Our culture’s competitive spirit has seeped into church life. And while God wants us to succeed, we must do so on His terms.


“For everyone who has been born of God has overcome the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
—1 John 5:4 ESV

I watch more than my fair share of TV shows focused on competition. One of my favorites is the zany Chopped, where four professional chefs are given a basket of bizarre ingredients like kumquats, oysters, gummy bears, and blackstrap molasses and are tasked with turning them into an edible, beautiful food in a ridiculously short amount of time. For each round—appetizer, main course, and dessert—a panel of judges eliminates one contestant with the words “You’ve been chopped!” The last chef standing wins a cash prize and bragging rights.

Whether it is the physical prowess elevated in sporting events, a killer singing voice celebrated on talent shows, or the resourcefulness rewarded on a cooking show, those of us watching at home are the real judges. From the comfort of our couches, we assess the performances of the competitors and the decisions of the judges (though we are spared having to taste-test oyster tacos topped with gummy bear salsa). We love spotting and celebrating winners.

We love winners in the church, too. When a celebrity—a “winner” in our culture—professes faith in Jesus, we are often quick to push him or her into the Christian spotlight. Every time this happens, I think of Bob Dylan, who recorded an explicitly evangelistic album and began preaching the resurrected Messiah during his concerts for a couple of years. He then very publicly retreated from both his new faith and the church. The glare of the spotlight is a very inhospitable place for faith to grow and mature. Sadly, from the moment of his conversion, those around him had treated him as a trophy instead of nurturing his faith. He was a big win for Team Christian … until he wasn’t.

The desire to win runs deep in us. It plays out in the church in various ways, as I once learned while working as a support staffer for a regional church networking ministry. I appreciated the collegial support and friendship that many leaders extended to one another in meetings, but I also detected an undercurrent of “sibling rivalry” among some in attendance. It came in the form of questions, like How big is your church? How often are your sermons downloaded? and How many have you baptized in the last year? Few liked admitting their congregation was struggling or shrinking, so they tended to frame their answers in terms of future triumph: We’re rebuilding, or We’re just about to begin a new outreach to the community.

It isn’t just leaders who use a power-and-popularity yardstick to measure spiritual success. Most of us carry the idea that someone with a well-known writing, speaking, or preaching ministry has been gifted by God in especially powerful ways. We ascribe virtue to their popularity, using the metrics of “biggest means best.” Even if we remind ourselves that God’s economy is not like ours (Matt. 17:20; 1 Corinthians 1:27) and following Jesus often looks more like losing than victory (Matt. 16:24-25), our love of winners can turn the volume down on those truths.

The glare of the spotlight is a very inhospitable place for faith to grow and mature.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed the moral failures of a few prominent Christian leaders, as well as some lesser-publicized but still painful falls of leaders in smaller churches and ministries. In the wake of these reports, the rest of us find ourselves struggling to reconcile how a gifted leader can inspire and influence so many while nurturing secret sin in his or her life. Why would God allow these compromised leaders to have the privilege of a platform for as long as they do?

There are no easy answers to this question. In some cases, the force of a leader’s dynamic personality compels others to overlook warning signs such as excess spending, anger, secretive behavior, or blame-shifting. In other cases, these leaders do in the flesh what they once upon a time relied on God to do through them. And in every case, God gives His gifts to sinners like you and me.

The Holy Spirit endows believers with gifts that allow us to minister to others in the body of Christ in ways that are not possible by our own human effort or natural talents. However, in some sad cases, fallen human beings rely on their own efforts to accomplish God’s work, and in others, they simply choose to pretend God is doing “something big” through them in order to boost their own popularity.

We must remember again and again that supernatural gifts do not automatically confer good character and spiritual maturity on the recipient. Exhibit A: the church in Corinth. The church was marked by people who, as they worshipped together, were actively sharing the gifts God gave them. When I read 1 Corinthians, I imagine a congregation marked by vibrant, passionate worship. God was really moving in this church!

The rest of us find ourselves struggling to reconcile how a gifted leader can inspire and influence so many while nurturing secret sin in his or her life.

But this “winning” community’s gifts were being eclipsed by their sin. First Corinthians includes stern, loving chastisement from the apostle Paul about a smorgasbord of issues including, among other things, often chaotic corporate worship (1 Corinthians 14:1-40), factions (1 Corinthians 1:10-12), turning a blind eye to sexual sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), and feuding members taking one another to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). Every time I wonder why God would give His good gifts to people who behave badly, I remember that I am one of those people. We all are.

Noting, “You may not be comforted in hearing this,” pastor and commentator Bob Deffinbaugh writes, “The man who has the gift of pastor-teacher may be far less spiritual than the one who has the gift of helps. The one with the gift of giving may be far more spiritual than the evangelist who is winning thousands to Christ. We need only recall the Old Testament figure Samson to be reminded that while he was performing great feats of strength, he was living a life devoted to the flesh.”

Even if we remind ourselves that following Jesus often looks more like losing than victory, our love of winners can turn the volume down on those truths.

At the heart of the letter to his friends in Corinth, Paul’s famous words about love are meant to uncouple us from our own flesh-bound ideas regarding what spiritual success looks like: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

We see the effect of Paul’s correction of the Corinthian church when he writes them after some time has passed, and they’ve acted on his words. Paul doesn’t even mention their dynamic church services or superstar leaders. In 2 Corinthians, he blesses their character, their faithfulness, and their obedience to do the work to correct their errors, which he recognizes as a true and lasting expression of their love for God and one another.

I am a writer and recognize the temptation I face in navigating the Christian publishing world. It is a temptation that whispers to me, saying I can rely on my own skill set and experience to do the task before me, while simultaneously draining God’s love from my efforts. It is the same temptation each one of us faces whenever we seek to “win,” even spiritually. As we recognize and rebut this temptation in the name of Jesus, God will help us discern the difference between those who are seeking to “win” at Christianity and those who are seeking to lose their life in order to love as Jesus does.

God applies the same measure to a best-selling Christian author, a superstar pastor, and a shy nursery volunteer, and it is nothing like the way in which we measure success. Our achievements and trophies—even those that seem merited—are not the way God measures our efforts. Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 13:8 to remind us that the gifts God gives to us will pass away. Those gifts serve an essential role here and now as we minister to one another in His name, but they are not the eternal goal. Love is.


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By John VandenOever

4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith.

20 And He said to them, Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.

27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

1 Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.

2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.

3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.

4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.

5 Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.

6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?

7 Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?

8 For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?

9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.

11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.

12 So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.

13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.

15 What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.

16 Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?

17 For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.

18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all;

19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.


22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.

23 Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?

24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all;

25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret;

28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.

29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.

30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent.

31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted;

32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets;

33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.

35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?

37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment.

38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.

40 But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.

10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.

11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you.

12 Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, I am of Paul," and I of Apollos," and I of Cephas," and I of Christ."

1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife.

2 You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.

3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.

4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus,

5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?

7 Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.

8 Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people;

10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.

11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one.

12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?

13 But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.

1 Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?

2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?

3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?

4 So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church?

5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren,

6 but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?

7 Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?

8 On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren.

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,

10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.

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