On Christian Businesses: A Friendly Rebuttal to Jonathan Merritt

The idea of following Jesus certainly involves more than just the way that you spend an hour of your time on Sunday mornings. For most Christians, it will involve working as a Christian in some sort of a secular enterprise. Doing so raises some difficult ethical questions. I know the feeling first-hand.

I spent my high-school years working for a business that my father had started. Ashley Lighting manufactures lamps for hotels to place in their guest rooms. That lamp beside your bed in that Residence Inn? It’s possible that I wired it up with my own two hands.

Small family businesses are short on job descriptions and long on flexibility. I got to try my hand at a lot of things. I managed aspects of our process to obtain listing with Underwriters Laboratories, designing and wiring testing stations to comply with UL requirements. I selected and installed our first computerized accounting, distribution, and manufacturing computer system (we started with Cougar Mountain software, and then eventually migrated to Macola). Of course, I also manufactured lamps, packaged them, loaded trucks, unloaded trucks, and did a thousand other things. You know that you’re the owner of the business when you drive in to the factory at 2:00 am because you’re housed in an old, leaky building and you need to check for water leaks during a severe rainstorm to make sure that your brass parts aren’t ruined.

Along the way I faced a lot of spiritual challenges. Early in the life of this business we began to receive orders from hotels in Las Vegas. The first genuinely enormous order that I recall went to the Roman Tower in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Those were hand-cut lead-crystal lamps. The crystal was produced in East Germany (that’s how old I am), exported to West Germany, then exported to a broker in New York City, and then shipped to our facility (at the time) in Monette, AR. In my young conscience I worried that we were buying parts from communists in order to sell lamps to gangsters. It just made me uncomfortable.

Of course, it helped me tremendously that I had grown up in a Bible-preaching church and a Bible-believing family. When I looked at the pages of scripture, I couldn’t find the verse telling me to refuse to do business with sinners. The closest thing to a marketplace boycott that I could find involved the economic isolation of those who refused to take the mark of the beast. We were doing honorable work. We were treating our employees fairly. We were being honest in our business practices. We were paying our taxes. We were not under obligation, I concluded, to accomplish any sort of economic isolation from sinners or infidels in the marketplace.

I did not come to this conclusion, however, without retaining some wariness about the dangers of business liaisons. Look at whence God sourced materials for the construction of the temple: Apparently God has no problems with our purchasing or vending our wares rather broadly. But look at the sexual temptations to which Solomon fell while doing business with unbelievers. Marketplace temptations are serious temptations that call for circumspect living, to be sure.

A later emotional struggle came for me when more and more of Ashley Lighting’s products began to be manufactured in China. From a business standpoint, operating in China was a foregone conclusion. You can purchase a lampshade in China and have it shipped to the United States for less money than it costs to purchase the raw materials to manufacture your own lampshade in the United States. That’s right: If your employees agreed to work for you for free and you determined to make no profit at all, you still couldn’t compete with a Chinese lampshade. The business case for Chinese manufacturing, however, troubled me more, not less, over the prospect of conducting this kind of business. How little must they be paying workers over there for prices to be so low? Do I really want to be involved in that kind of business?

The decision was not mine to make (as you well know, God called me to leave that life behind and enter ministry), but I’ve come to see that the launch of manufacturing operations in China was a God-ordained move. I don’t throw around terminology like that lightly. I don’t try to vindicate all of my decisions by making God responsible for them. I don’t want to have to explain before God why I besmirched His reputation by pinning all of my mistakes upon Him. But for this matter, I have no doubt. Why?

God used our move to China to advance the gospel. Can a business be Christian? A business is neither more nor less than human beings going about their work. If human beings can be Christian while they are working—can work in ways distinctively informed by their Christianity—then a business most certainly can be Christian. For obvious reasons I probably ought not to go into excessive detail, but Ashley Lighting’s operations in China have been used by God to spread the gospel and plant churches there. My father is already in Heaven, and I’m absolutely confident that this is a topic of conversation there.

Jonathan Merritt has argued today that we should Stop Calling Hobby-Lobby a Christian Business. The sole criticism of Hobby Lobby in the article is that they buy products that were manufactured in China. According to Merritt, the Green family should “quit doing business in China” since doing business there “flouts Christian values.” Merritt does not allege any specifically heinous practices among Hobby-Lobby’s suppliers. If he has done any research about the specifics of their involvement in China, it does not appear in the article. The argument, it seems, is that doing business with China is ipso facto the flaunting of Christian values.

I can’t imagine that Merritt’s article is popular among the throng of Christian missionaries who are doing business in China. Where would Christian work in China be today if Merritt’s position were to win the day?

American manufacturing in China has IMPROVED conditions for Chinese workers. Our going to China has not made Chinese workers more poor, more oppressed, or more harshly treated. On the contrary, consider this graph from Reuters depicting changes in Chinese wages roughly over the period of time during which Ashley Lighting has been involved in China.

Graph of Chinese wages

When are people better-off? When they have a job that only pays a little money, or when they are unemployed and make no money at all? Few things are more obvious facts of history than the realization that American investment in low-wage manufacturing in China has improved the economic circumstances of individual Chinese people and the Chinese economy at-large.

What would happen to the well-being of Chinese citizens if all American businesses took Merritt seriously and quit doing business in China? You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Economics to grasp the enormity of suffering that would fall upon that nation.

Our move to China has saved the jobs of our American employees, not eliminated them. If we had not opened Chinese operations we would be out of business today. That’s not speculation; it’s a fact. The parts to manufacture lamps are no longer readily available in the United States. Our entire industry moved to China. If we had been the lone holdouts, what would we have done when our suppliers stopped selling in our market? All of our employees would be out of work.

As things stand, although we have reduced (not entirely eliminated) manufacturing jobs in the United States, we have added jobs in management and distribution. Our domestic payroll is higher than it was at many points in time when we were solely a domestic manufacturer.


Perhaps Jonathan would reply that these are just the sort of self-serving rationalizations that greedy businesses spout when someone prophetic like him calls us to task. Perhaps he would quickly cast me as the “other” and wish that I were more conscientious like he is.

But here’s how conscientious we are. My father, my brother, and I once made significant political contributions to our congressman (a Democrat) to gain a few minutes of his time to implore him to consider tougher sanctions against China for their treatment of Chinese Christians. This was before we were doing business in China. We were the poster-children for conscientiousness about Chinese oppression. We put our money where our mouths were.

