Friday, January 1, 2010

Competition & Christianity


When I play checkers with my six year-old nephew, I play to win. Ryan is a good checker player and I honor him when I give my very best in the spirit of competition. I do not, however, take unfair advantage in order to win, for if I did, I fear I would lose a worthy partner. Ryan and I play by the rules (which sometimes include pointing out an opportunity for a double-jump).

Although competitive struggle is accepted in sport, is it appropriate for Christians in the marketplace? This paper pursues a biblical theological perspective on the challenge of work in competitive environments. Common misunderstandings and corruption of competition are inevitable consequences of the human condition. With proper boundaries however, competition glorifies God, because it presumes rather than precludes, cooperation and community.

Competition Misunderstood

Competition is a word of paradox. Derived from the Latin com, ‘together’, and petre, ‘to strive or seek’, to compete literally means: ‘to seek together although against.’ It is translated as such only three times in the New Testament:[1] in 1 Corinthians 9:25 (agōnizomai) it refers to running in “such a way as to get the prize”; and twice in 2 Timothy 2:5 (athleō) where the context is competing “according to the rules.”

Must competition be perceived as a zero-sum game in which there are only winners and losers? Surely Paul was not suggesting that only one will get the prize.[2] The premise of zero-sum games is competition for limited resources, yet this need not be the case in the market environment. Stewardship is a Biblical theme, but scarcity is not:

Among the things for which humans compete, money is neutral and may be used in wise stewardship or foolish…A money economy is inherently dynamic. What one wins in the competition is not…taken from others, for the original sum is invested so as to be added to, and its investment opens new opportunities for others. …it is in the real interest of those with money to see others prosper along with themselves.[3]

Must competition be polemic to cooperation, where one is evil and the other good? Professional ministers often possess congenial temperaments appropriate to their role as conciliators. Expecting the same of all, regardless of profession, amounts to idolatry of the pastoral personality. God’s creation is described as a “vast array.” The body of Christ is composed of many different parts.[4] There is no single Christian personality. Cooperation and competition coexist without being opposite.

Is competition synonymous with conflict? This view charges that business, being essentially competitive, puts a premium on conflict, and is thus morally reprehensible, promoting an enemy attitude, as opposed to benevolence. Competition can become truly unhealthy – even immoral, when the drive to win comes at the expense of others. But strong personalities at odds need not constitute evil – witness the disagreement between Barnabas and Paul.[5] All human activity is competition and conflict, with all the ambiguities of conduct this implies.[6] “A non-competitive world is a world reconciled to the status quo.”[7]

Competition Corrupted

The enthronement of competition, motivated solely by individual desire, is destructive. “The fashionable philosophy of individualism,” writes Patrick Bateson, “draws its respectability in part from an appeal to … the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection.” Biology is believed to be all about competition – and that supposedly means constant struggle. Drawing examples from biology he concludes: “those who team up are more likely to survive than those that do not.”[8] The self-interest model simply doesn’t work.

Competition is corrupted, and becomes dehumanizing, when the focus is on personal power or honor. “If one’s economic drive represents the desire for a higher status than one’s fellows, it is a drive toward isolation.”[9] “Where competition involves the search for dominion over another human being…, then violence is done to the values of the Christian gospel.”[10] When Jesus warns the rich,[11] he is condemning not their wealth, but the thirst for power apart from God that their possessions induce.

War and sport-based metaphors used in the marketplace malign the true nature of economic enterprise as a human activity. If sport celebrates the myth of success, the morality of self-reliance, and reward of hard work, it becomes a ‘microcosm of meritocracy.’[12] Competition is corrupted when its goal is the crushing[13] of another.

Competition and the Human Condition

No presentation of the problem of competition is complete without considering the human condition and the reality of sin. Everything God created for good is subject to corruption.[14] The free market is society’s most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to human needs by assuring the lowest prices, proper supply, and adequate labor at reasonable wages, as well as the wealth of the society.[15] An ethicist of modern economic theory once confronted the Socialist agenda:

With moral conceptions in many respects far ahead of the existing arrangements of society, they have in general very confused and erroneous notions of its actual working; and one of their greatest errors, as I conceive, is to charge upon competition all the economical evils which at present exist.[16]

By avoiding competition, monopolies and cartels undermine free enterprise, resulting in oppressive pricing of goods and services.

