Who is the greatest athlete of all time? Sports commentators and journalists love to debate this question. Was it Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali? Is it Roger Federer or Cristiano Ronaldo? These debates stem from an even more fundamental question that sports journalists and fans like to consider: “Which sport boasts the best athletes?” These conversations can be entertaining, but it’s a futile exercise because the question is misguided. Usually, the people who are most opinionated about the matter are those who don’t have much first-hand experience in sports.
Trying to determine who is the world’s greatest athlete is like trying to determine the world’s best hunting dog. It’s the proverbial apples and oranges. In the same way that every serious hunting aficionado understands that you can’t compare the ability of a fox-flushing Jack Russell Terrier to a grouse-pointing English Setter, everyone who truly understands sports will tell you that you can’t compare soccer players to figure skaters.
Even within a particular sport like running you can’t compare the sprinters to the marathoners. And being in endurance-running shape doesn’t necessarily translate to being in endurance-cycling shape. While the mental aspect of competitive athletics may translate from one sport to another, there is no one athlete who would excel at every sport at the highest competitive level. LeBron James wouldn’t succeed as a gymnast. He’s too tall. Yuna Kim wouldn’t succeed as a basketball player. She’s too small. Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t succeed as a figure skater. He’s too bulky. Roger Federer wouldn’t succeed as a wrestler. He’s too skinny. Alexander Karelin wouldn’t succeed as a tennis player. He’s too slow.
Every sport, particularly when you reach the upper stratosphere of competition, requires a specialized body type, physical conditioning, and technical skill-set. Good athletes know what skills lead to success in their respective sport but would leave them struggling in another. Hitting a clean spike just isn’t the same as maneuvering on a snowboard. That’s part of the reason why the L.A. Lakers shooting guard Eddie Jones hailed tennis-player Pete Sampras as a better athlete, and why 6’7″ Anaheim Ducks forward Brian Boyle was unashamed about getting skating conditioning training from former figure-skater Barbara Underhill. It’s why even the great Usain Bolt’s jaw dropped at Wayde Van Niekerk’s 43.03 world record for the 400-meter race (from lane 8!).
Learning to honor the different gifts and abilities of individuals is a must in the life of a church. In the same way that it’s a silly question to ask who the most talented athlete is, it’s pointless to ask who the most gifted church member is.
Surely, some gifts look more visible and perhaps impressive than others. But preaching the Word is no step-up from coordinating a meal ministry. Equipping leaders is no more impressive than visiting the sick. Every spiritual gift in the church is equally empowered by the Holy Spirit, and has an integral place in the common good and edification of the church (1 Cor 12:7; 1 Pet 4:10-11). Hence, Paul reminded the carnal Corinthians, “it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked,” (1 Cor 12:21-24). Rather than boasting in one’s own giftedness and abilities, or attempting to claim superiority, Christians must learn to genuinely respect and honor all of the gifts that God has bestowed upon the church. All are different. All are necessary. All are unique in their required skill-set. All are honorable.