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Theology; Competitive versus Non-Competitive

January 2, 2013



Long walks always get me thinking.  This time of year, they get me to thinking about my father, his passing, and the events surrounding it.  We’re nine days from the second anniversary of his passing, and some thoughts have started to percolate through in a meaningful fashion, finally.

In particular, I started to consider the doctrine of competitive theology.

I’ve been around ministers of the faith I was raised in, most often, so that’s where I’ve noticed it the most.  It’s around in most sects of Christianity, and it abounds in most monotheistic religions in one fashion or another.  I haven’t seen it a lot in the modern day “pagans” I spend time with; I know it’s there in a few polytheistic faiths, but not in the ones I’ve had most contact with.

Now, “competitive theology” is my own term for this doctrine; I’m not sure if there’s a more proper or better term for it, so I’ll go with my own for the moment.  This is the doctrine of using every opportunity to promote one’s faith over other faiths, going so far as to slip it into small devotionals, prayers with families, and just about every other duty performed by a minister.  I’ll use a personal example.

Most of my family managed to gather at my father’s bedside as he was about to pass.  A pastor from a family member’s church, which was NOT close by, dropped everything to join us and pray with us.  Do Not Get Me Wrong; I appreciated this more than words could say.  My father would have wanted that, and it was a tremendous comfort to us.  Even in this prayer, though, the pastor informed us of how good it was that my father was Lutheran, and not some other faith (a few which he mentioned by name), because it meant that my father was going in the right direction, to the right place, at the right time.

He went so far as to say that it was so good he was not Catholic, or some other faith, but Lutheran.  To some degree, that’s an important part of the comfort for the grieving; the assurance that my father had all his ducks in a row, and so could proceed to the arms of the loving Father.  It’s not something I was really worried about; if my dad wasn’t going to Heaven, than I can’t imagine too many people who’ve got a shot.   The competitive comparative, “we are better than them,” rankled me.  I let it pass, though.  You don’t nitpick theology in that situation.

The same pastor served at my father’s funeral, and again, Do Not Get Me Wrong; it was a beautiful service and it was handled with grace and professionalism.  That’s a rare combination, these days, and I was happy to have it.   The same comparatives were made during the service, though… “How good that Bill was a Lutheran, and not a (insert other sect and/or faith here).”

Now, when it had been done at my dad’s bedside, that was one thing.  One big family unit, all of us raised and/or practicing Lutherans.  I had friends at that funeral who were not raised/practicing Lutherans; in fact, I had friends of many faiths (and no faith at all) there.  There was a good turnout at the service, which served to remind me of how loved and respected my father had been in just about every aspect of his life.  There were people there that I had met as friends of my father through work, who I knew for a fact were not Lutheran, nor Christian.  All of these people had to sit through half an hour of being told that the Lutherans had it right, and how good it was to be a Lutheran, and how being a Lutheran meant my father was properly going to Heaven.  “How good that Bill was a Lutheran, and not (your religion here).”

My friends and my father’s friends went to that service to honor my father’s memory and to pay their respects, not to have their faith (or lack thereof) castigated.  That rankled me more than the bedside prayer service; much more, in fact.  It’s been a thorn in my side for a couple of years, now, and I suppose that’s why this post is here.  From here, I’m going to get personal, a little angry, and perhaps nasty and petty.  Still, this is why I have a blog.

My father’s funeral service was held in the large chapel on the grounds of Forest Lawn in Cypress, California.  It was not held in a Lutheran Church, and certainly not in my father’s Home Church.  Why was that?  It was because my father had no home church at the time, nor was he attending any Lutheran church.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t attending a church regularly… he wasn’t attending any church at all.  My father, president of a number of different congregations over his church life, member of a number of choirs, dedicated Lutheran and gospel singer extraordinaire, had not set foot in a church in years.

You see, both of his sons had found work with the church.  One of them (your truly) worked as a Director of Christian Education for a congregation that my father became a member of, and then the president of.  When things went bad for me at that church, the other leaders of the congregation cut him out of the loop and let me go, in perhaps the most demeaning and spiritually damaging way possible.  When I left that church, so did my parents.

I won’t discuss the details of what happened to his other son’s involvement with the church organization (not my story to tell), but it was callous, unfair, and petty.

My father occasionally talked about going back to a church he’d used to attend, but never did.  The leadership of the church, on every level, had failed his family, and cost them not only their vocations, but also (in one case) their faith.