There are real challenges associated with competition in the marketplace. As unvarnished history, the Bible records competitive activity: Cain and Abel; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers. In Luke 22:24, a dispute (philoneikia – ‘love of strife, eagerness to contend’) broke out among the apostles over who was greatest among them. Much of 1 Corinthians deals with competition between groups in the church vying for superiority in spiritual status – following Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ. Chapter 9 concerns Paul’s apostleship and, in 2 Corinthians 11:5, he compares himself with the ‘super apostles.’

Humans seem compelled to compete. Never satisfied with the status-quo, we image God. The parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the prodigal son reveal that “God is not committed to equality of results.”[17] Yet, for all our striving, we are reminded that God is sovereign: “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”[18] One must be cautious when constructing doctrine from the silence of scripture. Some passages place limits on the competitive nature, while others clearly prohibit the seeking of dominion over other human beings, yet God seems never to condone, nor specifically condemn, competition. Although we have limited record of human interaction prior to ‘The Fall’ or in eternity, it is difficult to imagine the work, given by God in the creation story,[19] bereft of healthy or playful competition. Christ is certainly capable of redeeming competition in all realms of life.

Competition Needs Boundaries

Some passages seem to speak directly against competition: do not covet your neighbor’s possessions; help the stumbled donkey; love your neighbor and your enemies; honor others above yourself. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”[20] God is a God of justice; examples in the economic sphere include rules for the Sabbath year and Year of Jubilee.[21] These commands identify the dangers of unbridled competition and signal the need for appropriate boundaries. Flaws inherent in today’s free market are recognized and remedies are provided. The approach to economics is laissez-faire, subject to these remedies.[22]

Just as games have boundaries called rules, business has boundaries called ethics. Without rules, a game is not a game. In poker, bluffing is okay, but a marked deck is not. Friendly competition between basketball players on the same team is tolerable only insofar as it improves overall team performance; it may cause them to play better, or it may jeopardize team cooperation; competition between individual players is secondary to competition between teams. There are limits here too: excessive brutality is not tolerated because it compromises the integrity of the sport. Good competitors view their opponents only as temporary enemies. “Competition is a shared set of goals and rules.”[23]

“Business competition is indeed competition, but it is competition severely restricted within the limits of law and general consensus.”[24] Earning respect in business is, among other things, ‘playing by the rules’ – not just moral rules, but unspoken rules of fair-play as well. This means seeing ourselves as part of a cooperative enterprise. Self-regulated professions establish clear boundaries – ‘codes of ethics.’ The dental profession, for example, is to be viewed as a “partnership of equals.” Their code describes how dentists should represent themselves; that they must respect the public’s right to free choice; and make no disparaging comments on the procedures or qualifications of a colleague.[25] Similarly, the realtors’ code not only limits, but extends to encouraging cooperation:

You should cooperate with other licensees on all of your listings. In cooperating with other salespersons and agents you are furthering the interests of your clients by creating much more interest in the listed property and by obtaining the assistance of other agents and salespersons in trying to sell the property.[26]

Documented ethical codes are merely written versions of existing, but unspoken, rules of fair-play in the marketplace.

Competition, Cooperation and Community

Cooperation is the basis for competition. Laura Nash describes the concept applied to competition as coming from a genuine evangelical impulse for benevolence. The terms of competition may be rearranged to take into account the interests of others. The unconditional nature of this thinking reflects elements of Christian love and a worldview based on relational thinking rather than merely legalistic measures. You don’t give up ‘loving your neighbor’ just because it might cost you something.[27] Nash’s Covenantal Business Ethic,[28] while helpful, is somewhat naïve. Any competition based on long-term vision already operates this way – Christian or otherwise.

To compete used to mean to ‘beat.’ Today, it means continuous interaction with a spectrum of individuals and organizations… Sharing to win and sharing the win have become the hallmarks of the new competitiveness. This requires undoing the behaviors focused on exclusive advantage and adopting those of partnership and collaboration.[29]

“The need to be more ‘competitive’ is more often than not better cast as the need to be more cooperative.”[30]

While in the competitive field of real estate sales, I often met with top producers in my area. When Larry Hahn[31] shared his ‘secrets’ with me, I was grateful and astounded and asked why he had been so generous: “First, we are not only competitors, but cooperators in listings and sales. Second, anything I share that improves the image of our profession benefits us all. And third,” he added with a smile, “by the time you learn to do what I’m doing as will as I do, I’ll be doing something else.”

