If you don’t know him, he was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, the church most known for picketing military funerals and for carrying signs that spoke of God’s judgment on the United States. He prided himself in being hated by many and prided himself at proclaiming God’s judgment on the United States.
As an avid reader of the Bible and a follower of Christ, I have to admit, every time I saw a mention of him or his church in the media, my heart sank a little bit. I always knew that whatever I was going to read was going to make me feel like every relationship that I had ever forged with someone with whom I didn’t agree was being set back by inches, feet, or miles. I knew that somehow I would be associated with him and his church by simply wearing the label of “Christian,” and I felt that that was a very unfortunate conclusion.
Let’s face it, Christianity is exclusionary. Most Christians claim that there is no other way to salvation but through Jesus Christ. Being good isn’t enough. Following rules isn’t enough. Salvation comes through the grace of Jesus Christ, it’s not earned, it’s not bought, it’s a gift. It’s not a matter of getting it right, it’s a matter of realizing that grace has been extended to you and then extending that grace to others so that they too might understand that grace finds you where you are.
For that reason, the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is offensive. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The Gospel is nothing to be ashamed of either. As Paul also wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”
I get all that. I believe all that. But there are lots of people who don’t believe that. Trying to convince them of these things is hard enough without starting out by looking down on them, belittling them, condemning them, and straight up judging them. While the Gospel is exclusive and offensive, it is also a message of grace, of love undeserved, of being met where you are but not being left there.
My approach towards the Gospel is very different than that of Westboro. Phelps was quoted as saying, “If I had nobody mad at me, what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?” I think that he missed the point though. If people are mad at you for preaching the Gospel because the Gospel is offensive, that’s one thing, but if they are mad at you for being downright mean, nasty, and hateful, that’s another thing completely.
We’re not called to preach the Gospel with judgment, we’re just called to preach it and let it speak for itself. We are called to speak the truth IN LOVE. Truth can often be hard to stomach, if it’s seasoned with love, it can be a little more palatable. Do we let the Truth speak for itself or do we have to add our own commentary?
For all the hate that Phelps spewed, it’s no wonder that much hate is being spewed at him at the time of his death. I wouldn’t be surprised if Phelps and Company celebrated when Christopher Hitchens died back in 2011. Should it be a surprise that those who have been hated on will simply return that hate?
I’m not celebrating Phelps’ death. I am grieving that a man went into eternity with what seems to have been a skewed understanding of God’s love. I am grieving that the message of God’s judgment seems to have been more important than the message of God’s love. Yes, God will judge, but we are not the judges. We bring the message, we preach the Gospel, we speak the Truth, and what do we do from there?