What World Vision Says about Evangelical Priorities

World Vision is a Christian organization that serves children in the third world. It is perhaps well known for its sponsorship program, through which Americans may sponsor needy children in the third world through monthly donations that go to pay for things like school tuition and medical care. This week World Vision demoted the debate over marriage equality to the status of doctrinal dispute on par with that over infant baptism when it changed its policies to allow for the hiring of legally married gay and lesbian employees. The response of many evangelicals has been to claim that World Vision has hurt the children it claims to help by forcing Bible-believing evangelicals to cancel their sponsorships.

What does this say about evangelical priorities?

Christianity Today explains the policy change as follows:

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.

Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America’s largest Christian charities.

In an exclusive interview, World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns explained to Christianity Today the rationale behind changing this “condition of employment,” whether financial or legal pressures were involved, and whether other Christian organizations with faith-based hiring rules should follow World Vision’s lead.

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.

In short, 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.

Given that more churches and states are now permitting same-sex marriages (including World Vision’s home state of Washington), the issue will join divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors among the theological issues that the massive relief and development organization sits out on the sidelines.

In other words, World Vision is aware that some Christian churches have begun reevaluating what the Bible says regarding marriage, and that not a few Christian churches today endorse marriage equality. World Vision’s statement of faith focuses on the evangelical basics, things like Christ’s death on the cross and the role of the Holy Spirit, and does not touch on culture wars hot topics. The organization would like to leave the divisive doctrinal issues Christians have squabbled over, things like baptism and female pastors, up to individual churches, and it has added marriage equality to that list. If you are a gay or lesbian Christian who adheres to World Vision’s statement of faith and you are married to your partner, World Vision will hire you. (If you’re not married, you would be expected to remain abstinent, just as unmarried straight individuals would be.)

Most evangelicals have responded to this change with outrage.

Prominent evangelical leader John Piper responded by arguing that while claiming not to take a position, World Vision actually was taking a position—and he argued that their action was a step “toward the demise of true compassion for the poor.”

When World Vision says, “We cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue,” here is the side they do, in fact, jump onto: We forbid fornication and adultery as acceptable lifestyles among our employees (which they do), but we will not forbid the regular practice of homosexual intercourse. To presume that this position is not “jumping into the fight on one side or the other” is fanciful.

But worse than fancy, removing homosexual intercourse from its biblical alignment with fornication and adultery (and greed and theft and drunkenness) trivializes its correlation with perdition.

This was at the heart of why J.I. Packer walked. Referring to all these sins, Packer said, “They are ways of sin that, if not repented of and forsaken, will keep people out of God’s kingdom of salvation.”

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)

In other words, to treat regular homosexual intercourse as less dangerous than fornication, adultery, greed, theft, and drunkenness is to treat perdition as if it were a small thing, or not really coming. The same text that imperils active fornicators and adulterers and thieves and coveters, also imperils those who practice homosexuality.

Make no mistake, this so-called “neutral” position of World Vision is a position to regard practicing homosexuals (under the guise of an imaginary “marriage”) as following an acceptable Christian lifestyle, on the analogy of choosing infant baptism over believers’ baptism.

It’s worth noting that LGBTQ Christians have argued that Piper’s interpretation of I Corinthians 6:9-10 is incorrect. They argue that the word that is interpreted as “men who practice homosexuality,” ἀρσενοκοῖται, actually meant temple prostitute. And this is rather the point.

World Vision, with its change in policy, has acknowledged that Christians are now divided on the morality of homosexuality just as they have long been divided on the issue of infant baptism and have more recently become divided on the issue of female pastors. And this isn’t just subjective opinions here. Christians are in fact actually divided on what the Bible says on these issues. World Vision would like to leave these divisive theological issues up to individual churches.

If a woman attends a church that preaches infant baptism and has her children baptized as infants, that’s fine. If a man attends a church that preaches that God blesses the marriage of any two consenting adults and is married to his male partner, that, too, is fine.

In other words, World Vision has demoted evangelical belief in “traditional” marriage to the same status as doctrinal disputes over infant baptism. This, I think, is the core reason for evangelical anger. Most evangelicals today do not view the conflict between “traditional” marriage and marriage equality as a doctrinal dispute. These evangelicals may have a very firm personal position regarding infant baptism, but they tend to argue that this is not a “salvation issue” and acknowledge that there is legitimate disagreement. They do not, however, view the dispute over marriage in this light. They see the dispute as one between true Christians on the one side and the deluded on the other. They do not accept that Christians who believe in LGBTQ rights are actually Christians. World Vision, in contrast, now does. 

