On Christian Businesses: A Friendly Rebuttal to Jonathan Merritt

June 18, 2014

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, Arkansas. In my young conscience I worried that we were buying parts from communists in order to sell lamps to gangsters. It 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 (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 on 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 argues 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 flouting 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.


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 Mr. Merritt 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.

Bart Barber

Bart Barber has served as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, since 1999. He is married to Tracy (Brady) Barber. Bart has a B.A. from Baylor University in their University Scholars program, an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Ph.D. in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24