Here's a topic that doesn't often come up when discussing Christian disciplines: competition.
Yet within the past few days, I've come across two different Presbyterians with two diverse opinions on the subject.
One, Louis Weeks, used to be a missionary in Africa, and currently is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. The other is Patrick Lafferty, currently on staff at my own Park Cities Presbyterian Church here in Texas. And while my personal prejudices may immediately be evidenced simply by introducing these two men, let's give Dr. Weeks the honor of setting the framework for considering the validity of competition as a Biblical characteristic.
Competition Good for Consumers, but Fellow Believers?
In his essay entitled Striving Together: Is There a Place for Competition in Ministry? which first appeared in Duke Divinity School's publication, Faith & Leadership, Weeks himself professes to never having seriously considered competition as a viable motivator for people of faith.
That is, not until a mentor of his boasted of its attributes.
This mentor had made competition the motivating factor for becoming a more educated Christian leader and preacher. He benchmarked his own progress in his professional faith life against other preachers and teachers, and whether the others knew it or not, engaged in a phantom race with them in his lifelong pursuit of learning.
Now, I understand that's not what most people would consider to be a negative form of competition. And, after all, it's the negative form of competition that raises the eyebrows in the context of things good Christians shouldn't do, isn't it? We think Christians should work together for the cause of Christ, and view competition as introducing unnecessary and even damaging behavior.
Competition, after all, implies that somebody is better at something than somebody else, and other people need to work harder to erase that lead. In economic terms, competition can benefit society by encouraging innovation and cost savings. At its core, competition involves discovering the weaknesses in competitors and exploiting those weaknesses for our own benefit. But it's one thing to invent a better widget through competition. It's another thing entirely to place yourself in competition with a fellow believer. To do so, you're forced to discover ways in which they struggle in their faith walk, lack the education you have, or have been led astray by the Devil. In reality, we end up using a fellow believer's weaknesses as leverage for us to succeed. Is that a proper demonstration of Christ-likeness? Isn't the world supposed to know we're Christians by our love for each other?
Sanctification Isn't Competition
Weeks appears to ignore these questions. He launches into an extrapolation of competition as a striving towards something in a fashion which God blesses because, after all, He gave us the desire to compete. Sports fanatics will abruptly stop here and endorse Weeks' theory heartily, because it appears to make a lot of sense. Many people derive considerable entertainment and even a physical adrenaline rush from participating in an intense sporting event. Even when I was watching the Texas Rangers play in the World Series this weekend, I found myself getting caught up in the excitement. And to a certain extent, there's nothing wrong with playing so as to prove who the better team is.
But when it comes to Christianity, we already know who the better team is. Indeed, we know Who is perfect at everything. So where does competition fit within communities of faith? Isn't it one of the weakest of arguments to justify doing something because "God gave us the desire to do it?" With that logic, we could sweep a whole ocean of sins under divine grace thanks to emotive proclivities. Any parent worth their salt can see right through the "it feels good, so it must be right" rationale, can't they?
Yet Weeks continues. He takes Paul's "running the race" analogy from 1 Corinthians 9 and "winning the prize" to validate the competitive spirit. If Paul did it, certainly we can compete against each other. But can we use such simplistic logic on this verse? Is Paul talking about running a race just to win a prize which will distinguish him as a purer follower of Christ than you and I? Instead, isn't he talking about the process of sanctification? In his analogy, a runner who values the significance of a race will train and discipline themself for their own good and the approval of the race officials. Where else in Scripture is sanctification compared to a competition between saints? When we reach those fabled Pearly Gates, will God be standing outside with gold, silver, and bronze medallions for win, place, or show?
Yes, we will get rewards of some kind based on what we've done with the opportunities God has given us for our earthly faith walks. But since He bestows the Fruits of the Spirit differently to His various children, can we tell what all of His benchmarks are for optimum performance so we can exceed what somebody else has done? Can we know how high-achieving somebody else's faith is? We can guess, based on their spiritual fruits, and we have Scripture to show us how to live lives that please God, but only He knows our hearts and the level of our true devotion to Him. Which means only He knows how well we're doing in the ministry opportunities with which He's blessed us.
Pegging our faith journey on what we see happening around us, how well we think other people preach, how well we think they teach or serve or cook or exercise their spiritual gifts, yadda, yadda, yadda... is this what Paul is talking about in his analogy of the race? We run so as to win the prize. But is God's prize based on a comparison between what you and I do here on Earth? Are we running against Paul, or Peter, or Billy Graham? Can you see how self-centered, humanistic, and ethnocentric such an approach can be? Is it really about us?
If Weeks' mentor wanted to please God as a preacher, and since being an effective communicator of Biblical exposition would be an appropriate use of the speaking and educational gifting God had given him, that still doesn't mean that pegging "success" on a pattern established by another preacher is a good way to gauge his own use of the gifts God had given him. Does it? Where in scripture do we receive instruction on how to quantify our faith performance and rank it against other believers? We can deploy Biblical discretion, but that's to help us be pure before God in a vertical relationship, not better than somebody else in a horizontal relationship.
The Personal Side of Competition
How does the concept of competition fit with the analogy of the Body of Christ as a physical body with many parts, organs, bones, and tissues? If the heart could compete against the eye, what would happen? If you left thumb wanted to race against your liver, what would happen?
No, I don't think competition is a good idea for fellow believers. Instead, let's move to Lafferty's viewpoint, which encompasses a far more holistically Biblical ethos.
Writing for Every Thought Captive, my church's weekly devotional e-mail, Lafferty takes a more relational perspective of competition, and in the essay from which I'm quoting him, talks about rivalry instead. After all, rivalry doesn't exist without competition, does it?
He writes: "Working out our own salvation [or, sanctification; what Paul was talking about when Weeks incorrectly applied the "running the race" analogy] first means to pause and reflect upon our priorities and practices — to take note of our patterns and how we conduct ourselves in them. Rivalry insists on proving ourselves right or better than others. It seeks to surpass them and it often manifests either in a delight over their loss or a despair at your own."
"If by what Jesus has done I am not only acceptable to God but beloved by Him, then my attempt to establish my worth through rivalry is not only a waste of effort, but entirely futile since it will only deliver a fleeting satisfaction, if any—in that is my folly."
"So rivalry offends God and destroys us as it seeks to best another. Whereas trust in the gospel assures us of an irrevocable acceptance by no less than God which a rivalrous spirit at first ignores, and then seduces me into a series of choices that will never yield abiding satisfaction. A preliminary grasp of the offensiveness and folly of rivalry is for now enough to move us to a new obedience—even if our walk by faith in that obedience is more often like a stumbling in it."
Seeking to serve God with the whole of your heart and being is certainly a noble ambition. But it's also a holy one. By invoking practices which require subjective interpretations about what God may or may not be doing in fellow believers, how do we position ourselves as their betters? To take Weeks' initial example, in the deceptively egocentric world of Christian preachers, benchmarking one's performance against someone else's may seem like an easy way to grade yourself and make improvements, but should Weeks and his mentor fall for such a beguiling trap?
Or should we? If we are to serve one another in love, bear with one another, and live in peace with each other (Colossians 3:12-15), where does competition fit in?
Maybe during a friendly round of golf or game of football. Or maybe even Scrabble.
But that's about it, isn't it? Not that this is a church rule or penalty meant to discourage improvement, but if we really love Christ and His people, we join with them in service.
Not against them.
1 Corinthians 9
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.