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Reflections: Saving and investing

A Christian stock picker
By Leonard Van Drunen

Most of us would not operate a Las Vegas casino, own a business which made cigarettes, advertise our goods as Calvin Klein does or produce the Jerry Springer show. Most of us would see these activities as inconsistent with our Christian calling. Christians understand that these activities are not consistent with Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbor and that they are not consistent with the way Christians have understood scriptural teachings over the centuries. It is hard to honor God and our fellow human beings if we are involved in, or are profiting from, the above businesses.

Yet most Christians are, in fact, profiting from these businesses. If I own shares in a stock mutual fund or retirement account, then it is almost certain that I am profiting from pornography, liquor, tobacco and gambling. Money is flowing into my investment account from the profits of these activities.

How did we get so detached from the decisions being made by the companies in which we own shares? First, we do not manage the companies we own. Since the time of the industrial revolution, companies have become larger and have tended to be managed by professionals and owned by a large number of small shareholders. Second, we do not pick the stocks we own. Since the time of the information revolution, the mainstream way to own stocks is via a mutual fund, in which the fund manager picks the individual stocks. So we have become two steps removed from the decisions being made by the companies of which we are part owners.

If I am two steps removed from a decision, does that absolve me from responsibility? Do I as a Christian need to care about where my stock portfolio profits come from? I think so. I can find no biblical teaching otherwise. In contrast, when Jesus is asked which is the most important biblical teaching, his answer is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30,31 NIV) Importantly, Jesus did not exclude business or investing decisions from this command. Furthermore, when I own stock in a company, I am, in fact, a co-owner of that company, and I do, in fact, profit from its activities. Thus, we should only invest in companies that we would be happy to own and operate as Christians.

But what types of business should I be happy to own part of? This is a big question which each of us needs to work out for him- or herself. But I see the following biblically based teachings about business:

  • God created all things, including business.
  • Business managers are stewards responsible to and accountable to God for their decisions.
  • Business managers are to work and care for God’s creation and to demonstrate love for God and humankind in their decisions.
  • The created role of business is to serve humankind by providing goods and services that meet its needs.

I propose that when a Christian is considering investing in a company, and thus becoming a co-owner of the business, the company should be evaluated with the above perspective. Whether or not a company is managed by Christians, Christian investors should ask the following three key questions:

  1. Is the company working for and caring for God’s creation?
  2. Are the company’s products and services consistent with love for and obedience to God?
  3. Does the company show love for humankind in the way it interacts with its various stakeholders, including the products and services it sells to its customers?

If we believe that we are called to live according to biblical teaching, then it follows that our investment portfolios are part of such living. In our investments, we must first and foremost seek those which show our love for God and neighbor and which care for God’s creation. In a fallen world where every company has some fallen-ness, one might be tempted to give up trying to sort out the wheat stocks from the chaff stocks. I suggest that we not get overwhelmed by the complexity or enormity of the sorting task, but just get started by avoiding stock ownership in the most offensive companies.

Questions for reflection:

  • Do I know what stocks I own? If not, how can I find this information?
  • What five or ten companies do I own that I can easily identify as businesses which, as a Christian, I do not want any part of?
  • Have I visited the website www.socialinvest.org to learn more? What will my investment advisor say when I switch my stock investments to a socially responsibly fund?

—Leonard Van Drunen, Professor of Business and Chair of the Business Department, Calvin College

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