Do you know how our Congressman replied? He said, “Billy Graham himself asked me not to put economic pressure on China. He is of the belief that economic punishment against China would lessen opportunities for the gospel and bring down more persecution, not less, upon Chinese Christians. Should I listen to Billy Graham or you?”

Not long after that Ashley Lighting was manufacturing in China. Measured both by our intent and by the results, it has proven to be one of the most Christian things we’ve done.


  1. Andrew says

    We’ll written article. My dad has sold Chinese made stuff for years and we were constantly asked questions and underwent accusations like Bro. Merritt has recently made.

    • Bart Barber says

      Jingoistic economic isolationism and Christian ethical concern can get all tangled up for people in the midst of this conversation. I regret that it has affected your family. I’m thankful that my article was helpful!

  2. says

    Bart, thanks for sharing some insights to go beyond Merritt’s cut and dry assertions. The situation is surely more complex. Ironically, one could even make the case that a Christian should not do business in certain parts of America.

    I thought there were two main issues against Merritt’s piece: 1) he did not give the definition of a Christian business, and 2) if his reasoning were applied to individual Christians virtually no one could call himself or herself a Christian.

    • Bart Barber says

      Indeed, our economy is so inextricably caught up in the Chinese economy that isolationism, if accomplished, would be devastating to both their economy and ours. The Chinese hold a lot of American debt.

      • volfan007 says

        And besides, I love to eat their food….especially General Tso chicken.

        David 😉

  3. doug sayers says

    Thanks Bart for taking the time to explain and defend that which needs little explanation and less defending. When I lived in Charlotte NC the natives sometimes got Dale Earnhart and God confused. Likewise, we should never confuse the terms “American” and “Christian.” As a very small business owner, I would agree there are situations where we may need to restrict our business relationships with those whose businesses are engaged in overtly sinful activity but to cut all business ties with unbelievers is not biblical or prudent.

  4. Louis says


    This is an excellent article, on many levels.

    Too few Americans, Christian or otherwise, have a correct understanding of economics, employment, international trade etc. You have touched on all three here.

    I am going to pass this article along to friends so that they can read it.

    Great to see you at the Convention. Sorry it was only while passing in hallways, but that’s the way it is sometimes.

  5. says

    Bart, I saw Merritt’s article yesterday. Thanks for your well-thought out rebuttal with the points you make. Good job.

    Another point worth making, imo, is that in a religiously free country, Jonathan Merritt does not get to decide what makes up Steve Green’s Christian values. One can complain about them, disagree, and might even be right. But Green must search his own heart and determine what he believes it is to operate a Christian business — as must Merritt, you, I or anyone else who finds himself in that situation (which you obviously did, as you relate above).

    Further, even if Green were wrong on China, it doesn’t follow that he is also wrong about paying for contraceptive abortifacients for employees through Obamacare (which seems to be the elephant behind this article anyway).

  6. says

    First, now I feel guilty for complaining about that lamp that wasn’t working in the last Residence Inn I stayed in. You might have been tired when you wired that one :)

    Second, I have heard folks, including Jonathan Merritt, I think, argue that many issues are more “complex” than simplistic black-and-white answers. Then this turns up, and he wants it black-and-white about doing business in China.

    In fact, it’s complex. I am bothered by job losses to China, and I have worked in distribution/logistics. And those jobs are no long-term economic substitute for the manufacturing. But what are we to do? The picture is more complicated than “buy nothing made in China,” but I do think we need to aware of conditions and sourcing for what we buy.

    And we also compare these issue on a US-favored computation system. There is oppression in China, and that should be fought against, but my reading on the issues at large over there indicates that there is also growing tension between business and government, with businesses favoring allowing workers whatever the business leaders think will increase productivity. Government, as is the case in the US as well, favors whatever increases government power. So, doing business may just help more than it hurts.

    You also have to take apart what business systems are doing in China. Are some oppressive? Yes. Are some not? Yes. Foxconn that makes iPhones had some bad press for their conditions, and things seem to be changing.

    I know how I feel when people judge America by the worst examples of our behavior. I think it’s not right–don’t judge American agriculture by the heavy polluters or the guys who used hidden stockpiles of banned chemicals until the 90s–judge it by the farmers I know who care about the environment because they make their living in it. Not by the one guy who had a leaky diesel tank and did nothing but by the dozens who are conscientious about that.

    Don’t judge our worker treatment by the group that demands 18 hour days and pays for 8 of those, but by the men I know who pay for a week’s work even in deer season when they let their farmhands hunt 4 days out of 6.

    Don’t judge our government completely by either our past record (often pretty bad on human rights) or our current record (still pretty bad on human rights, since we don’t acknowledge baby human’s right to live), at least not solely.

    In all, maybe there’s more to this than “Hobby Lobby sells stuff made in China, so they are evil.” Unless anyone who buys anything made in China is evil and therefore sub-Christian. In which case, I think any Apple product user is in trouble.

    Go Samsung! :)

    • Bart Barber says

      There are some good things in the middle, but your opening lines (my lamps, WORKED, by golly!) and your closing ones (Samsung!? Really!? Go iOS!) ruined the whole thing.

  7. says


    Whether or not doing business with China is the most moral or ethical way of acting is something I will let others weigh in on. For what it’s worth, I think you do a good job of defending your position with regard to this, here.

    What I would like to comment on, though, is the use of the term “Christian business.” From my understanding, the first filter through which anything must pass in order to be called “Christian” is the position it takes toward the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and of the need to repent of sin and believe in one’s heart that God, through Jesus’ vicarious atonement at Calvary, paid the price for our sins.

    From this perspective, I believe it is correct to say that it is practically impossible for a business to be truly Christian. It may well have owners, managers, and employees who are Christians. But, unless the ultimate end for which it exists is to preach the gospel, it is not, as I understand it, truly Christian.

    In a society such as our own, in which there is freedom of religion, it seems to me to be a good thing that businesses are not truly Christian. If they were, as I understand it, you could only hire Christian employees— or, at the very least, use the hiring of non-Christian employees with the specific objective of evangelizing them.

    I believe calling a moral and ethical business “Christian” cheapens, in a sense, the uniqueness and specificity of the Christian gospel. It tends to proclaim a message to the world that what we are about really is “moral therapeutic deism.”

