The World Vision debacle is a perfect illustration of the deep confusion at very heart of the evangelical parachurch — a confusion between the universal good of humanitarian aid and the particular concern of the church’s gospel ministry.
Isn’t it remarkable how our disposable culture has earth-shattering debates of deep moral consequence, blood pressures rise, Facebook acquaintances insult one another, and then we move on? World Vision and Noah in the same week? What’s a Christian to do? In the meantime, countless real human lives are impacted — collateral damage — the news cycle turns and we move on.
And so it is I find myself a week later still thinking about the World Vision “doctrinal debacle,” as Mollie Hemingway labeled it last week. As she pointed out, one of the lessons learned was that “parachurch organizations are destined for trouble.”
I couldn’t agree more. I belong to a near-extinct breed of churchmen who have a certain disdain for parachurch organizations, based upon deeply held convictions about the Gospel, and the church. We live in a religious landscape increasingly dominated by the parachurch — where the church indeed is increasingly modeled on the parachurch — so this is one of those lessons worth considering further. We need to understand why parachurch organizations are destined for trouble, and the World Vision case is a perfect illustration.
First, let me stipulate that I am delighted that organizations like World Vision exist, and I don’t think the work they do is in any way illegitimate. I’m no expert, but nothing I know leads me to oppose them or discourage support of their work.
I do, however, believe that World Vision and the vast majority of Christians have a deeply confused understanding of that work and their status as a “Christian” organization. Here’s the problem: they wrongly confuse their work with Gospel ministry, and present it as somehow distinctively Christian. Why should humanitarian aid be an exclusivist enterprise?
Let me be clear. The Gospel is good news for dying sinners, and depends upon faith and a certain theological precision for its lifesaving force. “Gospel Ministry,” from the perspective of classic Protestantism, is the sole domain of the church, what our confessions call “the Keys of the Kingdom.” This includes the Preaching of the Word, the Administration of the Sacraments, and the pastoral discipline of the church. These keys are also called “means of grace,” and are uniquely the possession of the Church, by Christ’s command and authority. This Gospel ministry, properly understood, isn’t a fruit of faith, it is a gracious God-given gift that creates and sustains faith.
With this understanding, the church is a Christian organization — THE Christian organization — in the sense that it makes Christians, or more precisely authenticates and constitutes those Spirit-born Christians by baptizing and communing them, and sustains them in their Christian faith. Sometimes the church even unmakes a Christian via excommunication. For those of us that believe, this is serious, life and death stuff.
World Vision, in contrast, is a “Christian” organization in a different, and lesser sense, in the sense that it is made up of those who already are “Christians,” who are “motivated by their faith in Christ.”
In deference to Hemingway’s third lesson, I’m not being uncharitable with that second set of scare quotes around “Christians.” I’m not in the business of questioning the authenticity of anyone’s faith, for God alone judges the heart. But churches are in this business. Every church has some criteria for who can be baptized, or become a member, whether broad, or narrow. Many of them disagree.
But World Vision accepts every church’s coin, thereby devaluing it, and mints anyone “a Christian” on their own terms, via checking a box affirming a statement of faith as well as the Apostles’ Creed, and a “conduct policy” shaped by Christian mores. Acting outside any particular church structure, it dismisses the judgments of all churches about their most essential function, the making and unmaking of Christians. It doesn’t even clearly require that one be a member of a church, though via a creed it affirms belief in “the holy catholic [in the sense of “universal”] church.”
Are You Saved By What You Do?
To its credit, World Vision understands that the nature of the church / parachurch relationship was at the center of their recent decision. It was seeking to “leave theology to others” and “honor the church as a whole… acknowledg[ing] the proper relationship between the church and parachurch,” according to board member Soong-Chan Rah.
Most evangelicals were perfectly happy with this relationship, so long as it just involved theology, and not behavior. Indeed, one justification for the original decision was that World Vision already had employees from over 50 different Christian denominations, denominations with real doctrinal differences. These include the nature of God, of sin and salvation, faith, the significance of the sacraments, and the future of the world.
