As a professor of an institution affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination, I have been inundated with questions surrounding the recent Supreme Court ruling involving the Westboro Baptist Church and its right to free speech.
For anyone not familiar with the case, Westboro organizes protests that are carried out at the funerals of soldiers killed in the line of duty. The church members use the media exposure to not only offend bereaved family and friends, but to promote vitriolic messages of hate.
My reply to these questions has been, and will continue to be, “What is done in the name of Christianity isn’t always Christian!” And in the case of the Westboro church, the members’ behaviors are the exact opposite of the biblical mandate.
In a post-modern culture denying the existence of absolute truth and an absolute truth-giver, the church must not only promote truth, but live it as well. Jesus Christ was not just significant because he preached and lived truth, but because he was the very embodiment of it.
At one point in his ministry he told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Jesus was making the claim that he could teach truth because he was the truth.
Was this a bold claim? C.S. Lewis, author of the popular “Chronicles of Narnia,” wrote that Christ was “either a lunatic and a liar, or Lord.” Lewis understood that Jesus either was who he said he was, or he was just another “nut job” promoting a false belief system.
Some have claimed Jesus was a “good moral teacher,” “a great example of a living ethic,” or “a perfect role model,” but he cannot just be those things. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God. The apostle John referred to Christ as “the Word,” a metaphor referencing Jesus’ authority as the author and creator of truth. If Jesus is lying about who he really is, than how can he be a “good moral teacher” or “perfect role model?”
However, if Christ is who he said he was, those who call themselves Christian have an obligation to accept and live according to his teachings. The word “Christian” is derived from the Greek word Christianos, which meant “slave of or member of the household of Christ.” In ancient Rome, where the vast majority of the people living under Roman rule were servants or slaves, a person was often identified by the household he belonged to. By calling themselves “Christian,” first century believers were identifying themselves as belonging to Christ.
This concept of ownership revolved around the Christian’s belief that he had been purchased by the blood of Christ shed for him on the cross. This ownership then, was to be reflected in the adherence to Jesus’ teaching as an act of worship.
So how does all of that apply to Westboro Baptist Church? Actions conducted in the name of Christianity do not always adhere to the teachings of the Bible, and in the case of Westboro, its actions are contrary to the scriptural teachings of Christ. There is an appropriate forum and place for debating the interpretation and application of biblical claims, but the funeral of a soldier killed in the line of duty is not it.
Jesus once told a scribe that the greatest commandment was “to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.” A Christian shows his love of God by adhering to the truth of the Bible, and lovingly sharing that Gospel truth with his neighbor.
Christ’s redeeming message of love through sacrifice is not promoted through hateful messages scrawled on signs displayed at the funeral of a person who also sacrificed for others. In fact, these actions are at the height of hypocrisy in light of Jesus’ redemptive loving sacrifice for others on a cross.
Max Soft teaches history, theology and ethics at the University of Mary and at Yellowstone Baptist College in Billings.
The Faith & Values column appears regularly in the Saturday Life section of The Billings Gazette.
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