The incendiary founder of Westboro Baptist has died.
Fred Phelps Sr., the founder of a Kansas sect known for its anti-homosexuality picketing at military funerals, has died. He was 84.
The former figurehead of Westboro Baptist Church was hospice-bound in Topeka, Kan., and had stopped eating and drinking at the time of his death on Wednesday night, his estranged son Nathan told the Associated Press on Sunday. Nathan Phelps said a new board of eight elders excommunicated his father last summer after a power struggle, possibly contributing to the decline in his health. “I’m not sure how I feel about this,” he wrote on Facebook. “Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.” Nathan Phelps left the sect 37 years ago and is now a religious skeptic and gay-rights advocate.
Phelps’ Westboro Baptist–an unaffiliated church–will now be left in the hands of other family members who will most likely continue the vision of their leader. A documentary was produced of the small Kansas congregation.
So, what can we learn from the death of Fred Phelps?
First, we learn that truth can be easily mis-applied. Phelps once noted that “you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God.” Any sober-minded interpreter will attest to the Scriptural God who condemns sin and acts justly against sin. Any sober-minded interpreter will realize that the Marcionite heresy of dividing the Old Testament God from the New is not an orthodox option. The same God who destroyed and killed evil societies also judged his own people. That same God promises everlasting judgment upon those who do not believe in his Son (John 3:36). But this God of vengeance (Psalm 94) is also a God of everlasting love (Psalm 36:7). To overemphasize his wrath and to build one’s entire ministry around the wrath of God is to offer an unbalanced picture of the God of the Bible.
Further, it must be emphasized that the God of the Bible stressed mercy before judgment. Our God is an all consuming grace before He is an all consuming fire. Jesus offered himself to the people of Israel in mercy before he came and destroyed Jerusalem (Mat. 23:37). Phelps emphasized the wrath of God, but that message obscured the mercy and grace of God toward sinners (I Peter 3:15).
Second, we learn that angering the leftists is not always in our best interest. The left hated Phelps and his group. “The Westboro Baptist Church is probably the vilest hate group in the United the State of America,” Heidi Beirich, research director for the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Associated Press in July 2011. Indeed those who are in darkness will despise the witness of the light, but sometimes we who are light can portray a dim light immersed in unfruitful activities in the name of the Gospel. Yes, they will persecute us, but let us be wise to not pursue unnecessary persecution. The Gospel itself is enough to gain enemies. Let us not then debase its purity by bringing evangelicals and God-haters together against a common cause.
Third, we learn that picketing at homosexual and military funerals is not the way of the Gospel, but it is a way of death itself. Though we may vehemently disagree on matters of foreign policy, military soldiers and their families have the right to grieve. Grieving is a necessary means of emotional and physical relief. Though we oppose homosexuality and the practice of it on biblical grounds, even homosexuals have the right–as image-bearers–to grieve for their loved ones. To not allow them to weep is to de-humanize men and women created in the image of God. Instead of picketing and protesting at funerals, Christians need to establish a vision of marital faithfulness that is compelling to those who have rejected the agenda of God for man and woman. By picketing and protesting, the Phelps clan left a poor example of Christian compassion rooted in the imago dei. We must oppose the homosexual agenda at all costs, but we must proclaim truth winsomely and wholistically, realizing that we are dealing with fellow human beings created in the image of God.
Fourth, we learn that independent groups like Westboro Baptist suffer from a severe lack of accountability. This individualized ecclesiology leaves no room for correction. They are the end all of theological decisions. We need a catholic vision that allows the local church to be held accountable to and connected with other congregations. This does not necessarily require a formal connection–as I would propose–but even an informal one where there would be genuine opportunities to exhort and challenge others to godly practices.
Finally, we learn that the legacy we leave is fundamental to our vision as Christians. How will our children remember us? Will they remember a contentious father who viewed evangelism as a means to de-humanize others–however different their moral agenda was? Or will they view us as lovers of truth who practiced truth in love; rebuking and exhorting; calling evil, evil, but winsomely engaging those outside of the covenant with the message of hope and communicating salvation as a restoration of the whole cosmos? Calling homosexuals to repentance while guiding and shepherding them in the process?
The agenda of Fred Phelps failed to communicate what the Bible intends to communicate about the nature of God. His tactics brought great harm to the cause of Christ. Many–even in his own family who have fled–have been negatively affected by this cult-like group. Phelps’ death reminds us that the way you live and present the Gospel matters, and that your zeal for truth can actually work against truth itself.
- According to World: ” The couple had 13 adult children, nine of whom remain in the church and four of whom have left the church, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. Roughly 20 of the couple’s 54 grandchildren also have left the church.” (back)