Wisdom-Based Business: Participating in the Kingdom

By Hannah Stolze and Jenna Watson

Perhaps you picture your work in the marketplace as funding the kingdom. Kind of like Paul’s tentmaking — it’s there on the side to fuel the real kingdom work. I used to think that way, too. But after many years of researching, teaching, and leading in the marketplace, I have become convinced that many are called to the marketplace not only to fund the work of the kingdom, but to further the kingdom in wise, innovative ways. 

In Chapter 12 of my book Wisdom-Based Business (Zondervan, 2021), I consider how business can have kingdom impact beyond just profitability and financial stewardship. I take a look at the Tom’s of Maine business model as an example of innovative entrepreneurship that is profitable and successful while acting with social and environmental responsibility, and is ultimately grounded in the Christian faith of its founders, Kate and Tom Chappell. Beginning as a small family-owned business selling laundry soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, Tom’s soon caught the attention of larger corporations like Colgate because of the ethical, sustainable business model that demonstrated true care for all stakeholders. Tom and Kate Chappell didn’t just let their Christian faith inspire their business; they let it inform it, making wise business decisions in light of eternal realities. Tom’s of Maine delivered value to the customer through quality, all-natural products, after extensive research into their products’ safety and efficacy. They sourced from ethical suppliers and were completely transparent about all ingredients, packaging, and products. While conforming to all regulations and respecting their professional partners, they also prioritized giving a percentage of their profits back into the community. Though the business occasionally took short-term cuts in profit to maintain these high standards, Tom Chappell made these decisions based on their long-term — even eternal — outcomes. 

This way of doing business caught the eye of Colgate, who purchased Tom’s of Maine in 2006. Because Colgate and Tom’s found value alignment despite their difference in size and culture, the partnership was successful. Colgate tapped into the natural products market where Tom’s had established a following, while Tom’s benefited from Colgate’s brand familiarity, marketing channels, and capital. Recognizing the unique culture and innovation of Tom’s of Maine, Colgate was careful to let Tom’s maintain the values and systems that had brought them such success. Tom’s of Maine brought kingdom values into Colgate. 

Did Tom Chappell see his Christian calling as just fundraising for the church? Were his innovative business instincts only in service of profit and growth? Though profitable revenue growth was necessary for Tom’s success and enabled them to give back to their community, Tom Chappell knew that profit wasn’t the organization’s only goal. As he stated in a New York Times article, “God and Toothpaste,”

“My responsibility is to use my gifts in service to God’s work. I am ministering — and I am doing it in the marketplace, not in the church, because I understand the marketplace better than the church”. 

Everything about Tom’s of Maine — mission, strategy, sourcing, products — was different because Tom and Kate Chappell saw their business as kingdom work. 

The Tom’s of Maine story can remind us of some truths about business in service to God. First, it reminds us that for-profit organizations can have incredible kingdom impact by driving quality of life for all stakeholders. Rather than promote consumerism and unhealthy lifestyle choices, Tom’s of Maine provides products that increase the well-being of its customers, while being profitable enough to care well for its employees, stakeholders, and community. This type of business model inspired the transformative consumer research (TCR) movement that considers how business can promote individual and collective well-being. That sounds like kingdom work to me. 

We can also be reminded of the importance of biblical wisdom in making business decisions. One of the prophetic pillars of transformative consumer research is Practical Wisdom, which asserts that more knowledge doesn’t lead to transformative change, but wisdom in applying that knowledge does. I want to take that a step further. Wheaton College Center for Faith & Innovation members have an opportunity to cultivate not just practical wisdom, but divine wisdom. James 1:5 promises that, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.” I’m passionate about wisdom-based business — see my book for lots more on that.

Finally, the Tom’s of Maine story is a reminder that business conducted in light of eternity leads to better long-term outcomes and greater kingdom impact. Because Tom Chappell saw his business as a vessel of kingdom values and a witness to larger corporations like Colgate, he made wise but difficult decisions to protect the integrity of his company and hold true to his values. This was ultimately more profitable (Tom’s of Maine is now a $100 million company). It also participated in the kingdom of God that Jesus has already begun on this earth. 

Business doesn’t just fund kingdom work. It participates in the kingdom, here and now.

This piece originally appeared as a blog on the Wheaton College Center for Faith & Innovation, On Vocation website. 

Hannah J Stolze, Ph.D, is an associate professor of supply chain management and director of the Center for Transformative Sales & Supply Chain Leadership at Lipscomb University as well as executive director of the Wheaton College Center for Faith & Innovation and a visiting professor of core studies in business at Wheaton College. 

Jenna Watson (Wheaton College Graduate ’21, BA – English) was a 2020-2021 Innovation Scholar and writing intern for the Wheaton College, Center for Faith & Innovation.

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  • Hannah J Stolze, Ph.D, is an associate professor of supply chain management and director of the Center for Transformative Sales & Supply Chain Leadership at Lipscomb University as well as executive director of the Wheaton College Center for Faith & Innovation and a visiting professor of core studies in business at Wheaton College. 

  • Jenna Watson (Wheaton College Graduate ’21, BA – English) was a 2020-2021 Innovation Scholar and writing intern for the Wheaton College, Center for Faith & Innovation.