October 7th, 2010
04:19 PM ET

My take: Fred Phelps is wrong about the gospel, right about the law

Editor's Note: Wayne Grudem, research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary om Phoenix, Arizona, is author of Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture.

By Wayne Grudem, Special to CNN

Are the deaths of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan a sign of God’s judgment on America?

So says the Rev. Fred Phelps, who goes to military funerals with signs saying “God hates you” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” But Albert Snyder, the father of a dead marine, sued Phelps for causing him emotional distress by picketing at the 2006 funeral of his son, Marine Matthew Snyder.

The case came before the Supreme Court yesterday.

As a Christian professor of theology and biblical studies, I wish I could tell Fred Phelps that he is violating Jesus’ teaching that “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).

Would Phelps want protesters to disrupt his son or daughter’s funeral? Surely not.

I remember how the funeral of a young family member overwhelmed me with a deeper grief and a deeper experience of God’s comfort in sorrow than I have ever felt in my life. For anyone to intrude on such a sacred time with angry protests is to violate our need for privacy when we long to be alone with family and friends and God.

I support the laws that now exist in 40 states placing restrictions on such protests anywhere near funerals. These laws rightly protect the dignity and privacy of such a solemn event.

Fred Phelps is also wrong because he misrepresents the “good news” of the Gospel of Christ.

The most famous verse in the Bible does not begin, “For God so hated the world, that he gave his only Son,” but “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

Jesus did not win followers by saying, “I hate you, please follow me.” Rather, he said: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Yes, God certainly calls people to repent of their sins so that they can find forgiveness in Christ, but I am grieved to see that Phelps’ message, speaking only of God’s hatred, simply turns people away from a personal relationship with Christ.

Is it a sign of God’s judgment, as Pastor Phelps claims, when U.S. soldiers die in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? I don’t think so.

These wars are essentially wars to defend our nation from terrorism, and as such they are “just wars.” Therefore a soldier who fights in these wars to protect our nation is what the apostle Paul calls “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4).

In carrying a weapon to defeat a nation’s enemies, a soldier “does not bear the sword in vain” but he is “a servant of God . . . who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).

So Fred Phelps has it all wrong. The Bible sees Matthew Snyder as “God’s servant” for our good, and his death in that just cause demonstrated his great love for the country he served.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Christians should mourn Matthew Snyder’s death and honor such servants of God in the military, not gloat over their deaths as Fred Phelps did in his reprehensible protest.

But yesterday's Supreme Court case raises another question. Should Albert Snyder be able to sue Pastor Phelps for millions of dollars in damages because of the “emotional distress” that Phelps caused by his protest –– from about 1000 feet away - at Matthew Snyder’s funeral?

If successful, I fear that Snyder’s lawsuit would set a dangerous precedent whereby anyone who felt offended by a distasteful message could silence unpopular speech through massive fines imposed by the courts. Freedom of speech would be chilled.

The Bible also values human liberty: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants,” says Leviticus 25:10, a verse that was important to our Founding Fathers.

They embedded freedom of speech in the First Amendment as one of our essential liberties: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” And freedom of speech must protect unpopular and distasteful speech or it is no freedom at all.

The laws that protect Fred Phelps’ right to hold up reprehensible signs also protect the free speech of all other religions, whether we think them right or wrong. And they protect my right to speak about Jesus Christ in public without fear of fines or prison, as in other nations.

Our laws should protect funerals from unwelcome intrusions, but they should also protect the freedom of misguided people to proclaim wrongful ideas at a reasonable distance, without fear of being silenced by lawsuits from those who feel offended.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wayne Grudem.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Homosexuality • Opinion

soundoff (73 Responses)
  1. Katie

    Even tho im gay, i agree with fred, except: water baptism, protesting funerals, and thats about it, folks.

    July 5, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  2. Chelsea

    Phelps is dragging the name "Christian" through the mud, I'm not entirely sure he even is Christian or he's just hiding behind a smoke screen for 15 minutes of fame. I don't think I've seen a worse misunderstanding of the Bible. Yes they have freedom of speech and are unfortunately legally allowed to committ such heinous acts, however, they WON'T WIN in the court of God. And isn't that the court that matters the most?

    March 9, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  3. Iqbal khan


    October 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
  4. M.

    Fred Phelps and his brain-dead cult need to get a clue. They are a tiny cult yet they are known throughout the country and the world. With idiots like him and the [would-be] Quran burning preacher and others, no wonder the rest of the world looks at the US as an ignorant nation.

    Their rhetoric is hurtful, vitriolic, unnecessary. I'm not convinced that it is indeed legal, either. Freedom of speech is a great and beautiful thing, but it has limits. People should be able to say offensive–or even disrespectful–things. But people should not be legally protected to say hateful things–things that are *intentionally* meant to be hateful, desecrate someone's character, or cause emotional duress. I couldn't yell at my partner, calling her obscene things.

    In Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, the Supreme Court decided that "fighting words" are not protected: words that "tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

    Yet this is what the Phelps' clan is allowed to do. Furthermore, at a funeral, people have an expectation of privacy. Why is this waste of air allowed to violate that?

    If he [and others like him] think they will win converts or change people's minds with this hate, they are oh so wrong!

    October 9, 2010 at 10:13 pm |
    • M.

      Whoops, that should say, "...things that cause...emotional distress" [not duress!]


      October 9, 2010 at 10:16 pm |
  5. Iqbal khan


    October 9, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
    • Frank Edwrds

      You have got to be kidding...

      December 26, 2010 at 11:19 pm |
  6. lesa

    I support our guys and girls 100%

    October 9, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  7. Rob in Iowa

    It seems that Phelps is trying to take God's place as Judge, the problem however is that only God is God, the Righteous Judge and God sees the whole picture. God is merciful and loves all men, but man is sinful. God is perfect, pure and holy and because of that He cannot be in the presence of sin, He must judge and destroy it. Darkness flees from His presence.
    Humanity is sinful and deserving of condemnation, yet God loves us and didn't want to punish us for our sins because in doing so we would be destroyed and separated from him forever, "8but(A) God shows his love for us in that(B) while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8. God loved us enough to send His one and only Son, Jesus(God in man) to take our condemnation out on himself, because Jesus being without sin could not only handle our sin but He overcame it by resurrecting from the grace. He is the free gift of Salvation, All who believe in Jesus will be saved!! That is God’s position, we are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and love our neighbor (including our enemies and all who do wrong) as we love ourself. So Fred Phelps, if your son or daughter had just died in battle, would you want people to show up at the funeral to picket against the sins in or advocated by the nation they died for? Do you think that perhaps those soldiers and family members deserve to be disturbed for policies which they really have very little say over?

    October 9, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  8. Peace2All

    And wouldn't it be just ironic, if upon Pastor Phelps, or one of his Klan's death, that people show up and 'picket' at their funerals..?

    October 9, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  9. Iqbal khan

    Check this

    October 9, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  10. robert

    you know in this day of everybody saying what they think about everyone,it's wrong that rick was fired for saying what he thinks,i agree with him.
    i think that it is a great loss for cnn,but even more of a loss for the people that like to watch RICK..

    October 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.