Football and politics have something in common these days besides combat. Each wrestles with the role religion plays in its game.
Tim Tebow is a curious case on the gridiron. A passionate evangelical Christian and one of the most heralded college players of all time, Tebow is lauded by many and dismissed by some for his unapologetic faith. Yet, his faith itself is in a sense apologetic. Let me explain.
In the late 1970s I played quarterback at the University of Miami — before we got good, before we got “bad,” before we got the label “The U.” My career was hardly noteworthy, although it’s gotten better with age. (The quarterback who followed me was NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Success by association.)
I was like Tebow only in my faith perspective. Here’s the way I thought back then: Football is a stage. It gives me a platform to witness. God will honor my witness for Christ by giving me success on the field. People will watch what I do and listen to what I say. My success will lead to a wider audience for the gospel. The attention I receive for Christ will prove that God is real, and it will lead others to follow me in following Christ.
Of course that has worked out better for Tebow than for me. He has garnered loyal Christian fans who believe God has given him glory because he has given God glory. His trademark touchdown ritual of kneeling to pray (Tebowing!) demonstrates spiritual humility in the face of more common athletic hubris. Bible verse references painted on his eye black have inspired many to look up passages that might lead to their salvation. Young Christian boys have a role model to look up to in Tebow, which is unquestionably far better than some who play the game.
Tebow is struggling now at the pro level with the Denver Broncos, albeit winning more often than not. Some Christian loyalists blame anti-Christian sentiment for criticism of his performance. “Why would such a devout Christian be booed, except out of bias against his bold witness?” they ask.
The same thing is happening in politics. Some Christians would rather support an outspoken and unapologetic Christian over one who bears witness to his or her faith more modestly, even if another candidate may be more competent in public service. The point is always to put faith first, to declare Christ the point above all else. If such a candidate is elected, the stage grows and the Christian faith is proved real and powerful.
Christian apologetics is a discipline that attempts to prove the faith true by evidence outside the logic of the faith itself. Traditionally, apologetics has employed reason to make its claim. The “Tebow” approach employs worldly success to give evidence of faith’s power. It’s a non-monetary form of the prosperity gospel. And for whatever gains it makes in the short run, it fails to reach the goal line of the high calling of Christ Jesus on the very grounds of the gospel itself.
The prospect of football failure might be just the right opening to test Tim Tebow’s witness. He is young; let’s give him room to mature in his own understanding of the faith. I’m glad others didn’t write me off too soon.The Apostle Paul worked off a different apologetic logic. Defending himself against the supposed “super-apostles” in Corinth, he claimed that the legitimacy of his witness was found in God’s strength being made perfect in his weakness. “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell within me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).”
Politicians are old enough to know better. Five of the current candidates for president of the United States claim God told them to run. Guess God likes a good contest too. But here again, the gospel is not validated by whether one wins but by how one plays the game.
One reminder to Tebow and Tebow-like apologists: athletic and political criticism is not tantamount to Christian persecution. Faithfulness to the gospel may result in insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, as Paul put it, but preferring another quarterback or a different candidate hardly rises to that standard.