Competition: Is it Biblical?
Few Christians would argue that competition is entirely good. We have all seen too many excesses to affirm the competitive drive out-of-hand – including plenty in the Scriptures. The Bible narrative has barely begun before competition is revealed as part of the human experience. Cain and Abel; Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers … they’re all early examples of where the competitive urge led one to exert power over the other. Generally with tragic consequences.
Where the drive to compete is fuelled by greed, self-interest, envy, pride or revenge, it clearly isn’t consistent with the call to love others. But are there examples in the Scriptures that suggest a more sympathetic case for competition?
At one level, the Old Testament could be viewed as an ongoing competitive struggle between Yahweh and Satan for the allegiance of the people of Israel. As the Jews regularly strayed into idolatrous relationships with the gods of surrounding peoples, the prophets called them back to a “monogamous” commitment to Yahweh.
An explicit example of this cosmic struggle is the story of Job. God contends with his protagonist, Satan, for Job’s allegiance. He’s even prepared to have that allegiance tested by allowing Satan’s request to “knock Job around” a bit. (No anti-competitive or anti-monopoly restrictions put in place by God here!)
Even more uncomfortable is the Old Testament programme in which the Promised Land is taken over by the people of Israel in a highly competitive scrap for precious land resources … and this is sanctioned by God. There is no “everyone wins” result to this story. It’s clearly a case of winners and losers.
In the New Testament, Jesus employs several parables that involve, explicitly or implicitly, competitive activity. Some of them seem to give contradictory perspectives. For example, on the one hand we have the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) and its lesser known twin, the parable of the minas (Luke 19). In both cases, servants are given varying amounts of money to steward and invest. The two who are given the largest sums “work” the money well and produce a handsome return for the master. However, the steward with the smallest capital does nothing with it. The master is furious and takes it from this man, giving it to one of the others. “To everyone who has will be given more…but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
On the other hand, we have the parable of the hired workers in Matthew 20. Those the landowner hires at the start of the day get paid the same as those who worked only a part-day. The full-day labourers plead unfairness; the vineyard owner maintains he is being both generous and just by treating all his workers the same.
Implicit in these parables of Jesus is a level of contradiction. It’s as though we live in two different economies – one where God deals with all of us in the same way, and another that suggests God deals with us differently.
Then we have the intriguing parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Faced with imminent dismissal by his master, the manager reduces the debts of his employer’s creditors, and in doing so creates friends for life! Remarkably, when his boss finds out, he commends the astute behaviour of his manager. Of this parable, Peter Quek comments:
Not only does Jesus acknowledge the competitive nature of living in this world, but he recommends a streetwise approach to survival that overcomes the destructive potential of competition. 
The Apostle Paul also alludes to competition. He compares living the Christian life to running a race. (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27) Many commentators have suggested that when Paul is writing of “running the race” he is not thinking of a sprint, but rather of a marathon. However, regardless of what type of race he has in mind, Paul’s use of the metaphor revolves around the aspect of discipline and training required in order to win. This is the nature of the Christian “race”. The implication is clear: the context of competing provides motivation for us to apply ourselves to the challenge of training hard.
In summary, then, the biblical material seems to assume competition as part of the human experience. Sometimes it is implicitly affirmed, while at other times it is viewed as unhealthy and destructive. Nevertheless, we are still left with a degree of ambiguity regarding the Bible’s view of competition.
Is competition, then, biblical? Perhaps one answer is this: while it may not seem part of God’s ideal, it is nonetheless permissible – perhaps even necessary because of our fallenness. Whether in an ideal world competition would be part of God’s intention is certainly questionable. Co-operation seems to fit much more with our understanding of who God is and who he made us to be.
Richard Higginson argues that competition is an appropriate response to the world’s fallenness – enabling a dispersion of power so that not too much is accumulated in the hands of a few. We are only too familiar with the consequences when resources and power are monopolized by one person, corporation, country, or organization. The results can be devastating as those in power inevitably take advantage of those without such leverage. Politically, economically and socially, the majority can be marginalized and controlled when alternatives are not allowed or encouraged. Competition, Higginson believes, is a natural corrector of these tendencies. It moderates the capacity of a person or group to abuse their position. (In the political sphere democracies work in a similar way by providing systems to moderate corruption and the abuse of power. A formally recognized “opposition” is enabled to criticize those in power; competing groups can appeal for public support.)
Higginson also suggests that competition is a spur to excellence. We certainly see this on the sports field. The pursuit of excellence is propelled significantly by the desire to outperform the other person or team. Athletes can hone their physical and mental skills to gain an advantage over their opponents, and to push themselves beyond their previous limits.
But if at its best competition helps people maximize their potential, there is nevertheless another side to it. In an unhealthy context competition can lead to an obsessive win-at-all-costs mentality. Opponents become “the enemy”, and there is a temptation to use unfair tactics. (Not only the participants in a sports competition, but also supporters are apt to become caught up in this mindset.)
Of course neither explanation automatically means that competition is therefore good and right. It can be of great value – working to minimize the effects of our fallenness – or it can be the source of much evil. Because of this, for the Christian the competitive drive should have strict boundaries and limits.
Laura Nash identifies one helpful way of approaching competition. She suggests developing a “covenantal ethic” rather than one driven solely by “enlightened self-interest”. So what does she mean by this fancy terminology?
Enlightened self interest
Many (and perhaps most) people in the marketplace operate on the basis that the only obligation they have is to obey the “law of the land”. As long as nothing illegal is being done, they are acting “ethically”. Business is simply about profit – increasing the return on investment. Underlying this, Nash suggests, is the assumption that our capitalist system will automatically bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. This is really an enlightened self-interest ethic, in the tradition of Adam Smith and others (see chapter 3).