    Now, should a Christian business owner operate according to moral and ethical principles informed by his/her understanding of the teaching of Scripture? Most certainly. But others who are not Christian should also operate by these same principles. Operating by these principles only makes one more moral and ethical, not necessarily more Christian.

    • Bart Barber says


      I think that we agree in our understanding of the word “Christian.” I think we part ways when we come to the word “business.” In the Bible, although there are certainly some large enterprises mentioned in narratives and parables, we don’t find “businesses”; we simply find people who are working. Business is not, theologically speaking, an entity; it is an activity.

      As I read a number of parables and narratives, when a person has authority over others as a part of his working life, the character of his work and the character of their work (as he oversees their work) are extensions of and reflections upon his character.

      If “Christian” is a word that has anything to do with sanctification, then a person’s work activity can be Christian to the degree that it accomplishes and exhibits sanctification in the life of that believer.

      Ashley Lighting actually IS at work preaching the gospel, but I would not restrict the Christian-ness of the company merely to that. It cheapens the idea of being Christian to rob any sense of sanctification from the word, which was first associated, after all, with the way that Antiochene believers were living, not exclusively with the way that they were saved.

      • David Rogers says

        I don’t see the value at this point of getting into a tit for tat on this. So I will leave it at saying I don’t totally follow your reasoning on this and continue to maintain my points in the comment above. Once again, I am not necessarily disagreeing with the main point I understand you to be making with regard to the morality and ethics of doing business with China, and other similar ventures.

        I will make this ancillary observation, though. It seems to me that you are arguing from more of a Kuyperian perspective and I am arguing from more of a Two Kingdom perspective. Though, as we are both Baptists, and are both influenced to a large degree by Anabaptist thought on the relationship of church, state, and culture (not to equate Baptist and Anabaptist), neither of us is either consistently Kuyperian or Two Kingdom in our view. But I do think this may shed some light on our different approaches to this.

        • Bart Barber says

          I’m defending against a Kuyperian perspective and trying to persuade Kuyperians (I’d say that Jonathan’s piece is definitively a critique rooted in Kuyperian thought—or…just perhaps…it is an argument that anyone who would ever think that one’s work can be done Christianly is ipso facto Kuyperian and must consequently live up to evaluation by Kuyperian standards). For this reason, I can see how it would appear that I am Kuyperian in my thought. All things to all people, you know. Adaptive rhetoric.

          But my actual motivation and beliefs, as far as I can discern them, is not Kuyperian. It is not that I see our family business as something advancing Christ’s efforts to claim the world economic system as His own. Rather, I think that “business” or “corporation” is a simple abstraction that can misdirect our attention from the concrete reality for which we have actual biblical instruction: Believers go to work on Monday morning. Yes, you rightly note that there are ways of doing so that are merely moral. But there are also ways of doing so that are distinctively Christian. Consider the case of platform-based missionaries (and here I beg your forgiveness as an outsider who does not speak your inside-missionary language as a native tongue). Here are people who are pursuing business Christianly. What if a business is doing that? What if the business has become a platform for sharing the gospel, planting churches, and discipling believers? To which kingdom does it then belong?

          • David Rogers says


            It has been interesting to me, given our discussions and sometimes differing perspectives on other matters, how much our thinking converges on somewhat controversial perspectives such as what you present in this post:


            I think that is where the Anabaptist influence over the thinking of both of us comes out.

            I am still in the process of thinking through the implications of Two Kingdom vs. Kuyperian perspectives, and once I finally finish my dissertation (Lord willing), I hope to dedicate more serious thought to this subject–especially with regard to how it all ties in to Baptist and Anabaptist perspectives, Evangelicals & Catholics Together, and several other related (at least in my mind) topics.

            The question you raise about platforms in international missions is very interesting to me in this regard. And I think the IMB’s recent emphasis on “business as mission” comes into play here.

            Laying my cards on the table a little more, I am not totally convinced that the IMB should “be in the business” of “business as mission.” I am not opposed to platforms, per se, but I believe they must be done in a very transparent and above-board way. The ultimate aim of IMB work, in my opinion, though, should be directly related to the Great Commission, and not cultural transformation and renewal.

          • David Rogers says

            To add a little more, I believe there is a sense in which each of us, as we go to our respective places of work, whatever they may be, are “on mission with God,” and that we should be looking for opportunities to share our faith, grow in Christian maturity, and edify our fellow believers around us.

            But there is another sense in which not everybody is a missionary. And I believe the purpose of the IMB and of the SBC’s support of the IMB is to financially and by other means undergird the work of those who are called specifically, in this more narrow sense, to the work of cross-cultural missions.

            Can those who are “on mission with God” in their everyday business affairs take their skills and resources overseas so that they may be a blessing to the work of evangelists and missionaries dedicated specifically to this task? Yes indeed. And is there a place for apostolic workers, such as Paul, to make tents on the side? Yes, also. But the bottom-line motivation (or calling) between the two is somewhat different.

            Could the IMB help to coordinate so that each of these different types of servants in God’s field can be more effective, and even perhaps to network their efforts for greater effectiveness? I suppose so. But I think we must be vigilant to make sure we don’t get derailed from our primary mission.

          • Dean Stewart says

            David, when you finish fleshing in your Kuyperian vs. Two Kingdoms thoughts please share them. With no offense meant to anyone, I usually don’t find much solace on the middle ground that many take on issues that have tension. I enjoyed Millard Erickson’s systematic theology in seminary but was frustrated at times when conclusions never came. However, when it comes to the subject of Kuyperian vs. Two Kingdoms it seems the middle is where I am most comfortable. Your input on the subject would be appreciated as would further discussion by Bart.

  8. Louis says

    I have just read Mr. Merritt’s article in which he says that for profit businesses should resist calling themselves Christian businesses. He bases that on the free market being messy etc.

    That is a very naive perspective.

    I, too, am not a big fan of calling businesses “Christian” but I get the point when some do.

    And my opposition has nothing to do with the things that Merritt points to, i.e., that in business one may have to contract with a supplier who is not Christian and engages in bad practices (or the country where those suppliers live has a bad track record on human rights.) Therefore, one is not being Christian in such a case.

    Of course, he ignores that many Christian non-profits buy things from China, too. Because those businesses have budgets etc.

