Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
How do we process World Vision’s policy change to hire Christians in same-sex marriages only to reverse the decision a short time later? Why did this happen? What are we to think about it? What are some lessons we can learn from it?
I will answer these questions by focusing on five issues: (1) a few quotes from Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, U.S.; (2) a statement from Tim Dearborn explaining his view of what World Vision attempted to do; (3) a few excerpts from the letter sent by World Vision to supporters after the change back to the earlier policy required for employees; (4) a few personal reflections; and (5) a final response. This is a longer post, so please bear with me. There is not much that can or should be excluded as we seek to process this in a godly manner.
A Few Quotes from Richard Stearns
Stearns states that he and the Board were surprised by the response to this decision. The confusion they created for supporters of World Vision has caused deep hurt and pain to them. They had hoped this decision would bring unity, but instead it brought division. Stearns states,
We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision's commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be. Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent.
Thankfully, through the input of many (it is too bad it was after the fact, and not sought before the policy change), they reverted back to their previous policy, acknowledged their mistake and asked for forgiveness.
Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake . . . and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity . . . and we're asking you to forgive us for that mistake.
World Vision thought this unity could be achieved by a policy change, without taking into serious consideration the implications this policy change reflected of their commitment to biblical authority. Though they thought this change would allow them to broaden and bring greater unity and to do so from a neutral position, they were mistaken. It undermined biblical authority. There is no neutral position on this moral matter.
We listened to [our] friends, we listened to their counsel. They tried to point out in loving ways that the conduct policy change was simply not consistent . . . with the authority of Scripture and how we apply Scripture to our lives. We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.
Finally, Stearns affirms some basic beliefs, some foundational commitments to the Word of God, the Christian faith and the process of walking through these sorts of vital matters in the future.
What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs. We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position. Yes, we will certainly defer on many issues that are not so central to our understanding of the Christian faith. But on the authority of Scripture in our organization's work [and employee conduct] . . . and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs. We cannot defer on things that are that central to the faith.
I affirm and commend these decisions.
A Statement from Tim Dearborn
Dearborn gave oversight to the Christian commitments of World Vision (U.S.) as they were implemented with international partners. He presently serves at Fuller Seminary. Though not speaking in an official capacity for World Vision, based on his previous role with them he notes that they have a “deep commitment to live and serve in ways that are consistent with Scripture.” This is good and right and would be affirmed by all those who take the Christian faith seriously. From this commitment they sought to do three things.
First, to focus on the aspects of the biblical mandate that are non-negotiable: caring for the poor, victims of injustice, and especially children. Second, to contribute to the unity of the church around those things, at a time when the church is fractured. And third, to contribute as a result of that to the credibility of the gospel and the church in the eyes of American society.
I appreciate these three emphases: biblical mandates that are non-negotiable; contribute to the unity of the church; contribute to the credibility of the gospel. But it also reveals fundamental flaws.
They are marked by four concerns when taken in light of the Dearborn’s complete statements. First, undergirding the mandates is the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no mention of it until the third thing which is to give credibility to the gospel by what they do. One must not assume the gospel. Granted, we may live at a day that most everyone talks about the gospel, which does not guarantee that one understands it or lives based on it. But if there are concerns with that approach, which I share, there are concerns of not mentioning, assuming it, or referring to it for reasons separate from the finished, completed work of what Christ has done.
Second, biblical mandates that are considered non-negotiable are important; they consist of entailments of the gospel. But to make them the non-negotiables of the biblical mandates without including the gospel and salvation, of seeking to alleviate suffering both now and for eternity is to have a hole in the gospel (to quote the title of Stearns’ book).
Third, to build unity on these matters at the expense of a clearly stated commitment to the gospel and all it entails is to move in the direction of building unity at the expense of truth. True biblical unity occurs through the foundation of truth.
