A MASSIVE U-TURN. World Vision president Richard Stearns announced on March 24 that the Christian aid organization would allow its U.S. branch to hire employees in same-sex marriages. Stearns announced on March 26 that the World Vision board had made a mistake and would reverse the controversial decision.
How did that whipsaw come about? Maybe there’s a lesson in the U-turn that one board member, Stephen Hayner, president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, took two years ago. In spring, 2012, protest had surfaced at the Presbyterian Church (USA) seminary when the school denied a housing request to a lesbian couple.
The Layman (a Presbyterian news agency) reported that Hayner sent an email to students in April 2012, saying the policy wouldn’t change. More protests followed, and the seminary established a housing commission to review its standards. By August 2012, the seminary had reversed course: A new policy allows students and their “qualified domestic partners” and children to live in seminary housing.
Hayner told The Layman the response to the reversal had been positive: “This is not to say that there is agreement about the definition of marriage, or about any number of other issues surrounding human sexuality among our constituents, any more than there is agreement in and among our churches. But our community is committed to being a place of open theological and biblical inquiry. …”
That episode points to the importance of defining “our community.” World Vision is a billion-dollar poverty fighting ministry with 1,100 employees in the United States. It maintains substantial ties to evangelicals, but also to liberal churches, government agencies, and secular groups that don’t see homosexuality as an unbiblical practice.
MANY CHRISTIANS EXPRESSED swift dismay at World Vision’s original decision. Callers overwhelmed the organization’s call center in protest. Christian leaders from Franklin Graham to John Piper to Russell Moore lambasted the initial announcement. Piper called it “a tragic development for the cause of Christ, because it trivializes perdition, and therefore the cross. …” Thousands of donors dropped their sponsorship (Stearns said the number was fewer than 5,000; some reinstated them after the reversal.)
When the World Vision board reversed the decision, it said the controversial policy “was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.” Stearns told reporters, “If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.”
World Vision’s 17-member board includes at least seven who profess faith in Christ. Two are World Vision staffers, including Stearns. Another is John Crosby, the pastor of a PCUSA church in Minnesota. After the PCUSA voted to allow gay clergy in 2011, Crosby spoke at a conference of ministers and laymen upset over the decision. He worried the denomination had “collapsed without a center.” His church is in the process of leaving the PCUSA.
But Crosby told Christianity Today he voted in favor of World Vision hiring employees in same-sex marriages, saying the organization was trying to figure out how to represent itself as Christian in a diverse world.
Another board member, Soong-Chan Rah, teaches at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, the denominational school of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). The ECC has affirmed heterosexual marriage only, and Rah recently contributed to a book on Martin Luther King Jr., with other evangelicals like Piper and Matt Chandler. But Rah also spoke favorably of World Vision’s initial move, telling CT the organization’s decision to leave theology to others “honors the church as a whole.”
It’s unclear how other board members voted. (Stearns said the initial decision wasn’t unanimous, but that board members overwhelmingly favored it.) Board member Roland Warren, CEO of Care Net, an evangelical network of pregnancy resource centers, declined comment through a spokeswoman. Other board members referred questions to World Vision, but a spokeswoman said the organization doesn’t comment on internal board deliberations.
WORLD VISION IS BEST KNOWN for its child sponsorship program that reaches 4.3 million needy children around the world. The group has an international arm, and the organization overall provides disaster relief, clean water, and food programs in more than 100 countries, delivering critical supplies in some of the most desperate scenarios.
To maintain its scale of work the organization relies on private donations and a heavy dose of government funds. The group reported $179 million in grants of food and cash from the U.S. government and other agencies in 2013.
Stearns insisted the initial policy change didn’t stem from pressure from the government to change its hiring practices. In 2011, the Supreme Court let stand a decision allowing World Vision the right to hire employees based on a Christian statement of faith.
A few months later USAID (the U.S. government’s relief agency) announced that it “strongly encourages” contractors to adopt anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation of employees. World Vision leaders said they opposed the move. (Leaders at Food for the Hungry and Samaritan’s Purse—two other evangelical organizations that receive USAID funds—told WORLD they haven’t felt pressure from the government to extend hiring practices beyond the bounds of traditional marriage.)
For World Vision, this isn’t the first hiring controversy. The organization’s international arm already hires non-Christians for unfilled posts overseas. WORLD reported in 2009 that a former director for international relations at World Vision estimated as many as 20 percent of staff overseas were Muslims.
Still, the group maintains close ties to evangelical groups in the United States. World Vision’s IRS forms from 2011 listed its five highest compensated independent contractors: The group paid Family Christian Stores $4 million for sponsorship services, and the Women of Faith organization $2.8 million for artist associates. (Both groups promote World Vision.)
World Vision also contributed to other organizations: It made small grants to Christian groups like Prison Fellowship Ministries, Focus on the Family, and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. It awarded $300,000 to Sojourners and $1.15 million to the secular group Mercy Corps. Last year, the pro-life group Live Action criticized World Vision for giving a $242,786 grant to Save the Children in 2010. Live Action noted an online report from Save the Children that says “adolescents should be provided with information and access to safe abortion services when legal.”
The group reported a World Vision spokeswoman said the grant went to projects unrelated to maternal health. The spokeswoman noted World Vision is a pro-life group that does not recommend, support, or fund abortions.
World Vision’s IRS forms from 2011 show the group gave Save the Children a $254,141 grant the next year.
WHEN IT COMES TO theological questions, some say their concerns go deeper. Peter Jones, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, and the head of the truthXchange website wrote a blog post last year criticizing World Vision for producing Easter cards for sponsored children that don’t mention the resurrection.
Jones noted World Vision says it must be careful to protect children in dangerous areas where Christianity is a minority religion, but he worries that eliminating the gospel message eliminates the Christian basis for that part of the work.
‘... the Christian church needs some evidence that this is not just a strategic change in direction because they got into trouble. ...’ —Peter Jones
He also says World Vision’s tremendous shift in less than 48 hours on the issue of same-sex marriage should cause Christians to ask serious questions about the organization’s theological reliability: “I think the Christian church needs some evidence that this is not just a strategic change in direction because they got into trouble, but that it is a fundamental realization of a major principal error and a change of focus.”
Cynthia Colin, a spokeswoman for World Vision, wrote in an email that the organization’s leaders realize they created concerns about their judgment. She said the board is looking for outside advisers “who can assist in better understanding and representing supporters and their concerns, as well as ensuring full consistency between our affirmations of scripture and traditional marriage and our practices.”
Still, questions remain over the leadership’s position on the issue. The reversal statement spoke of “the biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman,” and the organization’s commitment to the Bible as the “only, infallible Word of God.” But 48 hours earlier, Stearns had compared the issue of same-sex marriage to disagreements over baptism or women in church leadership.
When it comes to his own views, Stearns—who attends a PCUSA church—told Religion News Service after the reversal that he wouldn’t discuss his beliefs about same-sex marriage: “I’m not telling people where I stand on the same-sex marriage issue because I don’t think it’s relevant.”