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Answering the Call

In recent years Robert Jeffress has transformed Dallas’s once declining First Baptist Church into a thriving megachurch. And as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama can tell you, he didn’t do it by pulling his punches.

By May 2014Comments

Photograph by Justin Clemons

In 2007, when Robert Jeffress became pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church, few people noticed. First Baptist, which was once regarded as the country’s most influential Southern Baptist church, was no longer packing in the crowds. But Jeffress, who grew up attending the church, had grand ambitions, including a $135 million fund-raising campaign to build a new downtown campus covering six blocks. He also began making national headlines with his robust opinions, particularly his opinions about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Today, one year after the campus opened, more than 3,600 Baptists arrive each Sunday to hear Jeffress preach.

Skip Hollandsworth: I remember hearing one of the first sermons you gave, in 2007. You said that when you were a young man, you heard the voice of God tell you that you would one day be pastor of First Baptist. Can you describe what happened?

Robert Jeffress: When I was a nineteen-year-old freshman at Baylor, I was walking down the street when God said to me clearly that some day I would be the pastor of First Baptist. I never told anyone about the experience. It was not until the Sunday morning when the church voted to call me as pastor that I revealed to everyone what had happened. I kept the story to myself so that no one could ever say I manipulated my way into this pastorate by claiming, “God told me I was to be the pastor.” 

SH: Was that the only time you heard the voice of God?

RJ: The only other time I can say that I truly heard God speak to me was when he called me to be a pastor when I was a freshman in high school. I understand people—including myself—are naturally skeptical of those who claim that God has spoken to them. But it happens. When I’m asked, “Was the voice of God an audible voice?” my reply is “No, it was louder than that.”

SH: When you announced that First Baptist was going to build a 500,000-square-foot downtown campus, with a giant outdoor fountain where water would shoot dramatically into the air as sacred music played, I thought, “He’s got to be kidding. Megachurches are for the suburbs.” Tell me what’s happened.

RJ: We’ve had about 1,000 new members over the last twelve months [the church claims a membership of around 11,000], and we’re up about 20 percent in attendance. But what is most exciting to me is the diversity of people we’re starting to attract. This new facility has a way of attracting non-church people. It makes them feel comfortable in a way that they might not feel in a traditional setting.

SH: Would it be fair to say that Christian churches don’t have the influence on American culture that they used to?

RJ: I think that’s an absolutely fair assessment. Last year, we had Tim Tebow [the Heisman-winning quarterback and born-again Christian] scheduled to speak at our grand opening ceremony. And a liberal writer for CBS Sports wrote an article chastising Tebow for wanting to appear at what he said was an anti-Semitic, homophobic church. We were labeled as anti-Semitic because we believe everyone, including Jews, needs to accept Christ as savior to go to heaven. And we were called homophobic because we believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. We weren’t saying anything new: our teaching is in the mainstream of historical, conservative Christianity. It’s the culture that has changed. Beliefs that the church has held for two thousand years are suddenly being ridiculed because the culture is becoming more non-Christian.

SH: Why is that?

RJ: I think the problem with the church is that we’ve remained in our holy huddles. We’re not making an impact in the culture because we don’t confront the culture.

SH: In the 2012 presidential campaign you got involved in the political conversation, appearing on Fox News, CNN, and even Bill Maher’s talk show. Was that because you felt there was little talk coming from church leaders about who should be president?

RJ: Church leaders have a responsibility to get involved in politics—as long as it’s not partisan politics. I think the Bible can be argued either way to support a certain taxation policy or immigration policy. But I believe that the Bible speaks clearly about the sanctity of life and of marriage, and the treatment of the poor, and we as Christians have a duty to vote biblical values.

SH: A lot of people had fun with you during the 2012 campaign. On the one hand, you discussed your distrust of Mitt Romney because he was a Mormon, which you claimed was a non-Christian cult. Then you ended up supporting Romney over Barack Obama, who, despite being a professed Christian, you said held many dangerous, anti-biblical positions. People accused you of waffling. 

RJ: I did say that Mormonism is not a Christian belief. But I also said that if it came to a choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, I would support Mitt Romney. 

SH: What are the anti-biblical positions of Barack Obama? 

RJ: He is the most pro-abortion president in history. He, without apology, supports the murdering of children within the womb. And his support for same-sex marriage—he’s the first U.S. president to do that—is an anti-biblical position. 

