Science in Christian Perspective
Competition and Christian Ethics
CHARLES P. FLYNN
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
From: JASA 33 (December 1981): 220-224.
This paper discusses the ways in which the emphasis on competitive striving relates to Christ's teachings. Many aspects of the emphasis on winning at all costs are discussed as contrary to the anti-competitive character of many teachings of Christ and the apostle Paul. The competitive ethic is examined in terms of its origins in Darwinian thought. Despite these negative implications, however, there ,are ways in which competition can be and has been made not only congruent with, but an, aid to fulfilling, God's will and living a Christian life. When competitive victory is sought not for the false immortality it can bring, but for the purpose of fulfilling ourselves and others in the sense of allowing Christ to live in and through us and to participate in eternal life through Him, competition can be an important motivational basis for actualizing the full extent of our God-given abilities.
A basic question faced by all Christians is the extent to which they should accommodate themselves to worldly values. Though Christ Himself used many worldly examples in His parables, He set forth values and norms that often contradicted the accepted wisdom of His time and place.
A key question of His followers in this regard was the extent to which they should subject themselves to the prevailing authorities of their religious rulers and their Roman subjugators. Today, the questions that Christians face are perhaps more subtle than their predecessors-it is no longer so much the arbitary authority of Pharisees, Saducees, or Romans, but the pervasive influence of competitive values, that Christians must face and deal with.
In traditional societies, though various forms of competition exist, they are not the central motif of social life. Born
into a particular level of society, the traditional person,
with a few rare exceptions, remains in his or her "station"
in life, one which is often seen as ordained by God. With
the advent of the mobile society that was a major outgrowth of the social and political revolutions of the late
eighteenth century, competition became the major determinant of one's "place" in life. Moreover, one's degree of
competitive success took on religious connotations. Ones
degree of competitive success began to be seen as reflective
of the degree of God's favor.
In this paper, we examine a number of ways in which Christ, and Christians, have dealt with competition. In a time when competitive success has become the worldly value influencing many aspects of the lives of both Chris~ tians and non-Christians, it seems of central importance to examine both Christ's attitudes toward competition, and the ways Christians have come to grips with competitive pressures.
In many of His teachings, Jesus appears to adopt a generally negative attitude toward competition. When His disciples argue among themselves as to who should be considered the most important disciple, Christ admonishes them against seeking to gain ascendancy. He frequently emphasizes that even He Himself is not to be considered first, as He is primarily a servant. The importance He attaches to His servant role is illustrated in His washing of the disciples' feet.
In many of His teachings, Jesus appears to adopt a generally negative attitude toward competition.
Further evidence of Jesus' negative attitude toward competition is apparent in His condemnation of those who
ostentatiously pray, give alms, or otherwise try to compete with one another outwardly to demonstrate their greater
degree of supposed piety. Those who thus compete with one another for God's favor and to impress one another are seen as already having received their reward. Only those who pray and give aid in such a way as to deliberately avoid pretentious claims to moral or religious superiority can, in His view, lay claim to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus' negative view of worldly success in the forms of riches and other things that "moth and rust doth corrupt,"
and His admonition to lay up treasures of a spiritual sort, are further indications of His attitudes toward competition, for it is most frequently such worldly things as money and other material objects that are used as yardsticks of competitive success, "markers" by which to judge our status vis-a-vis others.
In many of Christ's teachings, a process of what sociologists have termed "status inversion" takes place. Values
and categories by which we usually measure competitive success-wealth, etc., are reversed, most directly in the
statement that the "last shall be first and the first shall be last" in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Mark 9:33; 10:35-45)
The Apostle Paul also exhibits a generally negative attitude toward competitiveness. In I Corinthians 15:9, he
states that he is the "least of the Apostles," and in I Timothy 1: 15 that he was the "greatest of the sinners." In
Galatians 6:4, he admonishes us to do our very best so as to have no need to compare ouselves to others, an important theme we will return to later.
Christianity and Competition
Given such generally negative attitudes toward competitiveness expressed by Christ and the Apostle Paul, how
have Christians dealt with competition?
The earliest Christians evinced a communal, sharing orientation that de-emphasized and even condemned competitiveness. Using this as a model, many subsequent Christians have throughout history, and into the present, formed communities in which sharing and anti-competitiveness were and remain major elements of the supposedly ideal Christian life.
Many such communal Christians have, along with deemphasis on competitiveness, recognized a need to separate
themselves from the "world" both physically and, as much as possible, spiritually. Thus, the Amish, the Hutterites, as
well as many past and present groups not necessarily of an Anabaptist origin, have rejected competitiveness as part of their overall effort to live lives in conformity with God's will and rejective of worldly values.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, many Christians,
particularly contemporary Americans, regard competitive
success as evidence of Godliness. In a book entitled
Gamelife: The Competitive Ethic and Modern Society, I
gathered material on and interviewed many sports figures
particularly coaches, who believe very strongly that being a
Christian means being a fierce competitor. The most striking examples come from athletics:
--Coach Tony Mason, formerly of the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona, gives (as do
many other coaches) inspirational talks at church and business meetings. His major theme is, in his words, that
"losing is sinning," since it means that one has failed to do
--Grant Tieff, coach of the Baylor football team that won the Southwest conference in 1973, wrote a book entitled I Believe in which he describes the way his strong Christian faith helped him gain success on the gridiron.
