Fred Phelps, arguably the most hated Christian in the United States, died on March 19. Phelps was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in 1955. WBC is an independent Baptist church with no connection to mainstream Baptists.
His church of about 40—mostly family members—has gained national and international notoriety as the church of hate that pickets funerals of gays and American soldiers with hostile placards.
Their church website not only condemns gays but tells you God also hates America; Islam; and the media. There’s even a video, God hates Australia. And, in case any should feel left out, God hates the world.
Any disaster or loss of life is seen as an act of God, for which we should be thankful as a “display of God’s almighty power”. It was God who killed the 6801 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number counter on the website tells how many people God has cast into hell since the page has been opened—it goes up by about two a second. In case you’re wondering, WBC members “lose zero nanoseconds of sleep over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiings".
There’s something so unbiblical about all of this. Here’s why:
1. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).1 That’s basic Christianity. That’s what helps us make sense of this world.
2. “God loved the world so much that He gave . . .” (John 3:16). Love acts. Always. God has acted in Jesus and offered life to “whoever”. Anyone can be a whoever—there are no racial, ethnic, religious, dress, diet, orientation or lifestyle barriers that this promise doesn’t cross. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).
3. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest command, He replied, “Love God with your whole being” and “love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40). Love God; love others. This is what you’d expect from a God who is love.
4. Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34, 35). The church family is a place where 1 Corinthians 13 love is to be lived out.
Is that the whole story?
But there’s another side to the story. There are also occasions when we’re told God hates. How can this be? How can love and hate exist together? Aren’t they opposites that, like darkness and light, are impossible together?
Yet the Bible says: God hates those who do violence (Psalm 11:5); those who celebrate the new moon and annual festivals—at certain times (Isaiah 1:14); He hated Israel since Gilgal (Hosea 9:15); and He loved Jacob, but rejected (“hated,” NIV) Esau (Malachi 1:2, 3).
Should we, like Fred Phelps, make a list of people we hate—to follow God’s example?
Here’s the problem: Even a shallow understanding of the New Testament would make us question whether God can actually hate—at least in the ways we understand it. The love He demonstrates appears too big and broad, too all-encompassing.
Hate is a judgement call because hating involves making some kind of judgement about the individual or group being hated. It’s in understanding God’s role and our role in making judgements that we find some answers.
In the Old Testament we find various acts of God’s judgement. These include those times He used the Israelites to enact judgements on others. The story of Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament also reveals an act of God’s judgement. Predictions of future judgement demonstrate that God is a Judge who will act when He deems it necessary.
The heart is key to understanding God’s judgement—His heart and our hearts. First, God’s heart is revealed at the time of Noah’s flood. This judgement came out of extreme sorrow; it also “broke His heart” (Genesis 6:6). This was not an act of vindictiveness or of hatred.
Then, God understands our hearts. He’s quite clear that He sees individuals not as we see them. Simply stated, “People judge by outward appearance;” God “looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7). That’s why we must leave judgement calls to God.
Jesus is specific about this: “Do not judge others and you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). The scary thing about this statement is that it comes from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus emphasises that even thinking of doing something is as bad as doing it.
But then you have John the Baptist openly challenging (and judging) Herod for his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. Doesn’t this demonstrate that there are times for a straight, pointed, condemning testimony?
Yes there are, but there’s another factor to consider. Herod was a part of the Jews, an insider. Born part-Jew (his mother was a Jew), he was a ruler of the Jews, and understood and at least partially followed the ways of the Jews. He was one of them. John the Baptist’s challenge was a forerunner of the way Christians were to take.
It works like this: Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). Jesus' followers are to be Jesus like. Our role is not to condemn (judge) the world, either. Within our own ranks, though, we are to expect a high standard of Christian conduct and there are times when a judgement call—and even discipline—is needed. Jesus endorsed this by giving the process as to how that should be managed (see Matthew 18:15-17).
The apostle Paul wrote about the within-without process of judging and discipline in this way: “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.” And so there would be no misunderstanding: “God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, ‘You must remove the evil person from among you’” (1 Corinthians: 5:12, 13).
Our commission is to make disciples with the weapons of light (love), not of darkness (hate). The greatest command is still to love God and love others. That’s the Christian way. Hate, a destructive force, is the enemy’s way.
The better way
Hate begets hate. Hate can never be a revelation of who God is, His ways or who He wants us to be. “God is love. Period. Are we love? Do we love? Love is the bottom line. Love is what matters most. Love is the primary measure God uses to determine what is valuable and what is worthless. Love lasts.”2
Love means treating people we disagree with, with care and respect (including Fred Phelpses) because love pulls down barriers. Hate builds them up.
Ellen White was an enthusiast for this kind of approach. In an era when it was popular for Protestants to openly attack Catholics, she argued against it. She wrote a strong letter to the editor of Australia’s Bible Echo and Signs of the Times in 1896:
“Brethren, I feel hurt when I see that so many decided thrusts are made against the Catholics. Preach the truth, but restrain the words which show a harsh spirit; for such words cannot help or enlighten anyone. . . . [F]or Christ’s sake heed the admonitions which have been given in regard to making scathing remarks about the Catholics. . . . Satan rejoices when one word of bitterness is found on its pages.”3
One of the tragedies for Fred Phelps is that a couple of months before his death, he was excommunicated from WBC. It came after he asked for a “kinder approach” in how they dealt with each other in the church.4
Was this a case of the organisation and philosophy Phelps set up coming back to bite him? Hate begetting hate?
Whatever the case, I hope he understood that God loved him. God loves. That never stops for anyone. It can’t, for God is love.
All Bible quotes from the New Living Translation.
Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Life, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2013, pages 83, 84.
Ellen G White, Letter 20, 1896 (Counsels to Editors and Writers, page 63).
Dr Bruce Manners is senior pastor of Lilydale church, Vic.