Kansas pastor Terry Fox was in the backseat of a taxi, on his way to a Southern Baptist Convention meeting, when a group of protesters caught the cab driver's attention.
"I didn't ever think I'd see the day when Southern Baptists were called liberal," the taxi driver told Fox.
The protesters, holding large signs proclaiming "God Hates Fags," were protesting the Southern Baptist Convention. They were just a few blocks from the meeting hall, but light years from the SBC's beliefs and practices.
"I love to tell people that he's the only guy I know of that calls Southern Baptists liberal," said Fox, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita, Kan.
The group of protesters was from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., a small non-Southern Baptist church headed by Fred Phelps Sr., a seventy-three-year-old man who claims he was sent by God to tell America about God's hatred of those he calls "fags." In the last twelve years, he and his family have traveled the country, conducting some 22,000 pickets. They've published books. They've set up websites (godhatesfags.com, godhatesamerica.com).
Most of their material focuses on Phelps' belief that homosexuals cannot be saved, should be executed, and that God has turned His back on America. Two recent tragedies — the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster — were judgments sent from God, Phelps asserts.
Because of Phelps' prominence, and because he's in Kansas, Fox has had to set the record straight many times: Phelps is not a Southern Baptist; he's far from it.
"I'm quick to tell [people] that he has picketed our churches and our convention," Fox said.
Phelps receives plenty of media attention wherever he pickets, and his website is constantly updated with links to new stories mentioning him and his church. The total number of stories since December: more than 200.
He's so prominent that the local newspaper in Topeka once published a special section about Phelps, which is still available on the paper's website under the banner, "Loving God's Hate: an in-depth look at Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church." In 1999, George magazine named him number five in a list of the "Twenty Most Fascinating Men in Politics."
Because Phelps' church claims the name "Baptist," he and Southern Baptists sometimes get lumped together, Fox said.
"Most media members don't know the difference between" the different types of Baptists, Fox said. "It's imperative that we tell people that he is not a part of who were are."
For his part, Phelps claims that Southern Baptists are involved in "kissy-pooh" preaching infatuated with God's love. He has picketed Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings, Southern Baptist churches, and the SBC Building in downtown Nashville (twice already in 2003).
He has even picketed funerals, including the one of Matthew Shepard, the homosexual college student who was beaten to death in Wyoming five years ago. Phelps' website has a ticker counting the number of days Shepard "has been in hell." The reason for the pickets: He wanted to warn those at the funeral about God's judgment.
Phelps views himself as doing the work of a modern-day prophet — telling Americans what he believes God wants them to hear, whether they like it or not.
According to Phelps' website, God doesn't have much use for preachers who proclaim God's love to everyone. "You are going to Hell!" the website exclaims. "Period! End of discussion! God's decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites! How can ye escape the damnation of Hell?!"
"That's Bible preaching," he told Baptist Press.
A disbarred lawyer, Phelps and his family began picketing in Topeka roughly twelve years ago. What began as a city venture became regional and then national, growing yearly. Today, he says he and his church spend some $250,000 a year on airline tickets alone. One of their most recent pickets was on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, during which justices heard a sodomy case.
"The people in our church work," he said. "They've got good jobs and they pay it. We will not accept donations. When people send us money, we return it with a form letter."
To say that his views are on the fringe of evangelical belief would be an understatement. He doesn't believe the sin of homosexuality is forgivable. Thus, he doesn't believe that homosexuals can be saved.
"No, I don't think that homosexuals can be saved," Phelps said. He pointed to Romans 1, where he says homosexuals have "been given up by God."
"… It's the only sin that by definition the adherents are proud of. You've never heard of an adulterous pride parade. You've never heard of anybody boasting and bragging about their sin."
Interestingly, Phelps says that he'd "be glad if they all get saved," although he doesn't believe it's possible. Questioned about Christians who have come out of the homosexual lifestyle, Phelps said he has yet to see a solid example.
"I'm still waiting to see one," he said.
Then there's the death penalty for homosexuals. Phelps is for it — although not by stoning. He once sent letters to every member of Congress — as well as every United Nations leader — telling them that capital punishment for homosexuals was the first step toward worldwide repentance.
"We [would] do it by lethal injection and other more human so-called means," he said. "But however this or that state does it, every last state ought to make it a crime and assess the penalty for it at death."
Has Phelps ever wondered if he does more harm than good?
"Not one time," he said, laughing. "Never. That's what the fags like to preach and talk about, but they are confused. They say that I am helping them more than anybody in the United States. But why do they assault us?"
Others, though, disagree.
"Southern Baptists ought to take it as a badge of honor that he would boycott [us]," said Phil Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. "The gay and lesbian community needs to realize the difference in attitude and ministry between Southern Baptists and people like Mr. Phelps."
What Does the Bible Say?
Phelps derives much of his beliefs from verses like Psalm 5:5, which reads, The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity.
"You tell [people] that God loves everybody?" Phelps asked. "You're lying on God."
But two Midwestern Seminary Old Testament professors said that Psalm 5:5 — and other similar verses — must be viewed in context with the rest of Scripture. Christians serve a God of both justice and wrath and of love, grace, and mercy, they said.
"The tendency today is for people to focus very heavily on the love of God in the New Testament or the wrath of God in the Old Testament," professor Gary Smith said. "But I see them equally balanced in both Testaments. There are literally hundreds of verses in the New Testament about God's wrath. Try reading the first few chapters of Romans. There are all kinds of verses about God's love, grace and compassion, mercy and forgiveness [also] in the Old Testament.