SH: What are your plans for the 2016 election?

RJ: I will not be endorsing any candidate. But I will encourage people to vote their convictions. Of the estimated 50 million evangelical Christians, only a quarter voted in 2012. If Christians would rise up and vote on biblical values, we could turn the course of this nation around overnight.

SH: But if a presidential candidate comes along in 2016 with clear values that reflect yours, wouldn’t you openly endorse him?

RJ: Well, even in the last election, I never publicly from the pulpit endorsed anyone. I did say at a Value Voters Summit meeting that I supported Governor Rick Perry for president, but that was not from the pulpit of First Baptist Church in the morning. But I think that it’s best for me to not officially endorse anyone but stick to the values and allow voters, even my own congregation, to make up their mind.  

SH: I’ve heard you give a sermon in which you say that God will soon rise up in judgment on America and that the country will “implode,” to use your word. And you also say that God will destroy America before the rest of the world comes to an end. Can you summarize why you think America is in its last days?

RJ: I talk about this at length in one of my books, Twilight’s Last Gleaming. There have been some U.S. Supreme Court decisions that I believe have destroyed the spiritual and moral infrastructure of our nation, which is where I’ve used the analogy of the implosion. Once you destroy the infrastructure, there’s a pause and then ultimately there’s an implosion—a collapse. I believe the case of Engel v. Vitale [the 1962 Supreme Court case that ruled it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools] was the beginning of a whole list of decisions that demonstrated our court’s hostility toward Christianity, certainly culminating in 1980’s Stone v. Graham case, which removed the Ten Commandments from a Kentucky school. Secondly, the Roe v. Wade case, in 1973, sanctioned the killing of the unborn. And since that time, an estimated 50 million children have been murdered in the womb. And thirdly was the 2003 Lawrence and Garner v. Texas decision. That was the decision, of course, that not only struck down our own state’s anti-sodomy laws but eventually became the basis for striking down the laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. My belief is no nation can survive laws that prohibit the mention of God in the public square, as well as laws that sanction the killing of children and also destroy the most basic unit of society: the family. I don’t know when the implosion is going to occur. I’m not one of these who sets dates. I’m just saying that I don’t think a nation can ultimately survive that allows such activities.

SH: Since I was a little boy, I’ve been hearing that God is going to rise up and cast judgment on America for its lack of values. And it wasn’t happened. Why is it different now? What’s changed?

RJ: Well, first of all, as I said, I don’t set time tables for God. He’s going to do what he does when he does it. But I would say this: even among conservatives, there’s this misnomer that America has this exceptionalism that somehow makes it different than any other nation. The truth is, God is not a respecter of people or nations. God does not get goose bumps when he hears “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He doesn’t stand up and salute the American flag. Scripture is clear: God will bless any nation that reverences him and his word, and God will destroy any nation that rejects him and his word. All I say is look at history. Look at how God dealt with Nazi Germany that took children to the crematoriums by the trainloads during the Holocaust. Look at how God dealt with his own nation of Israel for offering children as child sacrifices. Why do we think God is going to deal any differently with a nation like America that has murdered 50 million of its children?

SH: Well, here’s my problem with what you’re saying. If God is going to rise up to crush us because we allow abortion, the way he rose up against Germany for taking millions of families away in the Holocaust, then why hasn’t he done it? If God is really that upset that America allowed 50 million abortions, why hasn’t he stopped them? Why has he allowed, to use your words, babies to be murdered?

RJ: The apostle Peter answers that in II Peter, Chapter 3. He said in the last days scoffers will come, saying, Where is the promise of his coming? But then Peter goes on to say that the Lord is patient and not willing that anyone should perish “but that all should come to repentance.” I believe the only reason God has stayed his judgment against the world as a whole—or maybe against the readers who are reading this magazine right now—is because he is patient, giving people an opportunity to repent before it’s too late. People should not confuse the patience of God with the tolerance of God.

SH: So God is being patient and allowing people to repent. But at the same time he is allowing all these abortions, which he considers murder. Why should we worship a God who allows such slaughter? I guess you know that for a lot of people, that’s a difficult God to worship.

RJ: It’s a mystery that’s been asked since the beginning of time. Why does God allow suffering in the world? And I would just have to say that’s above my pay grade to answer.

SH: But you seem to know exactly what God is thinking about other issues.

