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A lot of nonsense about World Vision

300x225xWorldVision-Logo-300x225.jpg.pagespeed.ic.j-CXd9b3vLThey say that, in war, the first casualty is truth—and in the war of words about World Vision USA’s decision to change their terms of employment this certainly seems to be the case.

Richard Stearns, President of World Vision USA, announced in an interview with Christianity Today that its policy restricting employment to Christians who are either single and celibate or marriage will be adapted to recognise same-sex marriage. (This does not affect the international umbrella organisation nor any of the national organisations, which are all separate entities.)

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.

It is worth reading the piece in full. It seems to me that Stearns’ explanation is somewhat disingenuous at three points. Firstly, he comments:

“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,” he said. “It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.”

This suggests that WV are not changing their position, but simply adapting it to changes in culture and the definition of marriage. But this is to ignore that the whole debate centres precisely around what marriage is, and whether a same-sex union can properly be called marriage. And it is not just Christians who are asking this.

Secondly, Stearns comments that this is a logical extension of their decision to defer to the autonomy of local churches on other matters of controversy:

“Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc.,” he said. “So our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles’ Creed and our statement of faith. We unite around our [Trinitarian beliefs], and we have always deferred to the local church on these other matters.”

In other words, he is saying that, in this decision, WV is simply refusing to decide on the matter for themselves, but allowing churches to do so. But, as the old saying goes, not to decide is to decide. In deferring to the (conflicting) views of different denominations, Stearns is saying that this is a matter of adiaphora between churches. It is something on which we can agree to disagree. WV are perfectly entitled to say this, but I don’t think it is possible to present this as a lack of decision. It really is a decision on the status of the question—and that is the heart of the matter.

This relates to his third main comment:

“This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture,” said Stearns. “People can say, ‘Scripture is very clear on this issue,’ and my answer is, ‘Well ask all the theologians and denominations that disagree with that statement.'”

So in fact WV are agreeing that Scripture is not clear and persuasive on the question. This was something that came up quite explicitly in the Pilling report: the issue of whether we think Scripture is clear on the matter says something important both about how we view the question, and how we view Scripture.

So, given that the main questions in the debate are precisely ‘Is same-sex marriage in fact marriage?’, ‘Is the Bible unclear on this?’ and ‘Is this something on which we can agree to disagree?’, Stearns’ rationale looks less than persuasive.

Not surprisingly, conservative evangelicals in the US have reacted strongly by withdrawing their support from World Vision and criticising their stance. And this is where the nonsense really begins. Well-known US blogger Rachel Held Evans tweeted a link to the Sojourner’s blog:

It is easy to see that over the coming weeks thousands of evangelicals will withdraw their support from World Vision. And Dr. Moore is absolutely right. As this begins to take place, thousands of children will suffer because of the lack of funding from their former sponsors who decided that this theological and political issue was more important than their life. It is a sad day when followers of Jesus Christ will chose to make a theological/political point by withholding funds from children in life-and-death situations.

The comments here make some quite extraordinary assumptions:

  • First, that those disagreeing with WV’s decision will immediately withdraw support for their sponsor child.
  • Second, that on withdrawing this money, it will not then be diverted to other agencies, such as Compassion.
  • Third, that this is nothing more or less than an expression of modern-day Pharisaism.
  • Fourth, that the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25 supports this view—when in fact the parable is about something else altogether.
  • Fifth, that the centre of the gospel is about care for the poor alone.
  • Sixth, that World Vision (alone it seems!) function as the ‘hand and feet of Jesus.’
  • Seventh, that the gospel ‘calls us to radically love and extend grace, justice, and mercy to every human being’ but does not appear to involve the call to repentance—even though that was the thing Jesus did first and centre (Mark 1.15).

