Despite a decidedly lackluster football season marked by limited playing time, Tim Tebow has the singular privilege of being one of the NFL's most popular players as well as one of America's most well-liked evangelical Christians. This notoriety comes with a personal cost: like it or not, Tebow is now thrust into the role of the millennial generation's most visible ambassador for Christianity, and for better or worse, his position demands that he be nothing less than a paragon of Christian living.
It should hardly be surprising then, that Tebow received criticism for his scheduled appearance at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, whose Pastor, the Reverend Robert Jeffress, has a history of inflammatory statements. He's attacked Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, and homosexuality using some of the harshest, most vitriolic, anti-Christian language available to him. If Tebow is serious about his Christian faith and his relationship with God, surely he can showcase his faith at a more Christian venue, right?
Apparently, Tebow noticed the firestorm of criticism. On Thursday morning, he tweeted that he is canceling his appearance at First Baptist Church due to “information that was brought to my attention.” I see no reason not to take him at his word here. There's not enough in this statement to conclude whether or not Tebow was motivated by professional considerations, personal disgust at Jeffress' comments, or a combination of both.
Yet as Tebow continues to traverse the “narrow path,” (Matthew 7:13-14), he would do well to avoid Jefress' approach to discipleship. Clanging gongs and clashing cymbals (1 Corinthians 13) are ineffective ways of preaching the Gospel. Instead, Tebow should adopt St. Francis' model: “Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.” If words do become necessary, he could use Mother Teresa's lexicon instead of Robert Jefress.' She preferred to call homosexuals “friends of Jesus” rather than “perverse”.
Tebow is probably right, as well, to use a measured, conciliatory tone in his decision to cancel his engagement at the First Baptist Church. After all, Jeffress has tried to mollify his positions in recent years. His openness to the possibility that homosexuals are “born that way” is a drastic departure from the pastoral approaches to homosexuality of many other high-profile evangelical Christian leaders. He also was willing to endorse Mitt Romney for president despite Romney's Mormonism. Most importantly, however, despite Jeffress' inexcusable comments, he deserves to know the friendship of Jesus, too — labeling Jeffress a “cretin” isn't Christian conduct anymore than Jeffress' comments are.
Yet even as Jeffress re-examines the merits of his pastoral responses to theological issues, Tebow is right to distance himself from Jeffress' particular brand of Christianity; regardless of the merits of his theology, Jeffress' pastoral approach to the Gospel simply isn't Christian. This doesn't mean that Tebow needs to embrace the blasé “spirituality” of moralistic therapeutic deism that now characterizes the Christian life of other millennials; he does, however, need to reject hatred of other people. He owes himself, his fans, other Christians, and God nothing less.