Skye Jethani: Is Tim Tebow a Hypocrite? (Part 1)
Football, Jesus, and the question of public prayer.

Tim Tebow represents America's two great religions: Christianity and Football. But the way the young Denver Broncos' quarterback intertwines the two has made some followers of each faith uncomfortable. His post-game interviews always begin with "I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," and he frequently drops to one knee on the field and bows his head in prayer–a posture now called Tebowing. (Check out the website featuring photos of others Tebowing in public places.)

But Tim Tebow's behavior on the field does raise important questions about prayer and how Christians ought to practice it. Andrew Sullivan criticized Tim Tebow saying his public prayers violate Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where he taught his followers to pray in private:

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)

Referencing Tebow's habit of praying during NFL games before millions of spectators, Sullivan asks "Why does a Christian publicly repudiate the God he worships?" Is Sullivan right? Is Tim Tebow actually violating the teachings of Christ with his behavior on the field? The answer is more complicated than critics of publicly practiced religion may prefer.

Strictly speaking Jesus did not prohibit public prayer. In fact he prayed publicly on numerous occasions including before meals (Mark 6:41) and among a crowd prior to raising Lazarus from the grave (John 11:41-42). He also prayed where his followers could see and hear him. As a result they asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray," (Luke 11:1).

What Jesus does reject in his Sermon on the Mount is hypocritical prayer. The word hypocrite is derived from the Greek meaning actor. It is literally one who pretends; one who fakes it. This is what Jesus sees among many outwardly religious people. They are pretending to be devoted to God so that they may win the approval of people. Remember, ancient Judea was a culture that highly valued religiosity. Such communities, past and present, put great emphasis on external evidence of religious devotion, and this tends to fuel hypocrisy.

At the core of Jesus' teaching then is not the mechanics of prayer (how, when, where), but rather the motivation for prayer (why). Are we praying out of genuine devotion to God, or merely to win favor with people? I do not know what powers of perception Andrew Sullivan has, but I am incapable of peering into Tim Tebow's soul to determine his motivation for praying on the field. If he is praying to win the accolades of the spectators, then Jesus says he has his reward. Unlike Sullivan, I choose to give Tebow the benefit of the doubt and assume his motives are pure.

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments


January 15, 2012  3:42pm

I will believe our culture does not reward public religiosity when political candidates stop seeking the endorsement of religious (specifically Christian) leaders.

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George in AZ

January 12, 2012  5:22pm

I'm with Dan in GA – perhaps the hypocrites are the ones who say we honor God but decline to do so except where it's expected. Please recall that David embarrassed some by his enthusiastic worship: 2 Sam 6.14 ff

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S Park

January 12, 2012  1:11pm

I doubt that Tebow is a hypocrite; his concern for others off the field is testiment to that. The question is, is the manner in which he chooses to publicly pray the wise or discerning thing. To my mind it is not.

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S Park

January 12, 2012  1:00pm

What no one has mentioned is whether or not Tebow's praying before and during football games in a public manner is actually unsportsmanlike conduct. Team sports are about the team, the working together of individuals, and where their cooperation and the team's identity come first. Tebow's behavior instead draws attention to himself.

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Eric F

January 12, 2012  10:47am

Most Christians have prayed in pubilc. Have you ever prayed for a meal in public? I have seen several Christians even say somthing like, "We are Christians and we would like to include you in our prayer..." What about "See You At the Pole" and other events like it?

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Dan from Georgia

January 12, 2012  10:36am

Maybe we are the hypocrites looking for a chink in Tim Tebow's armor, all the while ignoring the glaring holes in our armor?

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Tina P

January 12, 2012  10:25am

The apostle Paul said that whether or not the gospel was being preached from pure motives or not, even so, the gospel was being preached...personally, I think we've seen enough to know that Tebow's faith is sincere. But that aside, I think the thing all Christians should be rejoicing about right now is the fact that because Tebow's actions are being talked about far and wide, by believers and non-believers alike, we have openings to share the gospel with those who are curious about the phenomenon that is Tim Tebow. How much easier can it get when every bar, water cooler or grocery line conversation can so easily turn to this topic? I just pray that we each have the courage to move forward in those conversations and participate in what God is doing through this remarkable season in His church.

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January 10, 2012  4:56pm

Mat 5:15-16 "Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." It is quite apparent to anyone who has knowledge of Tebow's past lifestyle and behavior that he actually 'walks the talk'. He embarasses those Christians who talk about their concern for the poor yet do little about it. As to praying in public; it seems to me that he is merely acknowledging his Lord and Savior with the microphone he has been given. Would we have the guts? Some once asked, "If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

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Deof Movestofca

January 10, 2012  4:10am

I wonder how many worship services Mr. Sullivan has attended that didn't include at least one prayer. Need I say more to demonstrate how untenable I believe his position is? However, I think there are a few dangers in picking anyone, especially a celebrity, as the standard-bearer for the Christian faith. First, too often they turn out to have feet of clay, which often leads to either rejecting Christianity when his or her trespasses become publicly known or excusing and/or defending his or her behavior. Second, some may engage in "vicarious Christianity"- a "the person I look up to is a Christian, so I must be a Christian too" mentality. Instead of questioning whether Tebow is sincere when he prays publicly, I think we would be better off asking whether we're sincere when we pray.

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January 09, 2012  7:36pm

I think an additional contextual issue here is the wired nature of our society. For the vast majority of us who have little or no social notoriety, it is far easier to pray 'in private' than for Tim Tebow. With the extent to which celebrities are filmed, we are essentially saying that the only appropriate venue for prayer would be locked in their bedroom closet. When Jesus uttered this statement, TMZ wasn't following people around. Clearly, Tebow hasn't been bashful about it, but he also faces pressures that most of us don't – I can bow my head and pray before a big meeting at work without being accused of hypocrisy in a way that he cannot.

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