For the past few years the United States of America has been “treated” to the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps family’s singular devotion to picketing funerals with offensive statements. They are best known for their “God hates fags” sign and sentiments, but their convictions regarding whom God hates does not stop with those practicing homosexuality. They also believe that God hates Jewish people, Catholics, many in other Protestant denominations, the Orthodox, and the Mormons, although they do stand against racism. They have elevated the practice and homosexuality, and the official tolerance thereof, as the ultimate sin, and are convinced that various events are signs of God’s judgment upon America for it; such motivates their picketing and protesting. Their church has around forty members, mostly members of the Phelps family, and even then, the family has seen notable defections in recent years.
How does such a group have such a strong hold on the American psyche? Their behavior is tailor-made for outrage and generates an audience and interest. People will click on links or watch news stories about them, if nothing else, to become righteously indignant against them. They have perfectly manipulated the media in order to promote their viewpoint and ideology; thanks to them, when many people think of conservative and/or Evangelical Christianity, Westboro Baptist and their signs come to mind.
Despite that association most people seem to recognize that Westboro Baptist and the behavior of its members is not consistent with Jesus’ ethic or commands. Jesus came to save sinners, not condemn them (John 3:16-17); none are so depraved as to be beyond repentance and salvation (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17). In almost every respect Westboro Baptist and its theology are on the fringe of Christendom, and for good reason. Their extreme Calvinism informs their belief that God would actively hate certain types of people whose behavior displays their condemnation and gives them no hope of repentance and that Jesus’ death cannot be effective for them. Picketing and protesting is as American as apple pie, and their facile direct connection between the sin they abhor and belief in imminent judgment on account of it is also quite consistent with many trends in American Evangelical theology. Westboro Baptist is an American church from a particular subculture within Evangelicalism.
It is not difficult to refute their theology from Scripture: Calvinism is ultimately quite inconsistent with the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ and suggests a Neoplatonic view of God. God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); condemnation is based in man’s disobedience, not in God’s predetermined choice (Romans 2:6-11). Yet even most Calvinists maintain the humility to recognize God’s inscrutable ways and would not deign to speak for Him in the way Westboro Baptist members do (Romans 11:33-36). God may be judging the United States of America; if Isaiah 1:10-17 would be any assistance in helping us understand such a judgment, we would recognize that the judgment would be for many other reasons beyond the toleration of homosexual behavior. Even then, the judgment of God is far more evident in the past than in the present or future, and nowhere has God given Christians the prerogative to make direct associations between current events and His judgment. Everyone will most likely be surprised at how God has judged the nations, when, and for what reasons in the end. Furthermore, the posture of picketing with deliberately provocative statements runs entirely afoul of Romans 12:17-18, Colossians 4:9, and 1 Peter 3:15-16, and has no apostolic parallel.
The days of Westboro Baptist are no doubt numbered; they still picket and protest but do not generate the same level as interest as before. Its founder, Fred Phelps, was ultimately excommunicated from the group himself and has passed on; soon the whole group itself will pass on or at least fade into obscurity. Good riddance, we may say; they are not really helping the cause of Christ but give the Gentiles reason to blaspheme, And yet we do well to explore what energizes the posture and methods of Westboro Baptist Church, because even if this particular organization fades, its methodology will persist.
Such is because Westboro Baptist is not alone. On almost every major college campus in the nation, and on many street corners, and on many church signs, many who profess Christ take on the mantle of prophet, condemning their fellow Americans for their sins. In their minds, the United States of America is a Christian nation, and therefore Americans are the elect; they should know better, and so they deserve to hear sharp denunciation about their sins. They are genuinely afraid that God’s vengeance will come upon America for not following God’s ways just like it did on Israel. Challenging such people or arguing with them only exacerbates the problem: such is persecution and resistance in their minds and serves to reinforce their convictions. Such harassment is what they expect in their self-proclaimed role as prophet; expecting a perspicacious or self-reflective attitude in such people is generally futile.
This ideology is the diseased fruit of many strains of American theology. Ever since the Pilgrims came ashore many have desired to turn America into a new Israel even though the Lord Jesus established a transnational Kingdom which cannot be confined to the interests or populace of any given nation-state (Daniel 7:13-14, John 18:36, Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 1:13). American Protestants have never done well to respect covenant boundaries; it should therefore not surprise anyone when many Protestants and Evangelicals see themselves in the Old Testament in grossly inappropriate ways and seek a theocracy to some degree or another. Evangelical emphasis on dispensational premillennialism has always encouraged speculation regarding the imminence of the expected series of events surrounding the “rapture” and “tribulation” and it proves all too easy to see the “fulfillment of prophecy” in one’s own fears and concerns.
Only in this way can we understand the Westboro Baptist and street “prophet” phenomenon. Prophecy is being fulfilled; thus, you have to warn people. The prophets sharply condemned the sins of the Israelites; thus, you have to condemn the sins of your fellow Americans who should know better. Only with steely resolve can you sustain this type of mentality and posture toward the world; any critique or challenge has to be seen as a demonic or Satanic attack keeping you from bearing witness.
Such is why the only real defense against such terrible theology is good theology. We must stand against the impulse to consider America to be a “Christian nation,” to uphold the covenant boundaries between the old and the new, to understand who the prophets were and what they were about, and to understand the posture of the Christian toward his fellow people in light of the Gospel and its promotion.
