fred phelps sr. dies :: how do we respond?

March 20, 2014 — 9 Comments

Westboro Baptist Church Case to be Heard by Supreme Court

According to his son, Timothy Phelps, the long-time senior pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church died last night, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Westboro Baptist has long been identified with the worst kind of hatred – that which is wrapped in self-righteousness in the name of God. To get a better grasp on the depth of Fred Phelps venomous life’s work, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s bio page.

The ripples of his death announcement are stirring conversation. There is already talk of people picketing his funeral. Eye for an eye. Hate for hate.

Others are suggesting that we let it lie. Don’t respond. Don’t feed the monster. Westboro Baptist has long-thrived on the media-circus energy generated by its outrageous behavior and over-the-top messages, designed to fuel controversy and hopefully secure relevance in the national consciousness, albeit relevance being known as the most vocal and provocative of hateful bigots. So some are saying, “Stop talking about Fred Phelps. Let him drift into obscurity where he belongs.”

The Christian community is responding, too.

“Fred doesn’t represent me…”

Honestly, I think even most of those who are virulently anti-Christian recognize the gulf between the hateful message of Fred Phelps and the average Christian church-attender today. Sadly, because Westboro claims to speak for God, there are some who equate his rantings with the conservative (read “fundamentalist”) Christian right-wing. But let’s be honest… To the vast majority of the world, Fred Phelps and his family are really viewed as more of a cult than as any kind of legitimate representation of Jesus or His followers. This is a case that doesn’t need to be made.

But in a way, he does…

So how should we respond, Church? What do we say? Around the water coolers, at Starbucks, at home with our friends?


I suggest we respond with great humility. Here are my take-aways:

(1) Resist the urge to add fuel to the fire. Many are going to revel in this. Voices from outside the church, and many from within. Many will take this opportunity to bash the most dis-likable of men with a sense of self-righteous indignation that is fueled by the unity of their coworkers and neighbors. “Good riddance,” many will say. But the Church has an opportunity here to show some Spirit-led restraint. This is another opportunity to be light in the dark. Self-righteousness is darkness. Pride is the root of every sin. We would do better to let the bandwagon roll on by.

(2) Resist the urge to cover sin with cliches and band-aids. I saw one suggestion that perhaps it would be appropriate to picket the Fred Phelps funeral after all, to make a point that love is stronger than hate. Except instead of responding in kind, carry signs that read “God loves you” or “God forgives you.” While I recognize that this is an attempt to bring a positive message to light, we must acknowledge the truth that it is ultimately up to the sovereign Holy One to judge. Fred Phelps has mishandled the very name (and reputation) of the Almighty. Judgement is His. Further, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Ultimately, we don’t know what went on in the heart of Fred Phelps in his final days and hours. God does. I understand the temptation to make loving proclamations here, to try to counter all the years of hatred spewed out in God’s name. But to me, they don’t smell right. We are called to speak the truth in love, not proclaim forgiveness to the unrepentant.Yet, maybe Fred came to know the grace of God in a real way in his last days. God alone knows the heart. We would do better to be quiet. God will judge.

(3) Recognize the degree to which we are Fred Phelps. All men are haters. All men are rebellious enemies of God. Ever since Adam, we’ve been corrupted by sin. In Fred, that corruption seemed to pour out like venom from a firehose. In some of us, it is more insidious. But sin corrupts, and we’re all going to die one day because of it, unless Jesus comes back first. The message of the cross is that Jesus’ took all that venom and drank it down on our behalf. Forgiveness is found in him only. To those who believe, He gives the right to become children of God. But the venom of sin still corrupts. So we in the Church, who look to Jesus for our freedom, we still sin – just like the rest of the world. We still carry that venom around in our old nature. The difference is, if we believe, we are forgiven. Sinners still. But forgiven. That should be a sobering, humbling reality, not a soap-box from which to look down upon the more visibly corrupted. Literally, but for the grace of God, there go I. We would do better to examine ourselves, and lean into the mercy of God again.

Today the world will begin a dialogue about the death of one of the most disliked, disrespected people in recent American history. The temptation to join the cacophony will be strong. Church, we would be wise to walk humbly, be quiet, and do some honest self assessment today.


Is there a better way for the people of God to respond?


