The policy change, he said, was a “very narrow policy change” and should be viewed by others as “symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity.” Stearns explained how adopting a new policy would help inspire unity because the decision would “solidify 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.”
Just as World Vision is “neutral” on theological issues, such as divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors, Stearns argued that same-sex marriage would be left to the discretion of local churches and World Vision would remain “neutral” on it too. “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.”
Unfortunately for World Vision, the reaction to its policy change caused exactly the disunity it claimed it wanted to avoid. Christianity Today reported on Wednesday that they lost 2000 supporters within a few days, and church groups, as large as the Assemblies of God, were speaking out against the decision. The Assemblies even encouraged their members to reconsider giving to World Vision. These groups pointed out that by hiring people in same-sex marriages World Vision was taking a position on homosexuality as a practice. It now saw it as something they could be “neutral” about when clearly the Bible is not.[ii] Moreover, they pointed out that this was not one of those issues that Christians could disagree with and still be orthodox Christians. The Bible provides examples of women leaders or outlines when divorce may be possible for believers, but it never provides any leeway on sex: it can only happen between a husband and his wife. As a long-term ministry friend told me, he hadn’t seen this kind of controversy cause so much discussion, so fast.
The response caused World Vision to backtrack. President Richard Stearns came out Wednesday with a statement reversing the policy yet again. He stated, “In our board’s effort to unite around the church’s shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners. As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.”[iii]
But of course the reversal hasn’t stopped the debating. Anyone following Faith Beyond Belief’s Facebook page or other bloggers can see the heated discussions. Some were so angered by the decision they dropped their support for World Vision. Many promised to pull their support from the organization while others sided with Stearns and condemned anyone who would disagree with the decision as potentially “hateful.”[iv]
That brings me back to the “Y”. The Young Man’s Christian Association was formed to help poor young Christian men who were moving from the countryside to find work in the cities. It provided food, shelter, and a Christian environment for them while they were away from home. The organization’s founder actually started it as a Bible study and a few years later revised its mandate to be Christian discipleship developed “through a program of religious, educational, social and physical activities.”[v]
But as the organization began to spread out across the world and encounter different ideologies, it began to accept members of various Christian groups as well as non-Christian groups. In doing so, its emphasis on theology waned. It’s hard to evangelize a group that is also part of the local leadership of your Christian organization. Rather than focusing on God’s character then, they began to focus on their work on earth, things they believed all people of good will could agree to, regardless of their faith. As one study put it: “The key factor identified in this change was in the change of the frame on the Kingdom of God, which changed from transcendent City of God to immanent God’s Creation.” [vi]
The “Y” shows us several lessons that World Vision and all Christian organizations need to heed:
1. Theology is the job of all Christians
What struck me first about Stearns comments was what the president of World Vision said about theology. He said World Vision “defers” theology to local churches and denominations. As examples of this, Stearns pointed to the controversy over female pastors or on divorced individuals. This was exactly what the Y international councils were doing – deferring theology to their local bodies.
But if we understand that theology is the study of God, then isn’t it obvious that all Christians need to practice it? How can someone call themselves Christians if they don’t know which Christ they are serving? Moreover, Christians have always been quick to say that the body of believers constitute the church. If this is the case, the “local church” that Stearns wants to outsource theological discussions to are the very people who are working for World Vision, including at its highest levels.
By the way, saying that same-sex marriage is akin to other controversial issues like divorce but is something Christians of good conscience can disagree on, is itself a theological decision. That’s another problem for his statement: it contradicts itself. In order to discern which issues are ones that Christians can differ on and still be Christians and which issues we cannot compromise on, we need to know our theology and not outsource it.[vii]
What’s interesting is that Stearns, even in his retraction, doesn’t concede that World Vision’s mandate that believers unite around the Christian mission to serve the poor is itself a theological conclusion too. Otherwise, how can it be a Christian mission? In fact, that’s why this controversy really isn’t about homosexuality – it’s about whether Christians take the Bible seriously.
2. Unity for the sake of unity is not Christian unity
One of the key challenges that the YMCA had when they grew into a large organization was that different countries taught different things about their beliefs. YMCAs in Germany were closely associated with local Protestant churches while YMCAs in places like the Ukraine or South America included people from Orthodox or Roman Catholic groups. Other YMCAs in places like Turkey even included Muslims or people of other faiths. In order to govern such a diverse group of people, international meetings began to set rules about membership that were more and more flexible. Local groups had to adhere to certain ideas of Christian service even if they didn’t all agree on what “Christian” meant. As membership diversified further, the mandate that staff all had to be protestant Christians, was dropped. Later, the mandate that staff had to be Christians was dropped too.
These changes of course allowed the YMCA to be unified but that unity came at a price: it could no longer be Christian. Clearly an organization with non-Christian staff can’t be expected to teach Christian Bible studies and evangelize for the faith.