But the self-interest ethic can only too easily lead people or companies to try whatever they can legally get away with. In this sense, it is minimalist. Competition becomes legitimately aggressive. Whatever can be done to gain an advantage is fair behaviour. That this, as we have seen, was the case with John D. Rockefeller despite his devout Christian beliefs, is an indication of just how easily this approach can become debased.
In contrast, a covenantal business ethic is not focused on the legal constraints of producing and trading. Neither is it just about making a financial profit. Rather, the purpose of business is the creation of value for others. Business is a service – one that should bring about beneficial economic results for all of the people involved. As Nash says, “The first question asked is not, ‘How much money did we make?’ but ‘How is the customer faring?’ Maintaining a specific product is not a sacred duty; maintaining a beneficial relationship is.”
At the core of such an approach is the recognition that in doing business we covenant (undertake, promise, pledge) with society to fulfil mutual obligations that will result in the general welfare of everyone. Competition is therefore moderated by this commitment.
An example of attempting to put covenantal ethics into practice is Dick Hubbard’s company, Hubbard Foods. A medium-sized business producing breakfast cereals for the domestic and international markets, Hubbards have worked hard toward both sustainable development and social responsibility. Their goal is to produce cereals that not only are “nutritionally responsible and reasonably priced” but that also minimize the environmental footprint; they aspire to contribute socially as a company to the community; and they aim to take seriously the welfare of all “stakeholders” – including consumers, retail outlet customers, suppliers and employees. This social responsibility has included hiring a large number of unskilled workers from the surrounding suburbs. One year Hubbard’s care of his staff even resulted in shouting them and their families to a long weekend holiday in Samoa – all expenses paid!
This is not to suggest that Hubbards Foods is the ideal workplace. They’ve come in for their share of criticism over the years. However, they have attempted to operate in a more covenantal manner.
Whether businesses such as Hubbards are disadvantaged in such a competitive market is a moot point. It certainly involves a more complex and challenging route to success. Some would argue the goodwill that such companies acquire, and the loyalty they gain from employees, customers and suppliers, often results in a better “bottom line” than would otherwise be the case.
Another expression of this covenantal ethic is the concept of win-win strategies, popularized by Stephen Covey in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey encourages his readers to work at creating “mutually beneficial solutions” to issues – solutions that will not only result in a win to them, but also in a win to the other players involved in the transaction. This, he suggests, may well require a compromise in order to be achieved. But it is worth it. Covey compares this with the standard “win-lose” mentality prevalent in the marketplace, which encourages a dog-eat-dog approach in pursuit of limited resources.
Management and leadership consultant, Charles Handy, takes a similar approach to that of Covey. He believes that competition is “good news for everyone, but only if everyone can win”.
Interestingly, the study (noted in the previous chapter) undertaken by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras on highly successful visionary companies discovered the following:
[Such companies] do not oppress themselves with what we call the ‘tyranny of the OR’ – the rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces or ideas at the same time. The ‘tyranny of the OR’ pushes people to believe that things must be either A or B, but not both.
Collins and Porras conclude that, on the contrary, visionary companies seek to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time, noting that this does not equate to balance.
[They] don’t see it as a choice between living to their values or being pragmatic; they see it as a challenge to find pragmatic solutions and behave consistent with their values.
This approach is similar to that noted by Nash, regarding the Seekers. They recognize that tensions exist – but they use the conflicting demands of each situation as a seedbed for creative responses.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the radical ethics and lifestyle of Jesus clash violently with the realities of much of the business world. His uncompromising call to love others – particularly those who make life difficult for us – is something we need to reflect on regularly.
Take, for example, the following statements:
…if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practise the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
You’re familiar with the old written Law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies [competitors?]. Let them bring the best out in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.
Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behaviour: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.
Love others as well as you love yourself. (Matthew 5:41-42; 5:43-45; 7:12; 22:39 The Message.)
And Paul’s commentary on the example of Jesus:
Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself (Philippians 2:3-4 The Message.)
Determining how to follow the example and commands of Jesus is, of course, no easy matter. And it’s made even more challenging when resources are severely limited, when our survival as a business is at stake, or when our competitors are employing some aggressive or underhand tactics against us!
Nevertheless, this is an important part of the call to follow Jesus in our work. We need to engage in this task seriously and prayerfully, inviting him to help us find ways of living out this calling in the often cut-throat marketplace we work in.
In the case study of the Big Outdoors company (at the beginning of this chapter) are any of the “solutions” raised by the various managers ethically acceptable?
If you were Sean (CEO of Big Outdoors) how would you respond to your shrinking market share?
What do you think Sally should do?
Peter Quek claims that “not only does Jesus acknowledge the competitive nature of living in this world, but he recommends a streetwise approach to survival that overcomes the destructive potential of competition”. How does this fit in with the statements Jesus makes about loving others?
“[Competition does] not seem part of God’s ideal, [but] it is nonetheless permissible – perhaps even necessary, because of our fallenness. Whether in an ideal world competition would be part of God’s intention is certainly questionable.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
What do you think of Richard Higginson’s arguments for the appropriateness of competition?
At what point do you think the competitive drive becomes unhealthy for Christians to buy into?
In what ways do you think a “covenantal ethic” moderates competition?
Think of your own situation. What are particular points of tension for you as a business owner or as an employee? Where do the ethics of Jesus challenge you the most? What, in practical terms, might it mean for you to “love” your competitor?
For employees – particularly those in management – one of the biggest challenges can often be “climbing the corporate ladder”. What tensions have you seen or experienced? In practical terms, how can you love someone who is competing with you for the same promotion? What if you (like Sally) feel this person is taking unfair steps to get ahead of you?
Peter Quek “Competition” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 193.
James C. Collins & Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (London: Random House, 1994).