On the surface, the narrative seems simple and clear. A church that has faithfully proclaimed the Gospel for many decades is taken to task by a hostile media and political correctness. A star professional athlete who makes no secret about his love for Jesus is invited to the grand opening of a new facility to house this church, subsequently pressured by the public to renounce an association with them due to their "message of hatred," and quickly decides to back away from his initial commitment. Another example of the growing "persecution" of Christians in North America who dare to believe and preach—among other things--that salvation comes only through Jesus, and marriage is only between a man and a woman.
First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas and her Senior Pastor, Dr. Robert Jeffress, have "taken one for the team," and done so "for the sake of the Gospel." Tim Tebow, the New York Jets Quarterback who backed away from his earlier commitment to speak at FBC's grand opening of its new $130 million facility, has "wimped out," and left his fellow Christians wounded on the battlefield of the current culture war. Its a moving story, and readily accepted by most evangelicals.
Unfortunately, its just not that simple.
At the outset of this post, I should clarify my overall opinion of Dr. Jeffress. I believe he is a brother in Christ, and a genuine preacher of God's Word. During the last Presidential campaign, I was particularly grateful for Dr. Jeffress' voice of Gospel clarity in the midst of so many others (including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) who seemed willing to slay the Gospel on the altar of Republicanism just so the Mormon candidate could beat the so-called "socialist." Additionally, I remain eternally grateful for the legacy of FBC Dallas. It was the influence of churches like this one that paved the way for me to be able to study at a world-class seminary under professors who actually believe the Bible to be the Word of God. When it comes to what we believe, I am "one of them," and proud to say so.
At the same time, I'm as disturbed by the way followers of Jesus are framing this issue as I am by those in the secular world who would presume to attack a church simply because they hold to 2000-year old convictions. In particular:
1. I'm disturbed by our current "culture-war" posture. The huge assumption behind all the other assumptions regarding the Tebow debacle is that the way to "defend the Gospel" is to always--ALWAYS engage the fight publicly, and in a way that portrays culture as the adversary. Problem is, following through with this assumption means that we actually capitulate to secular culture by, in every instance, fighting on a battleground of THEIR choosing. I simply don't accept the silent premise that public culture-warring is tantamount to preaching the Gospel. Certainly there are times when the church must speak publicly. But in most cases where public heat is turned up on a particular issue, the clarity of those issues is lost in the screaming, and people Jesus died to save are turned off to the banter. Ever roll your eyes while watching Chris Matthews on a political rant? Too many times, I fear that people don’t hear what we are saying because we assume a similar posture.
For example, why exactly did Tim Tebow back out of this opportunity? Unfortunately, too many of his brothers and sisters in Christ are willing to fill his public silence with their own assumptions. And they feel justified in doing so because, in their minds, he has obviously "compromised." He refused to engage in a public battle on an issue that has recently seen way too much heat, and way too little light on BOTH sides. I understand, and share, many of Dr. Jeffress’ concerns about where our culture is headed. But in the end, the call of the Great Commission is not about “saving America.” (another post for another day, perhaps)
Evangelicals, and Southern Baptists in particular, have been abundantly clear regarding our views of sexual ethics. I really don’t think the public is unaware of where we stand, and continuing to “mix it up” using the same methods as the secular media just hasn’t worked out so well. In some cases, its just made us look like jerks, and my guess is this was Tebow’s concern.
Even Dr. Jeffress himself took an insinuative stab at Tebow while praising James Dobson, David Jeremiah and others who are keeping their speaking commitments to FBC. They are, in Jeffress' words, "willing to stand up and act like men rather than wimping out when it gets a little controversial." Bottom line: Do it my way, or be labeled an agent of compromise!
But the word "compromise" has an actual definition. If Tim Tebow has changed his mind about the clear teaching of Scripture, then certainly the label applies to him. Yet there is absolutely no indication that this is the case, and too few Christ-followers are unwilling to "assume the best" as commanded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. And they seem unwilling to do so, not because Tebow has clearly denied Scripture, but because he chose a different approach that didn't involve engaging in a public fight that has proven to be the wrong venue for Christians seeking to have this conversation.
2. I'm disturbed by our caricature of others. I've never been to a "save traditional marriage" rally, but ask my gay friends what I think about the issue, and you will get a clear answer. Similarly, my Muslim friends know what I believe. When we have hosted them in our churches, we have done so with Q & A guides for our own people that my Muslim friends have read, and those guides say clearly "we believe Christianity and Islam hold to beliefs that are mutually exclusive and irreconcilable, and that Islam's views of God and salvation are not sufficient to save." But I've never tried to caricature my Muslim friends as "the enemy." Our differences are over the person and work of Jesus. I don't have to make up differences.
Robert Jeffress is certainly not the only evangelical leader who has caricatured these two groups, but since the recent issues do surround his ministry I will simply say this. Its one thing to call homosexual behavior a sin (and I do!). But Robert Jeffress has used questionable research to suggest a correlation between homosexuality and all other sorts of sexual perversion. Its one thing to claim that Muslims need to put their trust in Jesus as Lord and God (I do that too!). Robert Jeffress has stated that Islam commends incest and pedophilia. In his own words, “Muslim men all over the world are having sex with 4-year old girls!”
