Fred Phelps is dead.
Phelps is best known for heading up the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The WBC is infamous for preaching a message of hatred toward homosexuals (“God Hates Fags”) and picketing the funerals of United States military.
An Emotional Response to a Spiritual Problem
Most people are shocked and appalled at the WBC. I do not fault them for that. However, I do fault them for substituting their subjective emotional responses for sound intellectual responses to the WBC. In a society where feelings matter more than substantial thought, even most Christians are satisfied with the purely emotional response to the WBC. But they should not be. The Christian response to Phelps and the WBC has, for the most part, looked no different from the wordly response to Phelps and the WBC. And that’s a serious problem.
When facing the WBC cult, Christians have recourse to a much stronger argument than expressing their own personal feelings about the WBC. They also have more than a cold intellectual reply available to them. They have the Word of God. The Christian response to the false teaching of Fred Phelps must be more informed by the Word of God than it is informed by knee-jerk emotional reactions.
I have watched countless Christians fail to provide any substantial response to Phelps. He was far more evil than those with mere emotional responses give him credit for. Phelps preached half-truths and deceived countless people both inside and outside of his little religious cult. Many Christians are among those who are deceived.
A Biblical Response to an Unbiblical Message
Unfortunately, the WBC has been exceedingly successful in furthering a false message at the expense of the true message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here’s how:
1. They promote unbiblical feelings of hatred.
The WBC promotes unbiblical feelings of hatred, but not always in the manner most people think. They make you mad. The WBC loves that you respond to them with anger. Their actions are intentionally provocative. They promote a message of hate, and people respond to them with hatred. They have been exceedingly successful in getting people to hate each other.
As Christians, we should hate sin, and hate the wickedness that is condoned and practiced by the WBC. However, we must remember that anger itself is most often an expression of our own sinful ways, not the emotional worker of righteousness we so often trick ourselves into thinking it is. We cannot cease to approach those who practice wickedness with grace, though we absolutely condemn their damnable practices. Otherwise we are no better off than the WBC.
2. They promote an unbiblical view of God.
The WBC promotes an unbiblical view of God, but not always in the manner most people think. By focusing in on the wrath of God to the exclusion of other attributes of God, WBC has sparked a response that focuses on the love of God to the exclusion of other attributes of God. The idea that “God is Love” has become a rallying cry for those opposed to all manner of morality, not just those who are rightly quoting it from Scripture.
As Christians, we must remember that God is a God of wrath. God does hate sin. God even hates sinners. That much is the clear teaching of the Word of God. (Ps. 5.5, 11.5; Prov. 6.16-19; etc.) Responding to the WBC by claiming that “God is love” or “God loves everyone” is joining the world in a partially true, unbiblical proclamation of God’s supposed approval of sin. Let’s be clear that unrepentant sinners will face the absolute condemnation of God in hell for eternity. That is not owing to God’s love for those individuals, that is owing to His hatred for them. That same hatred, or wrath, or anger of God towards sin was poured out on Christ Jesus on the cross for all of those who will turn from their sins and trust in His perfect propitiatory sacrifice. The WBC has done an excellent job of making a mockery of this biblical message of judgment and grace found in the cross of Christ through their unbiblical message of the mere hatred of God.
3. They promote unbiblical methods of ministry.
The WBC promotes unbiblical methods of ministry, but not always in the manner most people think. The WBC wants to make it clear to people that God hates sin, will not tolerate it, absolutely condemns it, and the like. People most often respond to the WBC by dismissing their message, calling them a hate group, and attempting legal action against them. Yet their message is partially true, as already mentioned above. Moreover, warning people about the coming judgment for their sins is one of the most loving things anyone could do. The WBC has made the aforementioned argument, and I dare say it is difficult to disagree. Unless, of course, the message of sin, judgment, and wrath are altogether dismissed. And that is precisely the way many people have responded.
As Christians, we must remember that people stand condemned before God, dead in their trespasses and sins. We justly deserve the righteous wrath of God. We are sinners. The only way to avoid the judgment of God is to be saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The WBC errs in preaching a message of the hatred of God toward sinners while assuming they know the identities of the non-elect, those who will ultimately never repent, but remain reprobate, thus ensuring that the WBC will never preach true repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ as the only way anyone can ever avoid the judgment of God for sins that the WBC is so fond of trivializing through their insensitive arrogance, crude language and gaudy placards.
The “Gospel” of Phelps versus the Gospel of Christ
The message of Fred Phelps is not the same as the message of Jesus Christ. However, the most potentially dangerous part of the message of Phelps is not what he got wrong, but what he got right. A tidbit of truth is enough to poison the minds of many, leading them to either imbibe the lies of Phelps in their entirety, or else to reject even the very Word of God which makes its occasional appearance in the attempted justifications of this wayward religious cult. The message of Jesus Christ is the good news about His death, burial, and resurrection for our sins. We do not hear that message associated with the followers of Phelps, because they are false teachers. May we as Christians address them as such, rather than joining the unbelieving world in dismissing them because we find the WBC ignorant, offensive, or otherwise icky. May we continue to preach and defend the true gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness and humility even when it is not politically correct to do so.