Competitive Christianity. It’s a term I use to describe the phenomenon of social positioning, as I have witnessed it, which emerges within church and ministerial communities. It’s the overt rivalry between community members for positions of prestige and honor within the congregation. Embedded in the rivalry is the illusion that this arbitrary hierarchy somehow determines an individual’s spiritual value, which will then determine such individual’s eternal compensation. This presupposes that Heaven operates within the capitalist economic structure, does it not? It also presupposes that eternal rewards–eternal wealth–are limited, and in order to amass such rewards/wealth, one must prove oneself worthiest, in relation to all the other contenders.
How is one’s eternal value measured? It all depends on the community to which you belong. I have seen a diverse array of criteria over the past twenty years, since I first joined church as a young adult. Some communities value members based on how many people have been “led to the Lord,” some value members based on self-sacrifice through service, while others value members based on scriptural knowledge. How many hours do you spend in prayer? How active are you in your church community? How much secular media to you consume? Are you willing to sell your belongings and live in a commune? Have you abstained from sex if you are unmarried? Do you drink alcohol? Do you correct the wrong thinking of others? Have you “witnessed” to anyone new today?
It’s awfully cumbersome–this task of tracking these innumerable opposing avenues to eternal wealth and favor with God. In the words of Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
“Do you know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”New International Version- The Bible
I think an unfortunate consequence of this particular passage is that by viewing spirituality and morality as a race, people begin to treat fellow humans as opponents. Rather than fostering equitable relationships within religious communities, this analogy tends to encourage competition. Regrettably, this often results in fraudulent activity. We are aware, presently, in the 21st century, of the controversial use of stimulants and other performance enhancing drugs that push the human body to its limits, facilitating unmerited advantage for some competitive athletes over others. We are also aware that more and more athletes resort to such measures, in effort to increase their chances to outperform rivals. When there is an extrinsic reward at stake, it isn’t surprising that athletic hopefuls would compromise ethics to win. Sadly, the same ethical concessions materialize in religious communities, as members compete for future extrinsic rewards via heavenly wealth and recognition. Sure, Christians aren’t going around using “be good” drugs or “pray more” drugs, but the compulsion to point out the specks in the eye of the other, or repress bad feelings, or flatter church leaders, or save souls are the spiritual equivalent of taking performance enhancing drugs in effort to obtain some form of advantage and tip the odds in one’s favor.
Here is another Bible verse I would like to highlight:
“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’ ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”Matthew 20: 20-23 (NIV)
In my opinion, the contest for eternal wealth is nothing more than a repetition of this scene. We all want praise. We all want acceptance. We all wish to feel valued. If we cannot get these things now, then of course we would attempt to at least gain them later. Wouldn’t that make the present suffering worth it?!
Not for me. I have removed myself from the race altogether. I do not want my morality to be based on extrinsic rewards.
I want to feel loved. I want to feel important. I want to feel valued. Because I want these things, I know others do too. I do not, ever, want to gain any of these things at the expense of others. If my rewards–now or later–require me to intentionally disable my rivals or to seek unfair advantage for myself, I forfeit the contest.
So to all of you Christian peers of mine–those who have been striving to climb the ladder, those who have pushed me down a rung a time or two before–I am leaping from the heights. I don’t need heaven. I am removing myself as an obstacle to your ascension. It’s all yours. Have at it. Peace be with you, as it is, now, with my soul.