Is it possible to maintain your identity as a Christ-follower when you adopt a view that is clearly contrary to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? Is it possible to voice your commitment to the well-being of children when you radically redefine the very institution — marriage — that has the most bearing on children’s health, education, and welfare?
These are the questions Christians across the country asked early this week as they reacted to the news that the American branch of World Vision, one of the largest and most effective Christian humanitarian organizations, which helps millions of people in hundreds of countries escape poverty, made an official policy change that would have enabled them to employ gay Christians who are in same-sex marriages.
World Vision’s faith commitment is clearly stated on their official website, where World Vision is described as a “Christian humanitarian organization” whose mission to serve the poor and oppressed is “motivated by [their] faith in Jesus Christ.” According to the organization’s core values, World Vision’s purpose transcends the provision of merely material relief for the world’s poor. In addition to supporting families who are displaced by natural disasters or suffering due to civil conflict and systemic injustice, World Vision strives to “bear witness to the redemption offered only through faith in Jesus Christ.”
World Vision accomplishes this task, in part, by employing self-professing Christ-followers, who testify to God’s goodness, grace, and love through their actions, which are, presumably, in line with Christ’s teachings. “The staff we engage are equipped by belief and practice to bear this witness. We will maintain our identity as Christians.”
In an interview with Christianity Today, which broke the story on March 25, Stearns defended World Vision U.S.’s decision:
“We are absolutely resolute about every employee being followers of Jesus Christ. We are not wavering on that.”
“We’re not doing this because of any outside pressure. We’re not doing this to get more revenue. We’re really doing this because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do for unity within the church. … I’m hoping this may inspire unity among others as well. To say how we can come together across some differences and still join together as brothers and sisters in Christ in our common mission of building the kingdom.”
In a letter to his employees, Stearns wrote, “We are asking you to unite around our sacred and urgent mission in the world and to treat those who don’t share your exact views with respect. If we cannot love one another, how will we show Christ’s love to the world?”
But the reasoning used by Richard Stearns in his defense of World Vision’s position was strangely inconsistent and revealed a stunning lack of commitment to the teachings of Christ as recorded in scripture.
Yes, Jesus displayed an unparalleled dedication to the poor, and helping the society’s most marginalized individuals was a primary component of his earthly mission. When Jesus preached for the first time in his hometown, he opened up the scroll and read from Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:18-19).
In Matthew 25 — the famous sheep and goats passage — Jesus says that those who feed the hungry, clothe the needy, and care for the sick will inherit the kingdom of heaven. “When you [did one of these things for] one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,” Jesus says, “you were doing it to me” (v. 40).
We who are followers of Christ share in Jesus’ mission to help the poor overcome physical need and material want. But Christ did not come simply to improve the temporal lives of people on earth but to liberate them from spiritual bondage as well. When Jesus heals a woman who was bent double for 18 years so that she can stand up straight, Jesus says what he really did was free this woman from bondage to Satan (Luke 13:10-16).
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the burden of sin is taken by Christ and lifted off our shoulders, so that we, freed from the overwhelming weight of our sinfulness, can stand upright before God. Part of a genuinely Christian mission to help the poor, then, consists in provision for both material and spiritual want. It is impossible to free people from spiritual bondage, however, when we spurn the very teaching that makes such freedom possible.
Of equal importance to our call to help the poor is the call to obey Jesus’ teaching: “If you love me, obey my commandments,” Jesus says (John 14:15). “All those who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and live with them. Anyone who doesn’t love me will not do what I say. And, remember, my words are not my own. This message is from the Father who sent me” (John 14:23-24).
In merely two days, after immense backlash from the Christian community, World Vision U.S. decided that it could not maintain its Christian identity while blatantly disregarding the Old Testament (Genesis 2) and New Testament (Matthew 19) teaching that marriage is a sacred institution, implemented by God and consisting of the permanent union of one man and one woman.
By equating traditional marriage with monogamous same-sex relationships, Stearns and World Vision U.S. were not following Christ but popular opinion, basing their philosophy on secular society rather than scripture. By radically redefining marriage and rejecting Christ’s teaching, World Vision was in danger of relinquishing its spiritual mission and focusing simply on its temporal mission of easing suffering and assisting victims of injustice. While the latter remains a noble aim, World Vision would have looked more like a religiously neutral NGO rather than a bearer of the gospel.
Having provoked the disapproval of many Christian leaders, Stearns found that taking a controversial — and unbiblical — stance on the most divisive social issue of the day is not the best way to promote Christian unity.
Although Stearns claimed that he was not endorsing same-sex marriage with his initial decision, in fact, he was. By claiming that the traditional, conjugal definition of marriage and the revisionist conception of marriage were equally valid, World Vision denied the very essence of marriage as a comprehensive, exclusive, and permanent union between one man and one woman that is oriented toward rearing the children they produce.
And while Stearns claimed that, by employing Christians in a same-sex relationship, he was staying out of the debate on gay marriage, he actually jumped headlong into it, adopting a position that sanctioned gay marriage. World Vision U.S., without any prompting, made the most controversial theological claim possible and took a side that exacerbated the same divisions in the church it was attempting to heal.
As was eventually made clear to them, Stearns and World Vision U.S. broke with orthodox Christianity by declaring that marriage is really any loving, emotionally-based commitment between two people, regardless of their physical complementarity. By expanding the umbrella of marriage, Stearns deemed acceptable activities that are clearly described as fornication by both Jesus and Paul in scripture. In the New Testament, all sexual activity outside of marriage is described as adultery. World Vision, by changing the definition of marriage, changed the definition of adultery, as well.
Two widely respected Christian leaders expressed regret over World Vision’s decision.
Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, “The worst aspect of the World Vision U.S. policy shift is the fact that it will mislead the world about the reality of sin and the urgent need of salvation. Willingly recognizing same-sex marriage and validating openly homosexual employees in their homosexuality is a grave and tragic act that confirms sinners in their sin — and that is an act that violates the gospel.”
According to Russell Moore, President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, same-sex marriage is not a morally neutral issue like baptism, evolution, or the ordination of women, those perpetually debated in-house theological issues about which World Vision is accustomed to remaining silent. “At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Moore writes. “If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish.”
Such strong remarks from respected evangelicals convinced the World Vision U.S. board of directors to reverse its proposed policy change regarding the hiring of Christians in gay marriages.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Richard Stearns said, “Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent. … What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs. We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.
“Yes, we will defer on many issues that are not so central to our understanding of the Christian faith. But on the authority of scripture in our organization’s work [and employee conduct] … and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman — those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs.”
Within Christian organizations, biblical norms should be respected (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).
“When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11)
When we Christians associate with people outside of the church, we, like Christ, are supposed to reach out gently, prayerfully, and with love. So many people in our own neighborhoods are suffering from material and spiritual impoverishment, but they will never be inclined to listen to the truth unless we speak to them with a selfless grace that is focused, first and foremost, on their well-being. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, explicitly says that Christians can — without any qualms — associate with unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin — and all other types of sins.
But, within a church or other Christian organization, Paul makes clear that any sinful actions — sexual or otherwise — cannot be tolerated without tarnishing the name of Jesus, whose Lordship we profess. To adopt the name of Christ and purposely act contrary to his teaching is to misuse the name of God and to muddle enlightened reason with modern convenience.