Is Tim Tebow Christianity's MVP?

Tim Tebow prays before every game, writes John 3:16 on his eye black, and manages to mention Jesus in every interview. Tim Tebow’s Christianity is on public display in greater detail than perhaps any other evangelical athlete. His rise to stardom at Denver has been the most talked about story in professional sports this year. And while Tebow has garnered a lot of support from Christians praising him for his faithfulness to Christ in the public square, I am not sure his outward piety teaches us much about what it means to be a Christian.

Tebow has been so firmly planted in the lime light that he has inspired a new trend: “Tebowing,” a practice similar to “planking” that pokes fun at Tebow’s iconic pregame prayers. Other Christian athletes have weighed in on Tebow’s public displays of faith as well. Former Super Bowl Champion Kurt Warner recently encouraged Tebow to tone down his religious rhetoric. While Tebow certainly carries himself with a wide-eyed sincerity and an infectious work ethic, Warner’s comments bring up important questions about Christian witness. I appreciate Tebow’s outward expressions of faith, but I think Warner may have a point. Public displays of religious acts don’t actually tell anyone anything about our faith. Is it possible that many Christians are admiring Tebow for the wrong reasons?

The prophet Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Israel for public displays of religion devoid of spiritual substance: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isa. 29:13). Jesus further warned us of the dangers of public acts of supplication, “beware of practicing your righteousness before men in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1).

These passages do not illuminate the motives of Tim Tebow. We cannot possibly know his heart. It could be that Tebow selfishly prays each week for God to smite his evil opponents. It is far more likely, however, that he asks God to help him play honorably and thanks Him for the opportunity to play the game he loves. Christian charity requires that we assume the latter.

I once heard Tebow give his testimony at a pastor’s conference in Jacksonville, Florida. Tebow had just won a national championship and finished his freshman year at the University of Florida. He wasn’t the best public speaker but his testimony came across as sincere and he clearly relished the opportunity to praise God for all of his success. I am not a Gator fan, nor do I follow the NFL, but I walked away from that experience interested in how his career would unfold. I prayed that he would be faithful to Christ with the platform God had given him. Some five years have passed since I prayed that prayer and I am happy to say that I think Tebow has carried himself admirably.

Tebow refused to attend the yearly Heisman party at the Playboy mansion both times he was nominated for the award, his teammates consistently praise his work ethic, and when he is criticized, Tebow never retaliates. In response to criticism from Jake Plummer (former Broncos Quarterback) about his constant references to Jesus, Tebow said:

“If you’re married and you have a wife and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife ‘I love her’ the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and every opportunity? That’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ.”

While I think Warner may have a point about the dangers of public piety, Tebow’s response to criticism has a way of dismantling such arguments. We should all pray for the kind of affection for Christ that Tebow purports to have. These things are worthy of our admiration.

The Bible never condemns public prayer but it often warns us of its inherent dangers—-namely a religion motivated by the praise of men. This has me wondering what Tebow’s bold religious gestures are actually accomplishing. Certainly he has won the praise of many church going football fans but what about the unbeliever watching at home? What about Tebow’s teammates?

While I cannot possibly know the answers to those questions, I appreciate Warner’s challenge to Tebow: “The greatest impact you can have on people is never what you say, but how you live…. You set the standard with your actions. The words can come later.” From what I can see of Tebow, I would like to say he is living a life fitting of his many shout-outs to Jesus. The real truth, however, is that I don’t know Tim Tebow.

Biblically speaking, public piety tells us very little about someone’s faith. Prayer is a religious act and John 3:16 is a verse—neither actually tells us all that much about Tebow’s character and whether it’s worthy of applause. While I appreciate Tebow’s public piety, I find myself wanting to gently warn the millions of Christians following his story that his public displays of faith are not necessarily indicative of what it means to follow Jesus.

We are commanded to be Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8) and to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17)–but the particulars of living out those commands must be worked out in context of our daily lives. Assuming that public expressions of faith–in Tebow’s case, pre-game prayers and writing Bible verses on one’s eye black–serve as an essential part of our witness is naive and potentially misleading. It’s highly unlikely that any of us will gain the kind of platform Tebow has, but our witness is equally valuable.  Tim Tebow is worthy of my admiration, but not because of his public piety.

I am impressed with Tebow, not because he prays before football games and thanks Jesus in every interview, but because he plays hard and has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches (1 Tim. 3:7). It’s strange to me that Christians so often neglect to applaud these types of achievements and instead gravitate to patting people on the back for “bolder” acts like praying in public and thanking God in interviews.  The praise Tebow receives for being a hard worker, a dedicated player, and a team leader says more about his faith than his pregame prayers. If we fail to recognize that, we undervalue our own witness and the importance of our individual lives as platforms from which to preach the gospel.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • Ken

    Thanks for highlighting what I respect about Tebow.

