Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"It's Not About Competition, It's About Community"

1 Corinthians 12:1-31

      I’d like us to reflect for a moment on the word “competition.”  What does that word mean to


      There has been much research in the fields of psychology and sociology trying to determine at

what stage in a child’s development the desire to compete is born.  Surely, this desire takes shape

very early in life.  This is particularly evident in siblings close in age who learn to compete for mom’s

or dad’s love and attention.  Competition.  It’s an innate part of each and every one of us, to a great-

er or lesser degree.  Some folks are more competitive than others; some to an extreme.

      There is an amusing scene in a 1990 film entitled “Days of Thunder.”  The two principals in the

story are stock car drivers Cole Trickle [played by Tom Cruise] and Rowdy Burns.  Following a crash

of their cars on the track, Cole and Rowdy are taken to a local hospital for treatment.  After they’ve

been examined, they meet up in a hallway, each in his respective wheelchair.  Not to be outdone by

the other, they move into position and continue their competition, turning the hospital corridors in-

to a race track, knocking over equipment, and sending doctors, nurses and patients running for


       As children, one of our favorite games on Vance Avenue was pitching pennies against the con-

crete steps of Tommy Etter’s front porch.  You know the game.  Each player tosses a penny as close

as possible to the base of the step.  The one whose penny is closest to the step wins the game, along

with all the pennies on the ground.  Yet the winner didn’t keep the money.  Since we only had a few

pennies among us, we had to share our winnings  if we wanted to keep the game alive. But when

Mrs. Etters called Tommy in for supper it was always clear who had won the match.  Most of the

time, that was Chuck Lucci, who had an uncanny ability to stop a penny dead against the step.

      We all wanted to win.  We were fiercely competitive, and the desire to be the best penny pitcher

on Vance Avenue was an overwhelming compulsion.  The great thing about winning was that it gave

us bragging rights.  For one to say that he beat Chuck Lucci in pitching pennies was a badge of honor

without parallel.  Young or old, the drive to compete dwells in all of us.  Few of us care about pitch-

ing pennies or racing stock cars better than anyone else.  But we may have that drive to be the best

worker in our crew; or the best athlete on the field; or the best salesperson in the firm; or the best

cook or gardener in the neighborhood; or to have the best-looking house on the block; or to be the

best teacher in the district; or to be the best preacher in presbytery.

      Competition is a natural human inclination which has some anthropological roots; possibly in the

drive to survive, or to perpetuate the species.  I don’t believe there is anything fundamentally wrong

with a healthy desire to compete; unless it takes control of us – our senses; our faculties; our better

judgment.  And it takes control of us when we find ourselves driven to compete for the wrong rea-

sons.  If our competitive juices are pumped by the desire to improve our own skills and the skills of

those we compete against, then it’s a pretty healthy thing.  But all too often, our competing is driven

by our desire to be able to proudly assert our superiority over others.  We miss the fun of the game

when we become obsessed with winning in order to establish our supremacy.  In this vein, winning

becomes important only because it bolsters our self-esteem; even to the point of vanity [or some

call it “vain glory”].  Our victory makes us appear to be better than others, and being better, faster,

stronger, smarter becomes our overriding and sometimes all-consuming concern; often to the ex-

treme of turning into a destructive rather than a constructive force.  I could cite examples from the

worlds of business, athletics, politics, entertainment.  Instead, I’ll let you fill in the blanks

      In one of those areas for instance, I think it’s good for parents to encourage their children to

excel in athletics, and to support them in their efforts.  But have you ever known parents to push

too hard?  Sometimes, we vicariously unleash our competitive spirits through our children.  We can

go to a little league baseball, or pee wee football, or junior basketball game anywhere in America to

see evidence of that.  For the most part, competition at this level is friendly and enjoyable for players,

parents and fans alike.  But have we witnessed that irate parent release their fury on a child who

makes an error, or berate an umpire or official who makes a questionable call?  It’s not a pretty sight.

And it can be pretty destructive.  Thomas Turko, a leading authority on youth sports, says, “I’m con-

cerned about how many good athletes are scarred by injury, or burned out psychologically by the time

they are fifteen because they are unable to meet the insatiable competitive needs of their parents,

their coaches, their fans, and their own personal obsessions.”  Parents, support, but don’t burn & scar.

      Sports are but one example.  Alfie Kohn who is an outspoken critic of competition writes of his

experience as a high school debater on one of the nation’s better teams:  “After hundreds of rounds of

competition over three years, I can assert in no uncertain terms that the purpose of debate is not to

seek the truth or resolve the issue.  No argument, however compelling, is ever conceded; veracity is

never attributed to the other side.  The only reason debaters sacrifice their free time collecting thou-

sands of pieces of evidence, analyzing arguments, and practicing speeches, is to win.  Truth thereby

suffers.”  I can’t help but think of the political debates currently raging.  It’s not always about seeking

truth for the community.  It’s about seeking victory and supremacy at all costs.

      So competition can become destructive when its sole purpose is to establish the superiority of one

over another.  This is the particular problem Paul addresses in the 12th chapter of his 1st letter to the 4

Corinthians.  The early Christians were becoming so wrapped up in themselves that they had only one

concern: to establish themselves as spiritually superior to others in the faith community.  Each indivi-

dual wanted to prove himself [and yes, it was for the most part men folk] the most devout, most

godly, most gifted, most spiritual Christian in the church.  The result was that these Christians were

losing their interest in the well-being of the community at large.  Their self-interest became foremost. 