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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

9 responses to fred phelps sr. dies :: how do we respond?

  1. Matthew 16:19
    I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
    John 20:23
    If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.
    Your point #2 does not seem right to me. I understand and believe that God is the judge, Joshua. However, Jesus DID “proclaim forgiveness to the unrepentant.” Perhaps your sentence was poorly expressed? But what are we here for if not to say “God Loves You” to the most unlovable? Did God not send prophets to the worst cities in the Old Testament? Didn’t Jesus come to earth to do this exact thing for us…the unrepentant?
    I believe God is all powerful. Someone like Fred does not pose a problem or a threat to God. The devil himself poses no obstacle for God. We are the only creatures who could be tripped up by someone like Fred. So for my part, I will forgive him. And I will ignore your advice to hush that sentiment.

    • Sabrina! Thanks so much for connecting here. You have made some GOOD points. I’ll try to respond briefly. As briefly as I can. 🙂

      First of all, I appreciate you bringing the scriptures from Matthew and John to the table. I actually thought through both of those passages when I wrote this post. They were both spoken by Jesus to His Apostles, and I believe they are to be understood in a pastoral context. In other words, Jesus has given his representatives on earth the “power of the keys” to proclaim the truth – both God’s law and Gospel – to his gathered congregations. These passages do not mean that we as Christians have the right or ability to simply claim the forgiveness of God for the unrepentant. We are given authority to proclaim with great joy and resolve the freedom from guilt for those who truly believe and repent – because those who truly believe DO repent. As Martin Luther said, “All of the Christian life is repentance.” So with regard to those who would simply hold up signs at Fred Phelps funeral stating “God forgives you,” I think that is an irresponsible message to send those who would see it and think that sin can be quietly swept under the rug and dismissed.

      The key in all this is to understand that Jesus DID die to forgive the sins of the whole world – including Fred Phelps and the Westboro crew. But that forgiveness is an objective reality. It only becomes SUBJECTIVE (applicable to the individual heart) when the individual BELIEVES they are in need of forgiveness and that the answer is only found in the grace of Jesus. What gives me great pause with regards to Mr. Phelps is that James (with clarification from Paul) assures us that saving faith WILL bear fruit. The fruit of the Spirit. We see very little of this fruit in the public life of Fred Phelps (peace, patience, kindness, longsuffering, love…) The world has seen the opposite from him and his followers in abundant supply. That is why I caution against proclaiming his forgiveness carte blanche.

      On the other hand, I do not want to discourage ANYONE (you included) from forgiving him personally. That is between you and him. Or you and them. Our forgiving others is primarily for the sake of OUR hearts, not those whom we forgive. So please know that if you feel it is important for you to intentionally forgive the Westboro Baptist folks, I would never discourage that. It is proclaiming God’s forgiveness that I think is misplaced.

      You wrote: “However, Jesus DID ‘proclaim forgiveness to the unrepentant.’ Perhaps your sentence was poorly expressed? But what are we here for if not to say ‘God Loves You’ to the most unlovable? Did God not send prophets to the worst cities in the Old Testament? Didn’t Jesus come to earth to do this exact thing for us…the unrepentant?”

      Wow. Yes. Maybe my wording was clumsy and unclear. Scripture is full of reminders that He came to win forgiveness “while we were yet sinners.” He did display his unlimited patience (according to 2 Timothy) for “the worst of sinners” so that others may believe and come to saving faith through Jesus.

      My only clarification here is that the primary message of the Apostles and the New Testament Church (and for our churches today) preachers was “REPENT, believe, and be baptized.” Over and over again comes the call to repentance. It is a sign of saving faith. Maybe I should have clarified my message. Maybe I should have said that forgiveness and grace are available to ALL who seek God – every day until He returns. Maybe if the signs read “God Can Forgive You” or “God Will Forgive You if you Turn to Him.” I still think “God Forgives You” is a bridge too far.

      And lastly… “God Loves You” can stay. 🙂 You clarified my thinking. Thank you.

      God bless you and your family. Thanks again for connecting here.