RJ: All I can reveal is what God has revealed about himself, and that’s through the Scripture. I can’t speak about issues that God has not revealed in the Scripture. And that’s one reason why I don’t try to set the dates for the world’s destruction. By the way, I have absolute confidence that America is going to be destroyed only because the Bible teaches that this world is going to be destroyed one day. That’s really not a fantastic statement to make if you believe the Bible and the writings in the Book of Revelation, that one day, everything in this world is going to be burned up and God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth.

SH: Well, let’s go through those Supreme Court decisions. Let’s start with prayer in the schools and the worship of Christianity in the public square. Do you think there would be more Christians if we had the Ten Commandments in more public buildings? Or would there be more Christians if a school principal prayed over the loudspeaker before school? And likewise, do you think there would be more Christians if they saw Christ celebrated more at the malls at Christmas time? As far I’m concerned, it’s relatively easy for Americans to pick up the Christian message. Do we really have to have these extra accoutrements?  

RJ: I would just say in response to that, look at the state of our culture and our country in the last fifty years. Since these decisions, such as the ones eliminating prayer and then Bible reading, and the continued emphasis on the separation of church and state and so forth, I would ask, “Is our culture in better shape fifty years later or in worse shape?” Some of your readers would say it’s a much better place to live. But many of us who share biblical values would say our culture is in a much worse state than it was fifty years ago.

SH: Let’s talk about gay marriage. Is it really harming Christianity if two gay guys who’ve been together for a long time want to have a wedding ceremony?

RJ: I’ve argued, often on national television, that there are great sociological, in addition to spiritual, consequences to redefining marriage. Whenever you counterfeit something, you cheapen the value of the real thing. I believe gay marriage is a counterfeit marriage. And I think it’s important your readers know about the studies the Hoover Institute has done in Scandinavian countries that have embraced same-sex marriage. It’s not only that many gays went out and got married, it was also that the heterosexual rate of marriage dropped precipitously. That’s happening in our country. Last year was the lowest rate of marriage in the history of our country.

SH: You really think heterosexuals devalue marriage because gays are getting married?

RJ: I think if you expand the definition of marriage and say marriage is whatever you want it to be—two men, two women, three men—then you cheapen its value. Let’s be honest, that’s not the only reason marriage has been devalued. I think the rampant acceptance of divorce, even in the church, cheapens marriage just as much as homosexual marriage does.

SH: A lot of people will agree with you on your divorce statement, which leads me to this question. Why focus so much on marriage between gay people, who only make up 10 percent of the population? Why not spend more time in your sermons talking about the much bigger problem of divorce in America, out-of-wedlock births, throwaway marriages that cause enormous domestic strife?

RJ: But anybody who knows me or listens to me knows I spend much more time talking about adultery and divorce than I do homosexuality. It’s only the people who are on the outside and who don’t come to First Baptist who think I preach all the time about homosexuality. Any time I give an interview, I say yes, homosexuality is a deviation from God’s plan, but so is premarital sex, so is adultery, and so is unbiblical divorce. And to be very honest with you, I think a lot of conservatives have made a mistake focusing only on homosexuality as a distortion of God’s plan for marriage.

SH: Putting gay marriage aside, what do you think can be done to strengthen families in America?

RJ: I think certainly exposing children as well as parents to God’s word, which is a great instruction manual for how to have a happy family is important. If parents, even Christian parents, spent as much time in church as they did on the soccer field or on the baseball field, I think we would have healthier children and healthier marriages. I think, secondly, we ought to certainly say without apology that God’s plan for marriage is that you remain together in spite of any circumstances that come your way. Yes, I believe there are some cases that allow for remarriage and divorce in the Bible—such as adultery and desertion—but I think we should always focus on God’s ideal to stay as a couple.

SH: Your ultimate message, of course, is that faith in Jesus Christ is the key to salvation and that people who are separated from Jesus Christ are going to spend eternity in hell. But there are lot of people, I’m sure you know, who just think that’s a bunch of gobbledy-gook. They believe that what we really need to do is live with integrity and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They don’t worry about being saved and becoming Christians. For them, the goal is to elevate one’s life so that it’s full of compassion and dignity and honesty. What would you say to those people?