More sophisticated, but I don’t think any less mistaken, is ‘Archbishop Cranmer’s clever retelling of the Parable of the Good (Gay) Samaritan:

In reply the Chief Exec said: “A six-year-old starving boy and eight-year-old trafficked girl were going down from Djibouti to Hargeysa in Somaliland, when they were attacked by fanatical militia. They stripped the starving boy of his clothes, beat him, and then raped and mutilated the genitalia of the girl, and went away, leaving them both half dead. Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the children, he passed by on the other side. So too, Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, when he saw the children lying there, he walked on by. And also Denny Burk, professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, when he came to the place and saw them, passed by on the other side.

But a gay guy in a civil partnership, as he travelled, came to where the children were; and when he saw them, he took pity on them…

samarita_painting1Clever as it is, I think this comment makes two inexcusable errors. First, the idea of naming these individuals and suggesting that they ‘walked by on the other side’ is really hideous. In the comments, someone has asked ‘Did you know that Justin Taylor has adopted multiple orphans? Hardly the most fitting to cast as the bad guy in this.’ I am not sure of the truth of this, but surely we cannot be accusing others of lack of compassion without knowing more about them—and even then, is this the right thing to do?

Secondly, Jesus told the original parable to highlight the importance of action. But that did not stop him criticising the belief of the Samaritans in the sharpest terms:

You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. (John 4.22)

If he said at one point ‘Believe what the Pharisees teach, but don’t do what they do’ (Matt 23.3), here he appears to be saying ‘Do what the Samaritan does, but do not believe what he teaches.’ Why do we find it impossible to say either of these? Once again, every side in this debate is claiming Jesus for their own. And yet we fail to do the thing he did: be radically engaging, but also be incisively discerning.

We sponsor two children through World Vision, and one through Compassion. We are not going to making any changes in a hurry. But before any more nonsense finds its way out, I wonder whether we all need to read the WV statement again, and then read some of the carefully thought-out, clearly reasoned objections to this, such as those from Kevin deYoungMatthew Lee Anderson and even Justin Taylor himself.

Let’s give people the respect of considering the best of their arguments, on all sides, and not the worst and most simplistic.

Additional note

World Vision USA have now reversed their decision. I suspect a number of other things will follow:

1. They will need to do some hard thinking about their publicity. This has been something of a PR disaster.

2. Somebody might be looking for a new job.

3. People will talk about how WV USA have been ‘bullied’.

4. No other organisation will imagine that announcing a change in policy in this area will be seen as ‘neutral.’

5. Someone might ask why WV made this a big announcement at all, rather than doing it quietly, why they hadn’t anticipated the reaction, and what led to the decision at all.

Further Additional Note

A number of ‘progressive’ evangelicals have posted on Twitter or blogged that around 10,000 sponsorships have been cancelled. I think that is  a great shame—we have not cancelled ours. My quick sums estimate that this represents about £3m of support. World Vision US’s budget (I understand) is around $1.1 bn. So the cancellation represents 0.3% of their turnover; the other 99.7% of support through this conservative evangelical relief agency continues.

There is a fascinating post about the issue, roundly condemning both sides, at the OnFaith blog.

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22 Responses to A lot of nonsense about World Vision

  1. Wolf Paul March 26, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

    Unfortunately, while some of the things Rachel Held Evans has written have resonated with me, she increasingly assumes that all those who have not followed her in her conclusions about Christianity, the Bible, Christian living, etc., are driven by prejudice and other less-than-laudable motives. So I am not surprised that she takes this stance on the WV situation.

    I think the Evangelicals who will withdraw their support from WV in the US will be the ones who strongly believe that charity is not an end in itself but primarily a way to gain a hearing for the gospel; WV’s new stance on SSM disqualifies them as preachers of the gospel, and thus those folks will want to shift their support somewhere else.

    Evangelicals who see charity as an end in itself, that its primary purpose is to alleviate the suffering of fellow human beings, who are all created in the Image of God, and that the witness it bears to the love of God through His people is a secondary, collateral benefit, may well continue to support WV USA projects.

    Personally, I am inclined to think that especially in the case of child sponsorships this is not a good enough reason to terminate that sponsorship, precisely because it would penalize the child who is obviously not to blame for this ill-considered decision by WV USA leadership, as well as because it lends credence to the sort of simplistic assessment of the situation spouted by Rachel Held Evans and the increasingly mis-named Archbishop Cranmer.

