World Vision and the Distant Dream of Christian Unity

By Jacob Lupfer

World Vision USA, a Christian relief agency that raises and spends $1 billion a year, shocked American Christianity last week by announcing that it would employ Christians in same sex marriages. World Vision’s international umbrella organization has a federated model allowing national affiliates some discretion over personnel policies. In Canada and New Zealand, for instance, World Vision does not discriminate in hiring.

Appealing to evangelical (particularly Baptist) distinctives like liberty of the conscience and autonomy of the local church, World Vision USA President Rich Stearns described the “very narrow policy change” as a symbol he hoped would inspire Christian unity.

After 48 hours of intense, widespread, and decisive criticism from fundamentalists, some Pentecostals, and many conservative evangelicals, World Vision’s board reverted back to its original employee conduct policy, permitting sex only within marriage between a man and a woman.

The reaction to World Vision’s policy and reversal vividly illustrates that unity in the Church is a distant dream. Setting aside important debates about homosexuality and about World Vision’s aid model, I offer some considerations specifically related to Christian unity.

Rich Stearns has lived the ideals of ecumenical cooperation. He has reflected deeply about the distinction between church and parachurch and what that difference means for mission. Stearns earned the trust and respect of diverse Christian leaders. Yet his two decades of faithful, judicious leadership were undermined and overruled in two days.

The episode reveals a lack of concern, at least in some quarters, about the visible unity of the Church. Besides being one of the largest charities, World Vision is also one of the clearest expressions of the interdenominational Protestant and ecumenical Christian spirit. The scarcity of truly ecumenical institutions should alarm Christian leaders, but many are content to rule their own (often declining) fiefdoms.

From their earliest days, churches have organized collective action to be the Body of Christ together in ways they never could on their own. Inevitably, they sacrifice some unanimity for the common good–to achieve acts of love and service that would otherwise go undone.

In today’s fragmented religious landscape, World Vision is one of only a handful of large Christian organizations that draws broad support from across denominations and communions. Last week, we saw firsthand the fragility of a truly ecumenical partnership. Without de facto veto power, one sizable bloc of support was prepared to walk away.

Prominent leaders threatened to encourage their constituents to defund World Vision because they could not bear to admit that Christians disagree about homosexuality. Some outspoken leaders, in demanding repentance and then using the Prodigal Son’s return (Luke 15:21) as a metaphor for World Vision’s reversal, assumed for themselves infallibility they usually ascribe only to Scripture and a prerogative to judge that surely belongs to God alone.

Acknowledging disagreement over homosexuality is not akin to debauching oneself with prostitutes (Luke 15:13, 30), as some leaders implied last week. Unity begins with the realization that all Christians–once dead but now alive again–are like that lost son. We are not the Father, and we do not get to dictate for all time which of his children he can or cannot–will or will not–joyfully and lovingly welcome home.

Moderates and progressives are not blameless, either. They too often falsely accuse traditionalists of hate and ignorance. They too easily forget that they are essentially expecting the vast majority of the Christian family to, on short notice, make changes to an understanding of gender and human sexuality that has undergirded most of the world’s cultures and most of the Church for most of Christian history. Instead of extending invitations to “see what the Spirit may be saying” on gender and sexuality, progressives often come across as cultural imperialists.

Reminding us of Jesus’ teaching that purity is matter of the heart (Matt. 5:8), modernists accuse traditionalists of excessive obsession with sex. But modernists often leave sexual libertinism unchallenged. They sometimes neglect the confusion and misery that our permissive and pornographic culture creates for many women, men, girls, and boys. It occurs to me that some version of World Vision’s proposal could become a broad Christian consensus: an ideal of chastity and fidelity for all people, straight and gay.

Some of my conservative friends swear they will never acknowledge as Christians anyone who accepts homosexuality. I have liberal Christian friends who want to be in traditions where support for same sex marriage is not merely allowed, but required. While I unfortunately have no solution for this impasse, I urge polarized clergy and other elites on both sides to be generous, kind, and pastoral to the millions they view as ambivalent or “wrong” on this issue. (It is not pastoral to dismiss Christians who disagree with you and then proclaim that the Church is better off without them.)

Of course, denominations and leaders have varying tolerances for sharing power and different non-negotiable bottom lines. But Christian unity cannot advance as long as there are people who will not abide anything they cannot control. Arguably, doctrinal enforcers are pushing the limits of their authority to kick out the growing number of evangelicals who accept homosexuality. Excommunicating everyone who disagrees with you creates ideological cohesion, not Christian unity. Christians should honor the good faith and goodwill of people who think differently, yet who nevertheless trust in Christ for salvation (Rom. 10:13).

With seemingly no relief from the relentlessly polarizing forces at work in our politics and our religious traditions, deliberately seeking relationships and partnerships across sectarian lines would foster wisdom and understanding while advancing the common good. Ask yourself: What doctrine, practice, or opinion is so important to me that, unless others agree with me, I cannot join them in feeding starving children in Jesus’ name? What would a spiritually mature person say? What would the Lord himself say? The unity we should seek will grow not out of naïve idealism, but out of authentic, deliberate spiritual formation. Whether you believe World Vision’s capitulation occurred last Monday or last Wednesday, it is clear that we have lost our way. The Lord’s great prayer for unity is going unanswered in our time. The question is, Do Christians care?

 

Jacob Lupfer is a Ph.D. candidate in government at Georgetown University. A friend and fellow traveler of Mainline Protestantism, Lupfer appreciates the wisdom and grace found in diverse expressions of Christianity. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.


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