RJ: I would say that they need to understand who Jesus was. They need to understand that Jesus came primarily not to be a good teacher or a moral example, but he himself said that he came to be the sacrifice for our sins. Jesus said, “The son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He said he was the son of God. And to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, that leaves you three options. You have to believe Jesus was a lunatic who actually thought he was God when in fact he wasn’t. Or you have to believe he was a liar who knew he wasn’t God but claimed to be. Or, if you don’t believe he’s a liar or a lunatic, the only other option is he’s Lord. He’s exactly who he claimed to be. I think every skeptic needs to honestly answer that question. Is he a liar, is he a lunatic, or is he Lord?

SH: But it’s not going to happen. There are going to be a lot of people who won’t take any of those three answers. They are going to say this was a man of great moral teachings and great leadership, that there is a lot in his life to appreciate, and that’s it.

RJ: But people who say that are being intellectually dishonest. As I like to remind people, Jesus didn’t get himself crucified for going around telling people to be nice to one another and turn the other cheek. He got himself crucified because he claimed to be the son of God.

SH: Let me throw a question out of the blue. What harm would it do if a woman was a senior pastor of a Baptist church?

RJ: The harm is that it would be an unbiblical church, because the Bible teaches that although there are a variety of things that women should do and can do in the church, being a pastor is not one of them. The church that has a woman as a pastor doesn’t have a pastor. But I think that the mistake we’ve made in conservative churches is harping on the things that women can’t do in the church instead of talking about all the great things women can do in the church. Were it not for women there would have been no Christian movement. It was women who came back with the news of the risen Christ. It was Lydia who started the church at Philippi. The Christian movement would be stillborn without women. But the fact is, God has assigned different roles and responsibilities for each of us. One time my older daughter, when she was nine years old, said, “Dad, why can’t I be a pastor?” And I said, “Well, the same reason I can’t have a baby.” My daughter now is very involved in Christian ministry. She leads a Bible study group for girls, she’s training to be a Christian counselor, and I think we as conservatives ought to do more to empower women in ministry and not just focus on this one thing that the Bible says is reserved for men. Not because men are better—it’s just because that’s the role God has created for men and women.

SH: What is wrong with premarital sex?

RJ: Well again, it goes against what God says is his pattern for sex. The Bible uses the term fornication. God is the one who designed sex, I remind people. I mean God thought up the whole idea of sex. That’s an amazing thing when you think about it. He took out a sketch pad and said, “Hey, wouldn’t this be fun if this person did this and this and this?” I mean, he created the idea of sex, he created the equipment for sex, and I believe he knows how sex best operates. He knows that the best way to enjoy sex is within the security and love of a marriage relationship. And that’s why in his instruction manual for sex, the Bible, he says it should be between a man and a woman in marriage.

SH: What’s wrong with divorce? If a marriage has faltered, why not just say, “Well, there’s too much water under the bridge, so let’s move on?”

RJ: Well, I sound like a broken record, but again, the Bible speaks against divorce except in the case of adultery and desertion. And I think God knows—and I also have seen this as a pastor—what divorce does to people. When you divorce, you’re not just tearing apart a marriage, you’re tearing apart two people that make up that marriage. I haven’t known anybody who’s been divorced who has said, “It was a wonderful experience.” But even if divorce provides short-term relief, I think you have to think beyond yourself and ask yourself, “What is this saying to my children?” Is it saying to them, if you run into difficulty, if you’re not happy 24 hours a day, you ought to abandon the marriage? I think one reason we stay in the marriage is in order to teach our children the importance of faithfulness. God hasn’t called us to happy, God has called us to be faithful.

SH: What’s wrong with drinking?

RJ: Well, the Bible condemns getting drunk. It doesn’t condemn drinking. I don’t believe if you have a taste of alcohol that you’re going to hell. I personally have chosen not to drink because I’ve cared about what it might say to my children. Even though I am able to handle alcohol, I don’t know that my children are not alcoholic and might get involved in a drunk-driving accident or some other bad circumstance that can be traced to drinking. So I’ve chosen not to drink. But that’s not a conviction I can impose on other people. I tell people that they need to search their own conscience, and that they need to think about the impact that what they do has on other people. But I don’t think the Bible teaches total abstinence. I think the Bible does say that if you do use alcohol, you need to be aware of the dangers and certainly not get drunk.

SH: I will never forget the story of you appearing on Bill Maher’s HBO show, and that you went to the party after the show, where people were drinking and smoking pot. And there you are, in the middle of the party. I’m sure some of your own associates, deacons, or friends said, “What are you doing? You need to scale it back.”

