Question: "What is Westboro Baptist Church?"
Answer: The Westboro Baptist Church is a congregation in Topeka, Kansas, started by Pastor Fred Phelps. They are an independent church, not affiliated with any denomination. They are known for their virulent protests against homosexuality and anything and anyone they consider supportive of the “homosexual agenda.”
The Westboro Baptist Church is well known for picketing places and events they see as supporting either homosexuality or Jews. This has grown to include actual gay and lesbian events, churches and organizations they feel do not repudiate homosexuality sufficiently, and the funerals of soldiers (who fought in a war they say was caused because of America’s tolerance for homosexuality). Although known in Topeka since the picketing of Gage Park in 1991, they came to national attention in 1998 after the horrific murder of admitted homosexual Matthew Shepherd who was beaten and left to die tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Members of the Westboro Church protested at Matthew’s funeral and his murderers’ trials and created a website saying Matthew was burning in hell.
In addition, members of the Westboro Baptist Church believe that natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and war are all God-initiated judgments on the evil in the world. They state that the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. occurred because God wanted America to enter into a war they couldn’t win, thereby losing the lives of countless soldiers. Every tragedy, they claim, is judgment because of support of homosexuality or Jews or because of attacks on Westboro Baptist Church members.
Westboro Baptist Church: The Messages
1. “God hates [everybody]”
What began as the rallying cry “God hates fags” has now devolved into a comprehensive inclusion of nearly every group, every nation, and every person who is not involved in Westboro Baptist Church. They are quick to assert that God hates anyone who does not believe exactly as they do and who does not act as they do.
Does God hate everybody? Because of who God is, and the fact that He is holy, He has no choice but to hate sin and the sin nature—that deep part of an unbeliever that incites rebellion against God. But God also loves everyone. Romans 5:8 states, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Laying down one’s life for another is the highest expression of love; therefore, Christ’s sacrifice is His demonstration of love to people still burdened with a sin nature—unbelievers.
God also shows His love through His common grace to all His creation. “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9). Jesus said God causes “his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). Barnabas and Paul would later say the same thing: “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). In addition to His compassion, goodness, and kindness, God also shows His patience to both the elect and the non-elect. While God’s patience for His own is undoubtedly different from His patience with those whom He has not chosen, God still exercises “longsuffering” toward those whom He has not chosen (Nahum 1:3). Every breath that the wicked man takes is an example of the mercy of our holy God.
God also exhorts His followers to love, even to love those whose natures and objectives are diametrically opposed to our own: "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” (Matthew 5:44-45b). Also, "You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48). God wants us to love our enemies so we can be more like Him, showing compassion to others as He has had compassion upon us.
2. “[Everybody’s] going to hell”
The members of Westboro Baptist Church are quick to assert that those they name are going to burn in hell. The problem with this is that although we are to measure others’ actions by the Word of God and encourage fellow believers toward maturity, we are never to make a judgment about another’s salvation (Matthew 7:1-2). Jesus warns His disciples against proclaiming the guilt of others before God. To be a condemning judge of others is to show that one is still under the condemnation of God. We are not the absolute standard. We are not the final word on the matter. To make such a dogmatic pronouncement is to usurp the place of God.
The vehemence with which Westboro Baptist Church denies God’s compassionate love for all people and declares others’ position of salvation reflects their belief in hyper-Calvinism. Calvinism states that man can do nothing to save himself from judgment; God elects those He will save (Romans 8:29-30). Hyper-Calvinism takes this further, saying since God alone elects those He will save, witnessing is futile. It also denies the concept of common grace—the beneficence God shows toward all His creation by providing good things (Matthew 5:45b) and holding back evil. This is a dangerous misconception about God’s grace that leads to great anxiety and doubt of a person’s own salvation. Westboro Baptist Church’s extreme hyper-Calvinism also explains why they do not care about offending people. They believe if a person is elect, he/she will believe, no matter what. They believe if a person is non-elect, he/she has absolutely no possibility of salvation. Therefore, hateful, angry, and vehement rhetoric does not matter, as it could not possibly change a person’s eternal destiny. Westboro Baptist Church rejects the idea that offending people could turn them away from faith in Jesus Christ.
Westboro Baptist Church: The Method
The way in which Westboro Baptist Church spreads its message is mostly through websites and picketing. They are proud of their ability to picket several different places every day, often bringing their children along with them. They hold signs declaring “God hates ___”, and yell at passersby. Their websites are filled with declarations about the judgment of God and the specific sins they believe public figures have committed. They include much vile name-calling and usually come around to accusations of support of homosexuality. Christian leaders, churches, and para-church organizations are as quick to attract their wrath as any secular institution. This tone is completely contradictory to the teachings of the Bible (Ephesians 4:1-6, 29-32; 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 4-7).
Part of the methodology of picketing with intentionally offensive signage is to antagonize people to the point of violence. When this occurs, Westboro Baptist Church is quick to take legal action. Westboro Baptist Church has a team of experienced lawyers at their disposal. Sadly, some of Westboro Baptist Church’s activities are funded by the financial gains from this litigation.
Westboro Baptist Church: The Misrepresentation
The members of the Westboro Baptist Church claim to speak in God’s name, but do so in a way contradictory to what God shows us in the Bible. They see themselves in the same role as the prophets of the Old Testament and associate prophecies about Old Testament nations to America. But God’s prophets rarely warned without also giving a chance of redemption or the promise of a future hope (even if the prophets didn’t want to (see Jonah 4:2). The “prophecies” of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are much more straightforward:
“Our message to this evil world is that God hates you, and you better prepare for the return of Christ in power and glory. Jesus came the first time to save; and Jesus will come the second time in vengeance, because you do not obey the Gospel. It will be soon, and you will experience the wrath of the Lamb, face to face.” (GodHatesAmerica.com)
Even when God told the prophet Jeremiah not to pray for the deliverance of Israel from the Babylonians (Jeremiah 7:16), He still gave the promise that Israel would be restored (Jeremiah 51). God will separate Himself from those who choose to reject Him, but His message is one of hope and reconciliation, not violent dismissal.
Most disturbing is the way Westboro Baptist Church claims to represent God to the world. God’s primary concern regarding the world is not homosexuality. He is much more concerned with the hearts of anyone who rejects Him and indulges in continual sin. And when Jesus did confront someone with a chronic sin, the message was simply, “Stop” (John 8:1-11).
By asserting that every tragedy from Hurricane Katrina to the death of children is a direct judgment of God either for homosexuality or attacks on Westboro Baptist Church members, they present a picture of God completely contradictory to His true character. God is not the cause of all the tragedy in the world. He graciously interacts with people living in a world damaged by sin, using circumstances created by evil to draw people closer to Himself.
If anything is to be learned from Westboro Baptist Church, it is the importance of seeking God’s wisdom and grace in interacting with others. We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We are to defend the faith with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Love, gentleness, and respect are completely lacking in the methods and message of Westboro Baptist Church.