Southern Baptist Convention president Bobby Welch denounced a Baptist congregation picketing funerals of U.S. troops killed in Iraq, pointing out it is not an SBC church and accusing it of “hate-filled activities.”
Southern Baptist leaders have in the past distanced the denomination from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., an independent congregation famous for its signature message of “God Hates Fags” in protests at events across the country.
For its part, the Westboro Baptist has often taken its “street ministry” to SBC annual meetings, claiming the nation’s largest non-Catholic faith group doesn’t go far enough in its condemnation of homosexuality.
But parishioners, most of whom are members of the extended family of Pastor Fred Phelps, have ignited a new round of criticism by showing up at military funerals mishandling the American flag and holding signs proclaiming U.S. casualties are one more sign that God is judging the nation for advancing the view “it’s OK to be gay.”
Welch, a decorated war hero in Vietnam, criticized Phelps and his church in a Tuesday story in Baptist Press.
Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., said the protestors “have gone far beyond reason in their efforts to use funerals of our fallen war heroes from Iraq to spotlight themselves.”
Welch narrowly survived after being critically wounded in battle. He has written a book applying military principles to church leadership. Welch is friends with Lt. Gen. “Jerry” Boykin, the Pentagon official who two years ago was criticized for speaking in churches and comparing the war on terrorism to spiritual warfare.
“Bin Laden is not the enemy,” Boykin said at one gathering. “No mortal is the enemy. It’s the enemy you can’t see. It’s a war against the forces of darkness. The battle won’t be won with guns. It will be won on our knees.”
Welch defended Boykin in a column hailing him as a hero and labeling his detractors back-stabbers.
Welch contrasted Phelps’ message of hate with Southern Baptists’ commitment, which he described as “to bring Jesus’ love, hope, life and salvation to all.”
Contacted by EthicsDaily.com, Westboro Baptist Church spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper called Southern Baptist leaders “false prophets” when it comes to homosexuality.
“We work hard to make sure that people do not hook us up with the cowards at the SBC,” Phelps-Roper said. “They carry the big lie that ‘God loves everyone.'”
Phelps-Roper said a thesis is untrue if it fails at any point, quoting Scripture including Malachi 1, “saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau.”
“You are in this life either Jacob or Esau,” she said in an e-mail interview. “There is no third category. If you are Esau (and the great mass of mankind is) God hates you and you are going to hell!”
Phelps-Roper was among about 10 members of the church who last weekend passed through Smyrna, Tenn., to protest the funeral of Army Staff Sgt. Asbury Hawn II, a Tennessee National Guardsman killed in Iraq Aug. 14.
Prior to the event, a retired Tennessee Baptist Convention worker and pastor was asked by a local newspaper his view on churches that proclaim hate.
“As Baptists, we look on homosexuality like adultery, but we don’t bash either,” Larry Kirk, interim pastor of Parkway Baptist Church in Smyrna, said in the Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn.
EthicsDaily.com e-mailed Kirk, a former associational consultant for the state convention, asking if Southern Baptists bash neither homosexuality nor adultery, why churches are removed for accepting homosexuals and not for condoning adultery.
Kirk replied that he believes homosexuality is sin, but so are adultery and hatred. Many Southern Baptists have dismissed ministers caught in adultery, he said. “Ministers are held to a higher standard of discipline than members,” Kirk said. “I know no church that removes members for sin issues. They may well remove them from prominent positions of leadership until they seek repentance before the Lord.”
Kirk said the church from Kansas “apparently missed the principle of Christ’s teachings–love the sinner while despising the sin.”
Phelps-Roper characterized that as a false distinction, quoting Psalm 5:5: “The Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man.”
“It does not say he hates their sin, but he hates them,” she said.
“You tell them God loves everyone, and what possible incentive do they have to live sober, righteous and godly as required by the Lord their God?” she asked. “They can live like the very devil and still die and go to heaven. Is that not promising them life?”
“I am so thankful that the SBC separates themselves from us and says all manner of evil against us,” she continued. “I have some Bible that gives me great comfort and hope!”
“We serve God, not man,” she said. “We are about the business of delivering the final call to this generation.”
Phelps-Roper said the current generation has been raised on “the triplets of death:”
“It’s OK to be gay. If you don’t agree, you are going to be the victim of every crime, demonized, marginalized, vilified, and your life will be sifted through like a trash can by a bum. God loves everyone.”
“That triple whammy is taking this generation to hell,” she said.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics decried Phelps’ literalistic reading of the Bible as “only one notch” over that of Southern Baptist fundamentalists.
“Both see God’s judgment on those they hate,” Parham said. “Phelps sees the death of American soldiers as divine judgment on a nation that approves of gays. Jerry Falwell sees 9/11 as divine retribution on a nation of abortionists, feminists and lesbians. And Henry Blackaby sees the tsunami as divine reckoning on those who persecute Christians. The message of judgment is at the core of fundamentalism and aimed at adversaries.”
Parham said had Phelps said the death of American soldiers was divine punishment because of Democrats, Welch would probably not have issued a statement distancing himself from the preacher from Topeka.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.