Thoughts On the World Vision Controversy

Some days, I wake up and think, “I need to write something controversial.”

Just kidding. That’s not the motivation behind this post. But I have to wonder if that’s what World Vision president Richard Stearns was thinking on Monday.

Here’s a summary: World Vision U.S. made a decision on Monday to change the code of ethics employees are required to sign in a way that would allow them to hire people in a same-sex marriage. There was a huge outcry among evangelical Christianity. Then yesterday they reversed the decision.

World Vision's Facebook page. There are a lot of one-star reviews going up right now...

World Vision’s Facebook page. There are a lot of one-star reviews going up right now…

World Vision is now facing criticism from both sides because people are suspicious that the change was made simply because of public reaction and near-certain financial loss. Others are framing World Vision’s policy change in terms like “repentance,” and urging people to forgive the organization and continue their support.

The official letter of retraction described the motivation like this: “We failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, ‘We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.’ And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners.”

So, which was it? Genuine response to Biblical truth or a panicked money-driven move?

Sadly, I’m gonna have to side with the money, as much of a low-down cynic as that makes me feel. And here’s why: when explaining the original decision, Stearns said, “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.’ The church is divided on this issue. And we are not the local church. We are an operational organization uniting Christians around a common mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ.”

That "unity" thing didn't work out so well for him.

That “uniting Christians” thing didn’t work out so well for President Stearns.

So, as you can see there, when the choice was made, the World Vision board was not at all convinced that commitment to the Bible meant that gay marriage was wrong. Then, two days later, they were quite sure, to the point that their official statement said, “World Vision stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage.” Yep. “Firmly.”

Call me crazy, but I’m not sure forty-eight hours is quite enough time for an extensive exegetical look at the Bible that caused the people involved to reinterpret key passages. However, it probably is enough time for them to look at the widespread outcry among Christians and reconsider the practical side of their doctrinal stance.

This isn’t always a bad thing. I work for a Christian publishing company, and I know at least one book we published that contained words some Christians would consider off-color. At the time, the editors felt that they were justified in the context. However, because of the reaction of a number of offended readers, those words were removed from future editions.

Some people might look at this as a case of Christian dogmatism triumphing over art. Others might look at it as purely a business move. And yes, it was that, but it was also a statement that this is not worth fighting for.

There have been a number of other books we’ve gotten angry letters about where we haven’t made any edits to the manuscript (a protagonist who’s a drunk, the word “witch” in the title of a fantasy and magic contained therein, a spiritual mentor who is *gasp* a priest!).

The difference? Someone decided what was worth taking a stand for. Replacing a potentially offensive word isn’t going to change the story. No one’s artistic integrity is being compromised. So we reversed a decision we originally made for the sake of both peace and revenue…but only because it wasn’t all that important in the first place.

World Vision’s stand on gay marriage doesn’t quite feel that trivial. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.

To be fair, Stearns said this about the original decision: “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.” This statement might surprise someone who only casually followed the controversy. But the change was about an issue of not letting a gay marriage—recognized by many states and a number of Christian denominations—prevent someone from being employed by World Vision.

I can only assume that Stearns and his board members have been holed off in a cave somewhere praying about this choice for a decade or so. This would explain how they missed chicken sandwiches, wedding cake lawsuits, gun-totin’ duck hunters, and all the various and sundry boycotts and protests that demonstrated that Christendom rarely talks about sexual ethics without controversy.

"Bad move, Jack."

“Bad move, Jack.”

I can understand the struggle World Vision faces as a Christian charity trying to make a policy that agrees with everyone in the global church.

The problem is, you can’t. Stearns was confident that World Vision’s position was neutral because, “We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church.”

What I think he failed to grasp is that we are all theological arms of the church. What we believe matters. Even as individuals, but especially as organizations that handle others’ money. And when you take what you believe and translate that into an ethical code of conduct, that’s not neutral. And you probably shouldn’t expect people to treat it that way.

It’ll be interesting to see reactions to this inside and outside the church. This one probably won’t win us any points in the unity department, but maybe it will get Christians thinking about what they believe about homosexuality, expectations for Christian organizations, and how they want to spend their money. And hopefully they’ll articulate those opinions in gracious ways.

What do you think about World Vision’s reversal? How do you think Christians should respond, particularly a Christian who has a sponsored child through World Vision?


And be polite to each other in the comment section. Remember, the adorable children are watching.


My Bias For Anyone Who Wants To Know: While I don’t think this is a simple question, I am theologically conservative on the issue of homosexuality, meaning that I believe that homosexual practice is a sin. My position on gay marriage and legal policy is a bit more complicated, due to the fact that I’m wary of legislating morality (thank you, novels I’ve read recently about the Prohibition). I also think many Christians have reacted out of fear to this issue and have failed in loving gay people and explaining their beliefs in thoughtful and gracious ways. There’s the perspective behind this blog post.


  1. Two things…first, legislation cannot make something morally right or wrong. I believe it is God who has set the morals for the human race by which to live. Secondly, by what are we ‘driven’ in serving others? In whatever capacity we seek to help others, and especially where funds are involved, constant reevaluation of our true motive is necessary.

    1. Interesting, Grandpa. I wondered if this would make people consider the reasons why they give money. I hope that Christians aren’t just reacting to this without thinking, but are using it as a time to reflect on the whys behind what they do.

  2. When I heard on the news this morning that a number of people had cancelled sponsorships as a result of this announcement, I became a little less cynical about the reversal. The national office is in a state where gay marriage is legal, but needing to communicate with partners in all 50 states, I can see how those kinds of responses could be unanticipated but shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise.

    1. Angie, it surprised me how many people were willing to immediately withdraw support to make a statement before allowing time for discussion and really considering what was going on here. It would be like if the American Revolution started the instant the Tea Act was passed, with no attempts at communication or diplomacy. Yes, it makes a statement, but what kind, and at what cost?

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