    Individuals also buy things that are made in countries that have practices with which we do not agree. I bet that some of the clothes in Merritt’s closet were made in China, or his tennis shoes were made in Taiwan, etc.

    He also ignores the fact that Bart brings out. Trade with other countries helps keep those countries from being isolated and hanging on to their bad practices.

    The bigger problem here, however, is just plain naivety and a lack of real world experience.

    People should be free first of all. Let people trade and contract with one another. That helps the world so much. People learn about others and they will be influenced by the ideas of others.

    Second, we should realize that there is no perfect economy morally, and that no one can trade or live in a Christian bubble. I am afraid that is where Merritt is. He is sincere, but severly limited in his study and experience.

    Merritt believes in a world exists or can be constructed where Christians trade with each other solely and don’t have to rub up against the world.

    The world is not that way. It is messy. It is complicated. But that does not mean that Christians who operate businesses in that world are hypocrites when they try to govern their own businesses with Christian principles but purchase things from those who do not.

    Can you imagine the Apostle Paul making tents in the pagan regions of the NT world saying that he could not operate his business in a Christian way if he bought rope and supplies from the local pagans? Or maybe Paul should not have traded at all in the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had bad labor practices. There were even slaves!

    Maybe Paul shouldn’t have had anything to do with those who would enslave others.

    Uh oh. I think there is a NT book on that.

    As an example, there is nothing at all inconsistent with a business opposing a governmental mandate that would restrict the positing of any Christian sayings in a business place, and that same business entering into a contract with a business in Mexico that sells supplies when the country of Mexico has worse pay and labor standards than the U.S.

    I hope that this discussion will continue.

    Of course, we do what we can in business. No solution is perfect because many things in this world are beyond our control.

    But to throw up our hands and declare that there are no Christian businesses because all of the countries around the world where suppliers of labor and goods are located are unfair is not a correct response.

  9. Louis says

    David Rogers,

    Agree totally.

    I don’t like that term – but not for Merritt’s reasons.

    A lot of this boils down to semantics, but to me, they are important.

    I would prefer to call Hobby Lobby a business owned by Christians which they attempt to operate in accordance with their Christian convictions.

    That does nothing to weaken their position, and I believe it is a more accurate way to descirbe the business.

  10. Louis says

    And now I have read Russell Moore’s response.

    It is excellent!

    You can skip reading my post above, and just go to Moore’s.

    It really does matter who leads things like the ERLC.

  11. John Fariss says

    Several years ago, I knew an executive with a large southside Virginia textile mill. They had built a new mill in Mexico and sent key workers to Virginia for training. Well, these key workers learned the job AND they learned what American textile workers were making, as well as how they got those wages. They went back to Mexico and told their co-workers, and went on strike. The mill in Mexico never even opened! They exported it, to either Vietnam or to China, I forget which. Obviously, there is less communication between American textile workers and those in souitheast Asia than between Americans and Mexicans, but it makes sense to me that sooner or later those Asian workers will learn, one way or another, their wages will rise, and that benefit of exporting jobs will cease: all because we do not boycott the product or the country producing it.


  12. says

    Bart’s reasoning is good, as is Russ Moore’s, and I am sympathetic to it in many ways.

    However, Merritt makes some really good points. Our entire economic system in America is now rooted in the basic exploitation of cheap labor overseas where we pay as little as possible to very poor workers to make our stuff so we can sell it at a profit and enrich ourselves and provide for ourselves a decent way of life. It is basic colonialism without the pith helmets and it eventually runs aground. The American military is used to ensure that “American interests” are protected and so that we can have accesss to markets, cheap labor, and cheap natural resources. From China to India to the Middle East and Africa, this is what dominates our foreign policy and keeps us perpetually at war.

    The argument that our overseas factories are good for the people because it raises their standard of living, that it helps us share the gospel, and that life without this practice would be impossible for us (we could not compete in the global marketplace without cheap labor) is, unfortunately, similar in many regards to the argument that Southern slaveholders and Christian apologists of slavery, like Richard Furman, made in the Antebellum South.

    (see particularly points 7-11)

    Am I saying that Bart is calling for the exploitation of poor Chinese workers? NO. (If anyone reads this and accuses me of such, I will not respond). By all accounts, his father and family business has tried to act ethically and do the right thing.

    Am I saying that Bart supports or defends slavery? NO. (If anyone reads this and accuses me of such, I will point you back to this statement). Knowing Bart, he would support nothing of the kind and always seeks to act ethically with the best interests of others in mind.

    I am talking about the overall economic system and its abuses that do exist, rather than one particular case or another. This is the weakness of Merritt’s argument. It is to assume that ALL American business in China is necessarily unethical. It might not be. And, this is where the comparison to Southern slavery breaks down because ALL slavery was, by nature, unethical (despite what Doug Wilson will tell you) and not all global trade/manufacturing need be unethical at all. Merritt assumes that Hobby Lobby is engaging in unethical and unchristian practices in China. They might not be. Bart’s family’s company might not have either. We have to look at each indiviual case because having a factory and employing people in a country is not wrong, per se. But, what about the overall system and the practices that take place on the large scale so that Americans can have cheap consumer goods?

    So, am I making an association between Southern slavery and the current global economy that American companies and the American consumer participates in? Kind of. In a way. We need to think about it.

    We sit at the top of the global economic pyramid and we have outsourced our manufacturing overseas to regions where labor is cheap and working conditions are very poor. Yes, that is the way of things. The entire American “way of life” is now built on this system. But, as Christians, are we called to participate in such a thing without thinking through the consequences of it? Or, thinking through alternatives? And, when we have a disastrous practice like slavery that exploited cheap labor for our own gain in our history, then should we not tread carefully and with great introspection into similar situations?

    Southern slaveholders, especially those who were Christian, did not engage in the practice just because they were evil racists who just wanted to oppress people. It was the way of things and they could not imagine any other way of living. So, they justified it as being the only way forward in such a world. We look back now and wonder how things ever became the way they were. I suggest that it was not racism as the driving factor – at least not initially. It was self-preservation and advancement and a theological blind spot and truncation of the gospel that led them into the disastrous practice that oppressed millions. What will our progeny say of us?

    I do not agree with all that Merritt has said. His argument is rather simplistic and I think that the actual situation is MUCH more complicated than he allows for. Bart makes good points too, about the actual situation that we are in (and knows far more about trade/labor with China than I do or could ever hope to). But, being in such a situation, what is our responsibility? Is all business done with China wrong? No. But, if you are going to do business with China and you call yourself a “Christian business,” then what is your responsibility there to your workers and to the nation that is hosting you? Let’s have that conversation.

