Reading the biblical narratives of Joseph, David, Nehemiah, and others, we often hear them described as political actors like the kings and pharaohs they served, not as corporate leaders. But the actions they took to trade agricultural commodities, do construction projects, and rebuild walls were more corporate than governmental. These biblical leaders lived in times when the hard separation we now perceive between public or political sector actions and private or corporate actions was not so clear. The kings of the Bible could and did tax, but just as often we see them building and engaging in commerce.
Many of the most substantial global entities today are corporations, not political entities. Apple’s $1 trillion market capitalization, a business first, exceeds the GDP of all but 16 countries globally. The combined total employees of the US tech giants Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft now exceeds the population of over 75 of the world’s 233 nations.
God can and has directly used the business models and resources created by corporations to do tremendous good. Some corporations like ServiceMaster have had openly Christian CEOs who made it clear that their faith defined their leadership practices and principles. There have also been many examples of Christian entrepreneurs using corporate wealth to build charitable foundations. Joseph Newton Pew, the Presbyterian founder of Sun Oil Company (Sunoco), provided the resources to fund The Pew Charitable Trusts, which his children said honored his “religious conviction that good works should be done quietly.” Episcopalian J.K. Lilly and his heirs used their pharmaceutical corporation earnings to fund the Lilly Endowment, which is the fifth largest charitable foundation in the world ranked by assets and has been historically committed to “deepen and enrich the lives of American Christians.”
A lot of church and para-church entities have also found their greatest success emulating, practicing, or employing corporate business models. World Vision CEO Rich Stearns was formerly CEO of both Parker Brothers and Lenox before leading this more than billion dollar enterprise. He also has an MBA from the Wharton School. Compassion International CEO Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado is a Harvard Business School graduate. LifeWay Christian Resources, which serves the Southern Baptist Convention, has theologically trained leadership and a key executive structure that is distinctly corporate with the same slate of “C-level” executive positions you would find in any Fortune 500 company.
But Christians inside global business corporations can often change lives and express the love of Christ far beyond the work of local churches and para-church entities. The executives who implement free lunch in Silicon Valley technology firms keep employees in the building and boost productivity, but the same free lunch benefit in their Asian or African factory may be the best meal of the day for its workers.
Corporate business structures magnify outcomes both good and bad. Leadership failings echo through an organization on a global scale and can be devastating. The most centrally controlled “corporate” denomination, the Catholic Church, has been extraordinarily effective in transforming lives through schools, hospitals, and other global deployments of wealth and resources to effect social change and Kingdom outcomes. But the Catholic Church also illustrates some of the perils of centrally managed corporate type structures. From the indulgences that led in part to the Reformation to the recent covering up of sexual abuse by priests, it is clear that just deploying corporate management structures and tactics do not assure positive outcomes.
But what could Kingdom corporate leadership mean? Imagine if Apple CEO Tim Cook were to decide that pursuing Kingdom outcomes was of equal or greater importance than shareholder value creation. Assume that this might even increase shareholder value. More people would be employed and fed, healthcare would improve, consumption would go up, families stabilized, and poverty reduced globally.
Perhaps it is time for the further development of a corporatist theology. The faith, work, and economics movement is a good start. The examples in Amy Sherman’s book Kingdom Calling lay a foundation and Tim Keller’s theology of vocation outlined in Every Good Endeavor point the way, but we need thoughtfully considered next steps for those who want to more effectively use corporate entities or their positions in them to bring global Kingdom impact.
Corporatism in this sense means having the principles, doctrine, or system of corporate organization in an economic unit. A corporatist approach in Kingdom work could include a nonprofit or for-profit entity, even a church, that uses legal and business structures and strategies to accomplish its goals.
The focus would be:
- Strategic collaboration between people with functional expertise to most efficiently use economic resources
- Technologically enabled value creation activities
- The pursuit of the common good
We need a “corporatist theology” to reach these ends better, and perhaps the milestone that Apple has achieved will become the most effective model for taking the whole Gospel of the Kingdom to the entire world.