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Competing in the church: Who wins?

Nolan Harkness
Rev. Nolan J. Harkness is the President and CEO of Nolan Harkness Evangelistic Ministries Inc. |

Oh the thrill of competition! It is bred into most of us. We love to compete, and we love to watch competition! Football, baseball, basketball, soccer, golf and the list is endless. One person or team goes against another person or team to see who can outsmart and out play the other. But what happens when that competitive spirit spills over into the church? What happens when it is between two Christian leaders, in a town, city or village? Where does that lead? I believe it leads to anything but revival, because it leads to anything but unity.

I grew up the older of two brothers. To this day I have no idea why my brother felt he had to out do me on everything.  If I caught a fish, he had to catch a bigger fish. If I was successful in one sport, he felt he had to be more successful in another. It just seemed to be deeply embedded in him to try to outdo me! Women tell us it’s more of a man thing. I am not so sure because I have seen the competitive spirit in women as well as in men. It seems to me the more beautiful a woman is, the more problems she has with jealousy of other women’s beauty! I’m just saying! This problem of being competitive goes all the way back to the world’s first brothers, Cain and Abel, and resulted in Cain murdering Abel.

What damage can a competitive spirit cause in the church? In the Bible, we see that this spirit of competition had crept into the Corinthian Church. The Apostle Paul faced it head on in 1st Corinthians 3:3-8, which states: 

For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos”, are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed as the Lord gave to each one? So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God gives the increase.(NKJV)

People were choosing sides in the Corinthian church and picking their favorite superstar. Then they were forming cliques and promoting one group as more important than the other based on who they were following. Paul was saying, and I paraphrase, “Hold the mustard people!” We are all only what we are due to God’s creative grace operating within us. I am nothing, Apollos is nothing. God is the one making things happen!”

A woman who was the corporate head of a large secular organization once gave me advice. She told me that I should observe the men who are the leaders at almost any bank, almost any large corporation, and of many successful businesses. She said that I would find out that they are often the shorter men! Many of these men have dug in and fought hard against their “short man” stigma. They made a conscious decision to work harder and exhibit more drive and determination than anyone around them. This is the way things are in the world, however, this is not the way things should be in the church.

Drawing from Christian tradition, some theologians claim that Paul was a man of short stature. His zealous drive for the Lord did not come from some “little man’s syndrome” but from deep rooted repentance. He was atoning for formerly being a persecutor of the early church, going so far as to watch over the very garments of those who stoned Stephen to death, as he looked on with gleaming approval. When Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road and said; “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? (Paul, then called Saul) answered, “Who are you Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”(NKJV) To drive the message home, Saul then was smitten blind for three days but the deep repentance that filled his heart when he met Jesus lasted for the rest of his life, compelling him to a no holds barred furtherance of the gospel.

As an evangelist, I can’t tell you how many times I have shared meals with small groups of pastors at fellowship meetings. It invariably only takes a few minutes for one of them to bring up the church across town. “How many are they running now?” seems to be the common question, followed by, “Do you know what they are teaching over there?" While doctrinal concerns are strongly legitimate, what interests me is that it often seems as if it’s just that old carnal competitive nature rising up within fellow ministers. We need to be reminded that we are all just clay pots that God fills with His Holy Spirit to be used by His grace. To be compelled to outdo the pastor across town or across the street is, as Paul declared, that “we are behaving as mere men!”

In 2nd Corinthians 10:12, Paul further admonished the church, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.(NKJV) If you happen to be a pastor reading this article, I challenge you to evaluate your messages. Are you spotlighting yourself as the premiere example of what a Christian should be and do?  Or are you preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified? Try typing out your next sermon and circle the amount of times you use the word “I” in your message. Now circle how many times in your sermon you used Jesus as your example. It might be enlightening! Jesus is the only one that is the perfect person for all our teachings!

Rev Nolan J Harkness is the President and CEO of Nolan Harkness Evangelistic Ministries Inc. since 1985. He spent most of his adult life working in youth ministry. He also felt the calling of Evangelist/Revivalist and traveled as the door was open holding evangelistic meetings in churches throughout the Northeast. His website is

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