These statements hit close to where I walk every day. I have many Muslim friends in this area with whom I would trust my wife and children. I want to see them come to know Jesus, and I know more than most that making inaccurate, stereotypical statements about their faith simply isn't the way to do it. There is a marked difference between calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus, and merely insulting those Jesus died to save.
Its one thing to preach the Christian Gospel with clarity; quite another to break the ninth commandment about precious people created in God's own image and likeness in order to show yourself superior. Could it be that, after having his attention called to the controversial methods of Robert Jeffress, Tim Tebow decided he didn't want to be associated with said methods?
Even Al Mohler has admitted that Jeffress' approach often reflects that of a lightning rod. Writing for Christianity Today, Mohler states that "Robert Jeffress is no stranger to public controversy. His sound bites are often incendiary....." Mohler goes on to rightly state that Jeffress' beliefs--in particular about the exclusivity of Jesus and the sinfulness of homosexual behavior "are clearly within the mainstream of American Evangelicalism." (I would also add that they are even more in the mainstream of the wider, global body of Christ), and warns believers that a day is soon coming (and may already be here) when "those celebrating the moral normalization of homosexuality will demand an answer from us all." In short, it isn't just how we say something. It's that we say it at all that will eventually become the point of contention.
I believe he is right. (In fact, I've said so here) But I also believe that how we say something is every bit as important as what we say. Followers of Jesus should never retreat from telling the truth,. But if that "truth" isn't accompanied by the "gentleness and respect” that 1 Peter 3:15 demands, we are just as derelict in our duty to Jesus. In this case, “we know some of what he says is incendiary, but……” simply misses the mark. Some of what Jeffress has said about Muslims and the gay community isn't merely controversial. Some of his statements are simply not true.
Admittedly, my observations here are influenced heavily by my own experiences and training. My field is missiology, and in this field we speak often of "receptor-oriented communication." In a cross-cultural environment, using language or concepts that are foreign to the "receptor" with whom you hope to communicate can result in sending a message you don't intend to send! Similarly, if we want to be clear about what we believe, we can't only be concerned about accuracy. We must also concern ourselves with clarity. I have no doubt that the Christian Gospel is often rejected on its face. Jesus told us it would be, and I have experienced such rejection. But let's make sure that what people are rejecting is actually the Gospel, and not our own personalities and prejudices.
So why does it seem that everyone is criticizing a Quarterback for simply bowing out of a speaking engagement, but saying nothing about a pastor whose choice of words at times clouds the very truth that I'm convinced he wants to share? One is just as important as the other.
3. I’m disturbed by the opulence. It deserves mention I think, that this entire episode erupted over an invitation to speak at the grand opening of a $130 million church facility.
$130 million. Let that figure sink in, because its enough to put more than 500 missionaries on foreign fields for the rest of their careers. Its enough to fully fund the launch of more than 1000 new churches in North America. Its more than enough to fund the adoption of more than 3000 orphans.
Now, that comparative argument by itself doesn't prove bad stewardship. Perhaps the expenditure was necessary. I've never been to the campus of FBC Dallas, so I don’t know, and that isn't even my point. My point is this: we become what we celebrate. And for a good portion of our recent history, Southern Baptists have made great fanfare of opulent buildings. FBC Dallas has made no secret of the cost of this project. “Look what we've done” is a statement that accurately describes their disposition toward this, and they plan to spend an entire month celebrating it. Why do we hear so few question why there is such celebration over that which, at least on the surface, seems to excessive.
Perhaps we should instead focus on the Dallas-Fort Worth area; an area that Christianity Today just a few years ago called “the center of the Evangelical world,” where the population of those indicating no religious preference or affiliation has more than doubled. Perhaps if we celebrated churching an area as opposed to merely having the biggest church in the area, we could make a more effective difference. I’m deeply troubled at the fact that we seem to be celebrating the wrong things.
3. I'm disturbed by our hero-worship. Evangelicals have long had our own "celebrity culture," and for the most part, its never had long-term success. A NASCAR driver who gives his testimony at a Billy Graham Crusade is discovered to be cheating on his wife less than 6 months after the fact. An Oscar-winning actor who makes a riveting film about the death of Jesus is soon pulled over by police in a drunken, anti-Semitic rant. And in all-such instances, we act deeply disappointed because we've been disappointed!
I'm thankful for what God has done in Tim Tebow's life, and I'm grateful that he wants to use his fame and talent to point people to Jesus. But at the end of the day, Tim Tebow is human, and will thus inevitably do something or say something (or in this case, refrain from saying something) that will disappoint someone. It is unfortunate that so many Christ-followers depend on the same "celebrity culture" as Hollywood to see our message promoted.
We don't need yet another human hero, because our ultimate Hero has already come, died, and risen from the dead.
Jesus put it this way to the Pharisees. "You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." (Matthew 23:24) Cultural Christians who condemn someone for simply not wanting to be a jerk while simultaneously ignoring their own wrong-headed assumptions may be guilty of precisely what Jesus was describing.
At the end of the day, all who follow Jesus are after the same goal; the spread of the Gospel as described by Robert Jeffress himself:
"The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done. It doesn't matter whether you are a Jew, a Baptist, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Hindu, a homosexual, an adulterer, a thief or a cheat. It doesn't matter what you've done. You can be forgiven of your sins if you trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior. That's not a message of hate. Its a message of hope."
Indeed it is a message of hope! Maybe we should do more to ensure that if its rejected, its because those who turned away found the cross offensive, and not us.