I have been reading a document published recently by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants entitled Incorporating ethics into strategy: developing sustainable business models. The institute, more usually known as CIMA, is known along with other professional bodies, for its integrity in the accountancy field and has strict rules covering the conduct of its members. I must declare an interest at this point and say that I should know – I am one of those members.
It struck me when the report landed in my in-tray that it was worth a read from a Christian perspective. The central thrust of the research is that in order to develop enterprises which are sustainable in the long term, ethics need to be built into the core of business strategy. This is very laudable and there is nothing in the report that, as a Christian, I would have any quibble over. I couldn’t help but think though, that there was a certain something missing.
Long term sustainability says something to me about stewardship. What we have isn’t ours but the Lord’s and it is incumbent on Christian businesses and more particularly, Christian accountants, to look after it all for the future. No argument there then.
But as the report acknowledges, there are difficulties in defining what ethics are. As an example it asks the rhetorical question “Should an armaments business quit markets where bribery is rife or simply behave better than its rivals?” A Christian might turn this around and ask whether a business should be selling armaments at all? The difficulty hints at the broader problems faced by a secular world without a foundation. Without a rock to base our beliefs on, what is right? What is ethical?
Certainly CIMA members are governed by the institute’s own code of ethics which covers integrity, objectivity, professional competence and professional behaviour. These set high standards and rightly so. One role of all the accountancy bodies is to provide society with professionals that can be trusted and relied upon. The code covers how the accountant should do his work, but goes no further. Again, as a Christian I feel a sense of something lacking. If an accountant is also a Christian, does that mean he can lay his Bible aside when he pulls out the Taxes Management Act? I don’t think so.
Unlike businesses, Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) have a problem with knowing what is ethical (or scriptural). We may have difficulty translating what we read into our daily lives but that isn’t an excuse for not trying or being more open to the Spirit. I firmly believe that there is as much wisdom and teaching in scripture as any business needs.
But do Christians have higher standards than secular business? We maybe need to be a little careful about how we answer questions like this, but I think in this case, the unavoidable answer is, yes we do. Should businesses have an obligation to feed the poor, and love their neighbours? Should scripture be used in dealings with customers, suppliers and employees? For big corporations the answer should be yes anyway. Particularly if they are managed by Christians, scriptural principles should indeed be found in these areas and even more so for small businesses owned and managed by Christians.
It is perhaps a difficulty that Christian professionals have to face, but surely not an insoluble one. Scripture should be an integral part of the work they do and, at the risk of being controversial, this should take precedence over observation of ethical codes. We would hope there would be no conflicts. After reading this report my conclusion was that Christians who direct, own or manage businesses and adhere only to ethical guidelines are in a sense falling short in their faith. Certainly, ethics aren’t to be ignored, but are there any higher standards in the panorama of human life than those set by our Lord? I don’t think it is a controversial claim to suggest that businesses which follow scripture will in any case be seen as ethical by the secular world.