Pastor Robert Jeffress says he was surprised when New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow canceled an upcoming speaking engagement at his Dallas megachurch, and believes the media firestorm surrounding the event likely had more to do with the decision than did the church's much-scrutinized beliefs.
Jeffress, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, told The Christian Post that Tebow informed him in a telephone call Wednesday evening that he was backing out of speaking at the church in April. The NFL star told Jeffress he "needed to lay low and steer clear of controversy" because of both personal and professional issues.
Prior to the decision, critics of Jeffress' views on other religions and homosexuality argued that Tebow shouldn't make an appearance at the church, which some labeled as hateful. After their phone conversation, however, the evangelical quarterback sent Jeffress a text message saying that he was still prayerfully considering speaking to the 11,000-member church, though he later announced via his social media accounts that he had decided against it.
"While I was looking forward to sharing a message of hope and Christ's unconditional love with the faithful members of the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas in April, due to new information that has been brought to my attention, I have decided to cancel my upcoming appearance," Tebow said via Twitter and Facebook on Thursday.
Jeffress said he is not sure what Tebow meant by "new information." During their conversations the football star even told Jeffress he might consider speaking to the First Baptist congregation at a later date.
"I think the new information … is all the controversy in the media and criticizing of him for coming," said Jeffress.
The pastor says the media has made both he and his church out to be anti-Semitic, anti-gay and hate-filled. He calls such reports a "complete mischaracterization," and says his beliefs, specifically regarding the exclusivity of Christ as the way to salvation and marriage as being between one man and one woman, are not new.
"Those are hardly radical ideas," said Jeffress. "Those have been mainstream Christian teachings for 2,000 years, and I believe the reason these statements are so controversial is not because the Word of God has changed, but because culture has changed."
He also says Tebow never expressed any concerns about the church's doctrine during their extensive conversations with one another.
"He never mentioned anything he disagreed with about our message at all, but he talked about the controversy, and I think it was related to what was going on in his professional career, and continues to go on," said Jeffress.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, senior religion editor for The Huffington Post, agrees that First Baptist's doctrine isn't unusual.
"The theology and the constituency is squarely within the mainstream of contemporary right-wing Christian thought," wrote Raushenbush. "But what has changed is that the views of the right-wing Christians are now officially out of step with the growing majority of Americans – including, apparently, Tim Tebow."
Raushenbush also quoted Jeffress from a conversation he had with conservative radio host Janet Mefferd, however, in which the pastor said Tebow would likely "stand firm" if he listened to the Holy Spirit.
"But I believe that Tim Tebow was listening to the Holy Spirit when he made the decision to not associate himself with Jeffress and his worldview," wrote Raushenbush. "Tim Tebow has joined the ranks of many Christians who are refusing to be associated with a particular strain of religious faith that is publicly connected with an anti-gay stance and flagrantly hostile to other faith traditions."
Members of the Texas Pastor Council, a multi-denominational faith coalition, are standing by Jeffress, however, and say Tebow will likely regret his decision later on.
"We applaud Tim's strong courageous stand for Christ both on and off the field," said Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, in a TXPC statement. "We ask him to reconsider his decision in light of the clear agenda of those who want to use this to their advantage and to realize that he and Robert Jeffress are very much alike.
"Both have taken courageous Biblical stands they have been criticized for and their name and character besmirched because of those stands. In light of that, it would speak volumes for the two of them to stand side by side."
Jeffress says he cautioned Tebow against his decision by saying, "Tim, you are never going to appease the critics of Christianity by compromising on things like this." He also told Tebow, "All of us have to take a stand for truth at some point."
Tebow was supposed to be the last of four guest speakers at First Baptist during a month-long celebration over the church's new $130 million facility. The other three speakers are James Dobson, David Jeremiah and Jim Cymbala.
An email sent by The Christian Post seeking comment from Tebow received no reply before publication time.