    But Evangelicals looking for an agency to support in its charitable work would be fully justified to look for one that respects the Church and the Word of God rather than one which finds disingenuous reasons for going with the Zeitgeist.

    • Ian Paul March 27, 2014 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks Wolf. I think you characterise the two positions very well. Personally, I do both! We are supporters of WV, but in the past I have helped to run our local Christian Aid, which is in the other ‘camp’ (despite its name).

      The leading responders have offered really considered views, and have not suggested that people should withdraw sponsorship, so the reactions to that are very superficial.

  2. Ravi Holy March 27, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Ian, I’m quite shocked that you’re taking the view that anyone who says effectively ‘Committed Christians sincerely disagree on this issue so it’s clearly not an open and shut case’ (as the WV guy did?) are clearly on the wrong side of the debate. That’s a harder line than I expected from you. Wouldn’t ++Justin say something similar now? And isn’t what you’re saying the Anglican Mainstream position rather than the Open Evangelical one?

    • Ian Paul March 27, 2014 at 10:06 am #

      Ravi, well I am shocked that you are shocked! And I am intrigued.

      I’ve read my post again, and cannot find anywhere where I say ‘they are on the wrong side of the debate’. What I say is ‘They are on a side in the debate.’ Stearns appears to be saying ‘In this, we are just staying neutral’ and my observation is that this is disingenuous since the position is not a neutral one. I even say they are perfectly entitled to believe this, and I support charities which do. But you cannot claim this is either neutral or not a change in position.

      I don’t know what Justin would say, but if he said something different, and he now says this, then I think he will have changed his position.

      But I am more intrigued by ‘And isn’t what you’re saying the Anglican Mainstream position rather than the Open Evangelical one?’ I can’t lay my hands on the ‘Handbook to what it means to be an Open Evangelical’ or my membership form, so not sure how to respond to this one. Do forward me your copy.

      • James Byron March 27, 2014 at 10:41 pm #

        I’m not shocked at Ravi’s response, as many people treat “open evangelical” as a synonym for “liberal.”

        I don’t. Given the Bible’s universal condemnation of homosexuality, I’m not at all shocked that you’ve mirrored the hard line of scripture. I know it’s not an easy path to walk, and I respect your integrity for walking it, but it also reaffirms my own rejection of authoritarianism.

        • Ian Paul March 31, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

          Thanks James–appreciate the comment. I don’t think it is for me to be ‘harder’ or ‘softer’ than Scripture, and I am a sinful person in need of grace just like anyone else.

    • Ian Paul March 27, 2014 at 10:08 am #

      And I am really intrigued by the lack of comment on my closing points: I think it borders on the disgraceful to characterise people you don’t know as ‘walking on the other side’ without any evidence. Anyone else shocked by this kind of stereotyping?

  3. Edward Pillar March 27, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    I can only assume (naively?) that World Vision’s neutrality was either intended to communicate, ‘this issue is too complex / divisive so we don’t want to get involved’ or they felt they were acting in love and kindness to those in same gender relationships and against the tide of pious evangelical prejudice…?

    • Ian Paul March 27, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

      Is ‘the tide of pious evangelical prejudice’ your own assessment? I don’t think there was a suggestion of that view in their statement…

  4. Ravi Holy March 27, 2014 at 11:03 pm #

    I know you didn’t use the phrase ‘wrong side’ but my understanding is that you don’t support gay marriage?! I sort of see what you mean in that people who say ‘let’s listen to both sides’ are at least admitting the possibility that the trad view is wrong and the revisionist right. But istm that if someone said ‘I’ve always believed homosexual practice is wrong and I kind of still do but since an increasing number of committed Christians (including evangelicals) who I respect and trust now claim it’s not wrong I don’t think I can reasonably see it as so self-evidently wrong as I did before. So perhaps we can agree to disagree on this cos it’s clearly as not as definitive of Christian identity as beliefs about the resurrection etc’, well that seems genuinely neutral and OPEN to me. And yes, I get your point about the OE handbook (!) but I do sort of remember seeing a definition when Fulcrum first launched: open to women’s ministry, the insights of scholarship and surprises of the Spirit. Well, the attitude I’ve sketched above sounds compatible with that whereas the idea that even suggesting that this may be a second order issue is tantamount to apostasy seems VERY hard line (and not open) to me…

  5. Ravi Holy March 29, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    I’m sure you’re v busy (I know I am) but I’d love to hear your response to my last post.

