The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments October 6 on whether Westboro Baptist Church's street protests of military funerals are protected by the First Amendment. In 2009, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a $5 million verdict against Fred Phelps and his church in a lawsuit brought by the father of a fallen Iraq Marine who said the protest was an invasion of privacy.
"I've thought for a long time that Christians need to step up and criticize—I wouldn't use the word denounce, condemn, or anything like that—but criticize and correct fellow believers who behave badly, in public especially, or who are involved in immoral practices privately that become known. What we do is, especially in evangelical circles, we publicly criticize each other for heresies or heterodox ideas, such as open theism, but we don't often publicly criticize each other for flagrantly bad behavior. People have been very quiet about these things, and we need to say something and let it be known that they do not represent the evangelical world. I think that when you use a word like denounce or condemn, you're just playing into their game and acting like them, and so people are just going to point to that and say, 'See? They're all like that.' We should be civil toward fellow believers, but very firm, and say, 'We're not necessarily rejecting the people, but we're rejecting their practice.' I don't think it's really going to work with Fred Phelps and his family, but I think we need to distance ourselves from their practices, certainly."
Roger Olson, theologian, Baylor University
"Jesus gave us some pretty good direction in Matthew 18: that you confront someone and try to reason with them, and if they don't come around, then approach them again with others; and then if they don't, then you no longer associate with them in the hopes that it will win them over. But there does come a point where there needs to be a public explanation as to what is right and what is wrong. Just like we do with other actions that are wrong, like abortion, it can also be done with actions taken by Christians that we believe do not line up with the Scriptures."
Wendy Wright, president, Concerned Women For America
"I think there's a place for that. I do believe we need as the body of Christ to hold each other more accountable than we have in the past. I think we need to do a better job within the body of Christ, as opposed to trying to hold the world to a standard that they don't necessarily even understand. So the quote that I love—and I don't remember who coined it—is the idea that 'We're expecting the world to act like the church and allowing the church to act like the world.' It's a fine line. The issue of public rebuke—it really depends on what the issue is. If you're talking about somebody that is a leader who's living in a sinful context, I think we need to have some appropriate way of remedying those issues."
Jim Daly, CEO, Focus on the Family
"I think Matt. 18:15-20 provides Jesus' model. We should first try to reach an erring brother or sister privately. But if they will not listen to us, then "taking it to the church" would include a public critique if the "sin, mistake" is a public reality. To speak of "denouncing" others is too harsh, but a clear condemnation of wrong behavior is clearly appropriate. In a situation like the proposed burning of the Qur'an, it is extremely urgent. If it occurs, this event will get massive coverage in the Muslim world and will be interpreted by many as the attitude of American evangelicals. We must publicly—and in large numbers—express our opposition to this terrible act in order to tell the Muslim world that the overwhelming majority of American evangelicals oppose it.
Ronald J. Sider, president, Evangelicals for Social Action
"I think that Christians should first of all try to go directly to those who are vilifying others, and follow the Matthew 18 principle. I think if they don't respond, and I think in this situation they are not likely to respond to other Christians, then I think it is important that believers publicly denounce the actions of these individuals. And I think I would differentiate between a public denunciation of the persons and a public denunciation of their actions. But I do think it's important for the world to know that evangelical Christians disassociate themselves from those kinds of hate-filled actions. So from that standpoint, I would favor public statements."
Dennis Hollinger, president, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
"'Denounce' is always a strong word, but in Fred Phelps' case I'll make an exception. The problem is that when guys like Fred Phelps create a lot of attention, they absolutely create a perception that they speak for everybody who follows Christ. I think that's where the real problem is: in just letting something like that pass. The trick is to not sound just like Fred Phelps when you're yelling at Fred Phelps to be quiet. That's usually where we get ourselves into trouble—we don't' sound any more gracious or loving or Christ-like in denouncing somebody we disagree with or we're pretty sure is off the path. So I guess the thing that I would suggest is to find the thing that we can do to put Christ front and center. Just off the top of my head, whatever day they're doing their thing, boy, it'd be terrific if every Christian in America went and apologized to someone they'd wronged that day. We'll make it 'Christian Apology Day,' to try to recapture some humility in Christ's name. "
Dan Merchant, director, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers
"I have chosen, if at all possible, to simply separate myself from groups like the Westboro Church, who ironically picketed our church for reasons unknown to me. Sometimes it is necessary, however, to speak out when the behavior becomes so egregious."
Jim Garlow, chairman, Renewing American Leadership and pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous topics for discussion included whether Christians must pray in public forums using Jesus' name, whether they have a responsibility to have children, whether churches should increase their 2011 operating budgets, a Protestant-less Supreme Court, Mother's Day worship, incorporating churches, whether evangelicals are doing a good job at racial integration, whether Christians should leave the American Medical Association, the most significant change in Christianity over the past decade, whether the Supreme Court should rule that memorial crosses are secular, multisite campuses vs. church plants, and whether Christians should fast during Ramadan with Muslims.
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