Nothing beats a good rivalry. The athletics world is full of them. In my neck of the woods, one of the greatest rivalries is between two college football teams: The University of Georgia and the University of Florida (or truthfully, whoever UGA is playing at the time). The Bulldogs and the Gators fight it out on the field every year, gridlocked against each other. Rivalry also extends to other areas of life. Every four years, Americans are witness to the often less-than-savory competition that comes during an election year. Rivalry, backbiting, slandering, and cutting down the opponent is built into the system. But competition and rivalry are to be expected in sports and politics. You might not think it would be just as common in ministry.
But, out of all of the groups Paul could have chosen to use as models of ungodly competition and rivalry, he didn’t choose athletes or government officials—he chose preachers.
Paul’s Unreciprocated Rivalry
Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi to address in part the problem of disunity in the church. He encouraged the church to embody the humility necessary to partner together in the gospel ministry because it is the very same humility that Jesus exhibited (Phil 2:5-11). If they were to claim Jesus, they must embody his life. Though the Philippian church partnered together with Paul in ministry, there were members of the church who were not partnering with one another—Euodia and Syntche (Phil 4:2-3).
But before Paul wrote of Jesus’ humility or called for these two women to reconcile in humility, he highlighted a group of insincere Roman preachers who were anything but humble (Phil 1:15-18). These preachers seemed to “preach Christ,” and yet they treated Paul as a rival to be overcome, not a partner to be embraced. The insincerity that plagued their ministry was the result of a disconnect between their message and their motive. Their preaching ministry was less about proclaiming the glory of Jesus and more about acquiring more glory for themselves. They desired to build their personal kingdom with influence, honor, and prestige. This path was laid out in the handbook on “How to be a Roman Citizen.” Climb the ladder. Everyone else is an opponent. Life is about gaining glory for yourself and building your kingdom. But Paul had the handbook on how to be a citizen of heaven (Phil 3:20), which provides a different path entirely.
This rivalry, however, was unreciprocated. Though these preachers saw Paul as a rival, he didn’t seem to view them that way. He simply rejoiced that Christ was being preached, even if they had less than pure motives.
Your first instinct at the thought of rivalry among pastors and preachers might be disbelief. But, if you have served in ministry long, you know the temptation to rivalry and competition exists for each of us because pride lay at its root. And pride is that subtle snake in the garden, the mother of many other sins like rivalry, envy, and competition, that can seduce us all. C. S. Lewis wrote, in Mere Christianity, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man … Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” This element of competition can easily creep into our ministries if we don’t ask ourselves hard questions.
We need to answer the question, “Brothers, are we rivals or partners?” The answer can be found by asking another question: “Whose kingdom are we building?” If we’re building our own, we are rivals locked in competition with one another. However, if we’re building the kingdom of God we are partners.
What’s the Cure for Competitiveness?
Ultimately, the cure for competitiveness in ministry is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Philippians 2, Paul explains to us the wonder of the Son’s descent from the glories of heaven to utter humiliation in his death on the cross for sin. The exaltation he received didn’t come from man’s empty praise but from his Father. Like Jesus, our lives as pastors on earth should be marked by the same pattern of humility. What does it look like when the heart of Jesus takes hold of a pastor? Here are four gospel-wrought dispositions of pastors who see themselves as partners in ministry rather than rivals:
1. The Humble Pastor
The humble pastor understands that he is not immune from these sins that make us rivals. However, because of Jesus, he can confess these sins freely and be healed of them. The humble pastor knows that Jesus’s eternal life is the free gift God offers the world. The moment we embrace a spirit of rivalry or competitiveness, we begin to think that we are God’s gift to the world. The humble pastor rejects any attempt at gaining social capital through any means contrary to the gospel. He boasts in Christ, not in any achievements or accolades that may elevate himself above another brother.
2. The Content Pastor
There’s a reason why Jeremiah Burroughs’s work calls Christian contentment a rare jewel. As pastors, pride, envy, and rivalry pull us away from experiencing contentment in ministry. Seminarians who desire more opportunities for preaching and pastoral ministry can grow envious toward those in positions they desire. Pastors of smaller churches can be envious of those in larger churches. Pastors with multiple churches in their town can see other pastors as competitors for the people in their city rather than co-laborers for extending the kingdom of God together in their city. When we’re rivals, it’s impossible to rejoice in the work of God in another church or through another pastor, especially if they appear more “successful” than we do.
3. The Thankful Pastor
The thankful pastor understands that just as God called him to salvation by grace, the ministry he received is just that—a received ministry given from the hand of a gracious God. Whatever ministry he has, it is done for the church’s joy and progress in the faith and the glory of Christ (Phil 1:25-26), not for the expansion of his influence or notoriety. God gave you your ministry, not someone else’s. Enjoy the ministry God has given to you, be thankful for it.
The thankful pastor is also thankful for other pastors. He understands that the harvest fields are too big for him; he needs help extending the kingdom of God, and God calls pastors for this purpose. When he’s content in his ministry, the pastor can be thankful for his co-laborers in the field who are engaged in the same work.
4. The Heavenly-Oriented Pastor
The heavenly-oriented pastor knows that his “gain” is not in this life (Phil 1:21). Paul didn’t see ministry as a means of gain; for the believer, true gain comes at death. When ministry becomes about personal gain, whether for influence, money, or notoriety, every other pastor becomes a rival. However fruitful ministry may be, our true gain comes when we are with Christ after death. The only exaltation that really matters is when we are exalted with Jesus after death. Any earthly exaltation pales in comparison.
“You’re going to have to make a choice. You will either be a big-kingdom pastor, or you will be a little-kingdom pastor.” A trusted mentor dropped those words on me one afternoon years ago. The truth is, this is a choice we are confronted with every day. In an attempt to build our little kingdoms, we can fall into the trap of competition and rivalry with other ministry leaders on our own staff or with those in other churches, all while we claim to preach Christ. Let’s be sure to remember that the Christ we preach is also the Christ that has undeservedly and graciously called us to share in a gospel ministry that is about extending his kingdom, and not our own. We’re in this together. When this sinks into our hearts, the message of Christ we preach, and the motives of our hearts will be aligned. That’s a pastor’s life that’s worthy of the gospel.