Given all that, it would seem that New York Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow's announcement Thursday that he will not speak as scheduled at First Baptist Church of Dallas in April is irrelevant to our cause. But on reflection, I do think the episode is indicative of something we talk about here all the time: SBC elites' ever-increasing fundamentalism and extremism.
As the story unfolded Thursday, three things struck me. First, FBC's response to Tebow's cancellation was tacky, passive-aggressive, and reflected poorly on the church. Second, the whole affair says a lot more about FBC's pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress, than it does about Tim Tebow. Jeffress has a long history of controversial statements. Tebow, on the other hand, has a long history of living his faith joyfully and publicly under intense scrutiny. But what struck me most was seeing not one but several news headlines proclaiming that Tebow had cancelled an appearance at the "controversial First Baptist Church of Dallas."
For those who missed the story, you can find Tebow's announcement here, the church's press release here, and a partial compendium of Dr. Jeffress's statements here.
Given his record of provocative public statements, most notably about both major party presidential candidates in 2012 but apparently also about Catholicism, it's unsurprising and unremarkable that Dr. Jeffress would be labeled controversial. But FBC Dallas itself? Isn't that a little unfair? It got me thinking.
First of all, I thought Tebow was very classy to phone Dr. Jeffress in advance of announcing his decision publicly and to acknowledge "the faithful members of the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas." Culturally, institutionally, and politically, it's undeniable that the congregation has moved somewhat to the right along with its pastors, the alternative Baptist state convention in Texas, and the entire Southern Baptist Convention's leadership. Of course, the disappearance of moderates and others who rejected having their religion conflated with a political party has also pushed the median member further to the right.
But let's face the facts. The people of FBC have always been conservative. Before and after the Takeover, FBC Dallas was a (if not the) flagship church of the SBC. Its longtime pastor, the Rev. Dr. W. A. Criswell, was a typical fundamentalist who preached inerrancy and premillennial dispensationalism. (He was also lukewarm at best toward racial integration until it was no longer socially palatable to be racist.) But just as no one could have called FBC controversial, few would have considered Dr. Criswell to be a controversial preacher.
So what has changed?
The legion of SBC elites who unleashed a storm of criticism on Tebow would have you believe that the media are at fault --- that they have forced Christians out of the public square, intimidated Tebow into bowing out, and labeled every conservative "controversial" or worse. Even the Rev. Rick Warren, who should know better, joined the whine-fest. But this is total and complete nonsense. I remain utterly baffled that the majority religion in the freest nation on earth can sustain an imaginary persecution complex.
The First Baptist Church of Dallas wasn't controversial 50 years ago because its pastor wasn't controversial. Southern Baptists weren't controversial because their seminary presidents and agency heads didn't double as political party operatives. Baptists pretty much abided by the centuries-old consensus on what it meant to be Baptist. And the evangelical impulse to engage the culture (contrasted with fundamentalists' separatism and obnoxiousness) was generally in line with that historic consensus.
If FBC Dallas is controversial today, it's because Dr. Jeffress is controversial -- not because the congregation or the media or anything else has changed.
You see, Dr. Criswell may not have supported George Romney for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, but he didn't publicly call him an unchristian, Hell-bound cult member, as Jeffress did when speaking about Mitt Romney. And Criswell certainly didn't suggest that George Romney's religion disqualified him from public office. Criswell did not like LBJ or Jimmy Carter, but he didn't say that they were paving the way for the antichrist, as Jeffress said about President Obama. Like so many of today's SBC leaders, Dr. Jeffress wants to retain evangelicals' cultural engagement but has embraced the worst aspects of fundamentalism: anti-intellectualism, a completely delusional persecution complex, and a tone that seems to be deliberately as offensive and obnoxious as possible.
Even more obnoxious than FBC's angry and rude press release was Jeffress's pathetic attempt to force Tebow into his crazy camp:
"There doesn't seem to be any daylight between what we believe," Jeffress said, noting that Tebow is a member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. "He simply attributed it to needing to stay away from controversy."Tell you what, Dr. Jeffress. Let's let Tebow speak for himself regarding whether he believes, like you, that homosexuality leads to pedophilia or that the president is paving the way for the reign of the antichrist.
Personally, I'm ambivalent about Tim Tebow. It occurs to me that people who flaunt their religiosity "have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6). But I can't possibly know Tebow's heart and whether or not his motivation is "to be seen of men." Either way, I admire his faithfulness, work ethic, and apparent humility of spirit. One of my first dates with my bride, Cara, was a Florida Gators game in 2008, Tebow's junior season. My brother and sister-in-law saw some of Tebow's (or God's, depending on how you look at it) spectacular performances in Denver late in the 2011 season.
After being hastily and harshly criticized by evangelicals who had for years been his strongest supporters, Tebow now knows how today's evangelical extremists operate. When you're useful to them, they praise and respect you. But when you exercise some independent thought that does not follow their theology or politics to the letter, they throw you out like yesterday's trash.
These are not the people we need running our conventions, our churches, or our universities. For now, we're stuck with too many of them. But in the truest Baptist spirit, let's remind the world that they do not speak for us as they wreck the reputations of our once-proud institutions.