors.
Yet over all of these people, another Power seems to be at work. Sometimes the power is “money,” or “the market,” or a corporation that is so large no one human can control it. They are nameless, faceless powers that seem to be controlling even the lives of the powerful men and women.
The New Testament can be shifty speaking about these powers. They’re sometimes called principalities, thrones, or authorities. Some see a hierarchy of angels and demons. Others see them as powerful institutions. But what’s clear is that they wield enormous control over human affairs, they’re generally associated with darkness, and Christ “disarmed” and “subjected” them through his death and resurrection (Romans 8:38, Colossians 2:15, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 3:22). And they’re invisible. You can’t see the “powers,” but something certainly seems to be “there.”
As it relates to the economy, those inside this system tend toward power-seeking and using others to gain more power. Investors extract money from companies, management uses labor for profit goals, and employees manipulate the desires of customers, ultimately decreasing their freedom and agency. Dominance of others and fear of losing power characterize this economy.
It should be noted that these powerful systems are impersonal and faceless. Again, whether that be Mammon or the economy or a multinational corporation or “market returns,” people serve powerful systems that seem to have a super-human life of their own. Even the “customer” is often made into faceless avatar, holding even a seat on the board of one of the world’s most powerful companies.
Ultimately, in this system, power itself rules, and each person serves others who wield more power than they do.
In contrast, God’s kingdom functions principally by pushing power down a system. The Christian gospel begins here, with the Incarnation of God himself, taking on human flesh as baby in a manger. God empties himself of his immense power, and for the sake of lost sinners, he takes on the nature of a servant (Philippians 2:6-8).
In God’s kingdom, power is given away sacrificially for the benefit of others. It progressively lifts up “neighbors” with less power, particularly those in close proximity. It functions on an upside down logic, where the last become first, you find yourself by losing yourself, and servants are greatest of all.
A “love your neighbor” ethic for business is most obviously seen, I believe, when investors give power to managers, managers to employees, employees to customers, and ultimately customers buy goods and services that raise human potential. Business here becomes an engine of human blessing, a way God provides for the needs of his people and lifts up the poor. The self-giving love of the Trinity is best displayed, economically speaking, when each person first looks to the good of the other.
In stark contrast to the faceless and nameless powers and principalities, God’s kingdom is always personal. God is a person (actually, three persons), and he summons people to know and love people. Rather than fear and dominance, God’s kingdom is characterized by joy and service. Money is dethroned as a power that controls human affairs and instead repositioned as a part of the created world to be used, enjoyed, and given (1 Timothy 6:6-10; 17-19).
Love is an active force in God’s kingdom. Whether it be managers lifting up employees, or employees working for the well-being of customers, love – defined as actively working for the good of your neighbors, and even your enemies – is central to God’s kingdom. It’s also the center point of a healthy economy. Desire in this kingdom is ultimately not for power, but for Christ himself who gives of himself for others.
Again, the problem with both of these models is that we lived in a “mixed” reality, caught between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. And it’s not just on a social level. Each of our hearts are a battle ground between good and evil. Some days we’re self-dealing, other days we’re self-less. Some days I bow the knee to Jesus; other days, I bow the knee to Myself. Unfortunately, there are no perfectly clean lines between a business that is fully redeemed or fully depraved. We’re living perpetually on Holy Saturday, somewhere between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
And yet, I do believe we can notice signs that a business or economic system is moving toward the kingdoms of this world or the kingdom of God. For instance, I’ve noticed management can often “skip over” or use employees in route to giving a customer whatever he or she wants. Rather than empowering employees to serve customers, they’re often treated as expendable inputs that can be changed out at will. Companies with perpetually low wages, low employee satisfaction, and high turnover often fall into this pattern. Indeed, there are ways to be highly profitable both through lifting up employees or oppressing them.
Or, think of investors with no other ends than high returns. This naked focus on profit at all cost is often veiled with excuses like, “I have to. I’ll lose my own investors if I don’t maximize profit and give them what they want.” This passing on of responsibility for others – rather than taking responsibility for the well-being of others – is characteristic of systems built around the nameless, faceless powers.
This power-accumulating approach also applies to the types of products and services that are created in business. There are many ways to make money, including through manipulating customer’s more base desires. I’d argue that the rise in sports gambling, for instance, while it may be very profitable, does not serve a genuine human good. It preys often on those who are the most vulnerable – a key characteristic of a fallen world (Isaiah 3:14).
In contrast, we can also see signs when business is moving closer to God’s kingdom. Good jobs that incrementally lift up the poor; products and services that meet real human needs; companies that restore the planet through thoughtful environmental stewardship; money invested sacrificially, which takes into account economic as well as social, spiritual, and cultural goods – business as God intended it is indeed a part of God’s will for his creation and can be a part of life in his Kingdom.
Movement toward the kingdom of God looks like power used for the well-being of others. When proximity is brought back to investing, the practice of business itself begins to heal. Co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher once said, “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and our customers take great care of our shareholders.” Indeed, when investors serve managers, managers serve employees, and employees serve customers – when each serves their economic “neighbor” – business itself can be a noble activity.
The Faithful Investor
How, then, should a Christian invest?
First, Christians serve God and not the market, money or any other power. Because this is true, all Christians should minimally begin conversations about investing with “What is good for people in and around this business?” and not only “How do I maximize my returns?” Christians, who follow a Suffering Servant above all, have the reason to persistently ask questions around moral and relational dynamics of business, especially those we invest in.
Second, Christians can start to pay attention to the power-dynamics even in the businesses in which they work. Is my company moving toward a system where power is hoarded or given, where people are served or used? The first step in noticing the tremendous impact of faith and investing is by paying attention first to your own workplace, and allowing the Spirit to re-shape relationships around the core principle “whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.”
Finally, Christians can lead the way in re-humanizing investing – even in public equities like stocks or bonds – by knowing, praying for, and finding ways to serve management. If the first “neighbor” an investor has is management, which I believe to be the case, Christians ought to first, learn what companies you own, and second, learn who are the people leading those companies. This may occasionally result in shareholder activism; it also may result in divesting yourself of some equities and buying others. But if an investor’s first job is not to realize returns, but instead to serve, we can only serve people we know.
When we take this simple step of knowing and caring for the managers of the companies in which we invest, we take a first step toward transforming investing. In doing so, investing is no longer de-personalized, and we are no longer powerless. We are people with real decisions to make, made in the image of the Son of Man, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Our job, in short, is to turn investing upside down.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Denver Institute for Faith and Work, an educational organization that creates content and experiences around topics related to faith, work, the economy, and modern culture. He’s the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life as well as two forthcoming books from InterVarsity Press on work, spiritual formation, and the American working class. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver, Colorado, and attends Wellspring Anglican Church.