  2. I weighed in my mind whether or not it might be wise to not comment. I however could not resist the urge to say something on the subject. Fred Phelps preached his messages of hatred under the name Baptist. I am a Baptist and his views do not represent the wisdom that the Lord imparted to us to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves. I cannot recall a single time that the Lord verbally attacked sinners other than the self-righteous hypocritical religious leaders of his day. He did preach against sin and upon healing and forgiving often said “Go and sin no more”. He did not condone sin. Jesus however loved sinners so much in fact that while we were still enemies of God, He died for the ungodly. We are not called to continue in our sinful ways but to be over time growing Christians transformed into the image of God’s Son. We are called to produce good works worthy of the vocation as ambassadors of Christ. You have spoken about telling the truth in love. I can find no glimmer of love in Mr. Phelps’ actions. God is love and I cannot find one ounce of God’s love in this man’s life. Our heavenly father is kind, loving, and forgiving and certainly the sins of Fred Phelps were on the cross being paid for by our Lord Jesus Christ. I am sure he was well aware of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ having a Baptist background. In the parable of the tares spoken by Jesus it is clear that one avenue Satan has to attack the church is to sow corrupt weed seed among God’s good seed in the church. One can have a head knowledge of the truth without applying it to his own heart. God did not give us magic words to repeat after a minister to save us, He gave us heaven’s best. He gave us His Son. Some will beat the drum of “judge not that ye be not judged” but that is regarding a holier than thou spirit and must be counter balanced against mandates to try the spirits whether they be of God, if any man preach any other doctrine than I have preached to you let him be accursed, and by their fruits you will know them. I will not be carrying any signs of love at Mr. Phelps’ funeral. I will not preach him into heaven. His harvest was rotten fruit indeed. We are told that some will stand at the judgment seat of Christ and after their works are tried they will be left empty handed. Now this is speaking about a judgment of the works of the redeemed, not sinners. In my opinion judging the fruit of Mr Phelps, this would be the kindest outcome I could wish for him. He simply does not represent the picture of an ambassador of Christ on a mission of reconciliation. Our job as an ambassador is to always make Jesus look good. I’m afraid the hatred spouted by Mr. Phelps made our Lord look bad. You simply cannot sugar coat the truth sometimes. I am indeed thankful though that God is more merciful than I am.

    • Paul – My brother, I love your heart and mind. I agree that the fruit of Mr. Phelps life is rotten indeed. That is why I urge caution to those who would too flippantly try to cover that fruit up with a blanket of grace. It is irresponsible in light of the public defaming this man did to the name of Jesus – in the name of Jesus.

      I also urge caution to those who would now jump without restraint into conversations that are fueled by the twisted desire to see our enemies wounded – the sick part of our heart that longs not just for justice, but for revenge. Humility would serve us better. We read in Ezekiel 18:32, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God. “Therefore, repent and live.”

      I hope I can say with all clarity that Fred Phelps public life as a “pastor” was a disgrace to the church and to the name of Jesus. But neither do I relish his demise. It sobers me.

  3. thank you … continue to teach, preach and minister in God’s love and light
    We give thanks.

    • God bless you Janet! I am so grateful for you and Bernard. It is a joy to share the Ruthfred family name with you. Thanks for your steady love and encouragement.

  4. Well said, Josh. Well said. If he was a true believer what a shame that the Devil sneaked up on his blind side and rendered him totally ineffectual. I do not respect the man but it brings me no pleasure either to see his death.

  5. Thank you for your responses, Joshua.
    I don’t think we really disagree…perhaps we simply emphasize different points or explain things differently. So please know that I do not mean to start an argument. I am simply thinking out loud on your forum. Thank you for that opportunity.

    For myself, I find discernment and judging to be separate things. Discernment happens in the soul and guides where we place our trust. Judgement is reserved for God and we have no business claiming any of it for ourselves. To me, this means I really need to let God take care of judgement and I need to STAY OUT OF IT. By participating in judgement, I am basically displaying my fear that God can’t take care of things and he needs my help. Which, of course, is not the case. So even in an case like FP’s, where there are no obvious fruits of the Spirit, it is not my job to participate in his judgement. The harm created needs no more energy. (I think we agree on this and it is similar to what you originally wrote?)

