By now, if you read anything in the Christian blogosphere, you’ll know about the mess that World Vision America got themselves into this week. It’s important to point out right at the start that this was a decision for the U.S. branch and there is no indication it was endorsed in Australia or the U.K. (where the other bulk of my readership come from).
The story exploded when World Vision America made the following controversial announcement reported by Christianity Today:
World Vision’s American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.
Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America’s largest Christian charities.
In an exclusive interview, World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns explained to Christianity Today the rationale behind changing this “condition of employment,” whether financial or legal pressures were involved, and whether other Christian organizations with faith-based hiring rules should follow World Vision’s lead.
Stearns asserts that the “very narrow policy change” should be viewed by others as “symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity.” He even hopes it will inspire unity elsewhere among Christians.
In short, World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently “tearing churches apart” over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.
World Vision’s board was not unanimous, acknowledged Stearns, but was “overwhelmingly in favor” of the change.
“Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues,” he said. “It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.”
Stearns took pains to emphasize what World Vision is not communicating by the policy change.
“It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there,” he said. “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.”
“We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us,” said Stearns. “This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church.
There was, as could be expected, a quite enormous reaction to this. Many threatened to pull out of sponsoring through World Vision and I’ve seen some claims that up to $1m a year was at stake. The more theologically liberal cheered the announcement. As an aside (and not something I want to go into detail over in this post) Matthew Lee (Mere Orthodoxy) has written an excellent piece on whether to pull funding from World Vision over this issue whereas the normally wise Archbishop Cranmer erred in his assessment).
As it turns out, the question of whether to stop sending cheques became somewhat redundant a few days later when World Vision stepped back from their previous announcement:
“The last couple of days have been painful,” president Richard Stearns told reporters this evening. “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”
“Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent,” said Stearns. “Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity … and we’re asking you to forgive us for that mistake.”
“We listened to [our] friends, we listened to their counsel. They tried to point out in loving ways that the conduct policy change was simply not consistent … with the authority of Scripture and how we apply Scripture to our lives,” said Stearns. “We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.”
“What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs,” said Stearns. “We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.”
“Yes, we will certainly defer on many issues that are not so central to our understanding of the Christian faith,” he said. “But on the authority of Scripture in our organization’s work [and employee conduct] … and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs. We cannot defer on things that are that central to the faith.”
This is, I want to point out, a quite excellent response. Not only does it pull back from a wrong decision, but it apologises for it and correctly identifies the mistake that was made. The key sentence is this:
We cannot defer on things that are that central to the faith.
Spot on. The great initial mistake of World Vision U.S. was to make this claim,
This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.
This was, of course, utter nonsense. By saying it was acceptable for employees to be in same-sex marriages, World Vision America was not just “getting into the debate”, they were setting up house right in the middle of it. It was utterly foolish to think they were “not taking sides”. On the contrary, they were signalling that the position they had previously held was incorrect. By implication they were thus taking a “better”, more “moral” position. That much was quite clear from this statement,
It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.
Thus, someone within a “same-sex” marriage would be viewed as expressing “fidelity within marriage”. i.e. their marriage was a legitimate marriage. That’s taking sides. Or, more accurately, switching sides.
Here for Christians is the one big lesson out of all of this; “not taking sides” is taking sides when the issue is divisive. You can’t “dodge the division” when the division already exists over a gospel issue. Rather, you have to choose which side of the divide you will move to.
Further, by initially suggesting this issue was not a fundamental gospel issue World Vision America were again choosing sides, moving the question from diaphora to adiaphora. Thankfully their second statement acknowledges this.
So Christian, where do you stand on this or other controversial issues? It is not enough for us to say “I don’t want to get involved”. By stepping back and saying “I don’t want to cause division” on divisive issues all we are actually doing is granting legitimacy to the “other” side. And let’s be clear that there are “sides” in all this. Despite the initial claim by World Vision that,
We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope.
The reality, that they later acknowledged, is,
We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.
Make no doubts about it, there is pressure all around us to conform to the World and some Christians (not to mention some who call themselves Christians) have succumbed to it out of a quite understandable desire to be thought of well by as many as possible. But the Christian is called to something different.
John 15:19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
and, of course,
Luke 6:26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
The Christian cannot avoid taking sides when the lines have been drawn so dramatically. We must always choose which Kingdom we belong to. On this battlefield there are no rusty swords. It requires grace and patience and wisdom and courage.