    Christian ethicists and economists have not worked through that very well because they have to step outside of the American experience to see where we struggle – and if it is a question that the Hobby Lobby case brings forward, then I am glad that we might discuss it and perhaps come to some better solutions than to just let market forces guide us. If Merritt pushes us toward that discussion, then I am glad.

    Sorry for the long comment, but this whole discussion is much more complicated than Merritt = wrong and Hobby Lobby = good. Can a Christian business owner do business in China in an ethical way? Yes. I think he can. But, he must make decisions that reflect the way of Christ at every point and even challenge the powers that require him to compromise. I have no idea if Hobby Lobby is doing that, but I hope that they will – and I hope that other “Christian” companies will as well. That is when we will see change in China – not through the power of the dollar and raising a standard of living – but through the power of Christians behaving “christianly” at every point and not living according to the ways of the world.

    Let’s think through that.

      • says

        Yes, it was worthy of its own blog post – at least in length. I might very well break it out and start a new one. It was hard to cover everything in a short statement. :)

    • Bennett Willis says

      I spend a month in Japan in the late 1980’s. I was impressed that they would pay a lot more than the “world price” for rice so the rice farmers could stay in business. The same thing seemed to apply to other agricultural products. I recognized that in the US we would not do this.

      Are we exploiting workers in China (I’ll stick to this country since I can spell it) because we are buying the products they make. What would they be doing if we did not buy their products (or if they did not manufacture our products for us)? What would be the effect of putting a tariff on the goods that would increase the price to the point that we could compete (at our wages) here in the US? The history class that I took said that practice was a major cause of the “great depression.” Clearly some things would cost us more and our level of living would not be so high.

      Over the last several years, we have steadily reduced the barrier to trade between the US and other countries. Barriers consisted of tariffs and other fees or limits that were imposed on trade between the US and other countries. Manufacturing has gone to the most efficient (cheapest) location.

      The wages paid to the “exploited” workers are apparently better than the other choices they have or they would be taking the other choices. And the wages are coming up. And some manufacturing jobs are moving back to the US.

      Since China switched from close to six children per woman to one per family, this will make a huge shortage of workers in the future—and many old people relative to the young in the population. This is going to make our “baby boom generation” seem a non-event by comparison.

      The closest thing to a point that I have is that things are more complicated than we think—even if we try to think about it. And usually we don’t think about it very well.

      But as I said in a comment (currently #30) we reward the cheapest producer with all the business. When this is how you set up the rewards system, people will hurt other people to get the business. And as long as I shop at Wal Mart, I should not complain. And I don’t know where I should shop. Wal Mart is efficient. A “fair” company is not nearly so efficient. I need a company that is both efficient and fair.

      • says

        Yes, Bennett, it is all very complicated. That is why I am not suggesting that we don’t engage in global trade, but that we do so in a way where we think about all of these issues. The profit motive is not enough for a
        “Christian” business. And, I am not suggesting that Hobby Lobby or Bart’s father’s business gets it wrong. But, I am saying that we need to work through these issues in holistic ways.

        • Bart Barber says

          I agree that a person in business must act with more than the profit motive in mind. But one also ought to note that when a person in business does not make a profit, neither does he get to accomplish any of the other things.

          • says

            Right. No doubt. But, if he makes a profit at the expense of Christian ethics/morality, then he cannot call his business a Christian business any longer. So, the two must go together and he cannot pursue profit at the expense of obeying God. The Scriptures are pretty clear on how we should treat our workers.

            I am all for profit. It is needed, obviously. We just have to make sure that we are pursuing it in ethical ways. You are saying that and we agree there. I just hope that in the defense of our practices we are thinking about the larger picture as well – and hopefully influencing it for the better as best we can.

  13. William Thornton says

    I don’t dispute any of Bart’s points but do think Merritt (latest among many here) raises good questions and makes some salient points. In his introduction to Moore’s response, he aptly notes his father’s saying that, “It is a mighty thin pancake that doesn’t have two sides.” This is a rather thick pancake.

    The Green’s, HL, and the current case is somewhat of a cause celebre among evangelicals, is it not? Their aggressive identification of their US corporate actions as Christian does put them in the spotlight for comparisons with their overseas activity. Would anyone maintain that China’s forced abortion policy is more harmful than our own laws? Would anyone maintain that doing business in this environment does raise some issues for Christians? We are left justifying business with China in the usual manner of pointing to economic uplift, direct and indirect Christian influence, and being sufficiently removed from those things that we see as immoral.

    While Merritt doesn’t get to define the Green’s Christian values, neither do the Greens get to decide what constitutes “Christian” values that are constitutional protected as free exercise of religion.

    This whole series of questions about what “Christian” businesses must do in our society is complicated and an area where Christians disagree strongly among themselves. I’m finding it difficult to conclude that the SCOTUS will be able to thread this needle in a way that makes more conservative Christians happy.

    I appreciate this particular subject being offered for discussion here.

    • says

      William, you asked, “Would anyone maintain that doing business in this environment [in China] does raise some issues for Christians?” I think that is a given. Not only that, doing business in almost any environment is likely to raise some issues for Christians (or at least it should, shouldn’t it?).

      You mention that the Greens do not “get to decide what constitutes ‘Christian’ values that are constitutional protected as free exercise of religion.” Very true. They must decide what are their Christian values, but they will not decide what is constitutional, which is exactly why this issue is before the Supreme Court. There are in fact many things that the law & courts decide that we don’t have the religious freedom to do (for an extreem and easily understood example, human sacrifice). Most people on either end of the spectrum don’t have trouble dismissing the extremes. I for one hope the Court finds in favor of Hobby Lobby (and Conestoga Wood Specialties). I don’t think folks with one moral viewpoint ought to be made to pay for something that violates that viewpoint. (Why, I don’t even think companies ought to be forced to pay for contraceptives even if it doesn’t violate their moral viewpoint.) Let the people who want it pay for it. I am not all that hopeful that the SCOTUS will be able, as you say, “to thread this needle in a way that makes more conservative Christians happy.”