The United States has never been a “Christian nation.” It has been, from its founding, a nation full of people who professed Christianity, and has contained many righteous people within it. Many may want to appeal to how pious many early Americans were and how strongly they desired to create a nation according to what God revealed in Scripture; however, quite tellingly, one cannot find evidence in Scripture that God’s goal or purpose was to create a “Christian nation” on earth! In the New Testament, Caesar was to receive what was his, and God was to receive what belonged to Him (Matthew 22:21); Jesus’ Kingdom was explicitly not of this world (John 18:36). The New Testament contains no revelation regarding how to build a “Christian nation”; instead, it expects citizens of God’s Kingdom to honor, respect, and obey earthly leaders while maintaining primary loyalty to God and His purposes (Romans 13:1-7, Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). The contrast with God’s involvement in Israel could not be more stark; that is not accidental (1 Peter 2:3-9).
The contrast is dulled, however, if one does not respect the differences in the covenants between God and Israel and God and all mankind in Jesus Christ. Both Paul and the Hebrew author make explicit delineations between the two (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-18, Hebrews 7:1-9:28); both affirm the superiority of the covenant God has made in Christ (e.g. Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 8:4-7). There is great continuity between the covenants, since God remains the same, and the story of God’s working in His people persists (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Ephesians 3:10-11); nevertheless, the Kingdom God is building in Christ demands an entirely different posture in the world than existed in the days of Israel. If the Kingdom is transnational, as seen in Daniel 7:13-14, and contains both Jew and Gentile, as seen in Ephesians 2:11-18, then no individual nation-state can be as Israel, the uniquely chosen nation of God’s people. Therefore, the United States of America has no more right to presume itself to be God’s chosen nation than any other; furthermore, Jesus’ Kingdom ethics are not able to be sustained by any given nation-state (e.g. Matthew 5:38-48 vs. Romans 13:1-5). Thus, the United States of America is in no way automatically privileged by God. Its people are not intrinsically more holy or more elect than any other. Its behavior is not sanctified. We believe strongly that many Americans are in God’s Kingdom, and many Americans are part of God’s people and God’s purposes, but such is not because they are American, but because they have submitted to the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1-18).
The United States of America is not Israel. No prophets have been sent to it. Prophets were sent to Israel to convict them of their sins, not because God hated Israel, but quite the contrary: God loved Israel, and was calling her back to Himself as a husband attempts to reconcile with an adulterous wife (e.g. Hosea 1:1-11, 3:1-5). Prophetic indictment of Israel comes from a place of pain more than vengeance, from betrayal, since Israel went to serve other gods and did not uphold righteousness or justice (e.g. Hosea 2:1-23). Israel truly should have known better (Hosea 4:1-6); nevertheless, despite the necessary judgment, God still loved Israel, and still demonstrated covenant loyalty, grace, and mercy toward her, sending His Son to save all of Israel who would hear (Matthew 15:24, Luke 19:9-10). Jesus’ own example is instructive: He showed mercy to the sinners who knew their condition and yearned for repentance but sharply chastised and condemned the religious authorities who presumed themselves righteous and justified before God (Matthew 9:10-13, 23:1-36).
Even though Christians have been given a prophetic message which can be applied to the challenges of America, no Christian has been made a prophet to America (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Christians have no right to presume that Americans are God’s elect because they are Americans, and thus should be treated like Israel of old; instead, America is full of sinners, and sinners sin, because they do not know better.
Therefore, Christians are to treat their fellow Americans like Jesus treated people. Who deserves chastisement and rebuke? Members of the Westboro Baptist Church and all others who presume to speak for God, who presume themselves righteous, and yet who refuse to extend mercy and grace to others, just as Jesus chastised and rebuked the religious authorities of His day. Who is to hear the message of love and life in Christ, to hear the good news of redemption and hope in Jesus? Those whom the members of the Westboro Baptist Church and other condemn as hated by God, for God truly loves them and desires their repentance (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:8-9). As Christians we do well to remember that judgment does not belong to us but to God, and He will judge in His good time (Romans 14:12, James 4:11-12). We have no right to presume ourselves better than anyone else: we are all sinners, we all deserved condemnation, and our redemption was not gained through our own efforts but secured through God’s love, grace, and mercy (Romans 3:23, Ephesians 2:1-10). We are to strive to point others to Jesus so they can gain this redemption as well, always looking to ourselves, for we are all easily tempted (Galatians 6:1-6). We do well to point out and expose what God calls sin to be sin, and to explain why it is wrong (Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:3-13); nevertheless, on what basis do we have the right to say that God’s judgment is coming because of one particular type of sin? Our indictment of America for the sins we perceive in it tells people much more about us than it does about God’s judgment or sin, because ever since America was founded there have been justifiable reasons for God to condemn America for its sins! Perhaps God has already enacted judgment on America at times for its sins; perhaps God will bring condemnation on America because of how His people have not acted appropriately within it; perhaps the way God deals with and works through nations is more complex and sublime than a facile theology would allow. In truth these are things far too wonderful for us, and we do well to recognize that we are not God nor do we have the right to speak for Him in matters which are His prerogative and not explicitly revealed to us (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29).
As Christians, we must speak as God’s oracles indeed (1 Peter 4:9-11): like Jesus, our speech must be with grace, seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6). Christians do well to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, not the other way around. Condemnation belongs to God on the final day of judgment; until then, God wishes to save everyone, and if we would be of God, we must seek to save and not condemn (John 3:16-17, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 2:4). We do well to see where Westboro Baptist and its ilk went wrong, and not follow in the same path of disobedience. Instead, in all humility, may we bear witness to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship, encouraging all to repent before He returns!
Ethan R. Longhenry