Such all-pervading Christian influence, assuming Weber is even partly correct, make attempts to define a watertight sector of ‘faith-based businesses’ an impossible task. This review therefore confines itself to commercial operations that claim an explicit faith inspiration to justify their management, priorities and strategy. Weber’s thesis is universally praised for its innovative thinking, but has been challenged by a range of economists, theologians and sociologists, who have found fault with much of its evidence, assumptions and supposed correlations.
The earliest Christian precedent for any sort of corporate endeavour is sometimes considered to be the early church, as described in Acts 2:44-45 (“And all who believed were together and had all things in common”). Although this is more a model of communitarian collaboration rather than equitable financial distribution, it did have some influence on the idea of co-operatives (see below).
As a more robust model of commercial joint venture, the monastic community seems a better type. Among many authors examining the economic impact of these communities, Adrian Ashton in Social Enterprise: The ‘holy grail’ of business models considers the development of monastic trade to be a benign consequence of surplus agricultural production. It is true that monasteries engaged with their local economies, but it is perhaps a mistake to bracket this work with their charitable ministry, such as the provision of alms, education and infirmaries. To regard commercial activity as another example of the monasteries’ outreach would have been dismissed as wishful thinking long before the first stirrings of the Reformation. The townspeople of Bury St Edmunds grew so enraged by the civic and economic distortions created by its famous monastery they embarked on four months of sporadic rioting in January 1327, burning down much of the monastic complex. A similar process took place in St Albans and Abingdon in the same year as citizens took advantage of the deposition of Edward II to vent long-standing grudges about rents, duties and interference in the weekly market and annual fair.
By a mixture of accident and design, monasteries found themselves trading as a corporate entity, and Ashton further argues they adopted prototypes of managerial structures recognisable today, such as the democratic selection of an abbot or abbess (the modern-day CEO) and the convention of meetings at the circular table in the monastic chapter house, prefiguring board meetings.