    Staying silent on judgement is one thing. My thoughts on offering forgiveness to the unrepentant are these: Forgiveness was offered to me while I was yet unrepentant by Jesus. Jesus created the TRUTH of forgiveness and I heard the “message” of it. Then I decided to bring my fears to God and repent of trying to discern my way through life without the help of the Holy Spirit’s voice. Forgiveness is a “message.” Can I offer Jesus’ forgiveness to someone? No. I’m not God. But I can offer the “message” that forgiveness is ALWAYS waiting for us. God’s love is ever-present and it is simply up to us to turn our faces toward it, acknowledge it, accept it. Did FP repent? I don’t know. But I do believe Jesus covered his sin with forgiveness on the cross and that forgiveness was secured for each of us before we were even born. Doesn’t it even cover those people that lived before Jesus’ time that only had the law to guide them? Are there generations of people that will not be with God after human death simply because Jesus had not come to Earth yet? If time has no relevance for pre-Jesus people, why do we emphasize it so much for ourselves? I cannot fathom how we, as humans, can measure out forgiveness on a case by case basis. It either covers ALL, or it is not the gift of grace we claim it to be. God will judge each of our souls in a way that we are absolutely unable to perceive at this time. But each of us is already forgiven. That price was already paid for by Jesus. And we have no right to withhold it from anyone, whether their lives bore fruit of the Spirit or not.

    Luke 6 has a lot of lessons for me…
    27“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
    32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
    37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

    My final thought: we are told to pray for and bless those that hurt us. While I think it is right to be silent on the judgement of FP soul, considering the “world” is watching Christians because of FP death, this is perhaps a good time to lend voice to God’s message: “Jesus loves you. Jesus forgives you.”
    You don’t have to agree. But that is where I’m coming from.

    • SO MANY good thoughts here, Sabrina. Thank you so much. God has called us to love Him with all our heart, soul, MIND, and strength. I can see that you are living out your faith and love with your brain AND your heart. God bless you.

      By the way, I don’t ever take challenges or other people’s ideas expressed here as argumentative. I hope this is always a place to engage ideas. I’ve learned a lot and changed my position sometimes after a good challenging response to a post. I love it! So thanks for “thinking out loud” here. Everyone who reads will benefit. 🙂

      You’re right. I think we do largely agree, and maybe we’re refining our thoughts by refining our semantics. With regard to the question of all the people who followed God but died before Jesus came… The one and only way to God has always and will forever be only through faith in Jesus, the Messiah. That was true for the people in the Old Testament times, as well. They did not earn their salvation through the sacrificial system (or through their Godly living or right prayer life, etc. even BEFORE the sacrificial system). They were accredited righteousness because they BELIEVED that God would keep his promises. Saved by faith, not by works – just like in the New Testament, post-Jesus-incarnate era.

      Hebrews 11 (the whole chapter) makes this one case strongly. It starts with “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…” (Such as the promise of a coming Messiah, and a time when God would “dwell with” his created ones and live among them) Then the next verse says “For by it (faith) the people of old received their commendation.” The the whole chapter lists a ton of Old Testament characters who were commended as righteous because of their faith. In Genesis 15:6 we read that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and then Romans 4 clarifies what exactly this means (vs. 1-3): “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.'”

      So salvation is a matter or faith – what we believe about God – not what we do. That is why I hold out some hope for Fred Phelps… In his last hours he may have come to some clarity about his own soul’s condition and cried out to God for mercy. Only God knows that.

      But while Jesus DID die for the sins of the whole world, He was also clear that we can choose not to believe it – and therefore not receive the gift of forgiveness and eternal life. He was talking to Nicodemus when he uttered the famous verse John 3:16, “For God so loved THE WORLD (everybody!) that He gave his only son, that whosoever (ANYBODY) who believes (ah… a conditional atonement) should not perish but have eternal life.” And then, to make it really clear 2 verses later Jesus said, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

      You and I both love the same Jesus, and I think our hearts are very similar in that we want to world to see the love of God. Fred Phelps death affords us an opportunity to enter the water cooler discussions of life and bring the light of the love of God to the table. We may use slightly different wording – probably hardly different at all – but I think it is so urgent because although Jesus died for the sins of all, and that death paid the price for all the sins of all time, each heart must believe it to receive it. And they will never turn to Jesus on their own unless the Holy Spirit speaks to them through the Word of the testimony of you and me – His church.

      Thanks again friend. I am so glad we have connected here. God bless you always.

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