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3 Lessons From World Vision’s Doctrinal Debacle


On Monday, the $1 billion evangelical anti-poverty group World Vision announced it would no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman. Polygamy and pre-marital sex were still forbidden for employees, who must sign a statement of Christian faith, but people in same-sex marriages would be eligible for hire.

In a culture that holds sexual choice as far and away the most important expression or virtue or value, this may not seem like news. But for Christians, whose Scriptures include rigorous restrictions on sexual activity, the move signaled a radical departure from historic teachings of the church. Many evangelicals, who enjoyed supporting World Vision, expressed feelings of betrayal. Prominent evangelical church leaders condemned the decision as inconsistent with Christian teaching. Some progressive and old line Christians vowed to support World Vision in response.

It was particularly odd coming from World Vision, a group that has valiantly defended the right to operate as a truly faith-based charity. This has meant waging court battles to keep its requirement for employees to hold to a distinctly Christian statement of faith as well as efforts to ensure its policy of hiring Christians wouldn’t be banned or unduly punished by the federal government.

By Wednesday, the group had reversed course and returned to the previous policy. The letter announcing the change begins:

Today, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its recent decision to change our employment conduct policy. The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

Perhaps World Vision had underestimated how much evangelicals valued World Vision’s doctrinal commitments. Religion News Service reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported that World Vision may have lost as much as $840,000 in just a few days as a result of the decision.

It’s all calm now, but there are still some good lessons from the whole brouhaha.

1) Don’t get in bed with the government.

World Vision says that they weren’t pressured to make the original change. Christianity Today reported:

“We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us,” said Stearns. “This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church.

And Christianity Today managing editor Ted Olsen says that he doubts money played a role in the change or reversal:

Everything in the group’s statements speaks to their attempt to navigate a difficult cultural issue. It needn’t be “all” about the money to be even ever-so-slightly about the money. Or to at least have been made in consideration of the current funding climate.

While the vast majority of the $1 billion raised each year is from individuals and foundations, the government is presumably the biggest funder of World Vision. In fiscal year 2012, according to the group’s 990, $174,520,104 came from “government grants.”

It’s not unreasonable to imagine that World Vision hoped to keep funds from Christians who donated to World Vision precisely because of shared doctrines while also being able to keep the checks flowing from an increasingly hostile federal government. Hostile? Well, yeah.

Recent years have seen fights over whether federal funds should go to groups that only hire co-religionists or require them to sign a statement of faith or practice a shared code of morality — both issues that affect World Vision and which World Vision has fought to defend.

In 2011, USAID begins inserting in its mandatory requirements new language that it “strongly encourages” all grant applicants to adopt USAID’s hiring policy of not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. No word on whether they added, “Mighty nice federally funded program you’ve got there, would be a shame if something happened to it.” This was another issue that World Vision had to work hard to navigate.

That same year, HHS defunded the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic program to assist and resettle victims of human trafficking. Why? Even though everyone agreed that the USCCB was doing a fantastic job with the program, they didn’t provide contraceptives or abortions to the trafficked women. Funding seemed to be tied to agreeing with the doctrines policies of the federal government.

Since then, the President has issued declarations that come into play. One said that ending discrimination against gay persons “is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights” and “directing all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

Another said providing “access to reproductive health” for women in conflict and humanitarian emergencies was a matter of US national security to which U.S. foreign aid should be directed. If we’re talking about healthcare, that’s not controversial. If we’re using “health” as a euphemism for abortifacients, you can see where some NGOs might start to have a problem.

The point is that when you’re taking hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government and the federal government decides it doesn’t like your doctrines on the sanctity of life or sexual morality — indeed, that opposing those views serves the national interest — you have a problem.

It’s also a problem for the federal government. I don’t happen to agree that the government should be anywhere near its size or scope, much less funding religious groups. But if it is funding religious groups, it starts to run into “establishment” trouble when it prefers the doctrines of some groups — progressive church bodies such as The Episcopal Church while actively banning groups with doctrines it dislikes.

2) Parachurch organizations are destined for trouble.

According to Wikipedia, “Parachurch organizations are Christian faith-based organizations that work outside of and across denominations to engage in social welfare and evangelism, usually independent of church oversight.” Or as the Christianity Today article put it:

However, World Vision now has staff from more than 50 denominations—a handful of which have sanctioned same-sex marriages or unions in recent years, including the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Well, I think one or more of those churches might have also sanctioned pre-marital sex as well, so I’m not sure that’s the best metric. But the point is that parachurch organizations lack the authority of church organizations to govern these things. Call it parachurch all you want, but you can’t really represent 50 different churches with radically different teachings, churches that in many cases don’t even recognize each other’s authority.

Because parachurches and non-denominational groups must by definition resort to a sort of “lowest common denominator” on matters of faith and morality, it is not a surprise that the lower the standards go in some church bodies, the parachurch has to lower itself to be as inclusive. Whether you’re the United Church of Christ or Baptist, you set rigorous and clear lines and distinctions on what’s proper and what’s not. So avoiding those lines sets yourself against each of these church bodies in ways that can be difficult to navigate.

It’s not all bad — there’s a certain liberty in not tying oneself to a formal institution with a clear and uncontested confession of faith. But as more churches flounder in the manner mainline progressive churches have for decades, the lack of doctrinal unity will only cause parachurch organizations more trouble. I am blessed to be a member of a church body with a fantastic program of domestic and international mercy, so I am biased. But because it is my church body, I can give knowing that our doctrines are held to throughout our mercy programs. And if they’re not, we have a way of handling that internally.

3) We need more civilized disagreement

Perhaps the worst thing to witness in the reaction to World Vision was the lack of civility displayed by some. To take just one example that floated into my Twitter feed this week:


Yikes. The tune from Held and others changed, of course, after World Vision returned to its previous position. Hopefully as a result of being on both sides of the coin, everyone was then able to sympathize with how frustrating it can be to make a commitment to someone based on shared values only to have them change their position.

In the Lutheran Church, we have an explanation to the 8th commandment that reads:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

It’s really good advice for all of us. We all struggle to put the best construction on the views of others. I myself have a hard time speaking well of people who think the church should change its teachings on sexual morality. But it’s incumbent upon Christians who wish to uphold the 10 Commandments that we hold to a much higher level of discourse on issues. We should seek to respect people even when they disagree with us. And we should make arguments that are sound and fair and listen to the arguments from others. Remaining reasonable is one way to keep things civilized. Defining terms and seeking to come to some common ground with one’s interlocutor might also be helpful.

This was not the best week for World Vision or its community of funders. Hopefully as a result of the debacle, church bodies, religious groups, and individuals can learn something about the importance of both doctrinal integrity and works of mercy.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.