Don’t Take a Knee

Tim Tebow’s ‘Hate’ Pastor Responds to Quarterback’s Withdrawal

The outspoken Christian canceled plans to attend the opening of Robert Jeffress’s new megachurch. The controversial minister talks about the athlete’s quandary, his own gay friends, and who won’t go to hell.

02.22.13 9:45 AM ET

If Tim Tebow can’t cut it as a quarterback, perhaps he should try out for a role in Hamlet instead.

This undated photo provided by First Baptist Church shows The Rev. Robert Jeffress. The Baptist pastor of the 11,000-member Dallas church hasn't stopped preaching that homosexual sex is sinful, but he no longer singles it out for special condemnation. Now, Jeffress says, he usually talks about homosexuality within "a bigger context of God's plan for sex between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship called marriage."

Luke Edmonson/AP

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas hasn’t stopped preaching that homosexual sex is sinful, but he no longer singles it out for special condemnation. Now, Jeffress says, he usually talks about homosexuality within “a bigger context of God’s plan for sex between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship called marriage.”

The New York Jets quarterback called Pastor Robert Jeffress at home Wednesday night to tell him that despite promising to attend the opening of First Baptist Church’s new $115 million facility in downtown Dallas in April, the Heisman winner would, in fact, be staying on the sidelines.

“He said that because of professional and personal reasons he needed to stay away from controversy right now, so he would not be able to come,” Jeffress told The Daily Beast on Thursday afternoon. “But he also voiced that he would like to come at some future date in our church.”

Jeffress, whose congregation has been likened to the incendiary Westboro Baptist Church, has come under fire for making derogatory comments toward other religions, saying that Mormons, Hindus, and Muslims “worship a false God” and that gay people’s “filthy behavior ... explains why they are more prone to disease” in a sermon titled “Gay Is Not OK.” Tebow had come under a firestorm of criticism for his scheduled appearance at the 11,000-member megachurch, with the New York Daily News accusing the football player of having a “hate date” with the church, and The Huffington Post slamming him for appearing at a “virulently anti-gay, anti-Semitic church.”

But it seems as if Tebow had second thoughts about his second thoughts. 

According to Jeffress, after hanging up after their “very affable conversation,” Tebow texted the pastor to say that he was “going to reconsider his decision to cancel and would be in contact with me further today. He wanted to talk to me further about it, which I said, ‘Great.’”

However, Jeffress was being interviewed on the radio Thursday when Tebow started tweeting a series of statements that contradicted that: “due to new information that has been brought to my attention, I have decided to cancel my…” “upcoming appearance. I will continue to use the platform God has blessed me with to bring Faith, Hope and Love to all those needing a brighter day.”

Just as Twitter was lighting up with the word that Tebow was taking a knee, Jeffress said the quarterback sent him another text message, telling the pastor that “some advisers around him had counseled him that he needed to go ahead and not come and he was going to stick with that decision.”

Representatives for Tebow did not return multiple messages for comment.

Jeffress said that he thinks it was the controversy, and not the church’s teachings, that ended up pressuring Tebow.

“Tim is a member of a Southern Baptist Church, the First Baptist Church of Jacksonsville, Fla., that believes exactly what we believe about those issues, and Tim affirmed that that is what their church believes,” Jeffress said. “So I think Tim was probably speaking the truth when he said it wasn’t the belief of our church—it was the controversy surrounding his appearance.”

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This is not the first time Tebow has pulled this move. Last year, he abruptly canceled a scheduled appearance in Ohio with a similar controversial pastor, for what were believed to be similar reasons. The pattern has led some in the evangelical community to express frustration with the quarterback, that he perhaps cares more about his image than spreading the Gospel.

Tebow’s act seems to be wearing thin on the field, too. The former Denver Broncos phenom rarely saw the field for the Jets this year, and the team is reportedly looking to trade him.

At First Baptist Dallas Church, the mood was more forgiving.

“You always have to be careful with athletes and movie stars and politicians, for that matter—they always have a tendency to let you down,” said Tom Pulley, a deacon at the church. “But my family is supportive of Tebow in general terms. Obviously we are very disappointed he would make this move, but seeing where he is in his career, I can understand the pressure he is feeling. He is not sure where he is going to be working, so I think he wants to be seen in as positive a light as possible.”

Jeffress suggested Tebow’s place of business has something to do with the controversy of the Dallas appearance. New York, after all, has both a passionate LGBT community and a hungry press corps, and Jets partisans never much warmed up to their evangelizing quarterback.

Mostly though, Jeffress wanted to push back over the notion that had been propagated in the press that his church was somehow a “hate church.”

“What I do find interesting and amazing is that a church like ours—that teaches that salvation is through faith in Christ alone and that sex should be between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship—that somehow that is considered to be hate speech. The fact is that what we teach at our church is in keeping with the historic doctrine of Christianity over the last 2,000 years,” he said.

Although he did stand by comments that Mormonism was not a true sect of Christianity, he said he was not condemning adherents of other religions to hell.

“First of all, I have never pointed out groups of people going to hell, like some of the press have reported me to have said. People don’t go to heaven or hell in a group; we go one by one based on our personal relationship to Christ. My views about Catholicism, for example, have been misrepresented. I believe there are going to be millions of Catholics in heaven who have trusted in Christ as savior,” he said.

He added that, despite accounts that he is anti-gay, he said he does not “single out” gay men or women, but that he condemns extramarital sex that is not between a man and a woman.

“I have gay and lesbian friends. I have presided over the funerals of gay men who have died of AIDS. We do not hate homosexuals here at First Baptist Dallas.”

And don’t expect him to condemn Tim Tebow anytime soon.

“Oh, look, I would never say anything disparaging to Tim Tebow. He is a fine Christian who is trying to do what he thinks is right, and I do think Tim will learn in time that you can’t appease some of the severest critics of Christianity by compromising with them.

“But we salute this great man of God. We wish him the very best.”