My father never lost his faith in the triune God or the professed doctrines of the Lutheran Church, but the church itself?  They’d lost him, good and proper.  They’d lost him by treating people, treating his family, exactly the way they teach you not to treat people.  He praised God every day, and professed the need for church in a person’s life constantly.  We’re STILL finding index cards and Post-It notes with his beliefs and feelings on them, and they are never-wavering in his belief in God, Church, and Family.

How badly do you have to hurt someone like that to keep them out of a church?

“How good Bill was a Lutheran…”

I understand where the competitive theology comes from.  The rest of my family, who are either currently church-goers or who have been attending church for longer than I’ve been alive, didn’t notice it.  It came as quite a surprise to the one or two of them I’ve pointed it out to.  I’m pretty sure the Pastor didn’t even realize he was engaging in it… it’s just the way you pray.  It’s just the way you preach.  It’s just the lifelong conditioning in doing things just that way.  If you teach someone to say something for a couple of hours a week from the time they can first speak, they’ll say it without thinking.  I get that.

Stepping away from the conditioning, though, I can see it pretty clearly.  To me, it’s like some obnoxious pop-up ad on a website.  “Praise praise praise WE’RE BETTER THAN THEM praise praise.”  If I’m being charitable (as Luther’s explanation of the eighth commandment would lead me to be), I have to put it down to tradition and conditioning.

If, however, I’m being cynical (as only someone burned by the church from the inside can be), I have to attribute the competitive theology to something else.  I might be tempted to say that competitive theology is a cheap and easy substitute for treating people the way you should.

Oh, sure, you could keep people coming to church by treating them like family, seeing to their troubles, counselling them with love and charity, and modeling the behavior of Christ to each and every person in the congregation, whether they’re members of the congregation or workers in the church, but it’s so much easier to just keep saying “we’re better than them, how good you’re a (insert faith here) and not (insert some other faith).”

All of which is to say that the doctrine of Competitive Theology is pure spiritual laziness.  Heck, it’s not just spiritual.  It’s distilled laziness… laziness in its purest form.

If you want people to believe that you profess the proper faith, SHOW them.  Show them the love and care that your faith can bring.  Show them the wisdom of the teachings in how you live and how you act.  Treat people the way your faith teaches to treat people.  Go the extra mile.  Turn the other cheek.  Give to charity.  Feed the poor.  Give up what you have to others who have nothing.

If people see you treating others with this kind of grace and compassion, and doing it with happiness on your face and peace in your heart, THEN they’ll realize that you’ve got something.  When they ask you what that something is, THEN you tell them about your church, your faith, and your God.

That’s non-competitive theology; not making favorable comparisons of your faith or promoting an “us over them” viewpoint.  It’s not competing at all, but loving and giving and being the person your faith teaches you to be.

It’s going a little beyond “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and taking it to “just do it.”  Not for reward or compensation or even to show your faith, but because it’s the right thing to do.  Do it because of the grace and love that you have been shown, in gratitude and happiness.

Or, you know, put the non-believers to the sword and enslave their women and children.

If I practiced any theological doctrine these days, I’d have to strive for a non-competitive doctrine.  Competitive doctrine is just words, and that’s just lazy.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2013 11:11 am

    I don’t think anyone I know could have made a more profound statement on the petty shild-like competitive doctorine of most churches today. Even though I am not practicing, the lack of this is what attracted me to the pagan beliefs my mother follows. The whole concept that God is God no matter how you honor it. Letting people who ask know your faith is your own and it does not judge other faiths. My wife is Lutheran and would like our daughter (and coming soon son) to have the background and upbringing you get coming up in the church. My only reservation is the petty statements, arguements, and disregard for historical/scientific fact that the church hasn’t caught up to or accepted yet. Anyways thanks for sharing, it was helpful.

  2. July 7, 2013 4:29 am

    I agree and I don’t. I think Jesus called us to spread to gospel, and that sometimes means being overt. However Paul, who went and preached all over his known world, makes some of the strongest warnings to avoid quarrels, to respect each other, to let our deeds be a witness. I think you need both.
    And when one presents the gospel, it needs to be in a way that is sensitive to your audience – this sounds like where the minister at your Dad’s funeral fell down. Pointing to a hope in Jesus is going to be way more effective than promoting our own denomination or dismissing others.

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