The first article of this 3-part series, entitled Can Business Be Mission?, argues that the driving force behind the expansion of God’s kingdom is not human-centred initiative, but God’s mission (missio Dei). It explains that ‘business’ and ‘mission’ are not mutually exclusive terms, but also cautions against using business as an access vehicle for evangelism into a community. The second article, entitled The Historical Impact Of Business As Mission, highlights inspiring historical examples of Christians who successfully lived out their mission in the marketplace – confirming that business can truly be a redemptive force in society.
This third (and final) article presents Business as Mission (BAM) as an alternative to the prosperity gospel, and dives deeper into the attributes of the ‘righteous rich’, as evidenced in the Bible.
The prosperity gospel versus BAM
The African continent is being rapidly urbanised, and many people are struggling to make ends meet. Especially young people are moving to the cities, where they are being courted by the ‘prosperity gospel’ – a belief that religious faith manifesting as positive speech together with generous donations to a particular church or preacher will increase their ‘health and wealth’. (When observing the visible trappings of material opulence, it seems that the actual beneficiaries are a certain class of clergy and politicians.)
Considering that successful businesspeople create wealth for themselves and others, Business as Mission (BAM) presents an alternative to the prosperity gospel. Church leaders should help their congregations understand the difference between wealth created through hard work, taking risks in business, and creating jobs – and the wealth promised by the prosperity gospel, which devalues work and emphasises superstitious giving. Economic production facilitated by business is important not only because it keeps the lights on and provides livelihoods, but also because it allows people to use their talents and skills for the benefit of others.
The double burden of wealth creators
The idea that the Bible should be read from the perspective of the poor is largely due to liberation theologians, who point out that the Bible favours the powerless over the wealthy. In some cases, this has led to an anti-business sentiment. Unfortunately, the exploitation of the vulnerable is visible in every sector of society, not just in the business world.
But because of the common belief in Africa that you cannot become wealthy without exploiting others, the “accumulation of wealth is often seen as greed and thus discouraged by communal norms”, which acts as a significant sociocultural barrier for aspiring African businesspeople.
At the same time, having wealth creates endless expectations from extended family and friends, which many businesspeople feel unable to meet. Successful businesspeople can have a deep sense of isolation in their communities, because of this double burden.
Therefore, BAM professionals require a fresh sense of self-awareness. There are many warnings in the Bible directed at those who grow wealthy at the expense of others, but there are also many examples of the ‘righteous rich’, which is a fitting description the newly rich Africans can adopt.
6 Attributes of the ‘righteous rich’
1. Not finding their identity in their wealth (Job)
The examples of Job, Abraham, and Joseph of Arimathea as biblical examples of the righteous rich have already been highlighted in the first article.
It should be further noted that despite Job’s wealth, he does not find his security or identity in his wealth.
“If I have put my trust in gold or said to pure gold, ‘You are my security,’ if I have rejoiced over my great wealth, the fortune my hands had gained… I would have been unfaithful to God on high” (Job 31:24–28).
“If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless… if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or the needy without garments, and their hearts did not bless me for warming them with the fleece from my sheep… for fear of [God’s] splendour I could not do such things” (Job 16–23).
Thus, it is possible for Job to be rich, while not letting this fact undermine his most important relationships – first between him and God, and second with other needy members of his community.
The spiritual warfare (involving the machinations of Satan in the background), which led to the loss and later regaining of Job’s wealth, has been the theme of many books. Today, many African businesspeople are anxiously aware of the spiritual dimension. Christian businesspeople who attend church seeking divine intervention remain alert to the possibility that their rivals may be consulting witchdoctors in attempts to gain a spiritual advantage (and thereby attract more customers). Being aware of these dynamics and having a mature understanding of BAM within the church provides an opportunity for equipping businesspeople with biblical spirituality that can meet the challenge of the traditional African religious perspective.
2. Providing for the poor in a dignified way (Boaz)
Then there is the account of a wealthy landowner named Boaz, who marries a destitute foreigner named Ruth. In this biblical story, two concepts that characterise the righteous rich are demonstrated. First is the practice of gleaning, which allows the poor to have some form of dignified livelihood, by going into a recently harvested field and collecting whatever grain remained for their own needs. This is a contrast to the prophet Ezekiel warning an affluent and wayward Jerusalem “Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door” (Ezekiel 16:49).
Second is the concept of a having a ‘kinsman redeemer,’ a family member who is responsible to act on behalf of a relative who was in trouble, danger, or need (Ruth 4:5–8). Both of these concepts demonstrate that wealth creation does not have to be exploitative. Rather, it can take into account that there are vulnerable people in society who can be provided for, without compromising their dignity.
3. Keeping eternity in mind (Jesus)
The Bible contains little information about Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, although he is described as a carpenter (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). Thus, Jesus worked as a carpenter until he was 30 years old. “Traditionally we picture Jesus more as remote, more of a monk than a manager”, but Jesus was actually a businessperson for much longer than he was a preacher.
