When we hear the word competition, we often think of the sports arena. While this may be the most common example, we should step back and consider the larger picture. In doing so we are not alone.
Ellen White certainly addressed the matter of rivalry on the playing field. In the context of the bicycle races that engulfed Battle Creek, she observed, “There were some who were striving for the mastery. . . . There was a spirit of strife and contention among them, as to which should be the greatest. The spirit was similar to that manifested in the ball games on the College grounds.” She then stated that this spirit of competition and rivalry was “an offense to God.”¹ Nevertheless, Ellen White wrote more frequently of competition within the broader context of life.
Ellen White often described competition as strife for supremacy and the desire to be first. She also used the terms competition and rivalry interchangeably. Referencing the publishing ministry, for example, she wrote, “There is a rivalry coming into the work. . . . The publishers and authors who enter this competition will lose the grace of God out of their hearts.”²
Ellen White frequently referred to Scripture in discussing competition and rivalry. She stated that Lucifer’s craving for self-exaltation (Isa. 14:12) “brought strife into the heavenly courts.”³ She observed that the spirit of rivalry between Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:29-34; 27) led to deception, while rivalry between the sister wives, Leah and Rachel, embittered Jacob’s later life.⁴
She noted that a “sad feature of Solomon’s experience was his supposition that massive buildings and magnificent furnishings give character to the work of God.” This, she explains, was a result of his endeavor “to pattern after, and to compete with, the world.”⁵
Christ encountered a spirit of rivalry among His disciples as they argued about who would be the greatest (Matt. 18). In the book The Desire of Ages Ellen White describes Christ’s endeavors to cultivate in His followers a different focus; He explained that while in secular society people compete for the highest position, those who were part of His kingdom should seek to serve (Mark 10:35-45).⁶
Elsewhere, Ellen White referenced Paul’s metaphor of ancient races and the Christian life (1 Cor. 9:24-27). On the one hand, Paul invites believers to imitate competitors’ commitment to obtain the prize. On the other, he draws a distinction between the popular contests, in which only one receives the prize, and the heavenly race, in which the attainments of one do not detract from those of others.
While there is certainly a cosmic contest in which we all play a part (Gen. 3:15), in this life “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). Indeed, in the great conflict it is Satan’s strategy “to nourish the spirit of rivalry.”⁷
Ellen White discussed competition and rivalry in various contexts. When some church members started a sanitarium in Boulder, Colorado, to compete with the institution already established, she declared that these individuals “are doing Satan’s work. . . . [The Lord] bids that this miserable work of rivalry be brought to a close.”⁸
Another instance was the rivalry that arose between the publishing houses. “My heart is sick, grieved, disappointed,” she wrote. “A contemptible spirit of rivalry, a spirit of seeking for supremacy, prevails.”⁹ One way that these institutions competed was by increasing the number of illustrations in the materials published. Another was in the rivalry between their flagship periodicals.
In her book Medical Ministry Ellen White asserts that church institutions should not attempt to rival nondenominational entities. “Never are we to rely upon worldly recognition and rank. Never are we, in the establishment of institutions, to try to compete with worldly institutions in size or splendor.”¹⁰
It was not only institutional rivalry that concerned her, but competition among individuals. “Not a particle of strife or rivalry should exist between the workers,”¹¹ she penned. Ministers and physicians alike were warned against engaging in competition.
Lay members were also cautioned. In business, Ellen White observed that some drove sharp bargains and were viewed by nonbelievers as “keenest competitors for advantage in trade.” As a result, the believers “have lost their spiritual eyesight,” and the world “has to a large degree lost the conviction that Seventh-day Adventists are a people peculiarly loyal to God.”¹²
Ellen White was particularly concerned about competition within the family. She stated, “To compete with their neighbors and church members in matters of dress and display is the sin of many parents.”¹³
Ellen White pointed out the results of cherishing a spirit of competition and rivalry, warning that these will create disunity and contention, suspicion and jealousy. She wrote: “The great weakness in the churches is the result of the spirit of rivalry, of seeking to be first.”¹⁴
Spiritual life is also affected; witness is compromised. “[The spirit of rivalry] will hurt and finally ruin every soul who engages in it.”¹⁵ Not only is the truth misrepresented and the cause of God disgraced, but the spirit of rivalry “will crowd out the missionary spirit.”¹⁶
Tragically, when rivalry occurs, the Holy Spirit is grieved, ministering angels are banished, and God’s purpose is defeated.¹⁷ To state the matter affirmatively, however, she wrote: “When there is no rivalry, no strife for the supremacy, when oneness exists, . . . then the showers of the grace of the Holy Spirit will . . . surely come upon them.”¹⁸
How Should We Then Live?
While Ellen White directly addressed their perils, competition and rivalry were relatively minor themes. Her emphasis was on the remedy—cooperation, unity, and a spirit of selfless service. She referenced cooperation 10 times more frequently than competition and rivalry combined, and unity and service even more often.
Ellen White asserted: “Not rivalry
. . . , but cooperation, is God’s plan.”¹⁹ When “self sinks out of sight, and Christ is exalted,” she penned, “there will be a decided effort, not for rivalry, not to exalt self, but to harmonize with others.”²⁰
Countermeasures to the spirit of competition are found in the attributes of humility, grace, and love.
Ultimately, the antidote for competition and rivalry is to receive the Spirit of Christ. “Your energy and efficiency in the upbuilding of My kingdom, Jesus says, depend upon your receiving of My Spirit,” she wrote. “Then there will be no rivalry, no self-seeking, no desire for the highest place.”²¹ With God at the center, there will be “no perilous rivalry,” but a mutual connectedness that will result in the harmony of heaven.²²
¹ Ellen G. White letter 23b, 1894. See also R. Graybill, “Ellen G. White and Competitive Sports,” Ministry, July 1974, pp. 4-7.
² Ellen G. White letter 133, 1899.
³ Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 435.
⁴ Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 189.
⁵ In Review and Herald, Jan. 18, 1906.
⁶ White, The Desire of Ages, p. 432.
⁷ Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Aug. 6, 1901.
⁸ Ellen G. White letter 262, 1907.
⁹ Ellen G. White manuscript 2, 1902.
¹⁰ Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1932), p. 158.
¹¹ Ellen G. White letter 53, 1887. Addressed to the Brethren and Sisters Attending the Oakland Meeting.
¹² Ellen G. White manuscript 41, 1901.
¹³ Ellen G. White manuscript 12, 1898.
¹⁴ Ellen G. White letter 136, 1900.
¹⁵ Ellen G. White manuscript 139, 1899.
¹⁶ Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 7, p. 173.
¹⁷ Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Aug. 6, 1901.
¹⁸ Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980) book 1, p. 175.
¹⁹ Ellen G. White, The Publishing Ministry (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1983), p. 158.