In India, there were four Brahmans who set out on a journey. Three of them were highly educated but had little common sense. The fourth had little education but good sense.
As they journeyed through a field, the first Brahman said to the second and third, “Through our own efforts and hard work we have gained superior wisdom. Why should we share our earnings with this simple fellow who lacks education?”
The second Brahman agreed with the first, but the third Brahman said, “We have all been friends since childhood. Let us share our earnings together.” He finally convinced the other two educated Brahmans and the four men continued through the field together.
Soon, they happened upon the bones of a large animal. The first Brahman said, “Let us show our simple friend the fruits of our great wisdom. I know how to add flesh and blood to the bones of this animal.” And he did so.
The second Brahman said, “I know how to cover the flesh and bones with skin.” And he did so.
The third Brahman said, “I know how to breathe life into the body of this animal.”
Just then, the fourth Brahman spoke up: “Friends, I see that this is a lion. If you breathe life into it, he will eat us all up. So if you insist on creating this beast, let me first climb this nearby tree.” And he did.
The other Brahmans laughed at the fourth man. “Coward!” they said. “Come down and see our genius at work.”
Then the third Brahman breathed life into the lion. The lion stood, stretched himself, then turned upon the first three Brahmans and ate them all up. Content with his meal, the lion lay down and fell asleep, whereupon the fourth Brahman climbed down from the tree and went home.
– From the Panchatantra
Creating the Beast
For decades, Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has picketed the funerals of fallen soldiers and Marines, spewed hate and venom toward homosexuals and society at large, and excommunicated members who questioned these practices. Reverend Fred Phelps created this monster, but it has been his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, who has effectively led the church over the past dozen years. As Fred Phelps withered into old age, his influence waned while Shirley’s star rose.
Now recent reports say that Fred Phelps is on his death bed. Ironically, rumor has it that he has also been excommunicated by his own church. Whether these reports are true remains to be seen. Former Westboro Baptist member Lauren Drain wrote on her Facebook page:
“If the rumors are true regarding Fred Phelps, & I have strong reason to believe that they are — this news to me is incredibly devastating. When I was back in the church 8 years ago, I witnessed various members get ex-communicated & watched in horror & fear as families were ripped apart at the seams…. I hope & pray that change can & will be the result of so many years of heartache & confusion. I pray that Pastor Phelps has a change of heart even if it is his last days. I pray that the remaining family members see what generations of judgment & banishment can do.” (For my review of Lauren’s book, Banished, click here)
I wouldn’t be surprised if Fred Phelps has been excommunicated by the church he founded. It is the norm for cult leaders to be destroyed by the very beast they create. Since cults are death-dealing and not life-giving, it is only a matter of time before their leaders suffer the very fate they threaten on outsiders.
We don’t have far to look to see cult leaders who have gone down in flames: Jim Jones and David Koresh come to mind. But these are spectacular examples. Far more common is the leader of a small cult who slowly spins out of control and nosedives until the group is destroyed or the leader’s life ends in tragedy.
My own former pastor—the leader for 25 years of a Bible cult in Maine—drove himself insane by trying to follow his own impossible standards. In his later years he fed the personality disorders which made him paranoid, perfectionistic, and narcissistic. Now he lives alone, his church destroyed, the people he used to control scattered to other churches or fallen from the faith. He is a shell of a man.
Greg Sammons, Director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, knows of no cult leader who has repented. I don’t, either. If repentance for cult leaders is possible (and surely God’s grace makes it at least possible) it is rare enough to escape the attention of experts in the field.
Consider the Outcome
Cult leaders are fond of quoting Hebrews 13:17 in order to make their followers obey them without question: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority; they keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
But the true test of a Christian leader is Hebrews 13:7: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Explicit is the command to imitate faithful leaders; implicit is the command to avoid following unfaithful leaders. By their fruit you will know them.
Fred Phelps’ final days provide a sad affirmation of the wisdom of this passage. The beast he created has now turned on him. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church should consider the outcome of Fred’s way of life—the hopelessness created by works righteousness and hateful judgment—and they should realize that their church offers nothing but suffering and death.
Common sense dictates they should flee to the man on the tree.
Update, 1:14 p.m. EST, 3/20/14: Apparently, Fred Phelps has died. This according to the Huffington Post.
Update , 3:10 p.m., EST, 3/20/14: Ed Stetzer has a wonderful response in CT to Fred Phelps’s death and how Christians should respond.