Pastors, Elders and… Tim Tebow?

Celebrities are an odd phenomenon. There is little that these people do to earn the love of the masses—usually some demonstration of physical prowess to entertain an audience. Oddly, these people are expected to be role models for our children, to rise above what is expected of an average citizen and to espouse the ideals that are trendy in popular culture. This is the expectation in spite of the fact that their only proven virtue is their ability to physically compete, act well, or simply look beautiful. Humanity expects those who are externally “perfect” to also be a model for internal “perfection.”

When a celebrity is then outed as a Christian, suddenly the world compares that person to a different set of standards (usually moral) than what usually would apply to a celebrity. They are expected to conform to outmoded or poorly-understood notions of Christian morality. Accordingly, the Christian community gathers around the person and holds them up (provided they withstand the pressures of culture sufficiently well) as the standard-bearer of Christian culture.

A prime example of this is the ever divisive Tim Tebow. While Tim Tebow might not be a media darling, I think it is safe to say that Tebow has achieved celebrity status in both the secular and Christian worlds. At least he did have that status. After last week, there are a lot of people on both sides of the religious fence who either dislike, or are disappointed in, Tebow. What possible sin could Tebow commit to alienate both sides of his fan base? He committed to speak at a mainline, outspoken Evangelical church and then cancelled. The sides boiled down to this: Secular proponents of Tebow were enraged that he could even consider speaking at a church that espouses hate propaganda; and Christian supporters of Tebow were saddened that their idol crumbled under the pressure of culture, and then skewered him publicly for it.

Personally, I think there is a lot for a Christian to like about Tebow. In a world of “Christian” celebrities who live mostly like the rest of the world, but periodically toss up a verse or a public prayer, Tebow is like a breath of fresh air with his genuine, unabashed stances on morality and Christian principles. What is there to make of Tebow’s recant on teaching at a church? Doesn’t that make him a cultural pushover? Maybe, but I think we should hold off on crucifying him.

First, despite having a solid Christian upbringing and his apparent aspirations to one day be in ministry, he has had little formal theological training. Tebow was scheduled to share his testimony at First Baptist Church of Dallas, nothing more. In fact, the majority of what Tebow talks about when he shares publicly is his testimony. Why is this significant? It demonstrates that his strength is in his own story, not in exegesis and preaching. In other words, I don’t think that Tebow is prepared to handle the tough questions that would be lobbed at him were he to align himself with First Baptist. Despite the fact that they are well within the mainlines of Protestant Evangelicalism, Pastor Jeffress has lacked tact in the past, and as a result, his words have been misconstrued to make the church tantamount to Westboro Baptist. Tebow may have had a hard time fielding the questions that would have been asked were he to follow through with the engagement. While his parents are wonderful missionaries who are doing marvelous things for the cause of Christ around the world, it seems unlikely that they trained their children to cogently and effectively defend beliefs such as the sinfulness of homosexuality and the exclusivity of Christ for salvation in the modern American public square. I think that I would have had a hard time fielding such questions, and I’ve had four years of training at a theological institution.

Second, Tebow is under a colossal amount of pressure. The performance expectations on him as a football player would stifle most. The fact that he has managed a genial, upright, and consistent moral character demonstrates that this is not a guy who wavers easily. It seems plausible that he had good reasons for cancelling the appointment, especially given the fact that there are other men who have to undergo sensitivity training for their anti-homosexuality statements. It’s easy to criticize someone for appearing to waffle under cultural pressure, but when faced with the kind of scrutiny Tebow does daily, I doubt that any of us would hold up half as well. While I think Tebow is committed to shining the light of Christ in a dark world, I don’t think he signed up as the poster boy of good, moral evangelicalism in America. Christians put him on that pedestal and then cried foul when he didn’t live up to their expectations.