In other words, if a Christian group wants to remain as a Christian ministry, there are simply people they cannot unite with. That’s why World Vision’s decision to accept same-sex marriage with the intent to create “unity” was curious. Anyone well-versed in this topic would know that this is one of the most hot-button issues of the day and any public comment on it would cause controversy.
More importantly, anyone well-versed in biblical theology (there’s that word again!) would know Jesus promised that His teachings would cause division – scripture divides people who are willing to embrace biblical teachings from people who reject those teachings! In other words, Christian theology is not made through the majority vote of church members. Otherwise, the churches in Nazi Germany or the pro-slave churches in the US before the Civil War would have been right to hold their views simply because they were the majority.
When World Vision or the YMCA embraces the cross, they should know that that decision alienates it from people who don’t want to submit to Christ’s teachings, including on sexuality, which Jesus only talked about as being acceptable between a husband and wife. Paul even instructed Christians to disassociate themselves from people who claim to be Christian but refuse to repent of their public sins, including sexual sins.[viii]
3. If a Christian organization compromise God’s truth, it undermines its identity as a Christian organization
The reason why the YMCA began to lose its Christian identity is because it neglected that identity and focused on what they wanted to do based on that identity. Of course, if you don’t define your Christian identity, it’s only a matter of time before what you do is what you want to do, not what you shoulddo as a Christian. That’s the same here.
As soon as World Vision announced the change of its policy, GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) activists applauded the decision and began attacking Christians who would pull their support from the organization. Sandie, a commenter on the Christianity Today website said: “My Bible does not say they will know we are Christians by our truth. It doesn’t say the religion God accepts as pure and faultless is to take care of our doctrinal purity and keep ourselves from being infiltrated by people we disagree with.”[ix]
Of course, one can ask Sandie if her comments are true and doctrinally pure. But her comments miss another point: Those of us upset with World Vision’s decision were upset not because they were willing to hire homosexuals “who may disagree with us.” A celibate person struggling with their sexual identity who is a Christian is being faithful to the Bible’s commands about sex. What World Vision was doing wrong was they were willing to hire homosexuals who were unrepentant of their sexual practices within a same-sex marriage. That was a theological decision worth speaking out against.
When World Vision reverted back to its original position, defining marriage as between a man and woman only, Rachel Evans, an Evangelical blogger wrote that the situation has left her “feeling frustrated, heartbroken, and lost. I don’t think I’ve ever been more angry at the Church, particularly the evangelical culture in which I was raised and with which I for so long identified”. She then added “But please, for the love, don’t leave a child and a community that was depending on you in a bind so you can make a point about gay marriage. It’s just not worth it.”[x]
But this last comment is telling. Evans thinks that opposing World Visions’ decision was merely a way to make a point about same-sex marriage and not to be faithful to biblical truth. Why is it so important to have a worldview consistent with the Bible? Because it is that very book that tells us to care for those World Vision kids in the first place.
It is the Bible that explains God’s example of giving His Son to live among the dirty and the poor and to save wretched sinners like us. That is why World Vision ministry started in the first place! If World Vision compromises what the Bible says based solely on popular views of sexuality, it undermines its very purpose. Its authority is now the popular interpretation of the Bible, not the Bible itself. Rather than sharing the loving God to our friends, it only shares a shallow version of Him.
Practically speaking, think of it this way: your church sends money to a World Vision project in the developing world. The money goes to feed a family who are taught by Christian workers that they are there to share God’s love to them. This family asks them how to learn about God. The workers tell them by reading the Bible, but not all the parts of the Bible, just the part our western culture deems acceptable. How would those served by World Vision react?
What those outraged by Christians who would pull their support don’t realize, is that as a Christian ministry, World Vision offers both physical and spiritual support to the people it serves. If the spiritual support it provides is not the God of the Bible, then it actually provides temporary physical support but also spiritual harm that has eternal consequences. I would rather support a secular ministry that says nothing about spirituality than a ministry that claims to be Christian but fails to share the truth of the faith.
In other words, does proper biblical theology matter to Christian ministries? Next time you’re at that “Y”, ask them when they host their Bible studies.
[ii] A great article on this is from the Gospel Coalition: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/
[vi] http://marttimuukkonen.pp.fi/Muukkonen_Ecumenism_of_the_Laity_B5.pdf. Muukkonen describes a Paris conference of the World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Association as seeming “to be more interested in the applications of Christ’s ethical teachings than the teachings of his personality.” In a World’s Conference, this might have been a practical choice: in doctrinal issues, all kinds of controversies easily emerge, but in the mission field, there was a basic agreement. Thus, although the centrality of Christ was self evident to the participants, in the name of the Christian unity, they did not focus on doctrinal issues (p283).
[vii] In his retraction, Stearns admits as much, stating, ““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.”
[viii] 9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Corinthians 5:8-13)