J. David Newman is the executive editor of Ministry.

The students at the Christian college I attended organized a soccer match with the local village team. When the faculty heard about it, they forbade us to play any team outside the college ever again. That was competition, and competition was forbidden.

Five weeks later the college held its annual festival of speech and music, with cups and certificates presented to the various winners. Those of us still smarting from the soccer decision wondered why the faculty did not consider this competition. We had been introduced to the double standard regarding competition.

At its 1988 year-end meeting the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists debated the issue of competitive sports in Adventist schools. The conclave tabooed intermural sports (between schools some distance apart) but blessed intramural sports (between teams on campus and between local institutions). No one raised the more delicate subject of the appropriateness of competition itself.

Is competition a moral issue? Is it OK on some levels but wrong on others? Should we restrict discussion about competition only to sports, or should we discuss its relevance to all phases of church life? Competition so pervades our society that we take it for granted. We only notice it when flagrant violations take place or when someone raises the issue of whether sports belong in a Christian environment.

What do we mean by the term competition? Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines it as "a contest between rivals." Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary describes "to compete" as "to seek or strive for something in opposition to others." The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary renders it "to enter into or be put into rivalry with" and "to strive with another, for, or in doing, something."

Competition, then, generally involves rivalry and always means gaining something at another's expense. Competition demands a winner and at least one loser. Should Christians involve themselves in such activities?

Someone will say that competition is an attitudinal problem and not inherent within the activity itself. But any activity that produces a winner and a loser is competition. Some activities are designed for the express purpose of producing a winner and a loser—for example, most sports. However, competition also lurks in many other places. In reports, for ex ample, we may list churches randomly, alphabetically, or in numerical order from the largest to the smallest. The latter ranking tends to pit the churches against each other—encouraging competition.

If we honor the pastor who baptized the most people during the year with a trip to Hawaii we have introduced competition. We encourage competition in school when we grade on the curve. Ribbons, cups, and plaques for outstanding achievement invoke competition. These are all such an accepted part of our society that we seldom question them. But as Christians we should prize consistency like a precious jewel.

Where did competition, this striving to be first, this striving to obtain at someone else's expense, originate? Lucifer said, "I will be like God. I will exalt my throne above His. I want what He has" (Isa. 14:13, paraphrase). Paul tells us that "there must be no room for rivalry and personal vanity among you, but you must humbly reckon others better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3, NEB). That's kind of hard when sitting on top of the league, whether in basketball or in church growth.

Competition introduces comparison with others, suggesting that my success is based on your failure. We do not think cooperatively because our superiority will not be so clearly demonstrated. Paul cautions us: "but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise" (2 Cor. 10:12).

Competition fights the gospel of justification by faith. Justification says that I am declared righteous not because of my performance but because of the performance of Jesus Christ. Competition says that I am successful when my performance supersedes everyone else's. Justification says I am nothing and Christ is everything. Competition says I am everything and others are nothing.

When the disciples wanted to know who would be the greatest Jesus re minded them "if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35, NIV). "Rubbish," cries our culture. "That's not the way to get ahead. You've got to be first, number 1, have the most numbers, compete."

We cannot humble ourselves before God and exalt ourselves before humanity simultaneously. Jesus descended from the highest to the lowest position in the universe. By contrast, Lucifer strove for the highest position, and he tries to dupe his subjects into following his philosophy.

Like polygamy in Old Testament times, competition so permeates our culture that we accept it and shrug our shoulders as if to say who can fight one's culture. But the gospel offers us hope: "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re make you that your whole attitude of mind is changed" (Rom. 12:2, Phillips).

Jacob and David did serve God while practicing polygamy. And we can serve God while retaining competition as a part of our lives. But is that God's ideal? As Christians who believe in the soon coming of Jesus we should be aiming for the very highest of moral standards rather than seeking accommodation with this world as it passes away.

In his book No Contest—The Case Against Competition, Alfie Kohn lists four myths regarding competition: (1) competition is an unavoidable part of human nature; (2) competition motivates us to do our best; (3) contests provide the best way to have a good time; and (4) competition builds character and develops self-confidence. His book demolishes each of these myths and then makes the case that cooperation rather than competition encourages the optimum character development.

Kohn quotes Vera J. Elleson concerning the danger of competition: "The prevailing mode of competition in American culture thus continues despite convincing evidence that it is dangerous to physical, spiritual, emotional, and social health" (p. 182).

If a secular sociologist can be so concerned, should Christians be any less concerned? What do you think? Should Christians support competition, cooperation, or both? Is competition a moral issue?—J. David Newman.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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J. David Newman is the executive editor of Ministry.

March 1989

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