  14. Bennett Willis says

    The amount of labor in each piece is low–even counting the parts. If we paid a few cents more for each piece, AND that was moved back to the person who assemblied the item (and the parts), it would be easy to increase (double for example) the money paid to the worker.

    We deal with a market system that rewards even a few cents less per item with all the business. There is no way to do the distribution I mentioned in the first paragraph.

    When the building collapsed and so many were killed, we got onto some of the retailers who demanded that system. We have now forgotten and likely nothing has changed–even though the amount per item increase would be only a few cents to provide the money to reduce the problems dramatically.

    I wish there was a solution that would work.

  15. Jess says

    China is Communist with over 1,000,000,000 people. Civil rights are practically non existent. In China abortion is a matter of survival, I don’t think any Christian influence will deter their way of thinking on birth control including abortion. China can compete with any country economically because of what their employees are paid. I don’t think employees would be the correct terminology. Look who we borrow money from.

    The big questions are, is it morally right to do business with China, and what are Christian businesses. I would like to answer the last question first. As a former business man, I could never attach the name Christian to any business. God is not in a profit making venture. God don’t need money people do. I think it would do God a great injustice to attach the name Christian to any business.

    Now for the first question, is it morally right to do business with China? I would like to answer that question with a few questions of my own.
    1. Does the Communist government end up with the big bucks?
    2. Who pays for forced abortions performed on China’s citizens.
    3. Is it right for businesses in this country to make a profit in China while people suffer to make that profit possible.

    These are the very reasons there are no such things as Christian businesses. Are the IRS laws followed to the very letter? Is OSHA compliance first and foremost? If a tax loophole is not very clear would the business jump through it?

    In the world of business profit talks, and everyone else walks. This is my take on the subject.

  16. volfan007 says

    I think that all people….well, most people….mean when they say a Christian business is that it’s a business owned by a Christian, and it’s run based on Christian morals and ethics and values. It doesn’t mean that the business is saved, or that it’s preaching the Gospel…although the Gospel is probably being preached at a business like that.

    I think some of you are making way more out of the phrase “Christian business” than what it is.


  17. says

    First, I’m pleased to be part of a company who has gone international, but has kept most of our production in the US. We have gone international largely because export business has picked up.

    Second, in one sense, businesses outside of Christian organizations are not Christian. (If we could call Lifeway a business, would we call it a Christian business?) The reason is because they necessarily have relationships with non-Christian entities. I daresay that my church has dealings with non-Christian services. Who do we call when one of the AC units breaks down in the church building? Okay, maybe a business could be considered Christian although it has relationships with non-Christian entities.

    Maybe a business can’t be considered Christian because it isn’t explicitly Christian and would therefore diminish the proclamation of the gospel by mixing it with common things. Except it would also diminish the ministry of Christians outside of “full time” ministry. If a Christian owns a business, (s)he is called to serve God in every way in the conduct of that business such that the gospel would be proclaimed to those who do business with the company. So especially in that sense it should be known as a Christian business.

    So at the end of it, I don’t see a good reason why a company owned by a Christian shouldn’t be considered a Christian company.

    Third, I’m glad to see some of the lesser known detail of international economics brought to light. The pattern is often to talk about how the US is doing in competition against other countries. It’s as though our goal is to make the other nations poor by out-competing them. That’s the language we use anyway. The effect of trade with China, for example, has been to grow their economy in such a way that we have a symbiotic relationship with them. Our economic woes would be far worse had we not had trade with China. In some ways I might observe that it may be better in the long run if China stops lending money to the US, but their economy is dependent on the US remaining strong. I think they are trying to change that factor, by developing in Africa and parts of the Middle East, because they see the irresponsible direction of the US economy. But I’m saying all this to observe that rather than competing with other countries economically, we have 1) a responsibility as Christians to deal fairly with them and 2) a civil responsibility to manage our own economy wisely so that other countries who trade with us will prosper. In this way, we help to open people to the message of the gospel. And that’s what it’s ultimately about.

    • Bennett Willis says

      The bulk of our national debt is owed to Social Security. The SS surplus is invested into T-bills. As the surplus becomes a deficit, then these T-bills will be cashed in and the treasury department will need to find someone else to borrow from. Then we may get to owe China an unacceptable amount of money. Or maybe we will raise taxes somewhere?

      At least this is my interpretation of the numbers I’ve read.

      • Greg Harvey says

        At the end of 2013 federal govt debt held by the public was approximately $12.312 trillion of which 47% was held by foreign investors / governments. That 12.312 figure represented about 73% of national gross domestic product.

        Inter-agency debt was 4.9 trillion and represents money that was collected by one agency then spent. During deficit spending the only way to repay it is sell more debt.

        In addition there is at least $10 trillion in obligations that are planned but not budgeted. This includes the shortfalls in both Social Security and Medicare but does not include PPACA shortfalls as the accounting methods don’t really project much additional spending. The biggest number I’ve heard for the top end for those additional obligations is $50 trillion or roughly four times our current, publicly-held debt and is IN ADDITION to the current debt and other potential debt-based spending.

        The only sensible plans for working down the debt is either to cut entitlement spending or debase the currency so dollars paid back are worth less than dollars borrowed. Of course if we confiscate ALL wealth we might be able to make a dent…

  18. Jess says


    Since Christian Business is in the title of this post. We are not making more out of the phrase Christian Business than what it really is. Please read Bart’s post again.

    • volfan007 says


      When I say that Chik Fil A is a Christian business, I don’t mean that all of the employees are saved. I don’t mean that Chik Fil A is going to Heaven. I don’t mean that Chik Fil A is preaching the Gospel, every day.

      Most people would know that I mean that Chik Fil A is owned by a Christian man, and it’s being run based on Christian morals, values, and ethics. It might even be a business that tithes on it’s incoome….as Chik Fil A does.


  19. says

    Over the years I have experienced several business scenarios involving Christians as owners/operators.

    3 of 4 actually sent a “tithe” to the church from the business net gains each month. This was in addition to the owners “tithe” of their income. One company gave above and beyond every year as the business experienced huge success – yet still monthly sent in the 10% formula. Of the 3, all operated according to biblical principles in how they conducted their business. The 1 that differed from the 3 was unique. The business sold Lottery Tickets, Tobacco while refusing to sell alcohol. This 1 business did not give to the church off of business net gains.