Cooperation is integral to competition, and both are linked to community. A survey of the ‘one-another’ commands of the Bible demonstrates just how highly God holds us to community. Mutual belonging takes precedence over individual desires; cooperation is the basis of competition and not the struggle for survival.[32] Competition is one of many relationships we have with other members of the community. Corruption of competition damages the sense of community and the underlying cooperation necessary for any successful business activity.

However competitive a particular industry may be, it always rests on a foundation of shared interests and mutually agreed-upon rules of conduct, and the competition takes place not in a jungle but in a society that it presumably both serves and depends upon. Business life, unlike life in the mythological jungle, is first of all fundamentally cooperative.[33]

“Mutual trust and respect work because they maintain social cohesion.”[34]

Competition, defined by cooperation, is good because it nourishes community. Cooperation is an essential and pleasurable part of being human. Competition validates a theme of excellence in the Bible,[35] and for enduring success, requires integrity: “competing for consumer confidence is more important than sales profits.”[36] Competition lowers price and raises quality. And competition promotes human flourishing: “It is unlikely that individuals could ever discover their own potential unless they are blessed with good friends and rivals, whose exploits teach them how to push themselves harder than they yet have.”[37]


“If there is a market, there will be competitors. If there are no competitors, very likely there is no market.”[38] Competition is not a zero-sum game and it is not less Christian than cooperation. It is well-documented in Scripture as part and parcel of the human condition, and therefore subject to sin. However, unless motivated solely by the desire for personal power, competition is appropriate for Christians in the marketplace because competition implies cooperation and community. We witness the redeeming work of Christ in the common grace already found in many competitive relationships. There will always be a tension between people-oriented values and business efficiency. In the end, it is our character, and not our wealth, that God will judge. With proper boundaries, the true spirit of healthy competition ultimately glorifies God.


Bateson, Patrick. “Co-operation.” Theology 89 (January 1986): 5-10.

Canadian Dental Association. Code of Ethics. 1990.

Cragin, John. “The Business of Missions – The Missions of Business.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions Through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth A. Eldred, eds. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003.169-180.

Dalla Costa, John. Working Wisdom: The Ultimate Value in the New Economy. Toronto: Stoddart, 1995.

Feldballe, Jack and Laura L. Nash, eds. “Beyond Legal Obligation.” Sojourners 29 no. 1 (Jan-Feb 2000): 23.

Ford, Kevin Graham and James P. Osterhaus. The Thing in the Bushes: Turning Organizational Blind Spots into Competitive Advantage. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Pinon Press, 2001.

Grudem, Wayne. “How Business in Itself Can Glorify God.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions Through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth A. Eldred, eds. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003.127-151.

Herberg, Will. “Business Enterprise in Moral Perspective.” in Business, Religion and Ethics. Donald G. Jones, ed. Cambridge, Mass.:Oelgeschlager, Gunn and Hain, 1982. 57-67.

Hoffman, Shirl J. “The Sanctification of Sport: Can the Mind of Christ Co-exist with the Killer Instinct?” Christianity Today 30 no. 6 (4 April 1986): 17-21.

Jones, Donald G., ed. Business, Religion and Ethics: Inquiry and Encounter. Cambridge, Mass.: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, 1982.

Jukes, John. “Christianity and Wealth Creation: Competition and the Values Demanded by the Christian Gospel.” in God and the Marketplace: Essays on the Morality of Wealth Creation. Davies, Jon, ed. London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1993. 30-45.

Klay, Robin and Christopher Gryzen. “Six Economic Myths Heard from the Pulpit.” Christian Century Vol. 112, Issue 6 (22 February 1995): 204-208.

Mill, John Stuart. “Private Property and Its Critics” in On Moral Business: Classic and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life, Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann, et al. eds., Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995. 215-224.

Moore, Geoff. “Beyond Competition.” in God and the Marketplace: Essays on the Morality of Wealth Creation. Davies, Jon, ed. London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1993. 111-124.

Nash, Laura L. Believers in Business. Vancouver: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994.

________. Good Intentions Aside: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Ethical Problems. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1993.

Novak, Michael. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.

Quek, Peter. “Competition.” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens, eds. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997. 189-195.

