It began in 1991. A local independent Baptist Church in Kansas began picketing at a nearby park popular with gay men. Citing Romans 1:32, the protestors paraded handmade signs proclaiming that gays deserve death.
The church’s pastor, Fred Phelps, had taught his small flock that loving one’s neighbour meant warning them of judgement to come. “We always equated love with rebuke. As long as we believed our words to be truthful, we were free to rebuke the rest of the world at any time, in any place, and in any way we wanted.” Before long, protests expanded to include demonstrations at the funerals of gay people, military veterans, and disaster victims. The church believed that these deaths were divine punishment for a nation with corrupt values. They alone knew the truth and were God’s vehicles for warning the nation of coming destruction.
Among the protestors at that first picketing was five-year-old Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Pastor Fred Phelps. Megan carried a sign she could not read as she joined her church—comprised mostly of extended family—in warning passersby of God’s judgement.
Megan would eventually grow disillusioned with the vitriol of the church and, at great relational cost, would abandon it and its message, but that is only the end of the story.
Unfollow is a fascinating, if unsettling, look into the heart of one of America’s most infamous hate groups. The first half offers an insider’s perspective into the body life of a church whose members clearly love and care for one another. Whatever might be said of the hatred expressed to outsiders, the story within the church community is very different. Phelps-Roper paints a picture of genuine brotherly love and concern, with body life that many more conservative churches might long for.
Her recollection of family life similarly portrays a picture of genuine affection. In her youth, she was shielded from some of the more abusive elements of family dynamics, of which she came to learn later. Her stories of childhood are largely positive and display a genuine love, not only for her parents and siblings, but also for the broader family that comprised much of the membership of Westboro Baptist Church.
She writes skilfully, allowing her writing style to develop with her character as the story unfolds. The reader unfamiliar with her story would have little reason to think that the woman who writes so fondly and persuasively of her early years in the church is the same woman who later walked away not only from that particular local church but from the Christian faith entirely. (A fair warning to the Christian reader: Phelps-Roper, who has abandoned all pretence to Christian fidelity, employs the kind of salty talk as the story progresses that might offend particularly sensitive readers.)
As she grew older, Phelps-Roper’s responsibilities within the church increased. Discovering her PR and admin abilities, she was eventually given the responsibility to promote the church’s message on Internet and social media platforms. It was via these avenues—Twitter, in particular—that she encountered arguments and worldviews that challenged her own. As she witnessed what she came to understand as inherent contradictions within the church’s belief system, and within Christianity at large, she began to question the doctrines that she held so tenaciously and promoted and defended so vociferously. Eventually, she could no longer reconcile the contradictions and, with her younger sister, Grace, chose to walk away from it all.
Unbelieving critics of Westboro Baptist Church will no doubt applaud Phelps-Roper’s courage to speak up, seek truth, and transform her life. They will laud her transformation from hatred to tolerance and empathy. This is understandable.
For Christians, there are valuable lessons, too, to be gleaned from the memoir.
First, while we might rightly disagree with their demeanour, we would do well to learn from the members of Westboro Baptist Church to stand and speak boldly for what we believe to be true. We live in an age in which we are so afraid to offend anyone that we often cower in silence when we know we should speak truth. Whatever else might be said of the church, we can appreciate its commitment to stand as a watchman to warn the wicked of destruction to come (see Ezekiel 3:16–21).
Second, we must note that truths trumpeted to the exclusion of others produce little genuine fruit for the cause of truth. Unfollow demonstrates that Westboro Baptist Church delights in condemning sin and the sinners who pursue it but places zero value on lovingly reaching out to sinners with a message of hope and forgiveness. Grace for sinners is meaningless to the members of the church, whether sinners are outsiders or disgraced insiders who come under church discipline. We must surely hold tightly to what the Bible teaches, but if our pet doctrine or cause becomes the only truth we are concerned about, we will soon fail to give attention to the full counsel of God.
Third, the way we say the things important. The members of Westboro Baptist Church do not care what outsiders think of them. Their commitment is to the truth, and if sinners do not like that, they will answer to God. While their commitment to God’s truth above all else is to be admired, we must remember that the Bible commends the wisdom of winsomeness (Proverbs 11:30).
Fourth, and related, we can learn from Westboro Baptist Church that there is a more Christlike way to approach sinners than seething hatred. “We really believed that it was irrelevant how we spoke to people,” writes Phelps-Roper. “‘Gospel preaching is not hateful!’ we always said. ‘Truth equals love!’ But now it seems so painfully obvious: of course it matters how we talk to people. Truth and love are not synonyms. The New Testament even says it plainly. Speak the truth in love.” Jesus approached truth-telling differently. While he strongly and publicly rebuked religious hypocrites (Matthew 23), he was far more gentle with outsiders, willing even to befriend them and be known as a friend of tax collectors and sinners. But his way bore gospel fruit, and we do well to learn from him.