    And yet all 4 had one thing in common – they were owned and operated by Christians – Godly families – and I would call each of the 4 Christian businesses for though their practice was different in a few things, their owners lived out the Biblical principles in their operations and dealings with others.

    Some may like a term Christian Owned better than Christian Business. But no matter how we slice it, the Government has NO right telling any owner what they MUST do with their business.

    And for the record, I think Merritt failed to think this thru before writing. He should have called his father on this one! :-)

  20. dr. james willingham says

    With 3d printers and printing coming online, the days of China as the factory of the world might well be coming to an end. In fact, there might well be no more factories. As to the socialism and communism in China, one has to remember that the same folks who brought us communism also brought us fascism. I think it was Bella Dodd, a former chairman of the American Communist Party who said, “Communism was the invention of the Capitalists to control the poor.” They want the same here in the US, and we are fast approaching such a situation. Wake up folks. Things were never as we thought them to be. Follow the money trail. When one sits under one of the theoreticians of World Communism in a small State University in Missouri, one come to the realization that “things just ain’t what they seem.” Conspiracy theory really has the best explanation, though at a greater depth than most people imagine. Plus, a whole lot more sources. At least a quarter of a million works, if not in the millions. Began with Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope. It was on line the last time I looked, and one can down load the whole thing for free. What is really interesting is to read the religious views of the folks with the power.

    Anyway, I wonder, if they will let the masses survive, seeing that we might be able to go to the stars in greater numbers than imagined. Their other option was to get rid of the masses, all in order to preserve the resources for themselves. Now with nanotechnology and the possibility of producing steaks, etc., by molecular manipulation, there is no longer the need for extermination, especially, if one can ship off the excesses to planets all over the universe, there by fulfilling our Lord’s words of gathering the elect from one end of the Heavens to the other.

  21. says

    It is interesting to see the comments among Christians (and indeed the larger geo-political sphere) regarding China and how closely they are tied to our economy and the production of goods in this country. I was a hairs breath away from doing my Masters thesis on US-Japanese relations, focusing in part the effect the “Open Door” Policy with China had on them (unfortunately as no professor had any knowledge/expereince with Japan, the refused to help me with that thesis and I turned another direction on that…). Anyway, having started a lot of my research it just peaks my interest given how things are going now.

    There was a time in the second half of the 19th century, when Great Britain, Japan, and the United States were working together to be the “arbiters” of world maritime peace/stability. Britain would oversee the Eastern Atlantic and Indian Oceans, Japan the Western Pacific, and the United States the Eastern Pacific and Western Atlantic oceans. Things were doing all well and good until US business interests began to focus on the seductive lure of China and the “goods” that could come out of there (along with almost every other power). This coupled with strong anti-Japanese racism (much much stronger than anti-Chinese racism), ultimately lead the US to turn its back on Japan. It is important to note that up until the US and Japan started to cut ties, there was never a year that China passed Japan when it came to import/exports with the United States. Japan was our money maker, China never was.

    That in turn led to Japan becoming much more imperialistic, leading directly to WW2. Add to that, the pillaging of China by Western powers led to the downfall of the Qing dynasty, and the eventual rise of Communism in that country (and consider China, more than Russia, was the “puppet master” state over both N Korea, and N Vietnam). The entirety of the 20th century could have changed if the US did NOT try to get so invested in China.

    As it relates to the topic today, I think Dr. Barber’s comments are apt. Maybe it would be a good thing to slowly begin divest away from China, but to wholesale pull out would be literal economic suicide for two economies. I personally favor being products made in the United States, and I will pay more to get it, but I also will be conscious that that may not always be possible, and that I will take what I can get.

  22. Bill Mac says

    I think if people are going to wax eloquent about what a hell-hole China is, they should spend some time traveling in China and spend a lot of time interacting with the Chinese. You might be surprised.

    • David says

      Bill Mac, I agree completely. I spent a week in Beijing this past April on a business trip and was blown away by the economic growth and prosperity. I saw a good part of the city (taking subways) and didn’t see anything that would compare with a slum as one would see in South America and parts of the U.S. In fact, I saw in many cases the polar opposite – a gated community of mansions near the Beijing Airport and every high end luxury retailer you could think of. If the country is that poor, why did I see every high end car dealer in the world all in one block.

      Back to Bart’s original post about a Christian business person doing business with non Christians, and his feeling uneasy about installing lamps in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, this leads to the question, should Christian business people only do business with other Christians? Should Chick Fil A buy their chicken and buns only from Christian poultry companies and Christian bakeries? I think it is preposterous to take this line of thinking. Just because you purchase a product from a vendor does not make one unequally yoked as one would be if they were in a business partnership with a non believer.

      I disagree with Jonathan Merritt’s basic argument and if he strongly believes this, then he will never buy from Wal-Mart (or Macy’s either for that matter). He is also forgetting that there are Christian business people in China, too. Peter Berger at The American Interest recently wrote an interesting article called “Is the Chinese Regime Changing its Policy toward Christianity?” http://www.the-american-interest.com/berger/2014/06/11/is-the-chinese-regime-changing-its-policy-toward-christianity/ In the article he talks about the strong community of Christian business people in Wenzhou whose employees call them “boss Christian” and the large church building (which cost between three and five million US Dollars to build) which was bulldozed by the local government because they refused to take down a large cross. I have a lot more respect for the Christian community in Wenzhou who have had their church building destroyed than I do American Christians who like to pontificate all day.

      • William Thornton says

        I think you kiss. Merritt’s basic argument which was “You cannot call your business “Christian” when arguing before the Supreme Court, and then set aside Christian values when you’re placing a bulk order for cheap wind chimes.”

        Perhaps the Greens explain themselves on this alleged hypocrisy somewhere. Russell Moore offers a third party rationalization for them. Although I agree with Moore’s defense on balance, the matter does somewhat undermine the Green’s credibility as bastions of Christian principles in the conduct of their business.

        • David says

          I get Jonathan’s point about setting aside Christian values when a company buys products made using cheap labor. I just happen to disagree with his point that the Greens are ignoring Christian values in the way they do their business. My question is if they didn’t purchase their goods from China, where would they get them? -Vietnam, Malaysia, Bangladesh? Those countries would also produce these goods with the same low wage pay scale as China and probably cheaper. If Hobby Lobby is going to be in the business they are in, I am hard pressed to see how they can afford to pay higher prices to their suppliers and still compete with Wal-Mart and Target. Consumers are going to buy where the prices are low. In fact, it would be very difficult to find a lot of those products produced in the U.S. anymore.