    • Ian Paul March 31, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

      I wonder what you mean by ‘very busy’? That I have too many things to do for the time that I have to do them in? If so, am I doing the things God is calling me to? Am I too busy to take time off, to spend with friends and family? Too busy to be kind? Or has God called me to be ‘busy’?

      What if I said I was not busy? (I feel a post coming on…)

  6. Nigel March 30, 2014 at 7:01 am #

    USA – from Puritans to Impure-itans

    Is there a connection between beautiful New England and entire American cities turned into smoking rubble? There is.

    Take same-sex marriage. I would have guessed that a “sin” city (San Francisco? Las Vegas?) would have been the first to legalize it.

    [clipped]

    • Ian Paul March 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Nigel, I have clipped your rhetorical rant in part because it is not contributing to the discussion (so I think it is some text you paste in various places) and in part because it is just that—a rant, and a rather incoherent one at that.

      Do come back if you want to contribute to the debate.

  7. Ravi Holy March 31, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    I’m actually at a conference on transforming conflict at the moment so sorry if I tried to put you in a box… I still maintain that WV could just be saying ‘people disagree on this so were not going to take a position’ without taking a position. As to you being busy, not sure what to say to that!

    • Ian Paul April 1, 2014 at 11:04 am #

      But my whole point is that ‘Not to decide is to decide.’ They are taking a decision, and it is a change from their previous position.

      As I say above, they are perfectly entitled to do this. But it is disingenuous to say ‘Nothing’s changed, folks.’

  8. Ravi Holy April 2, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    Ok. Theyve made a decision/changed their position but their new position seems to be ‘we no longer feel that this issue is self-evidently black and white’ rather than (implicitly) we are now pro-gay (since whoevers not for us is against us). Which is what it seemed to me you were saying. Did I get that wrong?

  9. Niel April 4, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    I am writing this on 4 April and realise this post may be weeks old but scince WV desicion and subsequent reversal of that desicion there as been much written on both sides of the conversation and I have read my fair share. I believe people on both sides to have a good understanding of scripture and a high view of the bible that’s why people on both sides have spent much of there time studying scripture. But many highly educated people with a love for God and the bible have come to very different conclusion as to what the bible does or does not teach. So here is the question I want to ask. Is it possible to teach this is what one person believes and this is how they came to this conclusion and this is what someone else believes and this likewise is how they came to this understanding without claiming absolute certainty and a monopoly on truth. I think this is important for growth in the individual seeking to learn and for future unity and understanding of one another in the Body of Christ. This is especially important to me as I hope to study theology in the near future and I want educating not indoctrinating. Thank you.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Parable of the Gay Samaritan | An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy - March 26, 2014

    […] As a balance, here’s Ian Paul. […]

  2. Thoughts on the World Vision Debate | Alastair's Adversaria - March 27, 2014

    […] Among the many unhelpful responses that I have read, there have been a few perceptive and balanced treatments of the issues. It was not a surprise to me that Matt Anderson had some measured thoughts on the original decision in a post over on Mere Orthodoxy and some broader and insightful reflections on the story after World Vision reversed its original decision on Twitter (Matt has brought his tweets together here). Ian Paul also has written a helpful post on the matter here. […]

  3. World Vision and ‘that’ decision | Apples of Gold - May 29, 2015

    […] edit: 27/3/14 Some further thoughts here and also an interesting link to the Psephizo blog (although I don’t agree with all he says) but does provoke some questions is here… […]

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