--Gerry Faust, Notre Dame head coach emphasizes prayer as the basis of motivation for his players and constantly emphasizes that they have a "duty to God" to do their best.
--in his autobiographical account of his days as a football player at the University of Texas, Meat on the Hoof, Gary Shaw tells how his coaches and trainers insisted that it was necessary to be a good Christian to be a good football player.
--In a tape of a talk given by a leader of Athletes in Action, a group of Christian athletes sponsored by the Campus Crusade, the pain associated with athletic training and "paying the price" in preparation for competition is compared with Christ's pain on the Cross.
These and similar attitudes are not confined to the realm
of athletics; many coaches and successful players give
speeches to business groups, and many business people
associate competitive success with Christian virtue. Some
of the coaches who have given such talks have, only halfjokingly, been compared with Christ, in stories which refer
to their "walking on water" and other facetious accounts
which are meant to be humorous, but carry a serious undertone. How and why have many contemporary Christians
come to associate success with Christian virtue?
From the Protestant to the Competitive Ethic
In his classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber maintained that the uncertainty of
early Calvinist capitalists as to their membership in the Elect caused them to seek success in business not as an end in itself, but as an indication of God's favor, Weber's thesis was criticized by many scholars as simplistic and downright erroneous; these critiques are too numerous to recount here. The vast majority took issue with the failure of the thesis to take into account numerous factors other than Calvinist predestination in the origins of capitalism. R. H. Tawney, for example, maintained in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism that changes in Christian attitudes toward usury were central to the emergence of capitalism, which of course rests upon money-lending and investment.
My approach emphasizes that Weber's thesis may well help explain the emergence of capitalism, but is no longer adequate as a means of gaining insight into the maturation and development of capitalism into the present-day multinationalism. and dominance of large corporations throughout the economies and societies of both modern and developing nations.
The central transformation of capitalist consciousness involves the supplanting of the Protestant Ethic with the competitive ethic. Specifically, fear of otherworldly damnation and its obverse, desire to be among the Elect, has been replaced by fear of failure and yearning for competitive success. Worldly success has become the modern functional equivalent of otherworldly salvation. Thus, winning is sought after so avidly not only for the material and other rewards it brings, but to gain the same sense of ultimate meaning and purpose in life that earlier, more supernaturally oriented Christians sought not in this life, but in the Hereafter.
Many present Christians would maintain that they believe in salvation as much as their forebears. Even the most sincere church-going Christian, however, cannot help but be influenced by the intense emphasis on competitive striving and success that is the lifeblood of the majority of modern societies, particularly America.
Many studies, not necessarily dealing specifically with competition, have shown the pervasiveness of competitive values in modern society. Studies of corporate behavior have demonstrated the absolute centrality of competitive factors in the business world: the businessman must compete not only against other companies, but against his fellow employees for status and promotion. Children are taught competitiveness almost from the cradle; the "hidden curriculum" of schools from kindergarten through graduate and professional school is the strong sense of competitiveness that students cannot help internalizing in their efforts to meet the pressures of grades and requirements for entrance into desirable occupations and professions.
What does all this emphasis on competition mean in relation to Christian values? Is competitiveness compatible with a full commitment to Christ's teachings?Competition vs. Compassion
I interviewed many sports figures, particularly coaches, who believe very strongly that being a Christian means being a fierce competitor.
This spirit of undermining one's opponents is present in one way or another in any competitive striving. As General Motors executive Thomas Murphy recently stated with respect to his attitude toward his company's efforts to expand its already dominant share of the auto market:
If we get sixty percent (of the automotive market), we secured it because its a dog-eat-dog business. I've told our guys to get everything they can get.
This statement, and countless others like it that could be cited by contemporary businessmen, athletes, and others involved in competitive striving, points out in sharp relief an inescapable reality of competitive every success rests on someone else's (usually many peoples') failure. For every individual superstar, there are hundreds of failures.
It is the zero-sum nature of competition, in the way it usually exists in our society, that is at the heart of its partially unChristian nature. In its most virulent form, strong emphasis on competitive success can and often has severely undermined Christian compassion.
In his important study of corporate attitudes entitled The Gamesman, Michael Maccoby emphasizes that the major shortcoming of the predominant type of corporate executive is his failure to develop compassionate attitudes toward peoples in underdeveloped nations whose desires to escape poverty and hopelessness have led to revolutionary movements that threaten the continuation of capitalist military sense, are at root efforts to "rise above" our endeavor. As Maccoby makes clear, executives are not so much callous as so involved in competitive striving that they have no time or energy to adopt compassionate attitudes. Conditioned to looking at others either as competitors or as actual or possible customers or markets, the intensely competitive modern executive has left out compassion because it is simply irrelevant to his competitive goals.
In part, the unChristian character of the competitive ethic stems from its origin in the Darwinian view of man and nature. Most anti-evolutionists have stressed Darwin's denial of the Genesis account of Creation. Much more significant socially and politically, however, was (and remains) the complete reversal of Christian compassion and many of Christ's related teachings associated with helping others.