    That he works hard and doesn’t rely on his public piety to show his faith.

    He goes out there and clearly plays his heart out. Sportscasters constantly talk about if the game is close, Tebow will win because he has the will to win.

    His teammates are quoting the biblical stories that Tebow uses in pep talks to his teammates.

    And all of this is happening in the bad boy league known as the NFL.

    God truly reigns…

  • Daryl Messina

    The simple truth is that we won’t know how to judge Tebow until he finishes, either proving his words by finishing strong or by faltering and bringing shame.

    If Tebow makes it through to the end with his integrity intact then he will have proven that the prayers, the conversation of his faith, and the John 3:16′s were in fact an outward showing of an inward belief. Christ will be greatly glorified.

    If he fails (steroids, infidelity, etc.) it will be very public, and the naysayers will have a field day, talking about what a hypocrite Tebow was etc. The enemy would have great opportunity to mock Jesus.

    What I admire about Tebow is that he isn’t afraid. He is willing to put himself out there to the fullest, trusting God to get him through as he puts his faith in God.

    It is too easy to criticize what may be the outcome of Tebow’s outspokeness, but the man is doing what he is called by God to do. That is more than many Christians who try to judge Tebow’s actions can say of themselves.

    What are the all of Tebow’s spectators doing for the gospel today?

    If nothing else, he should be commended for his courage. And I would dare to guess that the extreme opposition, persecution, and mockery that he is enduring as both an athlete and a Christian is a good sign that he is on the right track.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Ken you are welcome!

    @Daryl I think I agree with you. I just wanted to point out how I find it odd that the first thing Christians get excited about with Tebow is how public he is about praying and such but those things don’t actually say much about him.

    In so doing, I wonder if we are missing what is truly admirable about the man, namely the testimony he is leaving with his coaches and teammates through his work ethic which seems to live up to his public profession.

  • http://www.christiansagainstnike.com Charles Hubbard

    God is looking for some Christian athletes to step up and HONOR HIM! HONOR GOD by refusing to wear products named after the pagan goddess Nike. That is right… NIKE is named after a pagan goddess and Christian athletes are even promoting it! We will be blessed when we refuse to wear NIKE products… according to the Bible, other gods are demons. HONOR GOD! see christians against nike . com !

  • Alan Noble

    Charles,

    Wearing Nike brand clothes honors a pagan god (which does not exist) about as much as saying “yesterday was Wednesday” honors Oden or Thursday honors Thor. You cannot unintentionally honor a thing that does not exist.

  • Carol

    Thank you Drew, for writing this and especially for pointing out that just because someone does godly looking things, it say not much at all about their relationship with God. I know many Christians are encouraged by Tebow, which is great. But the fact is that Tebow is not the first to show his faith in the public square. There has been acknowledgments of God, prayer and faith within the NFL and within college football prior to Tebow. Where it falls down is when the same players & coaches that voice their faith are then caught up in drugs or sex scandals. This goes for most professional sports in America. In fact – as an Aussie living here, I can say that it’s really more of an “American thing” to see athlete show public piety during major sporting events. I don’t find anything wrong or inappropriate about it except when that same person is shown as a hypocrite. So I join with you, Drew, in the same prayer that Tebow will continue to honour God with his words AND actions.

  • Ken

    Granted Tebow is not the first Christian to exhibit excellence in football. Just look at the 2008 Superbowl with Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, both very Godly men given one of the biggest platforms in sports to proclaim their faith.

    As Drew rightly pointed out, what Tebow is doing well is walking the talk. His excellence on the field through winning games, inspiring his teammates and bearing the brunt of the criticisms is what makes him an admirable role model.

    Yes, he isn’t the first or last but for now, MANY eyes are on Tebow and we should be thankful and lifting him up in prayer that more people might be inspired by his faith.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Carol and Ken. Thanks for the feedback. Glad you benefitted from the article.

  • David

    Enjoyed these thoughts. Well written.
    Actions always speak louder.

  • Gary Kurtz (@cloisterman)

    Being impressed because someone plays hard and impresses his teammates and coaches is not intrinsically Christian. A Mormon, Jew or Muslim can (and do) the same. How do we know what is one’s faith unless we are told? “I never told you because you didn’t ask doesn’t cut it”. A Christian is both walk and talk. That is why I am impressed when I learn of Tebow’s actions both on and off the field, vocal or not. I am not impressed with one more than the other–they go hand in hand.


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