Megan Phelps-Roper’s “Unfollow”: What Happens When You Raise a Kid on a Mix of Westboro Baptist Church and Social Media


Steve Rainwater/flickr. 11 July 2011. The hate group / cult that calls itself Westboro Baptist Church showed up at the Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, TX on Sunday Jun 11.

Steve Rainwater/flickr. 11 July 2011. The hate group / cult that calls itself Westboro Baptist Church showed up at the Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, TX on Sunday Jun 11.

Westboro Baptist Church.  Not a phrase I had thought about in years, but if you are like me, you remember hearing about their protests.  I probably paid a little bit more attention to coverage of this group than to others because they put the word “Baptist” in their church names.  If you are from the South, you are used to seeing Baptist churches everywhere.  There are so many because there are lots of different kinds of Baptists.  Sometimes, Baptist churches decide to leave the Southern Baptist Convention or other Baptist groups, and because of the way Baptists are organized, they can do that. 

Westboro Baptist Church, in fact, was originally a “church plant”, meaning it was started by another Baptist church, before breaking away and becoming something that most people would not recognize as a church of any kind. 

Frankly, I found even the article about Westboro on Wikipedia difficult to read because the group is simply so venomous and full of hate. 

I get the “hard line” view that some Christians feel they have to have.  I don’t get the hate speech and the hateful attitude. 

Megan Phelp-Roper, in Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving Extremism, takes a lot of space to explain WBC’s beliefs, offering plenty of scriptural support.  So if you are interested in trying to understand how people come to the conclusions that they do, this book is a good choice. 


It’s a little bit…in fact, a lot more hazy…when it comes to putting events together, and I find it hard to follow what’s supposed to be going on with the church as Phelps-Roper’s story unfolds.  In one way, the book comes across as raw and unfinished, but it also comes across as a very personal exploration of faith that shows the workings of the individual’s mind.   

The biggest insight comes late in the book when Phelps-Roper realized that The Bible is far too complex a document…in fact, it is a collection of documents…for any one person to be able to interpret “correctly”.  

Of course that’s true.  If you know anything about The Bible from historical perspective, of course that has to be true.  The Bible was written over thousands of years, in several languages, all of which are ancient to us now.  That much should be obvious to anyone. 

For someone who has had the training in literary analysis and reading comprehension that I have had, I know there is even more at stake.   

First, try reading a text even in Middle English, let alone “Old English”, see how difficult that is, and then explain how anyone, even someone who can speak Biblical languages that still exist, such as Greek, can make sense of Bible manuscripts without special training. 

Also consider that all forms of English are far younger that, say, Greek. 

Then, take a look at all the different types of literary theory that there are.  Some that come to my mind, which apply to Biblical interpretation, are Reader Response Theory and Historical Theory.  There are other issues as well, but these are the most basic. 

On the other hand, I know where anyone who wants to push the idea that The Bible says that people should do anything outrageous gets their “Biblical” support, and I believe Phelps-Roper mentions this verse at some point to: 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  The NIV version translates it to English this way: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 

“God breathed”.  That’s the phrase that folks get hung up on.  But of course, Biblical teaching is broad so you can go any way you want with pretty much anything by “cherry picking”, and if you don’t pay careful attention at the beginning of this book, when Phelps-Roper explains WBC’s doctrine, it can sound pretty convincing, even from the writing of someone who didn’t believe it when she wrote it. 

Now I am no Bible scholar, but I am curious, so I read all of 2 Timothy chapters 3 and 4 to get a little context.  I knew that Timothy was a protégé of the Apostle Paul, and the two Timothy books are Paul’s letters to him.  The Biblical Lois was Timothy’s grandmother, so I am especially aware! 

In these chapters Paul is advising Timothy on how to be a good church leader.  I can see how church leaders can make great use of 2 Timothy 4: 2-4 for their own purposes: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of seaon; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and carful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, the will gather around a great number of teacher to say what their itching ears want to hear.”  I would love to know the original Greek for the phrase, “itching ears want to hear.”  At any rate, I’m going to use that because it’s a great expression. 

It’s also a sentiment that anyone can turn to anything, but of course it’s illogical.  All scripture may be God-breathed, and of course if you are in the ministry, you should your best to lead your people, but who in the heck can know? 

That’s the conclusion Phelps-Roper, with all of her wandering and searching, comes back to, and I agree with her. 

And by the way, official Southern Baptist doctrine, such as it is, says that God expects us to study the Bible, pray, and let us see what God puts in front of each one of us.  And that’s the best advice.

What Do Baptists Believe?

There are nearly as many kinds of Baptists as there are Baptists because Baptist congregations have a lot of autonomy and can split off from larger organizations at will. Two of the larger groups are the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Church, USA. “Independent” Baptist churches often tend to be stricter/more conservative, but that’s a big generalization and may be regional.

Faith Statement for the Southern Baptist Convention

Faith Statement for the American Baptist Church-USA

Officially, both organizations oppose open “unrepentant” homosexuality (The ABC-USA may have changed their stance, but the SBC is clear), and individual churches within the organizations may differ. I can’t imagine any condoning hate speech, which should be clear from their belief statements.

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