Trevin Wax of the Gospel Coalition responded by arguing that with this policy change World Vision is hurting the very children it claims to serve. How? By forcing evangelicals to withdraw their support and stop sponsoring children through World Vision, of course.

World Vision has announced that its American branch will adjust its employee code of conduct to allow same-sex couples who are legally “married.”

Hoping to keep the evangelical organization out of debates over same-sex marriage, president Richard Stearns adjusted the employee code of conduct to sexuality within the confines of “marriage” whether between man and man or woman and woman. In other words, while declaring to not take a position on redefining marriage, his organization has redefined it.

Some observers are elated.

Evangelicals are shocked.

Many are outraged.

No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond.

Children will suffer as evangelicals lose trust in and withdraw support from World Vision in the future. It will take time for evangelicals to start new organizations that maintain historic Christian concepts of sin, faith, and repentance.

In the meantime, children will suffer. Needlessly.

Wax is not the only one calling for evangelicals to withdraw their support from World Vision—nor is he the only one blaming the suffering of children who will lose their sponsorships on World Vision rather than on those evangelicals who end their sponsorships out of bigotry. This from Michael Brown of the Christian Post:

Now is the time for every church that works with World Vision, every Christian musician and artist that partners with World Vision, and every believer that supports World Vision to inform them that they have made a terrible choice and that they will no longer have your support.

And then, without missing a beat, partner together with other fine Christian, humanitarian organizations like Samaritan’s Purse or Food for the Hungry, and continue your compassionate giving.

And for every child who will fall through the cracks because of World Vision’s betrayal of its Christian principles, I say to Richard Stearns and those who made this decision together: You will have to answer to God.

This is an issue where you can read on, and on, and on, article after article and post after post from all sides. The amount of virtual ink this one policy change has led to is astounding. And really, at the core, it makes me incredibly sad. The evangelicalism of my youth values doctrine over people—even when those people are children. Perhaps this is so sad to me because of how close to home it hits.

Their names were Baraka and Umi. Baraka lived in Kenya, and Umi lived in Indonesia. They’re still out there, somewhere, all grown up now, but I will always remember their faces smiling at me from their prominent position on our fridge. We began sponsoring Baraka and Umi through World Vision when I was very young, perhaps six or seven. We got new pictures each year and watched as they grew. We received letters from them every few months, full of breezy talk of their families or their school performance. They even told us what they wanted to be when they grew up. Mom used to tell us how glad she was that World Vision helped enable children like Baraka and Umi to stay with their families, so that they could have good food and schooling without having to be sent to orphanages. We would send them extra money at Christmas, and they told us excitedly in their letters what they spent it on.

I didn’t think I’d be this affected by writing about this, but all of a sudden I find that I’m sitting here with tears running down my cheeks. Baraka and Umi were just two little kids living across the world, but I felt a connection with as a child. I don’t know whether or not World Vision’s approach is the most effective when it comes to allocating charity resources, but I do know that World Vision helped me, as a little girl, to see in a tangible way how much bigger our world was than just the United States. Mom would read Baraka and Umi’s letters aloud at the breakfast table, and we would take out the encyclopedia and learn about their countries. We talked about Baraka and Umi every day at breakfast, in order to pray for them, and it was through them that I first understood just how much I truly had and how little others had. Through all of these interactions, the pictures and the letters and the discussion of their countries, I felt as though I really knew these children.

For an evangelical to cancel a sponsorship with World Vision—to cancel a sponsorship of a child they have come to know personally—I’m trying to figure out a way to communicate just how heartless that feels. This isn’t like canceling simple donations to an organization. It is ending a relationship—a relationship with a child whose picture is on your fridge and whose letters speak of common illnesses and excitement over new subjects at school. I wonder about the two children whose pictures grace my parents’ fridge today. I don’t know their names as I no longer live at home, but I’ve noticed their smiling faces.

Will those two pictures still be there on the fridge the next time I visit my parents’ house, I wonder? What will my parents value more—those two smiling children or their doctrinal opposition to marriage equality?

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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