Challenging a notion of Christian excellence

January 27, 2008

Challenging a notion of excellence

The Pride of Excellence: A Christian View of a Better Way

A key point in any comprehensive Christian worldview consists of engaging the culture and the world around us without unnecessarily seeking to mock it, destroy it, or conquer it. We want to transform it, perhaps, but do so without adopting its faulty values.

Many Christians of my acquaintance in the field of secondary education believe the adoption of a comprehensive Christian worldview compels them to the highest order of competition and a demand for unrelenting excellence. The notion of Christians striving to be the most excellent in all they do is often promoted as the acme of any Christian worldview and surely the goal of explicit Christian education.

It would appear, however, that the apostle Paul decried this attitude in his listing of the gifts of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12). After cataloging the evidences of Christian excellence, Paul writes, “I will show you the most excellent way” (I Cor. 12:31). These words form Paul’s entrée to the well-known and often recited love chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13, where he argues that without love the Christian’s life is nothing.

Paul could easily be echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 64:6), who—if I may be permitted a paraphrase–warns: “All your excellences are as filthy rags.” Paul, in another epistle, echoes this sentiment with his observation, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). If anything, Paul’s words place humility before excellence in a Christian worldview.

To espouse excellence—be it in education, athletics, politics, or business–as the crowning Christian virtue is to misconstrue the gospel, I think. Christians are not called primarily to excellence; they are called first to love.

In our modern, materialistic, consumer culture, a call to excellence carries subtle and intriguing overtones, especially regarding human pride. Without love, such an emphasis on excellence can be harmful to the gospel of Jesus Christ by placing a premium on human enterprise and effort.

What does it mean and imply, for example, for members of a Christian athletic team competing in secular arenas to assert that they must be excellent? Most, if not all, teams will be striving to be the best. What is the more excellent way for Christian athletes? Paul and other biblical writers insist that love must trump excellence!

To argue, as many do, that Christian athletes, in order to be effective witnesses to their faith in the surrounding culture, must be the best in all that they do is to court the deadly sin of pride. Frankly, a Christian’s performance in any arena has little or nothing to do with his or her witness to the culture.

Isaiah has it nailed: “All our excellences are as filthy rags.” Christian athletes are not called to mock, to belittle, to disdain, or to outstrip their opponents.

Christ has nothing to do with winning championships in athletic competition. He has everything to do with an athlete’s pride, humility, greed, sacrifice, and love.

At the Christian high school where I work, a young athlete once boldly asked, “What does Jesus Christ have to do with lacrosse?”

If our answer to his query has anything to do with winning or with excellence in athletic endeavor, we have missed the heart of the gospel. Perhaps an answer arises when his question is revised and restated this way: “What does Christ’s love have to do with lacrosse—or with any athletic endeavor?”

Often one hears Christian athletes and coaches couple this demand for excellence with some form or experience of piety, as in this assertion: “We play to glorify the Lord.” The glory of God, implied in this viewpoint, is often upheld or lowered by the excellence of our performance or the lack of same. Sadly, such a view gets measured by success, and implied in its premises is the conclusion that only victory or success can bring glory to God.

Frankly, this viewpoint leans dangerously close to a subtle heresy that encourages a Crusader mentality. It strikes me as a subtle form of the non-Biblical gospel of success espoused in many quarters of our capitalistic, consumer-oriented society. It implies that God needs our victories, our successes, or our excellences to demonstrate his love and grace or that God signifies his acceptance and approval of us by giving us victory and success in our endeavors.

God doesn’t call us to higher GPAs and SAT scores, to better won-lost records or to larger bank accounts and stronger stock portfolios. My conviction is that God cares no more whether we win or lose in athletics—or succeed in business or politics–than he cares whether males are circumcised or not circumcised. To act in love is to understand Paul’s words about Christians’ circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29).

The real question for Christian athletes—and business persons–becomes this: How does Christ’s love become expressed in the field of competition? In a culture filled with pride, mockery, belittling, and disdain for one’s opponents, what can it mean to play any game as a Christian? Certainly it has little to do with excellence and much to do with the “more excellent way.”

A supposed Christian worldview that exalts excellence—the key word here is exalts—risks turning the gospel of grace into a gospel of works and of pride.

Returning to my opening reflection and putting athletics aside, let me note again that engaging the culture is not intended to be a form of triumphalism. Too many who call themselves Christian adopt a non-Christian attitude of mockery, conquest, and destruction into their engagement with contemporary culture. Such an attitude smacks of smugness, pride, and triumphant disdain for one’s “enemies.”

What did Jesus mean when he exhorted his followers to “love your enemies; bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matthew 5:44)?

Love, the apostle Paul said, “does not boast.” It is not, he continued, rude, self-seeking, or easily angered. Any cultural engagement by a Christian who forgets or disregards these words can hardly expect to be a witness for the body of Christ. In other words, our witness to the culture doesn’t lie in our excellence, which can become a veiled form of our own righteousness; it lies instead in our transformation by grace and our expression of Jesus Christ’s love.


Allan Roy Andrews taught high school journalism and coordinated the Web site at a Christian school in Maryland when this essay was first posted. He is a retired newspaper editor and columnist.


Andrews can be contacted at:
aroyandrews@gmail.com

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