"The difficulty we have is keeping those in balance. To me, it's just ridiculous to say that God doesn't love the homosexual."
But verses like Psalm 5:5 should not be swept under the rug, the Midwestern professors say. In a sense, God exhibits both righteous hatred and love toward unrepentant sinners, while at the same time desiring for them to repent and believe, professor Albert Bean noted.
"I think that's true — particularly if it's a sinner who is stiff-necked, hard-headed in his or her sin," Bean said. "That's when the judgment of God is really loosed — whether we're talking about the corporate level or the individual level."
Bean said there are many cases in the Bible where "God effectively says, 'You have chosen to go that way, and that's not the way I want you to go, but you will suffer consequences for it.' That's certainly a part of His hatred of sin."
Said Smith: "I don't think it's too surprising to say that God would hate evil people. But what He's hating is the sinfulness of the evil people. You can make a case that God hates the sinful homosexual, God hates the murderer."
Smith pointed out that Psalm 5 speaks of other sins, including two that would cover most people: boastfulness and the speaking of falsehoods.
"I don't think you can say that one has the priority over the other," he said.
Bean agreed. "[Psalm 5:5] is a reminder to the congregation … that God is not on the side of the doers of evil. The strongest way to put that is to use the word 'hate.'
"So much of the 'God hate' language is in opposition to the proud, which would certainly address any of us who think that we are righteous in some way," he said. "There definitely has to be a balance there."
God's immense love, though, must be part of one's overall interpretation of Scripture, the two professors said. It is, then, still biblical to tell a homosexual, "God loves you."
Phelps' critics point to a host of verses testifying of God's love: 1 John 4:8 (God is love …), 1 John 4:11 (Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another …), and John 3:16 (For God so loved the world …).
"All of us were unworthy and were loved while we were sinners," Smith said, paraphrasing Romans 5:8. "I would say, yes, God has a love for any sinner."
This concept can be seen, Smith said, in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
God is the ultimate judge, Smith added.
"This is something that is in the heart of the person and the mind of God," he said. "It's not for us to judge. To me, the proof is quite simple. There have been homosexual people who have come to Christ. It's obvious that this is not some unpardonable sin that makes it impossible for people to come back to Christ."
The nation of Israel is a great example of the balance between God's love and justice, Smith said.
"Eventually, He had to go to the lengths of destroying the nation — many people dying and going into exile — because of their rebellious sinfulness," he said. "But the text — the way I read it — indicates that He still loves them."
Can Homosexuals Be Saved?
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 presents a problem for Phelps' beliefs, his critics say. There, the apostle Paul is writing the church at Corinth and listing a series of people — including homosexuals, idolaters, and adulterers — that will not inherit the kingdom of God. Paul then writes, Such were some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our Lord.
Said Midwestern's Bean: "God has not said, 'These sins are the big ones and you can't be saved.'"
Phelps, though, said the passage is not referring to what he calls "fags."
"I don't say that everybody who's ever had a rare, sporadic, or occasional experience — that they were ashamed of, that they somehow got trapped into it as part of their loose living — I don't say that every one of them is in that category," he said. "What I'm saying is that those that are what they call 'in the life' [cannot be saved]."
But the executive director of Exodus International — a Christian organization for former homosexuals — says Scripture is on his side.
"It's 2,000-year-old evidence that God is in the healing business," said Alan Chambers, himself a former homosexual. "Right among those people that He healed were homosexuals."
Chambers became involved in the homosexual lifestyle as an eighteen-year-old before a church began reaching out to him. He has been married for five years.
"God didn't create me this way and He didn't want me to live this way," Chambers said, referring to his former lifestyle. "I found a wonderful congregation that showed me God's love."
Chambers quoted 2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Ironically, Phelps and homosexual activists have much of the same message Chambers said. Phelps has picketed "Love One Out" meetings, which are geared toward taking the gospel to homosexuals.
"He's out there standing alongside gay activists, and their message is the same: homosexuality isn't healable (and) God can't do anything about that. … It's a death message," Chambers said. "Their message is the same. … He's more like a gay activist than he'd like to believe."
What Do Southern Baptists Believe?
The Southern Baptist Convention has repeatedly stated its position on homosexuality. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message says that "Christians should oppose … all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography."
Since 1980 various SBC annual meetings have passed ten resolutions related to homosexuality, including one in 1985 testifying of God's love for homosexuals. It reads: "We affirm the biblical injunction which declares homosexuals, like all sinners, can receive forgiveness and victory through personal faith in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11); and … we maintain that while God loves the homosexual and offers salvation, homosexuality is not a normal lifestyle and is an abomination in the eyes of God (Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:24-28; 1 Timothy 1:8-10)."
The difference between Fred Phelps and Southern Baptists is vast, Midwestern's Roberts said.
"[Phelps] has a heretical position, because indeed we are commanded to go and make disciples of all people," he said. "That means all religions, ethnicities, and moral categories [while] realizing that all of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
Phelps' position is non-biblical in both its "posture and attitude," Roberts added.
"[Homosexuals] need Jesus Christ just as everyone does," Roberts said. "The sin of homosexuality is a forgivable sin. … He's apparently quite willing to do God's work for Him in terms of condemning them all to hell without mentioning that redemption awaits anyone who comes to faith in Christ."
Even if a homosexual refuses to repent, Roberts said, "We're still commanded to love them as our neighbor." He added that some of the most "outstanding" Christians he has met are former homosexuals.
"Our posture has to be to point them to the fact that life's greatest reward is found in being obedient to Jesus and that means being obedient to His commands," Roberts said. "… Folks need to realize that this man is not representative of the Christian community."