It’s moments like these that ought to cause Christians to take a step back and examine who we idolize. Perhaps we ought to even realize that we are making idols of celebrities. We need to remember that our best role models of Christianity are our local church pastors, elders, and mentors, not our athletes, actors, and models. At the end of the day, Christian role models are those who have committed their lives to the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word, regardless of their fame. Yes, both are merely men and women who will stumble and fall, but at the end of the day, celebrities are committed to entertaining in a public forum, while pastors and elders are committed to the discipleship of people. Instead of turning to celebrities and expecting their interior to match their exterior, I think it’s time that the church turn within itself to find those who have committed to living a life of discipleship, regardless of how their exterior looks.

The Last Evangelical in America

“That’s a cop-out,” I said mockingly, when a friend told me that he prefers to call himself “just a Christian” rather than an evangelical. My rude comment was out-of-place in our amiable discussion and I regret not apologizing at the time (in case he reads this: dude, sorry, really). The vehemence of my remark surprised me and caused me to wonder why I reacted as I did.
I realize now why I acted so irrationally: I’m afraid I’ll be the last person in America to embrace the term “evangelical.”
Naturally, I understand why some of my fellow evangelicals prefer not to be saddled with the label. The negative connotations imbued by both our friends and our enemies have weighted it down with unnecessary baggage. But I don’t think we should drop it altogether, especially for higher-level terms like “Christian.”
Of course to be an evangelical is to be Christian. Yet identifying oneself as a Christian is akin to saying you’re a North American. Globally speaking, North American can be a useful label for identifying the broad community in which you belong. But it is far too imprecise to be of much value if you’re talking to other norteamericanos. The term doesn’t specify whether you’re an American, a Canadian, or a Mexican. It doesn’t clarify if you live on the East Cost or in the Rocky Mountains or in big city or in a small village. It doesn’t give any clues to whether you might be offended by jokes about Newfies or snicker at quips about Aggies.
The reason we have labels like New Yorker or Alaskan or Puerto Rican is because geography often–though not always–says something about us, about our heritage, and about how we view the world. “Labels are useful only if they make legitimate distinctions,” says theologian Richard Mouw. “They serve us well when they are informative, when they tell us something important about the person who chooses a specific label.”
I agree, which is why I self-label with care. For instance, over the past four years I’ve lived in Illinois and Virginia, yet if you ask me where I’m from I’ll say I’m from Texas. Similarly, I go to a non-denominational Bible church and yet, while I haven’t stepped foot into a Baptist church in half a decade, I still consider myself a Southern Baptist (and, in typical SBC fashion, at least a dozen churches still count me on their roles as an “active member”).
Perhaps I cling to my geographic and denominational heritage out of a sense of rootlessness, a condition all-too-common among American evangelicals. I suspect what keeps me near is also what causes so many to leave evangelicalism altogether.
Related: Glenn Lucke has some insightful comments on grad students who reject the evangelical label

I am often baffled by the willingness of some of grad student believers to bend and blur their beliefs and practices in order to fit in. In countless scenarios, I’ve listened while formerly evangelical grad students engaged mightily in what sociologist Erving Goffman termed “impression management.” (See his Presentation of Self In Everyday Life.)
A part, but just a small part, of this pertains to the evangelical label. However, few of the specific ‘post-evangelical’ sophisticates that I’ve personally met call themselves “post-evangelical” because of the difficulties in determining the concept of evangelical. Probing conversation usually reveals that it’s a nervousness about being excluded in the academic environment in which the enculturated dispositions are fairly hostile to evangelicals.
More important than the label is the desire to adjust, bend, distort, and blur beliefs and practices in substantive ways, i.e. about matters of historic orthodoxy. Again, these friends and acquaintances seek to signal to the Powers that, “I’m in the club. I’m not radioactive. I’m not like those freaks.” Never mind that sometimes ‘those freaks’ are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, pastors and college buddies. More bizarrely, those freaks are sometimes people in the sophisticate’s current church, even small group.

Read the rest.

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