World Vision’s gay furor and A.D. 2064

PAUL ASKS:

(Regarding the World Vision relief agency deciding U.S. employees can live in same-sex marriages): What does the Religion Guy think?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question was prompted by that dramatic policy change by a prominent Christian organization, but a mere two days later World Vision restored its limit of employees’ relationships to male-female marriage. A news reporter’s job isn’t to tell agencies what to do but to analyze what’s going on, and The Guy thinks these neck-snapping events say much about U.S. Protestantism during, oh, the next 50 years.

Why only Protestants? There’s little chance this sexual teaching will be open to reconsideration among the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, independent churches in the developing world, Mormonism, Orthodox Judaism, or Islam. With the World Vision furor the irresistible force of cultural evolution met the immoveable object of Bible traditionalism. “Parachurch” agencies like World Vision with backing from all sorts of churches are especially vulnerable. This U.S. Protestant culture war is perhaps as divisive and intense as any since slavery, fortunately minus bullets this time.

No matter what secular laws say, it’s now obvious there’s no middle ground on whether Christianity should approve same-sex unions and marriages. Mennonite seminarian Benjamin Corey sees “the death of Evangelical Christianity in America as it once was,” namely a big-tent amalgam of moderates and conservatives. The dispute harms everybody.  Those who in conscience uphold church tradition are portrayed as hard-hearted bigots who blindly refuse to accept changing reality. Churches that advocate change on grounds of compassion and justice can appear confused if not unprincipled by shedding a belief they so long preached (and they’ve lost members).

Consider the verbal arrows shot through cyberspace, including patheos.com. Episcopal priest David Henson denounced “the vile theology spewed” by evangelicals, said to “have a hate problem.” Author Rachel Held Evans declared, “I have never in my life been more angry at the Church or more embarrassed to be a Christian.” Feminist Libby Anne said conservatives appear “akin to racists.” And youth ministry guru Jonathan McKee said “Christians come out looking like idiots.”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma state legislator Rebecca Hamilton said World Vision flirted with “public apostasy” so she now wonders “can we trust them?” Radio host Michael Brown denounced “a betrayal of the Lord.” The social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention (with 45,000 local congregations) said “the gospel of Jesus Christ” is at stake and called the change “devilish.” Before the reversal, the Assemblies of God (12,500 local congregations) asked its flock to gradually shift charity donations elsewhere.

Since 1950, World Vision, a massive international service provider, has become a pride of the evangelical movement with large non-evangelical support. It is America’s 10th largest charity with revenues exceeding $1 billion, a fifth of that from government, with 40,000 employees in 100 countries. Some 1,100 work at U.S. headquarters in Washington state, where gay-lesbian marriage became legal in 2012.

Revision of sexual standards was first floated at a 2011 World Vision board meeting. Last fall a lopsided but not unanimous board decision allowed employees in same-sex marriages where that’s legal. The change was kept under wraps till the evangelical monthly Christianity Today planned a news article. President Richard Stearns (a former corporate C.E.O.) alerted key backers in March 21 e-mails, the magazine posted a Stearns interview March 24, public and private protests ensued, nearly 5,000 donors immediately withdrew support, and the board reversed itself March 26.

Paradoxically, Stearns told the magazine that World Vision sought to foster unity among believers. He explained that the ministry must cooperate with all Christian groups, some have shifted in favor of same-sex marriages, and a multi-denominational agency shouldn’t take sides but defer to the authority of denominations and local congregations. As he and the board saw things, this didn’t endorse redefinition of marriage or undercut the Bible’s authority. Many evangelicals didn’t buy that.

Though more local Protestant congregations are indeed conducting same-sex weddings, this remains very much a minority practice, and even “mainline” denominations are cautious. In 2005 the United Church of Christ affirmed “marriage equality” in secular law but congregations remain free to forbid such weddings. In 2012 the Episcopal Church approved trial rituals for same-sex couples without calling them “marriages.” The same in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which that same year narrowly defeated a bid to redefine marriage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America admits it lacks consensus. Meanwhile, evangelical church bodies remain solidly opposed.

In the March 26 reversal, Stearns and board chairman James Bere Jr. (another corporate C.E.O.) asked for forgiveness and said “we are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends.” They insisted that World Vision “stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage” and that “all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created by God” and deserving of love, dignity, and respect.

Joel Miller of Thomas Nelson publishers thinks World Vision’s “momentary P.R. mess” will pass. But down the road ministries’ “protections will be challenged” and legal expenses will mount. “Shouldn’t we expect more of this from Christian charities taking taxpayer dollars? The law is still on their side, but for how long?”

Christianity Today reveals original policy change:

www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-why-hiring-gay-christians-same-sex-marriage.html

The magazine’s report on rapid reversal, with Stearns-Bere statement:

www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-reverses-decision-gay-same-sex-marriage.html

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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