Is This Evangelical Coach Out of Bounds?
There's a saying in Nebraska: "If you don't like the weather then wait a minute." It is not surprising to run your heater and air conditioner in the same day. But such variable weather tends to coincide with stable public relations. This is why it is so interesting to consider the stormy story of University of Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown.
You may recall Brown as the eye of the hurricane in the aftermath of the horrific Penn State sex scandal last fall. Nebraska played Penn State the weekend after the story broke. Surrounded by clouds of despair, Brown, an outspoken evangelical, led a prayer meeting of players, coaches, and officials at midfield. He also provided clarity and biblical perspective during the week. Brown's Christian worldview and witness were, as many said, the highlight of the day.
Six months later Brown finds himself in the headlines again. Only this time he is not being applauded but assailed for these same evangelical convictions.
In late March the Omaha City Council held a public hearing concerning an amendment to their anti-discrimination ordinance to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. The law already provides protection from discrimination based on race, gender, age, religion, and disability. Brown attended the hearing and voiced his opposition to the amendment.
A host of national outlets have picked up the AP story about backlash against Brown. I recently visited with Brown to get his thoughts on what happened and why he spoke up.
Ron Brown is fearless. At least he seems so. He lives his Christian life like he played as a college and NFL defensive back. Like a roving safety, Brown defends his ground, looks for breakdowns, and tackles the opposition. His love of Christ trumps all. It is amazing to read stories in an Omaha newspaper about how he has won over a Muslim running back by his daily faithfulness. I also hear many more stories through friends close to him of steady, intentional Christian living. Therefore, before we observe or say anything else we can be challenged and encouraged. This guy is a rare jewel in contemporary evangelicalism. And he is living it out in a media fishbowl.
I asked Brown why he is so bold, so outspoken. He responded,
Jesus said, "Whoever desires to save his life shall lose it. If you deny me before me then I will deny you before my Father." My greatest burden is not losing my job or what people might say about me. My greatest burden is faithfulness. I want to be faithful. I want to see the body of Christ be faithful. I want to see unbelievers come to Christ.
Brown is 100 percent Division I football coach and 100 percent preacher. When he talks you want to strap on the spiritual helmet and get in the game.
Clarity Is Necessary
Brown is arguably the most influential evangelical in Nebraska. He is routinely asked to speak at churches because people look up to him and love him. This is true inside and outside the church. As a veteran local sage at the Omaha World-Herald noted, Brown has a track record of public engagement on moral issues.
Brown has been consistent in his convictions and beliefs for the 20-some years I've covered him, and gotten to know him. He's been speaking out and attending so many meetings, for so many years, quoting the good book and suggesting how folks should live their lives, that he's become a bit of a caricature of himself.
Why would the writer say this? Brown has a reputation for boldly speaking out on moral issues, and we have come to expect it.
Why is this a concern? Because many, like this columnist, hear a list of "do's" and "don'ts" in his soundbites and statements. This is where we all should be listening to those who listen to us. Are they hearing gospel or moralism? Are we preaching the gospel of what Jesus did or what we need to do/not do?
D. A. Carson has helpfully said, "It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins, what we need is to be prophetic from the center." That is, preaching against issues that flow out of a rejection of the gospel (sexual sin, abortion, etc) are peripheral and must be addressed by means of the core gospel, that which is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3-5).
I asked Brown about the danger of his message being reduced merely to moralism. Brown pounced on this like an open-field tackle:
I do not want to see a moral Nebraska. I want to see a Nebraska and a country transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why I do all of this. Everything is about getting the truth of Jesus Christ out.
Brown's view of homosexuals does not emerge clearly in this media dust-up. Many have argued that he is hateful towards gays. He told me:
That's not true. It is not all about seeing homosexuals become hetereosexuals. This is not the message of the gospel. The gospel is about all types of sinners (like me) who are unbelievers becoming believers. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not discriminatory, it is all inclusive: we are all sinners. I am pretty consistent in talking to all types of people about Christ. This is the thing that encourages me in this whole thing: the gospel of Christ is being presented. God will forgive people. He will give a clean-slate to all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus.
As you listen to Brown talk about his burden for the gospel to take root, and then you re-read the soundbites, you feel the burden of Carson's words all the more: we must be prophetic from the center. They will hear what we are passionate about. We have to keep hitting those gospel notes, because it is a strange sound to people who do not yet recognize the tune.
There is much we could conclude from this situation, but I'll highlight just two observations.
First, if Brown had spoken in favor of the amendment, media would not have protested. Brown boldly proclaimed, "This offends God." Consequently, many people were offended (including the university chancellor). People really are interested in gagging God. They don't want to recognize authority outside themselves. This response illustrates Romans 1:18-25. There is no consideration about offending the Creator, only consideration about the possibility of offending creatures. God help us. Brown was pretty fired up about this point.
In the famous battle between David and Goliath there was Goliath, the enemy to God and his people; David, the young under-sized boy; and the cowardly Jewish army. Too often American evangelicals look like a cowering army instead of a zealous David. There is opposition to God and his Word. How can we just hang our heads and give up?!
Second, there is back story to Brown's public appearance. The coach has received some pretty intense public chin-music from Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska. Many local experts are opining that Perlman is fed up with the coach's exploits. In other words, Brown might get fired over this incident. The university may regard Brown as a liability. In other words, the University of Nebraska, in the name of tolerance, would be intolerant of his so-called intolerance. If that sounds like an postmodern end-around, you heard correctly. The modern understanding of tolerance pivots on the fact that you must tolerate everyone's views except those who disagree with this premise. This is not only intellectually but also morally problematic.
To make matters more complicated, in a few days the Lincoln City Council will consider the same ordinance. Everyone wonders if Coach Brown will speak out against the amendment, as he did in Omaha. "I'm praying about that," Brown told me. "I want to draw as much attention to Christ as I can. I also want to think about the best ways to do that." If for whatever reason Brown doesn't go, he should not worry about being called a coward. If he does go, may the gospel be made clear in all of its grace-saturated glory.
Christians living in a secular world have endless opportunities for gospel engagement. Where and when do we go? Furthermore, how do we speak out against moral issues in an increasingly secular culture? I can't pretend to answer these things once and for all. There is an obvious tension here the seems to pit faithfulness against pragmatism. Christians need to pray for wisdom and boldness as we endeavor to be clearly declaring and demonstrating the gospel.
Unlike Nebraska weather, this priority never changes. May God be pleased to use Brown and the rest of us to advance the gospel.