How One Good Accountant Saved the World Twice

by John M. Thornton

Become an accountant. Save the world.

That’s not an exaggeration. As proof, consider that criminologists classify most crimes into two categories—passion and greed—and that crimes of greed lead every list of “Top 10 News Stories of the Year.” New York Times bestseller The Ascent of Money documents how monetary manipulations caused the greatest political upheavals in the world, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the French Revolution. It stands to reason that accountants are uniquely positioned to thwart financial crimes, much like Cynthia Cooper, 2002 TIME Magazine Person of the Year, who exposed the $11.3 billion fraud at telecom giant WorldCom.

So what makes a good accountant? I spent several years studying why accountants get sued, and it boils down to two things: corruption and negligence. The antidote? Character and competence. Theodore Roosevelt put it succinctly, “To educate a person in the mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” Many schools excel at competency, but how do you teach character?

Socrates’ maxim, “To know the good is to do the good,” suggests that education holds the key. But when you throw self-interest into the equation, people rationalize almost anything. In my years as chair of the American Accounting Association’s Professionalism and Ethics Committee, we found we could teach professionals how to recognize an ethical situation, explore the alternatives, and recognize the best course of action. The challenge was finding the moral courage to do the right thing when it costs you your dream, your job, or your life.

I found the answer in Daniel, my favorite accountant in the Bible. You may know him as a prophet, wise man, or dream interpreter, but Daniel served chiefly as an accountant in that he held responsibility for all of the king’s assets. In fact, being a good accountant is what got him thrown into the lions’ den. Don’t beat yourself up if you missed this—most people do. They think Daniel was chucked to the big cats because he prayed. True enough. But that was just a technicality, a means to an end.

Daniel had so distinguished himself that King Darius planned to promote him over the whole kingdom. In the political intrigue that followed, Darius’ demoted officials went looking for dirt on Daniel to oust him. Much to their disappointment, they couldn’t find any, because Daniel “was trustworthy, and neither corrupt nor negligent.” (Daniel 6:4) He had character and competence. Stymied, they convinced King Darius to pass a law banning prayer to any man or god but him, then “caught” Daniel doing what he always did—praying to God. But in truth, they threw Daniel into the lions’ den because he was a good accountant.

Examining Daniel’s life reveals two keys to obtaining the moral courage we need to do the right thing, regardless of the circumstances. First, Daniel found his courage in a right understanding of the sovereignty of God over the kingdoms of men. He understood that even in an unjust world, our God remains just. Such knowledge allowed Daniel to do the right thing, even if it cost him his life.

Second, Daniel chose likeminded friends. Three of them famously stood up to King Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Babylon, refusing to bow down and worship his image, even at the threat of being thrown into a blazing furnace. I love their response to the enraged king’s offer of a second chance to do the wrong thing. “Our God is able to save us. But even if he doesn’t, we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17–18) Proverbs explains the importance of good friends. As iron sharpens iron, so we sharpen each other. On the other hand, bad company corrupts good character. Our choice of friends and colleagues, matter.

Clearly, this world needs good accountants. But how do we get them? That’s where the Leung School of Accounting, housed within APU’s School of Business and Management, comes in with its vision, which stems directory for our Shared Vision 2022 “To be a premier Christian accounting school, recognized as a thought leader in character and competence to reflect the life of Christ and shine the light of Truth.” Competent training, practicing good character, and following the lead of godly role models prepares our accounting students to do the right thing when faced with moral dilemmas like Daniel did. He rose above great challenges, against all odds, to become the top person in two of the most powerful kingdoms the world has ever known by recognizing God’s sovereignty, being trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent, and surrounding himself with likeminded friends. In both cases, the kings changed their edict from, “Worship me only,” to “Worship Daniel’s God only.” That’s how God used one good accountant to save the world twice.

John M. Thornton, Ph.D., CPA, is professor and the Leung Chair of Accounting Ethics in the LP and Timothy Leung School of Accounting, and chair of graduate programs in the School of Business and Management. jthorton@apu.edu

Originally published in the Winter '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.