We live in a hyper competitive world. Try getting your child into a top school in any major Indian metro. Try telling an IPL fan that his team is horrible compared with the others. As a single woman, try finding a godly man to marry. Competition, in fact, is so inculcated into our day-to-day culture that most of us don’t see it. When it comes to our Church culture, it’s often much the same: competitive churches, competitive leadership, competitive institutions and competitive work for Christ. Is this a bad thing? When we no longer question the underlying reasons for our actions we have most probably lost the plot. I would suggest many of us have missed the point when it comes to competition in the context of the Church.
What is It?
The Webster Dictionary defines competition like this: “the act or process of trying to get or win something that someone else is also trying to win,” “an event or contest in which people take part in order to establish superiority or supremacy in a particular area”. Both of these definitions indicate that 1) There is a striving for achievement and 2) That achievement is measured against someone else.
Most would agree that the first part of these definitions are fine when it comes to the Church. We are struggling and pushing to achieve something. In the context of the Gospel it is our struggle to live holy and obedient lives in Christ. Paul notes in his letter to the Colossians that “for this purpose (completeness in Christ) I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29)
The second part of these definitions becomes more of a grey area. In the context of my faith, or even the church community, am I pitted against you? Am I looking to do better than you? The Bible doesn’t seem to use this language when it comes to faith. Yes, I follow examples of faith (1 Cor. 11) Yes, I should be encouraged by another in faith (Rom. 1:12). In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul presents the metaphor of winning the race of faith. Although this could be understood as competitiveness this analogy is not used in the context of beating others, rather so that we are disciplined towards the aim; an eternal wreath. Nowhere, in fact, does it seem to indicate that we are against each other or that I am trying to better you in faith. On the contrary my job is to try and build you up in faith. (Jude 1:20).
The Bible does refer to competition once. Romans 12:10 says, “…outdo one another in showing honour”. In other words “compete with each other to honour the other person”. The topsy-turvy nature of the kingdom of God rears its beautiful head. The only time I am supposed to pit myself against you…is in honouring others. I admit, I have never come home to my wife and proclaimed that I beat her hands down in honouring others. But that seems to be where biblical competition lies.
To understand this in the context of the church is relatively simple. Our main job is to help the other person, church, or institution as much as we can, even if it is at our expense. In the kingdom of God, we are all on the same team trying to make the other team members play better. But what about other areas like business and sport, where we are not necessarily on the same team?
The chief argument for competition in the business world is that competition is what drives capitalism. There is some legitimacy here. Many Christian businesses, however, have shown that you can be both competitive and honouring at the same time. In one of the businesses I am part of, although we are constantly pitted against other companies in securing clients, we have made a conscious decision never to put down or measure ourselves against them. That is, when promoting ourselves, we won’t ever focus on the other companies in the same business. Our focus is on our performance- doing the best we can in order to serve the client to the greatest extent. Through this all parties, especially the other companies, are pushed to perform better. Many Christian businesses use such a model and are able to thrive in a cut-throat environment.
The same crosses over for politics too. I once heard Vern Elhers the respected Christian
U.S Congressman say that in his extensive political career he vowed never to degrade or attack those who ran against him. His focus was always on his own performance. Now retired, he still remains one of the most respected politicians in the country by all parties.
Most sports overtly sets us against each other. The questions we have to ask here are “how” and “why”. Firstly, how are we being competitive?
Do we want enjoyment, learning, unselfishness, and good exercise to come out of the game or are we simply in it to win. The famous poem by Grantland Rice hits this point home “For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game”. Most historians would note that a game like football has become much more competitive now than it ever was in the past. This fact should make us thoughtful as to how we might play the game.
“Why” is another fundamental question to ask in any competition. Why is it we want to win? One-upmanship? Pride? Glory for ourselves? Or is it to glorify God? The famous Scottish runner and missionary Eric Liddell was clear as to why he ran competitively. He said “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.” He recognised that the true glory for every activity should go to God. Only then can we fulfil our true purpose.
Many Christian schools and institutions rank students or hold them in comparison to each other in studies or achievements. In one of my classes my teacher was very set on drilling into me the fact that my brother was a much better student than me. It made me feel like I could never do well. We have to ask those same fundamental questions when it comes to competition in education too. Is setting students in competition against each other helping them understand and practice material?
Blessing the Other
It’s important that we question the competition we might have or feel in our lives and look to see whether it is God honouring and giving Him glory. Christian ministry should always look to let the “other” shine and excel as much as possible- the other Church, the other school, the other pastor. Such a pursuit is honourable, trustworthy and pure.