Christians Playing Power Games (but Jesus doesn’t play by the rules)

At GospelFutures, Neil Williams has a very thoughtful piece on game theory and it’s relevance for Christian theology.

Game theory is the study of strategic decision making and shows the importance of trust, forgiveness, and even repentance in the development of cooperation between people and societies. Game theory originally started in mathematics, but expanded to other disciplines including psychology, economicspolitics, evolutionary biology, and warfare.

Williams looks at how a focus on “story” rather than “beliefs” helps move us away from zero-sum games (where there are clear winners and losers) toward an infinite game where the central themes of the gospel story are articulated in ways that place people and relationships above the system.

I think Williams has put his finger on the problem of Christian power plays, how to articulate it, and what to do about it.

Here are two exerpts:

Christianity formulated as a finite zero-sum game: we win; everyone else loses. We are master players, essential to this grand game, a game that has a definitive conclusion resulting in a win for us, and a loss for everyone else. The game is one of good versus evil, us versus them. Our particular beliefs and rules establish fixed boundaries of the game, and distinguish us from other Christians and their games. You may join our game and play, but only if you accept the rules that structure and direct our game. The benefits include power, titles, solid explanations, fixed boundaries, solidarity with us, and a winning hand.

As a finite game, Christianity has had little difficulty aligning itself with patriarchy, slavery, racism, hate crimes, torture and death of infidels, and colluding with empires—Roman, Spanish, English, American. In each case, there are clear winners and losers.


A vision of Christianity as infinite play: Jesus creates a new playground that plays fast and loose with the rules, dissolves boundaries and fixed beliefs, and opens new horizons of possibility. In an infinite game, the central themes of the gospel story—incarnation, life, death, resurrection—are articulated in ways that place people and relationships above the system. In Christ, there are no winners or losers—there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal 3:28). Jesus is not a master player but an infinite player who invites all to an infinite game by including the excluded and rebuking the excluders. Anyone can play, no titles are awarded, no winners are announced, and boundaries are replaced by a gospel horizon.

This infinite game is characterized by vision and openness, where beliefs and rules are continually rewritten in order to keep the game going. To put boundaries on an infinite game, destroys it and stops the game. There is no end of play, and if need be, infinite players will choose death over life in order for the game to continue.


Neil Williams (D.Th., University of South Africa) is a writer and speaker, and lives outside Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. He is particularly interested in inter-personal transformation and the dialogue between theology, the sciences, and music. His most recent work is The Maleness of Jesus: Is it Good News for Women?

"I think you're arguing with what I'm not saying. I'm not saying there are no ..."

the best defense of the Christian ..."
"Don't you have one? Or do you just want to read it twice?"

we have lift off…my new website ..."
"Ooh yes. Free copy of 'Inspiration and Incarnation'?"

we have lift off…my new website ..."
"My first comment. You should get a prize or something."

we have lift off…my new website ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Craig

    Help me out, Pete: How do “” “You may join our game and play, but only if you accept the rules that structure and direct our game.” and “Our particular beliefs and rules establish fixed boundaries of the game, and distinguish us from other Christians and their games.” differ from “Jesus is not a master player but an infinite player who invites all to an infinite game by including the excluded and rebuking the excluders.” Sounds to me like you’ve got Jesus saying everybody is welcome except those who do not accept this version of the rules (i.e. the excluders, who receive rebuke rather than welcome.) Isn’t that sort of like “we tolerate everybody except the intolerant, as we see intolerance, not as they see it.”
    Not getting this.

    • mhelbert

      I read it as the excluders may receive a rebuke, but they are still included. Albeit, their rules of exclusion simply don’t apply.

      • Neil Williams

        This is well stated. As an example, in the finite game of
        Apartheid, groups of whites in the early 90s could claim, “You are not including our exclusive claims” and they would be right. Their game resulted in a loss for most of the population of South Africa, and they were rebuked. They were, however, invited into a different game where their rules of exclusion are not part of the play.

  • rvs

    I am reminded of the second game behind the first game in the classic Legend of Zelda series. Sort of. This infinite play is bigger still. I take this argument to be a statement against all systematic theology that aims toward closure and completeness (all systematic theology, period?). W. Quine and the older Wittgenstein are in the background, watching, cheering. …A gospel horizon, interesting.

  • John W. Morehead

    Wow. Thanks for this. This idea has great application to interreligious engagement and religious diplomacy.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “rebuking the excluders” what an interesting idea. We love the word and concept ‘exclusive’. It’s used as a major selling point for all manner of things. And, when referring to human beings, it means just what it says – to keep someone out. Of course, the excluders are included in the exclusive milieu, so they get their warm fuzzies. You just have to convince yourself that inclusiveness has its limits and can be bad if practiced too avidly. Doesn’t sound very New Testament does it.

    • “rebuking the excluders” Do you mean like Pharisees? Both ancient and living ones?

  • Wow! That works out really well. How interesting!

  • James

    Robert Wright writes extensively (Non-zero: The Logic of Human Destiny; The Evolution of God; etc) about the hope of non-zero sum cooperation (even the development of virtue and sacrificial love) on a global human level, as I understand his thinking. The idea of an ‘infinite’ game brings game theory to a higher level. This makes sense if we believe in an infinite God who breaks into our finite lives.

  • C. Trace

    What is it that makes you all still call yourselves Christians? Think about that.

    • I think being a follower of Jesus makes me a Christian, and I don’t see how the ideas shared in this post violate that. In fact, the opposite would seem to be the case. Jesus is not interested in rules, nor is he interested in creating winners and losers. He is for every human there is, so how can he want losers?

      • rvs

        The doctrine of double predestination does not seem to function very well in game theory, or in Christianity, for that matter–haha.

    • The fact that I believe in Jesus and (try to) follow him is what makes me call myself a Christian. And, if Jesus is any authority on the subject, believing in and following Him isn’t about adherence to a doctrinal scheme. It is about

      1) believing in him, and

      2) following his example of living in accordance with the principle of unconditional love:

      “Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

      Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”” Matthew 22:34-40.

      You suggest that a de-emphasis on doctrinal exactitude brings the legitimacy of one’s Christianity into question. On the other hand, Jesus repeatedly warned that those who believe they can be “saved” by their “orthodoxy” are sorely mistaken. Perhaps you should think about that.

  • Ooo, very nice! My inner nerd thanks you for pointing the way to this compelling resource. As the Cone Heads say – I will enjoy it!

  • John W. Morehead

    offered some brief comments at the site of the original article as it
    relates to dialogue. On another note, I don’t know that “Jesus doesn’t
    play by the rules,” but the point is that he likely plays by ones that
    are different from those of Evangelicals, where our concerns for
    boundary maintenance, orthodoxy, closing the evangelistic deal, and fear
    of spiritual contamination by others may prevent us from playing the
    game in the way of Jesus.

  • freetospeak

    1 Timothy 6:3-5 (KJV)

    3. If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;

    4. He is proud, KNOWING NOTHING, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof comes envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings,

    5. PERVERSE DISPUTINGS OF MEN OF CORRUPT MINDS, AND DESTITUTE OF THE TRUTH, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.

  • freetospeak

    And GOD is still GOD when all your “vain imaginations” are spewed out.

    The Holy Trinity remains true forever.
    God The Father
    God The Son Jesus Christ
    God The Holy Spirit

    Three distinct persons. ALL ONE. ALL SHARING DIETY.
    A mystery that ONLY FAITH can shed light on. Albeit with Gods divine revelation and guidance alone.

  • freetospeak

    2 Corinthians 10:4-6 (KJV)

    4. (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)
    6. And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.