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Pointing to Disaster — The Flawed Moral Vision of World Vision [Updated]

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UPDATE [March 26, 2014] The President of World Vision U.S. announced today that the Board of Directors has reversed its decision and would return to its previous policy that affirms sexual abstinence for all unmarried employees and defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Additional comment will be posted as soon as possible.

Like all revolutions, moral revolutions are marked by events that signal major turning points in social transformation. Yesterday, March 24, 2014, will be remembered as one of those days. The headline in the news story by Christianity Today made the issue easy enough to understand — “World Vision: Why We’re Hiring Gay Christians in Same-Sex Marriages.”

As the magazine reported, “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.”

World Vision U.S. President Richard Stearns announced the change in a letter to World Vision staff. The organization, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world, “will continue to expect abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage for all staff,” Stearns said. He then added that “since World Vision is a multi-denominational organization that welcomes employees from more than 50 denominations, and since a number of these denominations in recent years have sanctioned same-sex marriage for Christians, the board—in keeping with our practice of deferring to church authority in the lives of our staff, and desiring to treat all of our employees equally—chose to adjust our policy.” That led to the key change Stearns was then to announce: “Thus, the board has modified our Employee Standards of Conduct to allow a Christian in a legal same-sex marriage to be employed at World Vision.”

Stearns went on to state that he wanted “to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue.” He said that the World Vision board had watched as several denominations had been “torn apart” by the issue and that he and the board “wanted to prevent this divisive issue from tearing  World Vision apart and potentially crippling our ability to accomplish our vital kingdom mission of loving and serving the poorest of the poor in the name of Christ.”

In an interview with Christianity Today, Stearns called the shift a “very narrow policy change” that he said was made in the name of Christian unity. “We are not caving to some kind of pressure, ” he insisted. “We are not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us.”

He claimed that the action was not made under political pressure. “This is not compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of local churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church.”

Stearns also said that World Vision has never asked potential employees about their sexual orientation. They are asked to affirm the Apostles Creed or the organization’s own trinitarian statement of faith. Employees within the organization represent more than 50 denominations, including at least some that affirm homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and openly gay ministers. These include the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ.

In that light, Stearns said that the World Vision U.S. board has had to confront a pressing question: “What do we do about someone who applies for a job at World Vision who is in a legal same-sex relationship that may have been sanctioned and performed by their church? Do we deny them employment?”

Continuing his list of what he insisted the policy shift is “not about,” Stearns said: “This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture . . . . People can say, ‘Scripture is very clear on this issue,’ and my answer is, ‘Well ask all the theologians and denominations that disagree with that statement.’ The church is divided on this issue. And we are not the local church. We are am operational organization uniting Christians around a common mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ.”

Richard Stearns has every right to try to make his case, but these arguments are pathetically inadequate. Far more than that, his arguments reveal basic issues that every Christian ministry, organization, church, and denomination will have to face — and soon.

The distinction between an “operational arm” of the church and a “theological arm” is a fatal misreading of reality. World Vision claims a Christian identity, claims to serve the kingdom of Christ, and claims a theological rationale for its much-needed ministries to the poor and distressed. It cannot surrender theological responsibility when convenient and then claim a Christian identity and a theological mandate for ministry.

Add to this the fact that World Vision claims not to have compromised the authority of Scripture, even as its U.S. president basically throws the Bible into a pit of confusion by suggesting that the Bible is not sufficiently clear on the question of the morality of same-sex sexuality. Stearns insists that he is not compromising biblical authority even as he undermines confidence that the church can understand and trust what the Bible reveals about same-sex sexuality.

The policy shift points back to a basic problem with World Vision’s understanding of the church. No organization can serve on behalf of churches across the vast theological and moral spectrum that would include clearly evangelical denominations, on the one hand, and liberal denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, on the other. That might work if World Vision were selling church furniture, but not when the mission of the organization claims a biblical mandate.

Furthermore, it is ridiculous to argue that World Vision is not taking sides on the issue. The objective fact is that World Vision will now employ openly-gay employees involved in openly homosexual relationships. There is no rational sense in claiming that this represents neutrality.

In his final comment included in Christianity Today‘s coverage of the issue, Richard Stearns stated: “I’m hoping this may inspire unity among others as well. To say how we come together across some differences and still join together as brothers and sisters in Christ in our common mission of building the kingdom.”

Note carefully that his language is deeply theological — not just “operational.” He speaks of being “brothers and sisters in Christ” and of “building the kingdom.” What kingdom? Whose kingdom?

Writing to the Corinthian Christians, the Apostle Paul stated: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” [1 Corinthians 6:9-10]

The leader of World Vision U.S. now claims that the Bible is not sufficiently clear on the sinfulness of same-sex sexuality and relationships, but he also claims a “mission of building the kingdom.” The Apostle Paul makes homosexuality a kingdom issue, and he does so in the clearest of terms.

Of course, Paul’s point is not that homosexuals are uniquely sinful, but that all of us are sinners in need of the grace and mercy of God that come to us in the gift of salvation. Thanks be to God, Paul follows those words with these: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” [1 Corinthians 6:11]

The worst aspect of the World Vision U.S. policy shift is the fact that it will mislead the world about the reality of sin and the urgent need of salvation. Willingly recognizing same-sex marriage and validating openly homosexual employees in their homosexuality is a grave and tragic act that confirms sinners in their sin — and that is an act that violates the gospel of Christ.

World Vision has made a decisive difference in millions of lives around the world. Its humanitarian work is urgently important in a world of unspeakable need. Last year the organization had a total financial reach of almost $3 billion. Its scale and expertise are unprecedented in the Christian world. That is what makes this policy shift so ominous and threatening.

In 1974, the late Carl F. H. Henry, then the dean of evangelical theologians, became “lecturer-at-large” for World Vision. In his autobiography, Confessions of a Theologian (1986), Dr. Henry stated: “During the period from its early pastors’ conferences in the 1940s to the present time, World Vision has been an an incomparable partner in extending the compassionate outreach of Christians in ten Western nations to the less fortunate millions in eighty non-Western countries. Decades before Live-Aid and other secular programs, and even many denominational programs, awakened to the need, World Vision had pointed the way.”

The shift announced yesterday by World Vision points to disaster. We can only pray that there is yet time for World Vision to rethink this matter, correct their course, stand without compromise on the authority of Scripture, and point the way for evangelical Christians to follow once again.