Among the most unnerving verses in Scripture, is this:
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” Mark 9:42 NKJV
Jesus spoke those words to His disciples as they were shooing off some kids. “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” He said, before issuing the ominous warning. After that, I’m guessing the guys thought twice about how they approached the “little ones.”
As a father of four, I’ve thought a lot about ways we potentially cause our children to stumble. Many destructive habits and psychological scars can be traced back to reckless, irresponsible parenting. Of course, even the best parenting is no guarantee against rebellion or apostacy, and our children, no matter how far they wander, are still responsible for their own behavior. Nevertheless, how we handle our little ones is, according to Christ, infinitely important.
Maybe that’s why the testimony of Nathan Phelps is so sobering. Nathan is the son of Fred Phelps, the founding pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church whose “God Hates Fags” crusade has now given way to God Hates the World, a ministry wherein one can learn the reason God hates any given country (and, according to Phelps, He hates them all). Phelps is on the extreme edge of Christian Fundamentalism, unabashedly damning anyone who crosses his narrow ideology.
Almost the entire membership of Westboro consists of 9 of Nathan’s 12 siblings and members of their immediate families. As seems par for the course, stories of abuse and cult-like manipulation have slowly emerged. In a recent presentation before The American Atheists Convention, Nathan Phelps described being raised in this religiously abusive environment:
At the age of 7, I could recite all 66 books of the Bible in 19 seconds. My father insisted on this because he was frustrated at waiting as his children flipped back and forth trying to find the verses he was preaching from. Afterwards, if one of us took too long my father would stop in the middle of his preaching, cast a gimlet eye on the offender and demand that, “Somebody smack that kid!”
And there was smacking — beatings to be exact — all conducted in the guise of spiritual discipline and instruction.
All of this is going on while he is presenting his version of Calvinism to the small group of people who met every Sunday at Westboro Baptist Church. When I thought about it, I couldn’t reconcile the idea that our reality, our system, was better then those he railed against. How was it possible that our beliefs could lead to or condone the kind of behavior exhibited by our father? He held such an impossibly high standard that it was easy for him to find a fatal flaw in everyone else, while remaining curiously blind to his own.
At the age of 18, Nathan left his father’s church and began a spiritual pilgrimage before eventually turning agnostic. It’s a sad reminder of the danger of legalism and religious extremism, and the millstones that potentially drag souls into the netherworlds of spirituality. While the above article is lengthy, it’s worth reading. If anything, it provides insight into the ways religious intolerance can shape and/or destroy people.
While the story of Nathan Phelps is decidedly extreme, it’s also a cautionary reminder against misrepresenting God and mishandling Scripture, and the consequences of doing so in parenting. According to Jesus, causing believing children to stumble has severe eternal repercussions. Nathan Phelp’s testimony is evidence of this.
From my experience, both as a pastor and a parent, overreacting is one of the biggest pitfalls of parenting. We so want our kids to know God and be sheltered from evil, that we sometimes become manipulative, hard-line, overly stern, and dangerously legalistic. Knowing Scripture is essential for our children. But forcing them to memorize the Bible can, at some point, become manipulative. Affirming a healthy, biblical view of sexuality is an important part of parenting. But fostering hatred of homosexuals is itself unbiblical. Fred Phelps has obviously crossed the line… but that line may be finer than we think.
I’m not sure what’s sadder, the callous legalism of someone like Fred Phelps, or the souls that despise all mention of God as a result of him. Frankly, sometimes our kids’ rebellion is a reaction to our overreaction. Nathan Phelps is Exhibit A.