When church historians review the 2014 World Vision wars over gay marriage, they will ponder several puzzling statements by the man caught in the crossfire. "We do know this is an emotional issue in the American church," said World Vision U.S. President Richard Stearns, in the recent Christianity Today interview that revealed his organization's decision months earlier to employ Christians in same-sex marriages. "I'm hoping not to lose supporters over the change. We're hoping that they understand that what we've done is focused on church unity and our mission."
Not quite. The evangelical establishment immediately exploded, expressing outrage and disappointment with the influential charity -- America's 10th largest in a recent Forbes list. Thousands of conservatives cancelled donations while liberal evangelicals were just as eager to pledge support.
World Vision U.S. quickly retreated, and Stearns told The New York Times he had "made a mistake in judgment," in part because his board sincerely thought this policy change would help it "avoid divisive debates."
Avoid divisive debates?
The "brokenhearted" board quickly released a statement seeking forgiveness and promised to return to its "longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman." The new policy on same-sex marriage, it added, had not been consistent with the charity's faith statement affirming the Bible as the "inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God."
The stakes were high, both for World Vision -- with a billion-dollar budget and branches in 100 nations -- and for other nondenominational groups that admire its structure and methods. The bottom line: It's getting harder to work with broad coalitions when culture wars keep rocking churches as well as local, state and national governments.
World Vision U.S. is based in Washington, a state that has legally recognized same-sex marriage. World Vision Canada has already complied with provincial laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Yet World Vision leaders stressed that -- even with legal victories for gay-rights rising -- the possible loss of USAID dollars played no role in the short-lived attempt at a compromise on same-sex marriage.
"Concerns over government funding had no impact on this decision," Stearns told Christianity Today.
Meanwhile, World Vision's staff and donor base has been changing, especially among young evangelicals. The charity's idealistic appeal for "church unity" was linked to the fact that it's staff now includes believers from 50-plus churches and denominations -- including some from liberal Protestant churches that have affirmed same-sex rites, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In this case, the goal was to affirm a biblical call to social justice while mapping a demilitarized zone on same-sex marriage between the emerging evangelical left and those committed to defending 2,000 years of Christian doctrine.
A key Southern Baptist leader understood that goal, but rejected the result.
"Richard Stearns has every right to try to make his case, but these arguments are pathetically inadequate. Far more than that, his arguments reveal basic issues that every Christian ministry, organization, church and denomination will have to face -- and soon," argued the Rev. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. World Vision cannot "surrender theological responsibility when convenient and then claim a Christian identity and a theological mandate for ministry."
Attempting to do ministry with both liberal and conservative churches "might work if World Vision were selling church furniture, but not when the mission of the organization claims a biblical mandate," he added, in his online commentary.
Leaders on the evangelical left were just as upset when World Vision U.S. backed down. The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed pastor of a hip ELCA flock in Denver, tweeted her disappointment: "One step forward, two steps back. #worldvision." And the popular writer Rachel Held Evans, author of the bestseller "Evolving in Monkey Town," said she felt betrayed, frustrated, broken and angry, at the church in particular.
"I confess I had not realized the true extent of the disdain many evangelicals have toward LGBT people, nor had I expected World Vision to yield to that disdain by reversing its decision under financial pressure," she wrote. "I don't know what else to do but grieve with everyone else who feels like a religious refugee today."