After a long history of anti-LGBT activism, World Vision, one of the largest Christian charities in the world, announced a change to its employment policy Monday that has some fellow Christians up in arms. World Vision’s American branch will now permit Christians who are in legal same-sex marriages to be employed with the organization, a decision they say aligns with the charity’s mission.
World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns told Christianity Today that while the policy change wasn’t unanimous among board members, the group was “overwhelmingly in favor” of the change. (The decision applies only to World Vision U.S., not its international branches.)
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.
Except it’s not really that narrow; it’s actually a way of taking a stance on a highly divisive issue, and a stance that not everyone will agree with. Stearns et al know that, but they want to distance themselves from the conflict — and, apparently, do the right thing?
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. …
“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.”
So the employee policy isn’t entirely devoid of theological conviction; families are still judged through a fairly strict Christian lens and could be deemed unfit to partake in World Vision’s work. But when so many churches are actively forcing LGBT people out of their spaces, a major Christian organization welcoming gay married employees doesn’t seem like a way to “dodge the division.” (And that’s a good thing!)
We also can’t overlook World Vision’s significance both in the Christian world and in the greater charity scene. The group serves 100,000,000 people in 100 countries, ranking among America’s 10 largest charities, according to Forbes. Last year it took in more than a billion dollars in revenue. Its leaders have also fought for the right to hire and fire based on faith statements, and they’ve opposed efforts encouraging faith-based organizations to stop anti-LGBT discrimination for the sake of federal funding.
As stated, World Vision requires abstinence of all its single employees and fidelity of all married employees, a policy that would hold firm for married gay employees. The article points out that same-sex marriage is now legal in the charity’s home state of Washington, and that churches and denominations around the country have been slowly opening their doors to LGBT people and sanctioning same-sex marriages. However, Stearns wants to be perfectly clear that this should NOT be read as an endorsement of marriage equality.
“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.
A little defensive, isn’t he? Not without reason; fellow churches and religious leaders have already begun denouncing World Vision U.S.’s decision. The Gospel Coalition posted a response from Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who accuses the group of pandering to “donor bases” and evoking the devil by allowing gay married employees:
There’s an entire corps of people out there who make their living off of evangelicals but who are wanting to “evolve” on the sexuality issue without alienating their base. I don’t mind people switching sides and standing up for things that they believe in. But just be honest about what you want to do. Don’t say “Hath God said?” and then tell us you’re doing it to advance the gospel and the unity of the church.
He wasn’t the only Christian voice to weigh in against the policy. Former pastor John Piper was quick to condemn the change:
… World Vision’s decision is tragic. I pray they will repent and turn back to their more faithful roots.
And Rev. Billy Graham‘s son Franklin took the slippery slope approach:
… Graham, president of a relief organization similar to World Vision called Samaritan’s Purse, said the new policy is “ungodly” while interviewed on Family Research Council’s radio program. He suggested that the organization could eventually approved of polygamous relationships.
It’s deeply toxic to say that “the unity of the church” is dependent on forcing people out — especially when those people are, by and large, still living under plenty of Christian standards. Stearns and the rest of World Vision’s leadership has a different idea of what “unity” actually means:
“We’ve got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity.”
While this is a far cry from actually accepting LGBT Christians, marriages and all, it does suggest that it’s possible to separate legal rights from theologically-ingrained prejudices. That said, I’m leery of any organization whose “mission” can accept married gay employees, but lacks the courage to condone their marriages.