Actual hybrids of church and commerce are relatively rare in mainstream Christian denominations, and seem to produce an inordinate amount of bad publicity for the churches concerned. The reputational risks for a church that is operating commercially in almost any market are considerable, given the connected web of commerce in a globalised economy. Examples are as diverse as the German publisher Weltbild, owned by the Roman Catholic church in Germany and revealed to be a publisher of pornographic fiction, and Buckfast Tonic Wine, owned by the monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon and regularly accused of causing a crime wave in Glasgow thanks to its high caffeine and alcohol combination. Even the seemingly harmless act of investing in a major supermarket or shopping centre could lead to charges that a church is profiting from the sale of alcohol, tobacco, pornography and gambling. While financial returns might be high, the reputational risks can be higher still. In the Christian world at least, attempting to serve both God and Mammon comes with long-standing warnings attached.
That perhaps makes the theological justification for any faith-based management strategy a particularly interesting area of investigation. Some themes have emerged from the researched outlined here, fitting loosely to different denominational attitudes:
- The Trinity as a model of collaborative rather than competitive business (sometimes cited by Roman Catholic co-operatives and their supporters)
- The incarnation as a model for the corporate business (discernible in Protestant business thinking)
- The ‘priesthood of the laity’ as a justification for finding spiritual value in secular, business affairs (commonly seen in Calvinist-inspired traditions).
The academic study of the link between religion and commerce began in earnest with the seminal work of German sociologist Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). According to his theory, ethics inspired by Protestant forms of Christianity, and even Protestant theology itself, can have a noticeable impact on an individual’s propensity for success in a capitalist market, whether or not the companies they run have been founded on explicit religious principles.
According to Weber, the Protestant ‘work ethic’ led to the formation of modern capitalism – a system so successful in its own right that it no longer requires any religious attitude from its participants. Under this model, any business leader operating in Britain or the US will be operating within the parameters of an essentially Protestant belief system, regardless of personal belief. The argument that religion’s legacy is powerful enough to permeate an individual’s ethics and attitudes on such a fundamental level demonstrates the difficulty in determining what differentiates Christian-based companies from ordinary ones.