Matthew 25 stresses the need to help others as intrinsic to salvation. The competitive worldview, in its Darwinian form, states that human progress can take place only if the "unfit," i.e., the losers in the overall rat-race of life, are allowed to die off. In its most extreme form, this "ethic" justified and rationalized brutality and callousness not only of factory owners toward their workers, but the political programs of Nazism and similar atrocities, all in the name of raising humanity to a "higher" level of progress by allowing the weaker to die off. Nietzche condemns Christianity because it protects the weak and hence inhibits "progress."
If competitiveness in its extreme forms of ruthless Social Darwinism is clearly contrary to the teachings of Christ, does this mean that Christians must avoid all forms of competition? Is there a way of looking at and participating in competition that is congruent with Christ's precepts?Immortality-Striving and Competition
Before exploring ways in which competition can be made
congruent with Christianity, we must locate the root of
competitive striving. As Ernest Becker has stated, the
worldly things that human beings strive toward: money,
fame, competitive success of whatever sort, "glory" in a "creatureliness." We are physical organisms who must in evitably die, yet we try with varying degrees of self awareness to transcend our condition by seeking the false immortality that money (with its potential to allow us to leave behind monuments to our having existed); glory (the dream of being remembered and adored forever), and being a winner (by having defeated the symbolic death of losing).
All forms of human immortality striving exact costs from others. To be rich means that others must be poor; to be famous renders others obscure; the glory of the soldier or the leader comes only at the expense of the defeated enemy and the oppressed and exploited followers of the powerful. It is only through accepting the immortality that Christ offers that this inevitable cost of immortality-striving can be overcome.
By refraining from the vain effort to gain immortality through competitive success of one type or another, and by accepting the salvation offered by Christ, we transcend the limits of our organic existences and gain eternal life without denying it to anyone else.
When this is fully understood, the way is open for a Christian to participate in certain kinds of competitive endeavors in such a way that he or she does not idolize the competitive success that non-Christians unconsciously uphold as their hope for eternal life.Doing One's Best and Actualizing the Christ in Others
Many people maintain that they do not really compete against others, but against themselves. The y see competition not in zero-sum terms, in the sense of "beating" others, but in terms of actualizing their full potentialities. If
Charles P. Flynn is Associate Professor of Sociology at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He studied with Ernest Becker at Berkeley, where he received the M.A. degree in Sociology in 1968, and obtained his Ph. D. in the same field under the direction of Peter L. Berger at Rutgers in 1972. Currently PresidentElect of the Association for Humanistic Sociology, he co-founded the Association in 1975 and was the founder andfirst editor of its journal Humanity and Society. His work has focused on the study of values, morality, and meaning systems, and he is currently completing work on a book examining the prevalence and implications of competitiveness, to be entitled Gamelife: The Competitive Ethic and Modern Society. He is also working on books and articles dealing with violence, militarism, worldview transformations, and their relation to Christian ethics. He hopes his work will contribute to the creation of a society more congruent with Christ's teachings of compassion and unconditional love.
involved in a competitive situation, they assert that whether or not they win is irrelevant; if they have "done their best," they have, in effect, won.
Viewing competition in this way is more congruent with, even enhancing of, a Christian commitment than the view that "winning is everything." God has given us abilities which we should utilize as fully as possible.
The question that this raises, however, is the ultimate goal to which we direct the energies mobilized by competitive striving, either against others or in terms of attempting to do our best to utilize our full capacities. If this is done to gain immortality-i.e., fame, glory, honor, money, recognition, whatever-it is liable to lead, directly or indirectly to unChristian consequences. But if one's capacities are exercised with the aim of glorifying God and Christ, competitive striving can have positive consequences. For if we believe that our abilities and talents are God-given, we must assume that He has given them to us as part of His plan for our lives. And that, moreover, if we are to do His will in our lives, "doing our best" is centrally important.
Despite the unChristian character of much of the obsessive competitiveness of our society, therefore, if we view it
in terms not of trying to "beat" someone else but of trying
to elicit their full potentialities, and if we exercise our
motivation to try to bring out the best in others (whet
not we happen to be competing against them), com
in the sense of actualizing the best in ourselves can be
in such a way as to actualize the full capacities in o
The ultimate goal of the competitive Christian should be to
actualize the Christ in him/herself, and in others
whom one has competitive or non-competitive relationships. For "doing one's best" can, for a Christian,
only that in the final analysis. we have let Christ
for Christ to live in and through others. Reformulating the
competitive ethic in this way can provide the basis for moving beyond the unChristian excesses that
competitiveness in the past and continue to pervade
competitive striving in the present. And perhaps
significantly, it is most fully in congruence with one
Christ's most important parables-the Parable of the
Talents. For in utilizing our talents to the utmost, and helping others to do the same, we are fulfilling His teaching
do "the best we can" with the gifts that are bestowed on
1Don Schollander, Deep Water (New York: Ballantine. 1971)
2Quoted in Newsweek, January 15, 1979, p. 74