Is it ok for a Christian to be a commercial lawyer?: An introduction for young lawyers

Jeremy Cooke

1.      Is God interested in Commercial law and its practice? Is it ok for a Christian to be a commercial lawyer? John Grisham's books and films such as The Firm and The Devil's Advocate suggest the contrary and that the only decent thing for a Christian commercial lawyer to do is to get out at once and start using his/her talents to right the wrongs done to the oppressed and help the poor and needy. The underlying message is that a commercial lawyer sells his soul to the world of materialism with the profit motive and the magnification of wealth as an aim, whereas a principled Christian would obviously concern himself/herself with ensuring forensic justice and social justice for the vulnerable in society.

2.      In a Seminar a year or two ago (Magic Circle Christian- an Oxymoron?), I set out in more detail than can be covered in a short article like this, the essential reasons why the answer to the two questions set out above is a resounding Yes!  The Christian lawyer who practises in commercial law can and should see himself/ herself as called by God to serve in that sphere and his/her practice as a godly activity, carrying out God-ordained tasks and following the example and command of the Lord who made the world, in being creative, in facilitating in the creation of wealth and improvement of the welfare of society as a whole by the contribution he or she makes.

3.      Whilst I have no pretensions to being an economist, it is essential to understand what business, trade and commerce is all about, because it is that with which the commercial lawyer is involved- whether in advising, implementing instructions, or in litigation. There is a need to see commerce, not just from the world's perspective, but from God's perspective. God's perspectives on ethical issues (pace Dr Chris Wright) emerge from consideration of the biblical narrative in four spheres- creation ordinances, the effect of the fall, the impact of redemption and the eschatological expectation.

4.      Let's begin at the very beginning – it's a very good place to start (pace Julie Andrews).  In Genesis God makes man in his own image because there was work it and take care of it.

5.      There are creation ordinances which involve man in action in God's creation, in pre fall activity -creativity- increasing in number, betterment/improvement- bringing the earth under control- working and taking care of God's creation, which was very good. What for? Not just to preserve the status quo- but to do something to it- to improve it- in other words-wealth creation, welfare improvement. And God made man to do this for Him.

6.      What does this tell us?  That mankind was intended to be like God- who brought order out of chaos, who made beauty, who gave good things to mankind for his physical wellbeing- food, drink, land, companionship, help, sex, family. He wanted mankind to be creative in the same way- hence the command to increase in number and fill the earth. To rule over it, to take care of it and to work to make it bring forth good things for man's benefit

7.      And post fall, though invested with a curse, man was still to work the ground to produce a living- by the sweat of his brow to make the earth yield its fruit to eat. The woman was still to produce children, in labour pains, but to increase in number just the same and continue to rule the earth. None of the pre fall ordinances were countermanded; they were merely made more difficult because of mankind's disobedience. And they are reinforced in the covenant with Noah after the Flood in Genesis ch 9.

8.      And in terms ofapplicable principles, we have those set out in the Jewish law, which covers property rights, pledges, bailment, loans debt, employment, slavery, inheritance, succession, tithes (taxes) and social welfare (see the Pentateuch). We have the principles exemplified, amplified and refined in the Old Testament narratives, the words of the prophets and the teaching of Jesus and the writers of the epistles in the New Testament, to show us what the motivation, aims and objects of this wealth creation and welfare improvement are and the more specific principles and constraints within which they are to operate. Thus the redeemed act in the fallen world.

9.      So how does the work that is done in a modern sophisticated city fit with all this? How do mergers, takeovers, bonds issues, derivatives and abstruse financial instruments fit in? How do complex banking transactions tie up? What about oil contracts, and international trade and insurance and reinsurance?

10.   Let's try to keep this simple. Trading and commerce of all kinds are designed in God's economy to improve the lot of those involved. Each party enters into the transaction on the basis that he will benefit from it. The primitive system of barter, where each gets something he wants in exchange for something he is prepared to hand over, is replaced by the use of money or financial instruments. The lending of money is to assist in the process as is the investment of money, with each party benefiting from the transaction in different ways. If there was no perceived benefit, the parties would not agree to conclude it. 