The vast majority of lay Christians today may pooh-pooh doctrine as irrelevant, but these churches on the whole don’t. They are the original Christian organizations, and despite the ecumenical spirit of the age, they continue to give voice to their distinctive witness. Indeed, many of these churches also differ on the moral question of same sex unions. Surely, World Vision reasoned, it could maintain its “Christian identity” and its distinctive “faith component” while letting the church be the church?
But what exactly is our Christian identity divorced in this way from the particulars of the church?
The great revelation here is that evangelical supporters of World Vision showed themselves to believe that sexuality is ultimately more important to Christian identity than theology; behavior more important than doctrine; and church membership, least important of all. Depart from Scripture on your teaching about original sin? No biggie. Affirm that same sex unions may be chaste? You’re denying the inspiration of Scripture.
This episode tells us more about the state of contemporary evangelicalism than about World Vision. In its pursuit of unity and pan-Christian cooperation, American revivalism and evangelicalism have always been willing to be doctrinal minimalists, while elevating particular moral scruples — even unbiblical ones such as the prohibition of alcohol — as arbiters of orthodoxy. The World Vision debacle is ultimately the evangelical debacle.
For a movement that takes its name from the Gospel itself, the “evangel,” this is a sad fall. To an outsider, it would appear they believe you are saved not by what you believe, but by what you do.
An Instrument of Holiness
This all should matter to us, because if we are Christians, the church matters. Jesus loves the church, and gave his life for her.
Christians confess the church under the heading of the Holy Spirit because the church is the instrument the Spirit uses to make us holy. There can be no distinction between theology and ethics, behavior and faith. Christian morality or holiness is not secondary to theology or doctrine in this enterprise. It is the ultimate goal and purpose of theology and doctrine. This is essential, not ancillary, to the Gospel. God’s free gospel and holy law go together.
But when you divorce Christian conduct codes from the church, you are left with rules, and no hope. Law, with no gospel. And the law doesn’t make us holy, the gospel does. The church is a hospital for sinners, and the gospel is the medicine. Reducing Christianity to rules suggests you must obey before you can enter, or that if you don’t you’ll be shown the door.
The crucial question isn’t what comprises your code of Christian conduct. It is how your respond when you break it. And if we get the conduct code right — the perfect Law of God — we will break it. Every. Day.
I belong to a church that — along with the vast majority of Christians — believes the Scriptures teach unambiguously that the only chaste expression of human sexuality is in the context of a marriage between one man and one woman. [Yes, snarky commenter, our Bible is full of polygamous sinners. That’s why they needed Jesus.] That is clearly and affirmatively taught in God’s Law.
But what makes us a church, and not just a bunch of Christians, is how God’s Gospel is applied when that Law is broken.
What can, I wonder, World Vision do when an employee falls into sin? When their marriage struggles, and falls apart due to same sex attraction? When they pursue a new union with their same sex partner? Terminate for cause? Fire someone because the organization’s “Christian identity” has been violated by sin?
What can the church do? Forget what she has done, for we all know that the church too has sinned gravely in this matter. But what can she do, what should she do?
First, the church expresses the love of Christ for sinners, and pardon for those who repent. Christian identity in the church is determined by the law and gospel. It is predicated not on our avoidance of sin, but on the fact that we are sinners, saved by grace.
This pardon is not free, but requires acknowledgement of the holiness of God’s law, and the sinfulness of our sin. It requires sorrow for sin, and repentance.
Yes, there is a code of Christian conduct — God’s Law — but it is lived out in the community of the church, of forgiven sinners. The sinner of the church is not alone, but is embraced by Gospel promises, the assurance of pardon in the sacrament, and a loving body of Christ that desires to support one another as they grow in holiness. And only in extremis, when these simple terms of divine forgiveness are absolutely rejected, does it sorrowfully acknowledge that the Christian identity is no more.
This is the essence of Christianity, and it is precisely what the parachurch lacks. Which is why World Vision is a perfectly fine relief organization, but has nothing essentially to do with the Gospel.
Why should feeding the poor be an exclusive endeavor, undertaken only by those who share a common faith? True, the founders of World Vision may not have cared for the poor as they do if they weren’t Christians, yet this faith is not integral to their work, nor does not make it a “Christian Ministry.”