6 Biblical Lessons in Business Ethics From the General Motors Affair

News commentary: The car giant’s need to pay billions of dollars in fines and damages illustrates the need for biblical principles in business.

6 Biblical Lessons in Business Ethics From the General Motors Affair

Editor’s note: News commentaries are intended to express the richness and variety of informed and responsible Adventist opinion on current issues. They do not necessarily convey the viewpoint of the Adventist Review editorial team or the General Conference.

, Ruth McKee chair for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics at Southern Adventist University, and author of Business Ethics in Biblical Perspective (InterVarsity Press, 2015).

General Motors agreed this week to pay $900 million in fines to settle U.S. government charges that it concealed an ignition-switch defect linked to at least 169 deaths.

The car giant also set aside $575 million to settle a slew of civil lawsuits, bringing to $5.3 billion “the amount GM has spent on a problem prosecutors say could have been fixed at a cost of less than a dollar per car,” The Associated Press reported.

Who is at fault? Investigators say a corporate culture of incompetence and neglect led to the GM mess. The company fired 15 employees, including the vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, five corporate lawyers, and its liaison with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But GM’s actions leave many questions unanswered. For example, if we assume that corporate culture flows downhill from top-level leaders to front-line employees, why were not more senior executives dismissed?

Here’s a harder question: Would Christian managers, engineers, and lawyers have handled this situation in a different way? If so, how?

The Bible doesn’t talk about product recalls, executive compensation, drilling for oil in Alaska, a minimum wage law, and a host of other contemporary ethical issues.

But some ethical issues that surface in the marketplace are relatively simple and straightforward. Right is clear from wrong. For many actions, it is easy to identify an action that is lying, cheating, or stealing. Leviticus 19:11 offers business advice that even unbelievers would recognize as astute: “Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.” (KJV).

Other situations in business are far more complicated. When we move to the arena of public policy, which often includes an economic dimension, the issues become even more complicated.

The Bible may not address specific contemporary business situations, but this does not mean that it is useless as a business guide. Far from it! Here are six elements of God’s character revealed in the great themes of Scripture that offer useful guidance for the complicated situations we face in business.

1. Shalom (flourishing life in all dimensions): “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace [shalom], and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). One important dimension of flourishing in the Bible perspective is to promote safety. When something is known to cause injury, decision-makers have a responsibility to warn relevant people and then to make corrections by removing the cause of the danger or in other ways provide protections.

2. Truth (faithfulness in action): “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Proverbs 23:23). “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face” (Psalm 89:14). Truth is the only thing in the Bible that we are encouraged to develop a monopoly on. The more we have of faithfulness in our actions and the longer we keep it in our relationships, the more valuable it becomes. Truth is the founding principle of how God governs in the universe. The biblical idea of truth means faithfulness in action when tested by time and circumstance. This is directly related to the transcript of God’s character, which is faithfulness in fulfilling His promises. Getting to the truth of a matter in business requires that managers foster transparency and openness to communicate what is reality. News reports suggest that GM engineers kept secrets and GM managers gave false representations to the government and to the public regarding the safety of the vehicles that had a fault in the ignition switch.

3. Wisdom (being smart to foster covenant relationships): “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). Biblical wisdom is not just how to be smart in making money. It is rooted in the idea of being smart with relationships through faithfulness and loyalty. Wisdom involves studying a matter carefully so that insight is gained which will benefit not only the individual but also the wider community.

4. Sabbath, which involves both action and rest (working diligently but also resting in contentment in the assurance that God is the Provider of our needs; rest from the constant drive toward wealth and acquisition): “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work” (Exodus 20:8-11). Sabbath teaches us that our actions during the week respect the principle of limiting personal gain in order foster contentment with God’s blessings. Sabbath is a sign of loyalty to God, not only by keeping the seventh day holy for worship, but also by keeping the Lord of the Sabbath also the Lord of our entire lives Sunday through Friday. This means that when we commit to keeping Sabbath, we are committing to following the principles of a flourishing life throughout the week.

5. Loving kindness (deep, abiding loyalty): “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). The biblical example of how to show loyalty is given in Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.” When employees report the truth about a situation, managers must show loyalty to them by not subjecting them to punishment.

6. Justice (fairness, correcting injustices): “Defend the poor and fatherless: Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82:3). Business technology must be used in ways that foster fairness and rights of others. Justice leads the faithful follower to correct the injustices of corruption and organizational processes that are unfair to all but especially to those who are vulnerable. Certainly, drivers using vehicles are vulnerable to accidents when vehicle parts fail. Likewise, people seeking compensation for injuries because of faulty vehicles deserve a fair grievance process.

These and several other themes relevant for business are directly related to the identity of Jesus Christ. These themes are the foundation of how God governs in the universe. These themes comprise the spine of the faithful believer’s conduct in the market whether buying or selling.

In many secular business situations, Christians cannot speak openly about religious faith. But even nonbelievers can see the wisdom contained in many of the principles. Thus when the Christians promote the fundamental principles contained in these biblical themes, though perhaps not referring directly to the Bible, when we advocate on their behalf in the organizations we serve and when we integrate them into our personal habits, we are telling about Jesus Christ just as surely as when we mention Him by name.