11.  The object is to improve the lot of those entities involved by providing them with something in exchange for what they provide, whether money or goods or services, thus increasing  the wealth of corporations which are ultimately made up of individual shareholders, directors and employees, who thereby benefit.  When a corporation or partnership or other  agglomerate benefits, this affects, perhaps indirectly, the standard of living of some or all of those individuals involved in it, ultimately with reference to good food and drink, housing, social amenities, culture, leisure, health and wealth.  That money should then circulate in ever smaller individual transactions by those individuals, to the benefit of all those involved. All of those involved will be looking out for their own interests in seeking to obtain something they have not got in exchange for something they have, in order to improve the position of the collective group, the corporation and/or the individuals with whom they are associated - and thus for themselves individually.

12.  How are hospitals, schools, sickness and welfare benefits paid for? From taxes which arise from the creation of wealth by wealth creators. How are charities funded and public improvement projects financed, quite apart from Christian mission? With the money which comes from those who create wealth. The provision of funds, both mandatory and voluntary provision, can only come from wealth creation by enterprise and activity of a commercial nature, in the broadest sense of that word. The wealth of the City of London, from its invisible earnings and service industries, pays a vast part of the taxes of the UK which fund the public services. And the role of the commercial lawyer is to advise on deals, advise clients in the lawful and reasonable pursuit of their aims and to play a part in resolving the disputes- all in order to facilitate the smooth, orderly, lawful and ethical conduct of trade and business for the creation of wealth and the mutual benefit of all those involved and society at large

13.  That is not only, not objectionable to God, but is part of the very creativity that God had in mind. God is interested in all of these physical human things, because He made us as physical beings, with such physical needs for food, drink, shelter and medical treatment, and aspirations towards improvement in them, towards education and towards beauty in art and music, culture, enjoyment of leisure, games and recreation. We share a desire to bring order out of disorder and to be individually and collectively creative in making progress in these areas. God wanted and requires mankind to improve His creation, particularly his fallen creation which has considerable room for improvement, because of the consequences of sin. Producing edible produce, where thorns and thistles grow (as per Genesis 3), by the sweat of the brow, producing progeny through pain to subdue the earth and fill it (Genesis 1&3)

14.  The eschatological expectation informs our attitudes to all this. God's plans in the Bible begin in a garden and end in a city. The other end of the story - after redemption – is the city of gold. Principles set out in an agricultural context are no less applicable in a city context, as Jesus' parables make clear.

14.1.                    The parable of the tenants, including the suggestion that the man who did nothing with his money should at least have put it in a bank to earn interest. The responsibility to work for gain and the God given reward is responsibility over one or more cities- more work- more opportunity to improve the world

14.2.                    the parable of the workers in the vineyard who are paid for their work, albeit the same, whatever hours they worked ( the point of the story being a different one- the keeping of a bargain being a key element in a story about entry into the kingdom)

14.3.                    parables involving sowing and harvest, bridesmaids, fish, sheep and the goats – there are consequences and rewards for diligence or faithfulness

14.4.                    The parable of the pearl assumes selling in order to buy what is really important without a hint of criticism.

14.5.                    Jesus parables assume the ordinary world of work, buying and selling and trade- the profit motive is not condemned- reward for work is commended.

15.  Those parables reveal the same idea- reward in the shape of tasks- ruling cities, judging angels, being given more talents to use, more service. Others talk of feasting with God, an image of enjoying God's goodness in material as well as spiritual matters. Other pictures in Revelation or elsewhere show Christians serving God and worshipping Him, in His presence and on the basis of Romans 8, our work in improving what God has created stands and is liberated and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. The new heavens and earth are the transformed creation, where what has been done in Christ is not in vain, but lasts. There is real value in all work done for him (pace Darell Cosden- the Heavenly Good of Earthly Work).

16.  The Christian commercial lawyer can thus fulfil his or her God- given calling in living to His praise and glory in the world of commercial law. The creation of wealth to be shared, of profit to enable an increase in the standard of living, of use of wealth to bring benefits is not just ok – it is God ordained. Trade and commerce which does these things is part of God's way for man to fill the earth and subdue it, to take care of it and work in it to improve it.There is no problem about capitalism and the profit motive as such. The idea of business, trade, dealing, wealth creation is good, if seen in God's terms. The issues arise where mankind crosses God ordained boundaries and leaves God out of the picture in making idols and pursuing its own ways without reference to Him. Of course, it is not just what mankind does but how he/she thinks- what the motivation is - which inevitably affects what is actually done.

17.  But that is a problem for another article. Better still, go to the LCF website for the video'd seminar.  Magic Circle Christian- an Oxymoron- not a bit of it.


[Note the Magic Circle Christian seminar is awaiting upload to the new site]

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