Wednesday, March 19th 2014, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church died of natural causes at the age of 84. For those of you who are not familiar, Westboro Baptist Church (Which is neither Baptist, nor a church) is the group that is most widely known for their website (I won’t link to it or actually say what it is called… it shouldn’t be hard to find if you really want to check it out) and for picketing the funerals of slain soldiers. Fred Phelps was the patriarch and founder, and it is not too much to say that he was an enemy of Christ and of the Gospel. However, as I’ve observed the reactions of Christians to the news I see mixed reactions. Some are celebratory, some are using this as an excuse to defend some of his less radical statements, some are using it as an excuse to beat on each other (Phelps was a proponent of the unfortunately labeled Hyper-Calvinism, so he is often touted out as an example of why Calvinism is wrong…)
However, what I don’t see is a reaction of hope. That’s right, hope.
You see, something happened in August that flew mostly under the radar. I didn’t actually hear about it until the other day. Phelps was excommunicated (the language they use is “excluded”) by the board of elders, largely populated by his own children. The reason? He was advocating a more gentle approach to those with whom they disagreed. That is why I say we ought to react with hope. Is it possible that Phelps actually saw the error of his ways? Is it possible that the mockery of a church that is WBC exercising a form of what the Bible prescribes for discipline actually moved him toward repentance? I don’t know. Fred seems to have gone pretty silent after his exclusion… but it seems like it is possible.
Furthermore, I would argue that as a Christian we MUST react with hope. After all, Fred is no greater sinner than I. My sins are not as out as his, but they are no less sinful. My actions are not as vitriolic as his, but they are no more righteous. The only hope that you, I, or Fred Phelps ever has is the raw unmerited and unconditioned grace of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. Could his turn toward a gentler approach be an indication of his election bearing fruit toward the end of his life? I sure hope so. After all, the Tower of Siloam ought to fall on my head just as it did on Fred’s. I have earned the disdain of having my blood mingled with pagan sacrifice, as my sins are as repugnant to the Lord as such an affront to his dignity.
If I, for even a second, am willing to say that Fred Phelps was too far for God’s strong-arm to rescue… then I am condemning myself along with him.
So when we see the death of someone we disagree with, it is okay to celebrate that the damage their life was causing has come to an end. However, we ought to look on Christ and realize that this terrible sinner may just be one of Christ’s sheep, and although it may appear that he has wandered farther than you or I have from the fold… he is not beyond the reach of the Good Shepherd.