Comparisons, Hierarchies, Competition and Sin

I was recently struck by how relevant portions of the teachings in 1 Corinthians are to Christian Business Owners.

By way of background, the church in Corinth was by no means free from internal problems. This may have been due in part to the number and variety of the teachers. Apollos undoubtedly worked in Corinth (3:6). It is probable but not quite certain that Peter did so also. As a result of this, and no doubt because of their own imperfectly Christianized contentiousness too, the church membership, though not completely split into factions, tended to break down into groups, each appealing to the name of a Christian leader (1:11 f.). The disunity of the church manifested itself on these lines perhaps but on others also at the Lord’s Supper, where rich and poor were marked out in different groups (11:18–22). There were public litigation among the members (6:1–8), a notorious case of immorality (5:1–5), disputes over the legitimacy of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (8:1–13; 10:14–11:1), and disagreements about the propriety of marriage (7:1–40), and the admissibility of sexual relations outside marriage (6:12–20). The Christian doctrine of resurrection appeared to have been denied (15:12), and Paul’s own apostleship questioned (4:3, 15; 9:1 f.).

Paul did visit Corinth and that visit ended in something nearing a disaster, but certainly in deep sorrow for him (2 Cor. 2:1; 12:14, 21; 13:2). He wrote a severe letter, which cost him many tears (2 Cor. 2:4; 7:8). He sent Titus to Corinth, and was overjoyed to hear good news from him (2 Cor. 7:6 f.). But seeds of bitterness had been sown; Paul was abused by those who should have defended him (2 Cor. 12:11), and his place was usurped by rivals who, though outwardly more impressive, lacked the inward authorization, and the conformity with the passion of Christ, that marked Paul’s apostolic work (2 Cor. 12:12 f.).

It is within this context that a couple of key passages are written. I’ll apply them to a business environment momentarily.

In chapter 3, Paul writes:

For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

It is clear that factions had developed within the body where some were following one teacher and some another. What is important to understand here is that normally when someone identifies with a particular teacher or line of thinking, they do so because they feel it is right or better than other teachers or lines of thinking. While arrogance is not always involved in such a decision, arrogance is often a long-term result of such an identification. I recall in seminary that some identified with John Calvin, others with John Wesley, still others with Charles Hodge and so forth. Sometimes, our “discussions” were little more than earthly debates where both sides tried to beat the other side. And in the end, no one was encouraged and some were just plain arrogant that they had won (at least in their minds) the debate. Such debates and arrogance also led to divisions – several times I witnessed how wedges were driven into relationships between seminary students because of debates in which they had engaged ended poorly.

In chapter 4, Paul writes:

6Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

This has echos of Deuteronomy 8.18, where Moses reminds us to “remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” The larger point is that whatever we do have is from the Lord: either He gave us what we have or He gave us the ability to work for it and thus “create wealth”. Again, Paul is warning against arrogance.

Arrogance always divides. In our culture, this is most clearly seen in our political discourse. When we, as Christian Business Owners, engage in a political debate (regardless of what side you’re advocating) to the point of losing a brother’s fellowship or the credibility and permission to speak truth into another’s life, then we have lost the war. For decades, politicians have used race and economic classes to divide our country while mobilizing their “base” in their effort to be elected to office. They suppose the pursuit of power justifies the division of groups in our country. As Christian Business Owners, we should shun supporting such divisions. Yes, we can disagree and discuss our differences, but winning has its’ costs and we should be cognizant that some costs are not worth the win. Not in God’s economy, anyways.

It’s nearly impossible to divide without employing comparisons. When it comes to running a business, do we not compare ourselves to other owners and arrange a hierarchy of success that is completely worldly? Some business owners will generate more wealth than others – some will grow larger businesses than others. But God is the great equalizer: all that any of us have comes from the Lord, therefore, even if I build a $1 trillion business, I am no better or more valuable than the 93% of business owners who run privately-held businesses with annual sales of less than $250,000/year. Why? Because it was God who gave me that $1T business in the first place. I have no room to boast.

It’s not the size of the business or the dollar amount that is important. Instead, it is the owner’s devotion to Christ and his/her commitment to run their business God’s way. It’s about living out God’s purposes for business and ensuring I’m walking closely with God. His call on each of our lives is different. Fulfilling His call is “best” for each of us. Hence, while it is true that I could not fill the shoes of Bill Gates, it is equally true that he could not fill mine. At least not in God’s economy.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t compete – we do. Competition makes us better and matures us as businesses owners. But let’s not compete is such a way as to kill relationships with our competitors. As much as it is within your power, live at peace with everyone.

I will suggest that running a business God’s way assumes that we focus on following God’s specific plan for our lives, we seek God’s face more than anything else, we compete in the marketplace but do not get overly concerned when we are not as successful as the next guy, we keep our arrogance at bay and we learn to disengage from comparisons that do nothing but create divisions. Let’s remember that without God, we would have nothing and achieve nothing. In Christ, the hierarchies, comparisons and arrogance all grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Bill English, CEO