And finally, though credibility might be an outcome of gospel faithfulness in proclamation, life and ministry, it is not a goal. When we attempt to make the gospel credible in the eyes of American society, there will inevitably be temptations to soften some of the hard edges of gospel truth. In fact, any time we fall prey to the notion that we have to help the gospel along, we can be sure we are compromising the gospel
A Few Excerpts from the Letter
I was very encouraged by the quick response of World Vision, both Stearns and Jim Beré, Chairman of the World Vision U.S. Board, which was marked by humility and repentance. They were grateful to the many who responded in the spirit of Matthew 18 to express concern “in love and conviction.”
These responses are marks of one who is walking worthy of the gospel. They acknowledged “they made a mistake,” and “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.” Furthermore, “we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners.”
Because of their “mistake, their having “failed,” they confess to be “brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.” For these reasons they “humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
In bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (cf. Matt. 3:8), they “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.” They also reaffirmed their commitment to “stand firmly on the biblical view of marriage” while also “strongly affirm[ing] that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.”
In sum, in repentance and humility they confessed their wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness. Additionally, through their acknowledgement of a mistake, failing and broken-heartedness, they recommit to the authority of the Bible, their Statement of Faith, church tradition and the community of believers.
I commend their words and their recommitments to these critical issues.
A Few Personal Reflections
Though we affirm the response, this whole thing does raise a number of issues for all of us. How is it that an organization could make such a significant policy change for their employees only to change back to its old policy a short time later. What was not considered? What was overlooked? Who thought this decision would not create a major response? On what basis did they conclude that this change was neutral? It raises a number of questions. Here are a few I consider.
Bible: What does it mean for them to confess in their Statement of Faith that they “believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God?” How is the Bible viewed? What role does it play in decisions? How does one determine negotiable from non-negotiable?
Tradition: Though not determinative and not prescriptive (the Bible is the absolute authority), tradition and church history do provide some guard rails that keep us on the road of truth. Whose input was sought to help them to think this through? Is all tradition merely cultural so that the present culture becomes determinative for what and how we speak of biblical truth? There are times when one must go against tradition, e.g. Athanasius (contra mundum), Luther and others. But they knew they were going contrary to history, and it was, they believed, because at that point that history or that tradition had gone contrary to the Bible and its truth
Leadership: How could the whole board come to this conclusion not knowing this would have been the response? Who on the board was not raising issues or concerns about these matters and how they would be heard and received. Even more so, who was raising the issue about what this policy change said about the board and the ministry? Were all seeing this similarly? Did the board become an echo of one’s beliefs or desires?
Process: What was the process followed? Whose counsel was sought? Who were they seeking to reach, please or appease? How was the initial decision determined? How was the change determined? How will changes be determined in the future?
Conviction or Expedience: What was the motivation? How does this affect how one sees something and how one discerns what is considered a non-negotiable? Where there are apparently conflicting issues, truth and/or unity, how does one decide? Does one need to decide? Is it not a both/and rather than an either/or? How does one ensure one does not boil in the cultural water?
Integrity: With the change and then the change back, what does this say about the integrity of the leaders? Are they committed to do what is right according to the Scriptures regardless of the cost, be it with social acceptability or finances? At what cost should one be committed to unity? Is it at the expense of truth?
Trust: Can the leaders, the board and the ministry be trusted? When decisions like this occur, this is often what most affects how people view the ministry. There is a sense in which if they did this before, unless there are some significant changes, what will prevent it from happening again. It creates distrust in that one concludes that unless there is a change in leadership or structure, it is likely it will happen again. As in a local church when this happens, though one may continue to attend physically, they have begun to leave emotionally.
A Final Response
So where does this leave us? In the midst of these questions, because they responded appropriately according to the Bible – in their repentance, their seeking forgiveness, their return to their previous policy on the biblical view of marriage, and their recommitment to the fundamental issues of biblical truth, we forgive them. We don’t grant forgiveness conditionally or with suspicion, but we do so fully, in light of the questions and concerns.
Jesus exhorts/commands us (Lk. 17:3-4): “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” This means that if we do not forgive, it says more about the condition of our hearts than it does the repentant. So unless their words or actions betray their repentance and the fruit they are bearing in keeping with repentance, we affirm, support and pray for the ministry of World Vision.