What I have in common with Fred Phelps

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Taking God’s Word seriously

Recently I was asked if our new church in Kansas City is affiliated with Fred Phelps. For those unfamiliar with Phelps, his Westboro Baptist Church (which is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination) in nearby Topeka, Kan., is best known for waving “God hates fags” signs in front of Episcopal churches, at funerals of American soldiers and at AIDS clinics.

Needless to say, I immediately distanced myself from Phelps and his church. In no way do I want to be associated with this group, for I believe that the gospel of Jesus is one of love, not hatred.

Yet, as I reflect upon the disgusting tactics this church uses for its “ministry,” I realize that what lies behind their tactics is a desire—albeit misguided—to take the Bible seriously. However, somewhere along the way the Bible no longer was useful for their own faith and faithfulness but became a rock thrown in hate at those who believe or live differently.

Anabaptists have always taken the Bible seriously. It would be difficult to deny that, especially with a history of martyrdom due to the seriousness with which those in our tradition have taken God’s Word. And now, over 500 years later, Mennonite Brethren continue to take the Bible seriously. We believe that the words found in Scripture are foremost in shaping our communities of faith. We interpret them in community, and we believe in the importance of following the commands of the Bible, particularly those of Jesus.

Our Confession of Faith says this about the Bible: “We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit guides the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture. The person, teaching and life of Jesus Christ bring continuity and clarity to both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ, and Christ is the One whom the New Testament proclaims. We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice” (Article 2).

Yet in subtle ways we sometimes find ourselves acting eerily similar to Topeka’s famous picketing church. We must be careful that our high view of the Bible does not turn into a weapon to be used against those who see things differently than us. We don’t picket; we’re way too passive-aggressive for that.

“The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it,” is the line a seminary professor would use in reference to the simple way many evangelicals tend to look at the Bible. The trouble with this statement is that it is almost always stated in reference to others rather than ourselves. When it comes to someone else we tend to see things in black and white, but in our own lives, we see things in shades of gray.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 says: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

We tend to focus on “God-breathed” as confirmation for man-made categories such as “inerrancy” or “infallibility.” Yet the purpose of this passage is found in the “so that.” The true purpose of Scripture is to equip men and women to be faithful, for us to be faithful.

The only way to take the Bible seriously is for it to be truly authoritative: When it changes who we are as people of God, we validate its authority, and when we act as people of God, we do so because we are authorized to do so by the Scriptures. We no longer argue over the nature of Scripture, and we submit to its authority.

Perhaps the reason that the Bible has so little authority in the world today has nothing to do with science, reason, certitude, literalism or liberalism. Perhaps it has everything to do with the lack of authority that we Christians have given the Bible over our own lives. Maybe if we would allow the authority of Scripture to reign over us, the Bible would be given authority once again.

This month, may we allow the words of Scripture to have full authority over our lives, changing who we are and how we live. May we use God’s Word not as a weapon against others but to change our communities so that we may partner with God in impacting others.

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