The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation. You can read more from Jason at his blog, www.jasonbilbrey.com.
Somewhere in Federal Way, Washington, there’s a woman who loves God, adores her wife and kicks butt at feeding hungry kids.
She’s either a current or soon-to-be employee of World Vision, the large Christian charity devoted to economic development and disaster relief throughout the world, who just announced on Monday that they will extend the opportunity for employment to gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians in same-sex marriages.
Here’s what Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, had to say in an interview with Christianity Today:
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. It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.
It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. 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.
I think you have to be neutral on hundreds of doctrinal issues that could divide an organization like World Vision. One example: divorce and remarriage. Churches have different opinions on this. We’ve chosen not to make that a condition of employment at World Vision. If we were not deferring to local churches, we would have a long litmus test [for employees]. What do you believe about evolution? Have you been divorced and remarried? What is your opinion on women in leadership? Were you dunked or sprinkled? And at the end of the interview, how many candidates would still be standing? It is not our role to take a position on all these issues and make these issues a condition of employment.
It’s odd when you hear both pro-gay and anti-gay individuals voicing the same criticism of any one institution or event. But such is the case here. While many commentators–both within and outside the Church–applauded the move, among those who didn’t there seemed to be one refrain which rose above the squabble: “Is World Vision’s new position really neutral?”
It’s tempting to interpret Stearns’ comments along the brash duality we in the church often apply toward the issue of same-sex relationships: either they’re sinful, or they’re not. World Vision’s decision to employ married gay believers (to provide them with a salary and benefits and otherwise enable them to succeed) seems to place the organization in this latter camp–not sinful. So how can they claim to take a neutral stance?
This is where the framework of duality can really lead us astray. What Stearns is laying out is a more nuanced shift in approach to same-sex marriage, not from sinful to sanctified, but from primary to secondary. That’s an important difference. It’s not a categorical change but a change of category.
There’s a quote attributed to Saint Augustine so often cited that it is now a total cliche, but one that I’ll unabashedly employ anyway: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” As I understand it, World Vision’s new policy moves the issue of same-sex marriage from the first class to the second. From an essential to a non-essential. From something that requires unity of belief to something that allows for liberty among a host of diverse beliefs.
As if for further clarification, Stearns offers several examples of how these divide across other issues. To be employed at World Vision, you must be able to affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the organization’s Trinitarian statement of faith, as well as a sexual conduct policy that prohibits extra-marital sex. But now for World Vision, same-sex marriage on the whole joins the ranks of other issues that, while remaining theologically contentious, are broadly considered non-essentials: women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, and views on evolution, to name a few. But in it’s boldest iteration, the organization’s new decision implies that same-sex marriage, while still meritorious of theological debate, is not fundamentally antithetical to the Gospel message or the mission of World Vision.
That’s still a bold declaration, even if it isn’t a complete reversal on the question of whether homosexuality is a sin.
But is it a neutral stance? I suppose your answer to that question corresponds to whether or not you believe same-sex marriage may indeed be considered a non-essential issue to the Christian faith, one to which individual liberty and institutional neutrality can and should be afforded.
I do. I applaud the organization for it’s boldness in refusing to be blinded by the debate over same-sex marriage in recognizing the humanity of gay Christians and their obvious capacity for vibrant ministry. And even if, in my opinion, Stearns’ distinction between World Vision as an operational arm of the global church rather than a theological arm seems a little disingenuous, I agree that this new stance can be considered neutral.
I know I’m not alone either.
Somewhere in Bangladesh is a single mother who couldn’t send her three kids to school without World Vision’s help. She doesn’t know that the woman in America who’s in charge of mobilizing support in her area is a married lesbian. But I’ll bet she couldn’t care less.
Donate to World Vision here.
UPDATE (3/26/14): World Vision has unfortunately reversed their decision, citing the criticism they received.