NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–An independent Baptist church famous for its hate-filled protests is back in the news, and one Southern Baptist leader wants to make clear to the public that the church has no affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka, Kan.-based independent church comprised largely of the family members of pastor Fred Phelps, won a court victory late last month when a federal appeals panel ordered the father of a dead Marine to pay the church more than $16,000 in court costs from a civil suit he filed. The father had sued the church after it protested his son’s military funeral, with church members carrying signs reading, “You’re going to hell,” “God hates you” and “Thank God for dead soldiers,” CNN reported. His son was killed in Iraq in 2006.
The fact that the church protested the funeral and then received a bill for thousands of dollars in court costs is nothing more than a “slap in the face” that will help the church protest more funerals, the father, Albert Snyder, told CNN. The Supreme Court this fall will decide whether Westboro has a constitutional right to protest at funerals.
Westboro conducts hundreds of protests each year and made a name for itself years ago with its “God hates fags” signs. In fact, nearly all of its protests are related to the issue of homosexuality. It has even protested the Southern Baptist Convention at least twice — once at an annual meeting and another time at the SBC building in Nashville, Tenn. Unlike Westboro, the Southern Baptist Convention is on record as stating that homosexuality is a forgivable sin and that homosexuals can be saved.
“We repudiate the tactics used by Fred Phelps and his followers at Westboro, and find them offensive,” Roger S. Oldham, vice president for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, told Baptist Press. “However, we do not rush to cast stones at them. We rather grieve for them. We grieve when any individual or group that identifies itself as Christian draws attention to itself and away from the cross of Christ, whether it is us or others.
“This church has no relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. I do not know any Southern Baptist who does not share my sorrow and grief that this group distorts the message of the cross and reflects poorly on Christians in general and Baptists in particular.”
Westboro has received so much national attention the past decade that Baptist Press published a special story in 2003, “Night & day: The difference between Southern Baptists & Fred Phelps,” which included an interview with Phelps himself and Southern Baptists who were critical of Westboro’s beliefs. That story led to Westboro picketing outside the offices of the quoted individuals, including Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Philip Roberts, who had told Baptist Press, “Southern Baptists ought to take it as a badge of honor that he would boycott [us].”
Other Southern Baptist leaders have gone on record opposing Westboro’s actions. In 2007 Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land — referencing the protesting of military funerals — wrote a Baptist Press column calling the church “fanatical” and accusing it of practicing “verbal terrorism.”
“One cannot begin to imagine the increased pain and suffering it has settled in the hearts of these grieving mothers and fathers, spouses, children and siblings when in crazed speech this lunatic assaults them,” Land wrote. “In my opinion, Fred Phelps and his followers’ grotesque assault on these bereft family members is nothing less than verbal pornography and obscenity. It is not, and should not, be protected under the First Amendment. For this group of misguided zealots to do their despicable deeds in the name of God is blasphemous.”
Land has also been highly critical of Westboro’s claim — as referenced on its protest signs — that “God hates fags.” Land called Phelps’ views “a blasphemous contradiction of Christ’s message of redeeming love as supremely revealed in the person and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.”
“These twisted, sub-biblical perversions of the Christian faith are particularly dangerous in an increasingly biblically illiterate society that has only a cursory and decreasing knowledge of the Bible’s content and teachings,” Land said. “God does not hate anybody and God would never countenance the use of a demeaning and derogatory word like ‘fag’ to describe a human being for whom His Son died. God loathes and detests homosexuality, but God loves the homosexual.”
In 2005, around the time Westboro began picketing military funerals, then-SBC President Bobby Welch noted that the SBC has consistently distanced itself “from Phelps’ hate-filled activities.”
“It is incorrigible that any person for any reason would take such devastating advantage of brokenhearted children, spouses and parents, at a funeral of their loved one, to draw attention to themselves,” Welch said. “Such an ignorant and uncaring disregard for people’s deep feelings will undoubtedly cut into raw nerves that will produce unpredictable negative results.”
In 1999 messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that didn’t mention Phelps by name but did say: “[W]e publicly denounce and deplore all violent attacks upon homosexuals, and that we express our abhorrence of the teaching that God hates any person on account of an immoral lifestyle.”
Oldham, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee vice president, said it was particularly offensive to see the news about Westboro’s court victory during the week leading up to Easter.
“We are grieved that Passion Week and Resurrection Day (Easter) were overshadowed by such scandalous behavior — not the scandal of the cross, which all followers of Christ willingly endure, but the scandal of drawing attention to self,” Oldham said. “Scripture reminds us to glory only in the cross of Jesus. Our only mission as followers of Jesus is to encourage people to see and hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything less is a prideful exercise in futility.
“The message of Jesus’ death on the cross forces us to see how miserably we fail to measure up to God’s righteousness. When we look into the mirror of God’s holiness, we see ourselves for the sinners we are. Thus, the cross is, by itself, offensive to those who do not believe. It calls us to turn from our sin and cling to the Savior for deliverance and forgiveness,” Oldham continued.
“Individual Southern Baptists do their best to point others away from themselves and to the cross of Jesus. They perform acts of kindness in the name of Jesus. They serve in soup kitchens, distribute clothing, visit the sick, attend to those in jail, organize food drives and gently share the Gospel with their friends and neighbors. They rush to render aid when disaster strikes. They lead support groups to help people ensnared by sinful addictions find deliverance through Christ. They care for widows and provide services for children and youth. The only offense we hope we bring to the public square is the accusation that we cling to the cross, and believe in and follow Jesus.”
To read Baptist Press’ past stories and leaders’ statements about Westboro, visit www.bpnews.net and search for “Westboro.”