I’m going to keep this short. Fred Phelps Sr., founder of Westboro Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas is on his death bed. He is at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas on the verge of death. In case you aren’t familiar with Westboro Baptist Church, they are the guys who picket soldiers’ funerals, celebrity funerals, and various events. Their choice of words is horribly unkind, with posters saying things like, “God Hates Fags” or “Fag Nation” or “Fag Troops” or “Priests Rape Boys” or “Dike Liberty.” They are most known for being the “God Hates Fags church.” Their defense of the use of the word “fag” comes from the Old Testament. They claim that the term “fag” is an “elegant” term for sinners in general, and that the term denotes a pile of sticks that fuel a fire – the way that the wicked kindle God’s wrath. Only, the term “fag” isn’t used this way in our culture, and when you show up with signs saying that God hate fags, it comes off as meaning something totally different. Anyhow, I’ve been following these guys for years, listening to messages or interviews and watching documentaries. I’ve learned much about them.
Despite their poor choice of words, I don’t see that as being the fundamental flaw of Westboro. As I’ve followed them, I noticed something totally destructive about their message – they don’t preach the gospel. Their message is: 1) You’re a sinner 2) Stop being a sinner. That’s the message. There is no good news offered by them. It isn’t: 1) Your a sinner 2) Trust Christ for the forgiveness of those sins. It is only a recognition of sin, with moral adjustment as the answer. This isn’t Christian at all. In fact, the desire to justify yourself by your own works is what the Bible spends it’s time constantly battling. As I read some articles about Fred Phelps Sr., I started getting that horrible feeling I had gotten when I heard that Chris Hitchens died or even Harold Camping. It wasn’t that terrible sense that they had died and now face God’s judgment, but it is that confrontation with mortality. It is that reminder that we are all dropping like flies. And, perhaps in some sick way, I feel like I’m losing a friend that I’ve known for years. I have plenty of friends that I couldn’t disagree with more, who say horrible things, and I would still be sad if they died. I’m feeling sad about all of this. I know everyone is pretty happy about it. It’s not a joyous thing for me.
I was sad to hear that Phelps was excommunicated from his church back in April 2013. A lot of folks are seemingly scratching their heads, trying to figure out why. I think I know that answer. No, I’m not a mind reader, but I am familiar enough with there doctrine to take a wild guess. Westboro teaches the doctrines of grace – i.e. Calvinism. In fact, I’ve had people use the church against me as an argument against Calvinism as though Westboro is the only logical conclusion to such doctrines. The weird part, though, is that Westboro believes if you die in some freak accident or disease then it is God exercising his judgment upon you. And this is evidence that you aren’t a brother and are going to hell. I can’t think of anything more contradictory to the doctrines of grace. How in the world could Fred Phelps Sr., who spent years and years and years preaching the message of Westboro be excommunicated? I have a horrible feeling it’s because of whatever he is dying from now. Perhaps Fred got a diagnosis that the church took as being the evidence that Fred was not a brother and would be judged by God Himself. I obviously don’t know for sure. That would be terrible if it was true though.
This church has spent it’s time spreading a hopeless message in an uncharitable way. I can’t think of a more controversial church. Fred Phelps has done unimaginable damage to the gospel and the church. I can hardly think of a more nasty human being. He has misled adults. He has misled children. He has sinned grievously and is now on his deathbed. But God sent His Son to this world to become a man, named Jesus, born of a virgin, and live a perfect life in order to offer it as a substitute for those who trust in Him. He sent His Son to die on a cross, absorbing God’s wrath that would be directed to those believers so that this wrath would not befall them when they face the judgment. And Jesus died. But He rose again from the dead 3 days later in order to declare these believers justified despite their sinning. He gives this salvation away for free. There is no earning. It is good news. Only believe it. Christ has done all of the work.
If you are reading this now, and Fred hasn’t died yet, please stop now and pray for God to make the amazing news of the gospel known to him. That’s what Fred needs. It’s not too late. If Fred should stop trusting in his own works, and trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins, all of the disgusting and horrible things he has done will be washed clean. He will be justified before God, pardoned for his sin. I pray that happens. Because as much as he has sinned in the past, and as much as he continues to do the same, we are no different. We are all guilty before God the moment we start trying to compare our works to the works of others. The standard of your good works that you judge Fred by doesn’t exist. There is only one standard – God’s. And God demands that we each be as perfect as He is. And that levels the playing field. Therefore, pray that God would make the glorious good news known to Fred so that He may die in peace.