The upshot was that the church was turning into a fierce competing ground to demonstrate whose

gifts were greater.  The piety of this group had devolved into a game of spiritual one-upsmanship,

with bragging rights as a badge of honor.

      I must make a confession.  I sometimes don’t like talking with “churchy” people, because the con-

versation too often goes like this:  “I’m pastor/member at XYZ Church.  What church do you go to? 

Oh….. Presbyterian.  How many people attend your church?  Oh….. Well, we have three services on

Sunday with about eight hundred at each service.  How big is your Sunday School.  Oh….. We just

started building a new education center on our campus because we have a thousand kids enrolled.  Do

you have a campus?  Oh…..just one building.  We claimed over three thousand souls last year.  How

many salvations have been seen at your church?”   And on it goes.  I’ll feel like I’ve been drawn into a

game of one-upsmanship which, quite frankly, I don’t care to play. 

      Paul is understandably upset because the people at the Corinthian Church had become more con-

cerned with their own gifts, their own successes, their own spiritual badges of honor than with the

collective gifts and needs of the community.  Paul urges that there not be a spiritual gift free-for-all,

but rather that the church understand this:  “For just as the body is one and has many members,

and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one

Spirit we were all baptized into one body --- Jews of Greeks, slaves or free --- and we were all made

to drink of one Spirit.”  Then in the following verses, he expands on the human body analogy, stres-

sing how important each part is – however large or small – to the health and well-being of the rest of

the body.  Rather than the parts of the body being in competition, they are to be in concert.

      This morning, Paul is telling the Corinthians, and the Presbyterians, and the Baptists, and the

Methodists, and the Pentecostals, and the Catholics, and the Evangelicals that what is most important

in the sight of God is not how unique or good or superior our particular gift happens to be.  What is

ultimately important to God is how many people of diverse talents and gifts join together to use their

gifts collectively for the health and well-being of the whole.  All talents, all gifts are valuable; all are to

the glory of God who grants them.  No one talent is any more valuable, or any less indispensible, than

any other talent.  The hand needs the eye.  The head needs the feet. We need each other.

      There’s a story about a boy who was mentally challenged.  We’ll call him “Charlie.”  Charlie wanted

to serve his church in some capacity.  But every time he offered to help people, they politely brushed

him aside because they knew he would just get in the way.  So finally Charlie decided to do something

no one else had asked him to do, or even told him was permissible.  One Sunday, he opened the door

of the pastor’s study, walked with him through the breezeway to the sanctuary, and opened the sanc-

tuary door for the pastor to enter.  The practice continued for several weeks until one Sunday, a lay

leader of the church discovered what Charlie had been doing.  He was concerned that the boy might

be disturbing the pastor, so he went to the pastor and said, “I know Charlie gets in your way some-

times.  He seems to be bothering you on Sunday before you preach.  Maybe you’d like me to say some-

thing to him about this matter.”  The pastor looked at the well-meaning lay leader and replied, “Yes,

please do say something to Charlie for me.  Tell him that I appreciate his coming to my study every

Sunday morning to help me with the door.  But from now on, I’d also like him to carry my Bible and my

sermon notes for me.  And tell him that his assistance is very important.”

      Paul Achtemeier writes in his commentary on gifts in the church:  “The difference between Christ-

ians is not that some have spiritual gifts to offer the community and some do not.  The difference con-

sists in the fact that not all have received the same gift.  That means that not every Christian will have

the gift of preaching, or of social action, or of caring for church property.  But every Christian does

have some gift, and part of one’s Christian responsibility is to discover what gift one has, and then use

it to the glory of God and the good of one’s fellow human beings.”  The gift which Charlie discovered

for himself does not seem like such a big deal when compared to what we might call “greater gifts.”

But in God’s eyes, Charlie’s gift which he offered from his heart is every bit as “great” as the gifts of

the one for whom he opened the door, and whose Bible and sermon notes he was charged to carry.

Charlie contributed to the whole body of the church through his simple but spiritually-motivated gift.

And his pastor recognized and honored that.

      The fact is, we are a competitive people living in a society driven by a fierce desire to at least keep

up with, if not pull ahead, of the Joneses.  And we are a competitive people living in an ecclesial or

church culture which looks a lot like the early church in Corinth.  Churches compete for members. 

Members compete among themselves for recognition of their “greater gifts.”  Youth programs com-

pete for kids.  Pastors compete for numbers.  Evangelists compete for souls.  Too often in church, as in

society, our desire to compete gets out of hand, and we find ourselves competing not as a means of

improvement and wholeness of self and others, but as a means of asserting our superiority over

others.  In the end, this game of one-upsmanship hinders more than helps; tears down more than

builds up; weakens rather than strengthens; reaps conflict rather than community. 

      All gifts are important says Paul.  No one gift is to be regarded as any more valuable than another;

certainly no more worthy in the sight of God than another.  Paul lays down the bottom line when he opens

this chapter twelve.

      With his words, we shall close this message:  “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters,

I do not want you to be uninformed…….. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit,

who allots to each one individually just as the spirit chooses….. that there may

be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”  You

see, it’s not about competition.  It’s about community.  Amen.