          In the big picture, China is just one more chain in the process of what we have seen in the history of our own country, where the textile industry which began in the New England states migrated to the southern states for lower wage, non-union labor. The Callaway family of Callaway Gardens fame is a prime example of this with their former textile mills around LaGrange, GA. Later, in the 1970’s the southern plants could no longer compete with Mexico and the plants migrated there. From Mexico, they have migrated to China and other countries of southeast Asia. Now coastal China is becoming too expensive and the plants are moving to the interior of China and Viet Nam and other countries.

          However, in this long process, the southern states of the U.S. are better off economically than they were back in the textile days and coastal China is far better off than it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. I have seen with my own eyes how China is prospering economically, yet I fully acknowledge its government is extremely repressive – the article I linked to in The American Interest discusses that reality when it comes to the Christian community in China. Yet, I don’t hold Hobby Lobby responsible for the actions of the Chinese government.

          Often all we hear about in the U.S. is about how we are sending all of our money to China, yet I saw numerous American companies doing quite well over there from cars to grocery store items to retail. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the U.S. economy is totally intertwined with China and I guess I found Jonathan’s comments to be a little bit naïve because he failed to admit that and instead focused on just the Green family and not all of the American business and consumer economy. I don’t see Jonathan boycotting Wal-Mart.

          Speaking of the Green family, William, did you see the Passages Exhibit which covers the whole history of the Bible when it was in Atlanta a couple of years ago (it was in a former Best Buy across the street from Perimeter Mall). Passages is overwhelming in the scope of the ancient documents they have collected. I am looking forward to the visiting the permanent museum they are building near the Smithsonian in Washington.

  23. Tarheel says

    I disagree with Merritt, and agree with Moore.

    But I think the SCOTUS may just follow Merritt’s reasoning and in so doing will further curtail religious liberty. I am not sure if Merritt means to help the secularist liberals make thier case – but he is arguing one of thier mainstays. Our current executive branch has already done everything he thinks he can get away with in curtailing Christian liberty, and thus far has been backed up by the federal courts.

    Federal courts have already signaled this…..for example with the religious hospitals and colleges and the photographer and baker cases….saying that once a “religious business” enters the secular market “abandoning” thier religious exclusivity they forfeit therefore thier liberties.

    • William Thornton says

      I’m far more agreeable than you. I agree with both Merritt and Moore, and Barber. Merritt’s point is that if you operate an agressively identified Christian business, then expect to be scrutinized and labeled inconsistent if not hypocritical. I doubt the SCOTUS will be persuaded by allegations of hypocrisy but consistency in maintaining the Christian principles one claims is a fair argument to establish. Since there are degrees of inconsistency, levels of intensity before hypocrisy may be pronounced, I agree with Moore.

      We Christians prefer our champions to be pristine and unsullied. Unfortunately, this case doesn’t lend itself to those qualities.

      And David, would you acknowledge that there are areas where religious liberty, our constitutional right to free exercise thereof, clashes with other constitutional freedoms. For example, if owners of a business had a sincere and religiously based belief whereby they could not in good conscience employ an African-American, or a wedding cake vendor could not in good conscience serve a client where the wedding was inter-racial, or a Christian businessman who fired an employee who was found out to be an active homosexual in non-working hours in a community that had laws on discrimination of this type?

  24. Louis says

    Freedom is the key here.

    Any business should be free to invest their capital in this country or in others, and they should be free to use labor from this country or other countries.

    People chose to place their capital and select labor in places that will give them the best return to benefit their shareholders and their customers. That is a moral thing to do.

    Forced labor, in all of its forms, is wrong. Companies that engage in that are doing wrong.

    But if the companies pay the prevailing wage in the area where the labor exists are doing nothing immoral.

    We, as consumers, have the freedom to select what we do with our money. We typically try to get the best deal possible for the benefit of our families. If we chose to eat at McDonald’s for lunch because it cost less, we could reflect on the fact that McDonald’s pays its workers less. Are we being immoral for patronizing McDonald’s and other discount stores (e.g. Wal-Mart, Target)?


    We are being no more immoral than companies that try to select a place to manufacture goods that will make their dollar go farther for their shareholders and customers.

    The competition for capital and labor helps societies a great deal.

    Protectionism and central planning promise the moon, but they actually hurt people more because they protect favored persons from competition.

    Freedom is good for people. And that is a value for which Christians should be known.

  25. Peaches says

    Merrit is weighing on Hobby Lobby’s supposed status as a “christian business” for only one reason. Hobby Lobby is before the Supreme Court as a litigant against the Obama administrations attacks on religious liberty. Merrit is arguing that since Hobby Lobby is not “perfect” in by his vague and amorphous standards that they somehow do not deserve to be heard in court. Now Jonathan might deny this all day long but the practical effect of his argument and it’s timing cannot be lost on the man. He is acting here as a useful tool attacking Hobby Lobby in the political realm to deprive them of their standing in the judicial realm.
    I cringe at a world in which the some set themselves up as the arbiters of what is fair for everyone else. There are systems like that… they crashed when the Berlin Wall fell.

  26. Dave Miller says

    Of course, there is technically no such thing as a “Christian business.” Only individuals are redeemed by Christ.

    But Hobby Lobby is a business run by Christians who try to put their faith into practice. Perhaps they are imperfect, but we must also consider the source of the criticism. Merritt is hardly a man without a political agenda here.

    When we call Hobby Lobby or Chik-fil-a or other businesses Christian, we just mean that they are businesses run by Christians who are trying to live out their faith and let their businesses reflect their Christian values.

  27. Charlotte says

    Here’s the thing – Hobby Lobby apparently cares a great deal about the issue of abortion. So much that they sued the US government over the ACA requirement to cover birth control methods they disagree with. Meanwhile, in China, not only is abortion legal, women are often forced to have one to adhere to the one child policy. And their 401(k) investment plan for employees includes companies that manufacture the very contraceptives they don’t want to include in their plan. For me, it is less about whether or not they should call themselves Christian and more about the underlying hypocrisy of a company that feels so strongly about abortion they don’t want their own employees to have access to birth control methods but they are OK with abortion by choice or coercion among the Chinese workers who make their merchandise. And they are OK with their retirement plan including investments in the contraceptives they disagree with.