RJ: Yeah, I had lots of advisers who told me, “Whatever you do, don’t go on the Bill Maher show, because he will rip you apart.” And my thought was, “Look, if Paul was willing to go to Mars Hill [a famous hill in Athens, Greece, where debates were held] to debate the pagans, the least I can do is go to Bill Maher’s studio in Hollywood and share Christ with as many people as possible.”

SH: Finally, let’s talk about your latest book, Perfect Ending [Worth Publishing], in which you lay out your opinion of the end times. When a lot of people begin to hear words like “rapture,” “tribulation,” “millennialism,” and “panmillenalism,” their brains shut down. Is it really important for churchgoers to follow all these complicated theories about the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world?

RJ: Billy Graham, who was a member of our church for more than fifty years, said the second coming of Christ is the most neglected teaching in the church today. I think that’s true twenty years after he made that statement. Most Christians are concerned with the here and now—how to have a happy family life now, how to have a successful career now, and so on. And yet in the Bible there’s a great emphasis on the future. The Bible says all of history is moving toward some climactic finality, and I believe that God wants us to know the future that awaits us. He wants us to live our life right now in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. Interestingly, for every prophecy in the Bible that’s written about the first coming of Christ, there are eight written about his second coming.

SH: So briefly, lay out how the end times will take place.

RJ: I think there’s going to be a rapture of the church, when Christians are called up to meet the Lord in the air, which is described in I Thessalonians 4. I think that will be followed by that seven years of tribulation that Daniel 9 talked about and that Revelation 6-19 describes, when the Antichrist is the world dictator for seven years. It is a time that according to Daniel 9 will begin when the Antichrist signs a peace covenant with Israel. Halfway through that peace covenant he will break that covenant and begin a persecution against Israel as well as against Christians who are saved at that time. The final battle of the world will be at the site of Armageddon. At that battle, the Heavens will open, the Lord Jesus will come back, and he will set up his kingdom on earth.

SH: So before America implodes, what do you see happening? Will there be fewer and fewer churches? Will there be fewer and fewer Christians? Will there be a resurgence of Christianity? What happens?

RJ: I am not good at short-term prognostications. The reason I’m convinced from Scripture that America is going to end is because the final seven years of earth’s history, this period called the Great Tribulation, is one of a dictatorship with a ten-nation confederacy. The Bible teaches that the Antichrist, the final world dictator, will put an end to the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of commerce. You’ll have to have the mark of the beast to buy or sell. Which means our Constitution will have had to have been abolished by that point. And once the Constitution is abolished, America will cease to be a nation, at least as we know it. So again, if you believe that the world is coming to an end, if you accept the biblical scenario of the final seven years, then you have to believe that America is not going to exist as a nation, at least not as we know it.

SH: So what happens? Will people be flocking into church as they see society beginning to crumble?

RJ: It could be. Again, this is just conjecture on my part. I think certainly some type of economic collapse would be the thing that causes the most chaos in our country. Perhaps our ballooning deficit and so forth will finally come back to haunt us. I don’t know what’s going to happen. In the early 1900’s there was a great revival in many places in the country when the stock market crashed. Perhaps that will happen again. But I don’t want to speak about things the Bible doesn’t speak about, and there’s no detailed map of what’s going to happen.

SH: You understand that a lot of people reading this are going to say, “That’s the kookiest thing I have ever heard.”

RJ: Well again, I understand that, but their argument ultimately isn’t with me, it’s with Scripture. Millions of Christians have believed that through the ages. The apostle Paul believed it. The apostle Peter believed it. And Jesus certainly taught the second coming. So it may seem nuts, but you would have to label all of those people nuts for embracing it and teaching it. Now I do think the future of the end times teaching has really been perverted in recent days by radio preachers, like the late Harold Camping, who tried to set dates about when the rapture would occur. You know, in Matthew 24, Jesus said no man knows the hour, not even the son of God. And I tell people, if Jesus doesn’t know when his return is, I certainly don’t know. So I don’t think we ought to try and set dates. An interviewer asked me recently if I would live to see the rapture. And my response was, “That’s really irrelevant. I’m 58 years old, and I know in the next thirty years that one of two things is going to happen: either he’s coming here or I’m going there. But soon the end will be near for me, and I need to be ready to confront God.”

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