Westboro Baptist Church, the self-described “independent Baptist Church,” from Topeka, Kansas, has gained attention most recently by its decision to picket a seminar at Searsport District High School in Searsport, Maine. The seminar is the outgrowth of a history class project conducted by senior student Zack Parker. As reported in the Bangor Daily News, Parker’s goal is to seek federal legislation outlawing demonstrations at military funerals for which Westboro Baptist Church is known.
The radical congregation’s activities have brought about numerous misconceptions because the church identifies itself on its website as an “old school Primitive Baptist Church.” These misconceptions deserve serious attention.
Attempts by Westboro Baptist Church to identify itself with other Baptists has drawn strong reaction. In an interview on Fox News, Parker commented, “As a Baptist myself, I can tell you this church has no Baptist values whatsoever.”
Ben Winslett, a Primitive Baptist from Huntsville, Alabama, responded in his blog (www.thehuntsvillepatriot.com) with much the same feeling toward Fred Phelps, founding pastor or Westboro Baptist Church: “Please take it from me that Primitive Baptists have no fellowship or association with Fred Phelps. He is no Primitive Baptist Elder. He has taken it upon himself to use our name. Our order of faith does not condone the actions of Phelps. In fact, we DETEST his behavior.”
For his part, Phelps has written an open letter on his website addressed to Primitive Baptists and complaining for their lack of support. “Where is the boldness of Primitive Baptists? Why aren’t the Primitive Baptists preaching upon the housetops (Mat. 10:27)?”
According to the church’s website (www.godhatesfags.com), the Fred Phelps is the founding pastor of the church. In fact, the church consists almost entirely of Phelps’ family members. Phelps and his followers appear to be driven by their thirst for publicity and they have gained aplenty, as their website records. The church claims to stand in the Calvinistic tradition of Primitive Baptists, adhering to “sovereign grace.” This statement is fundamentally misleading. Grace is conspicuously absent from their doctrine and message, and the church is utterly rejected by other Baptists on this account. As Winslett writes in his blog, “True Primitive Baptists love the Lord and His people. We believe in the Salvation of sinners by Sovereign Grace.”
The striking lack of grace or mercy is the telling point about Westboro Baptist Church. It reveals why Phelps message, so steeped in hatred, is looked upon by other Baptists as nothing more than the ravings of a cult group. While judgement is a central theme in the Bible, it is not the primary theme. The core message of the New Testament is the “gospel” or “good news” that sinners can be forgiven and redeemed. By contrast, Phelps and his family are not driven by grace, but rather by their insatiable need for attention.
This author has been an ordained Baptist minister for over thirty-three years and quite familiar with Primitive Baptists in the Calvinistic, sovereign grace persuasion. When a fellow pastor learned of this article, his reaction was typical among Baptists: “I detest everything he (Phelps) stands for.”
“Detest” seems to be the common term. The Westboro phenomenon may be may things – a fake, a farce, or the fanatical ravings of one fringe family, but there are a few things it is not. It is not a recognized church among other churches of like faith and fellowship. It is not orthodox in its message. It is not remotely Christian in its doctrine, practice or principles.
Don’t confuse it with the real thing.