And Jesus is as concerned about the salvation of the wealthy as he is concerned about the salvation of the poor. He does not overlook the spiritual needs of the rich, as shown in his engagement with Zacchaeus. Not only does Jesus visit Zacchaeus in his home, he also acknowledges Zacchaeus’ salvation as a result of the latter’s repentance. We see Zacchaeus’ attitude to wealth transformed after receiving the gospel – he turns to Jesus and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 9–10, 19).
Yet when a rich young ruler asks how he can gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16–24), Jesus indicates that worldly wealth is often an obstacle to repentance, and makes it difficult for the rich to enter God’s kingdom.
4. Having a humble attitude (James)
James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, devotes a substantial amount of his writing to the rich-poor divide. He exhorts the poor to take pride in their “high position”, and to the rich he poses the challenge to take pride in their “humiliation” (James 1:9–10). Essentially, he reverses the social norms and reminds both rich and poor that their present circumstances are temporary. He also calls on the church not to favour the rich over the poor, and rebukes the rich for abusing their economic and judicial power. These rich are definitely not righteous – they even slander “the noble name of him to whom you belong” (James 2:1–7).
He reminds those who “carry on business and make money” that their success is not as a result of their own skill, but is from God’s hand. Therefore, they cannot boast about their plans for the future, but instead should recognise God by saying, “if it is the Lord’s will” (James 4:13–17). He warns the rich who fail to pay their workers (James 5:1–6), and speak out strongly against a self-indulgent lifestyle focused on the love of things rather than on the love of people. According to James, righteous faith has to be demonstrated by good works, repeating the imperative to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (James 2:8).
5. Not using generosity to gain public favour (Ananias and Sapphira)
The first recorded public judgment of sin by God in the New Testament is in Acts 5. After selling a piece of land, Ananias and Sapphira offers the proceeds to the church, pretending it to be the full sum while secretly keeping some of the money back for themselves. God is displeased with their deception, and they both die instantly. This instils great fear in those who seek to use their wealth to abuse the newfound culture of generosity in the early church.
The point is that personal financial decisions made in private by businesspeople have public consequences, and that trying to use generosity to ‘buy’ public favour, is not righteous in the eyes of God. This is why mature, biblical spirituality must be at the centre of BAM.
6. Using wealth to support spreading the gospel (Paul)
Throughout his life, Paul is shown to conduct his business as a tentmaker and his gospel mission in a sustainable manner. He is not greedy, nor is he dependent on others. On the contrary, he is generous. Paul tells the church in Ephesus, “these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions.” He reminds them that it was “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:32–35). He does not depend financially on any of the churches he planted, with the exception of the non-Jewish church in Philippi, regarding which Paul asserted, “Not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only” (Philippians 4:15).
As he awaits his trial before Caesar, Paul lives in his own “rented house” in Rome (Acts 28:30). He “certainly must have had considerable resources, for he was able to maintain a long and expensive judicial process, to travel with ministers, to gain a respectful hearing from provincial governors and to excite their cupidity”. This does not mean that Paul does not lack material things at times. Indeed, he endures more troubles than many of his generation, including being hungry and shipwrecked (2 Corinthians 12:25–27).
Paul recognises that there are both just and unjust ways of gaining wealth. For example, he argues that someone cannot become an elder or leader in a church if they pursue “dishonest gains” (1 Timothy 3:8, Titus 1:7). He urges everyone to work hard to meet their personal needs (Titus 3:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:12), and commands the wealthy to be the “righteous rich” (1 Timothy 6:17–18).
Businesses are the creators of economic wealth and opportunity – precisely the resources of which the poor are in desperate need. Business As Mission (BAM) seeks to use these wealth creation and work opportunities to advance God’s mission.
Yet, some still wonder if rich people can really be righteous? Some mistakenly believe righteousness always leads to riches (it does not). God sometimes blesses people with riches, as we see with Abraham and Job. Some unrighteous rich think they are righteous, such as the rich young ruler Jesus meets in the gospels. The righteous rich can become the unrighteous rich, as we see with Solomon. Conversely, the unrighteous rich can become the righteous rich, which is what happens to Zacchaeus after he encounters Jesus.
Embracing the concept of the ‘righteous rich’ can undergird the practice of BAM in Africa. It would therefore serve the church well to increase her capacity and focus on discipling marketplace professionals (the majority of her members) to grow in their faith and become the righteous rich – creating wealth for the common good, and advancing God’s kingdom in the world.
Dennis Tongoi is the Executive Director of Root-to-Fruit, a leadership development consultancy in Kenya. He holds a DTh. in Missiology from the University of South Africa, is the founding International Director Emeritus of the Church Mission Society (CMS) Africa, and coordinated the Samaritan Strategy in more than 40 African countries from 2001 to 2014. He served as the business leadership manager for the Executive MBA program run by the Copenhagen Business School in collaboration with Mount Kenya University and was part of the Navigators for almost two decades, serving as their Kenya Country Director from 1995 to 2000.
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 Liberation theology is a Christian theological approach emphasising the liberation of the oppressed. It engages in socio-economic analyses, with social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples and addresses other forms of inequality, such as race or caste.
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