World Vision finds that new crack in modern evangelicalism

So what about that World Vision story? Several things need to be said right up front.

First of all, what we have here is a perfect example of what GetReligion does and doesn’t do. In the past 24 hours all kinds of people have sent me notes asking what “GetReligion thinks” of the World Vision decision. Note: They were asking what we think about the DECISION itself, not the press coverage of that decision.
www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-why-hiring-gay-christians-same-sex-marriage.html
Well, I was not surprised that many World Vision leaders wanted to take some kind of legal step toward the acceptance of gay marriage. I was surprised that they played that card at this moment in time. I was then surprised that, 24 hours later, they reversed themselves.

But what does all of that have to do with GetReligion? After all, we are interested in the press coverage of this story, as opposed to arguing about the issue behind the story. Again and again let me note: This is not a religion blog, this is a blog about mainstream media coverage of religion news.

So what about the coverage of this story? Four quick reactions on my part:

* It’s rather awkward that the must-read mainstream story about this firestorm was written by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, a former member of the GetReligion team. More on that in a moment. It also must be noted that the news team at Christianity Today, while operating inside the evangelical world, drove all of the early coverage.

* Frankly, mainstream news outlets have not jumped on the World Vision story to the degree you would expect. Why? Let’s say that, when it comes to religion, journalists are currently focused on the pope, the president and politics. Throw in the Hobby Lobby/Mennonite story at the U.S. Supreme Court and it has been a busy week.

* The World Vision story is, however, causing major earthquakes in cyberspace, with evangelicals and progressive evangelicals tearing each other to pieces. The story is unfolding online, folks. That’s where the action is at this point.

* Finally, gentle readers, if anyone had doubts that there is a doctrinal left wing developing in contemporary evangelicalism, those doubts should be dead and buried at this point. This is probably the most important angle to this sad news event.

So what about the coverage? At this point, in the mainstream, this question leads to the Associated Press. This link is to the version posted at The Washington Post site. Here is the crucial information at the top of the report:

Facing a firestorm of protest, the prominent Christian relief agency World Vision on Wednesday dropped a two-day-old policy that would have allowed the charity to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.

The aid group told supporters in a letter that the board had made a mistake and was returning to its policy requiring celibacy outside of marriage “and faithfulness within the Bible covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”

“We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness,” the agency said in the letter, signed by World Vision president Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Bere.

Based in Federal Way, Wash., and started by evangelicals, World Vision has an international operating budget of nearly $1 billion and conducts economic development and emergency relief projects. In a conference call with reporters, Stearns said World Vision had not consulted enough with its partners before announcing the initial policy change. Since Monday, Stearns said the board had heard from major evangelical groups and leaders who had told them they had strayed from their core beliefs.

So what is missing from that?

Note the reference to the “international operating budget of nearly $1 billion.” Question: Where does most of that money come from? How much of it is from religious groups, how much is from donors and, crucial point, how many of those dollars now come from private foundations and government sources that may be lobbying for the modernization of any nasty old doctrines that define World Vision’s mission?

Trust me, there is a story there. The World Vision showdown is not about secularists opposing religious people. It’s a story — from the viewpoint of many government leaders and journalists — about good Christians with modernized doctrines striving to cause reform among the bad Christians who are in part (repeat, “in part”) defined by, well, 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on sexuality, family and marriage.

Note this next piece of the AP report:

The agency had announced Monday that its board had prayed for years about whether to hire Christians in same-sex marriages as churches took different stands on recognizing gay relationships. World Vision says its staff members come from dozens of denominations with varied views on the issue. The board had said World Vision would still require celibacy outside of marriage and would require employees to affirm a statement of faith that they follow Christ, but would change policy in the U.S. as a way to avoid the divisive debates that have torn apart churches.

In other words, sort-of-liberal churches are arguing with traditional churches — even inside the wide, wide world of evangelicalism. And, of course, truly liberal Christians in a variety of churches are arguing with traditionalist Christians in a variety of churches.

Let me stress that at World Vision, people on both sides of this sexuality dispute share a commitment to social justice and serving the poor. The issue is whether they can still work together, while also working with government and secular foundations. That’s the story. Which matters most, the endorsement of thousands of ordinary Christian donors or the support of key players in government and in foundations (think Bill Gates and similar activists)?

Now, what about the RNS report? In a way, Sarah’s story is both a story and a media round-up. It’s a new-fashioned report, with the full text of Wednesday’s World Vision statements and a glimpse of the tsunami of commentary on Twitter. Read it all, and read between the lines of the financial details.

Then there is this passage, which points toward the tensions, decisions and strife that await other nondenominational ministries:

The board voted overwhelmingly for the initial decision and voted overwhelmingly to reverse itself, Stearns said. … When explaining the earlier policy, Stearns said World Vision was deferring to churches because its employees represent more than 50 denominations, including those who conduct same-sex marriages.

When asked whether parachurch organizations like World Vision should defer to churches on theological issues, Stearns said that the organization’s policy on marriage could not defer to churches who do conduct same-sex marriages.

“I think what we are affirming is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian stance, we cannot defer to frankly a small minority of churches that have taken a different position,” Stearns said.

Stay tuned.

IMAGE: A dangerous crack, with an ironic nod to all Doctor Who fans.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Zack Stepp

    “This is probably the most important angle to this sad news event.”

    I’m curious what you mean by the word “sad.” It just jumped out at me when reading this post.

    • tmatt

      For me, it is sad when debates and divisions — even those about essentials — cause pain and damage in organizations doing essential work.

  • Darrell Turner

    Further reporting on this should indicate how and why the first decision was made and what implications the quick reversal will have for World Vision. People on both sides of this issue may be upset that a decision was made and reversed so quickly.

  • Thursday1

    Alastair comments. One of the best articles on this situation.


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