Competition Has a Place in the Bible

Article / Produced by TOW Project
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Engaging in economic competition seems to be permissible in the Bible. The description of the godly woman in Proverbs 31 praises her repeatedly for engaging in economic exchange in competitive markets. She gives generously to those in need (Prov. 31:20) but is also shrewd in purchasing (Prov. 31:13, 14 and 16) and selling (Prov. 31:18, 24 and 28). Her merchandise is profitable (Prov. 31:18) and her household gains wealth (Prov. 31:11) and social standing (Prov. 31:23 and 31). The Hebrew word translated as “profitable” in Proverbs 31:18 refers specifically to profit-producing market transactions.[1] The goods she sells so profitably are recognized as a contribution to the community (Prov. 31:31).

As we have seen, markets are inherently competitive, and Jesus apparently worked in a trade whose goods were sold in a marketplace (Mark 6:3), as did Paul (Acts 18:3) and other biblical figures. Paul speaks of buying in markets (1 Corinthians 10:25) as an ordinary activity we may engage in. We find this reflected in Scripture’s extensive references to buying and selling; consider the regulations of commerce in the Old Testament law (e.g. Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 25) and concern about justice in the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah. 5:27-29 and Ezek. 18:7-13), wisdom literature and poetry (e.g. Psalm 94 and Proverbs 20), and the continuation of these concerns in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 25 and James 4). These regulations show that competition has the potential to hurt people—a point we will return to shortly—but show that God’s word regulates competition rather than abolishing it.

Given the potential benefits of market economics, it may not be surprising that the Bible seems to affirm God’s people engaging in competition. Otherwise, believers could only participate in command economies. By no means does this mean that the Bible prescribes some kind of unbounded, dog-eat-dog, “to the victor belongs the spoils” kind of economic competition. Rather, it suggests that the question “How does God want us to engage in competition?” may yield fruitful answers.