Robinson, Donald. “Competition and the Bible.” Journal of Christian Education 40 (July 1997): 11-18.

Solomon, Robert C. and Kristine R. Hanson. Above the Bottom Line: An Introduction to Business Ethics. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1983.

Solomon, Robert C. Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and Integrity in Business. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Stackhouse, Max L. et al. On Moral Business: Classic and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995.

Volf, Miroslav. Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2001.

Watts, Peter. Real Estate Practice and Ethics. Vancouver: The British Columbia Real Estate Association, 7th ed., May 1991.

[1] All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright 1974, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

[2] 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

[3] Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 348. This quotation is taken from a section on the theological doctrine of competition.

[4] Genesis 2:1 and 1 Corinthians 12.

[5] Acts 15:36-41. Barnabas was a land-owner with a bias for action (see Acts 4:36).

[6] Donald G. Jones, ed., Business, Religion and Ethics: Inquiry and Encounter (Cambridge, Mass.: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, 1982), 65.

[7] Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 348.

[8] Patrick Bateson, “Co-operation,” Theology 89 (January 1986): 5-7.

[9] Jones, Business, Religion and Ethics, 106.

[10] John Jukes, “Christianity and Wealth Creation: Competition and the Values Demanded by the Christian Gospel,” in God and the Marketplace: Essays on the Morality of Wealth Creation, Jon Davies, ed. (London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1003), 39.

[11] Luke 6:24.

[12] Shirl J. Hoffman, “The Sanctification of Sport: Can the Mind of Christ Co-exist with the Killer Instinct?” Christianity Today 30 no. 6 (4 April 1986): 18.

[13] The exception to this statement is when God himself crushes that which is evil. This is prophesied in Genesis 3:15 and Romans 16:20, and further described in Revelation 20. The crushing of evil is the province of God – not man – as explained in ‘The Parable of the Weeds’ (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

[14] See Psalm 53:3; 14:3 and Romans 3:10.

[15] First described by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations.

[16] John Stuart Mill, “Private Property and Its Critics” in On Moral Business: Classic and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life, Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann, et al. eds., (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995), 224. Excerpts from Political Economy (1848), pp. 201-20, 746-94.

[17] Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 345.

[18] Romans 9:16.

[19] See Genesis 2:15. Further, if God is Ruler or Judge, what is it exactly that he will preside over in heaven?

[20] Exodus 20:17, 23:5; Matthew 5:43-44; Romans 12:10; and Philippians 2:3-4.

[21] Leviticus 25.

[22] Geoff Moore, “Beyond Competition,” in God and the Marketplace: Essays on the Morality of Wealth Creation, Jon Davies, ed. (London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1003), 116.

[23] Robert C. Solomon and Kristine R. Hanson, Above the Bottom Line: An Introduction to Business Ethics (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1983), 111.

[24] Jones, Business, Religion and Ethics, 66.

[25] Canadian Dental Association, Code of Ethics, 1990.

[26] Peter Watts, Real Estate Practice and Ethics (Vancouver: The British Columbia Real Estate Association, 7th ed., May 1991), 54.

[27] Laura L. Nash, Believers in Business (Vancouver: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), 89-94. See also Luke 6:31 and Luke 10:27.

[28] Laura L. Nash Good Intentions Aside: A Managers Guide to Resolving Ethical Problems (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1993), 20. The Covenantal Business Ethic subordinates self-interest to other motivations, prominently value-creation and service to others, approaching business in terms of relationships.

[29] John Dalla Costa, Working Wisdom: The Ultimate Value in the New Economy (Toronto: Stoddart, 1995), 267.

[30] Robert C. Solomon, Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and Integrity in Business (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8-9.

[31] Larry Hahn is a realtor with Re/max Real Estate in Edmonton, Alberta, who was earning well over $500,000 at the time of our interview, in the midst of the recessionary mid-eighties.

[32] Solomon and Hanson, Above the Bottom Line, 399.

[33] Solomon, Ethics and Excellence, 26.

[34] Bateson, “Co-operation,” 7.

[35] See Colossians 3:23.

[36] Peter Quek, “Competition,” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 193.

[37] Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, 347.

[38] John Cragin, “The Business of Missions – The Missions of Business,” in On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions Through Entrepreneurial Strategies, Tetsunao Ymamori and Kenneth A. Eldred, eds. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003), 173.

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