World Vision, Ecumenism, and Moral Confusion – Part 1

World Vision, Ecumenism, and Moral Confusion – Part 1

I was just about to enter into our Monday prayer for Faculty and Staff at Southern California Seminary, when one of the students from my previous course on “Christian Ethics and Leadership” emailed me asking,

“Did you hear the news? World Vision has just changed their policy to accept Gay Marriage.”

For thirteen years I lived and served the Church near Seattle Washington in the backyard of World Vision. In that time, I collected many friends in both “low” and “high” places who still to this day work for them.  Every friend, without exception, shares the passion of World Vision to care for the poor and demonstrate love.

Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.

So I admit that it was with a heavy heart I clicked the link sent by my student and read the headline from “Christianity Today” announcing,

World Vision: Why We’re Hiring Gay Christians in Same Sex Marriages.

Celeste Gracey and Jeremy Weber broke the news through their article in “Christianity Today” which featured an interview with World Vision’s President Richard Stearns. They reported in part:

Christiainity TodayGiven that more churches and states are now permitting same-sex marriages (including World Vision’s home state of Washington), the issue will join divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors among the theological issues that the massive relief and development organization sits out on the sidelines.

World Vision’s board was not unanimous, acknowledged Stearns, but was “overwhelmingly in favor” of the change.

“Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues,” he said. “It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.”

Stearns took pains to emphasize what World Vision is not communicating by the policy change.

“It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there,” he said. “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.”

“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.

“This is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S. based on this single issue, and nothing more.”

With this kind of news, it was not long before the internet was ablaze with responses from notable Christian leaders.

This press release from Samaritans Purse reflected one strong reaction. A leader with no less devotion than World Vision to helping those in poverty, Franklin Graham wrote the following:

grahamI was shocked today to hear of World Vision’s decision to hire employees in same-sex marriages. The Bible is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman. My dear friend, Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, would be heartbroken. He was an evangelist who believed in the inspired Word of God. World Vision maintains that their decision is based on unifying the church – which I find offensive – as if supporting sin and sinful behavior can unite the church. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, the Scriptures consistently teach that marriage is between a man and woman and any other marriage relationship is sin.

Franklin Graham
President and CEO
Samaritan’s Purse
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world, responded with some very specific concerns about the theological error inherent to World Vision’s thinking.

al_mohlerRichard 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.

The distinction between an “operational arm” of the church and a “theological arm” is a fatal misreading of reality. World Vision claims a Christian identity, claims to serve the kingdom of Christ, and claims a theological rationale for its much-needed ministries to the poor and distressed. It cannot surrender theological responsibility when convenient and then claim a Christian identity and a theological mandate for ministry.

One final leader of note, John Piper on the DesiringGod blog, expressed his disdain for the World Vision policy change.

john piperOf course, World Vision does not intend to shipwreck their legacy of compassion for the poor. But that is what they are doing. I say this for two reasons.

First, World Vision has taken a step away from the cry of biblical love, which says, we care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. Without care about eternal suffering, care about temporal suffering is a mirage. It looks like love, but the greatest gift is being withheld.

When World Vision embraces as an acceptable alternative behavior what God says will lead to eternal suffering (1 Corinthians 6:9–10), it sets a trajectory of lovelessness.

Second, World Vision has aligned itself with liberal Christians who choose not to renounce homosexual practice. Culturally, historically, and biblically this is a huge step toward the powerlessness and growing irrelevance of the mainline liberal establishment. You cannot undermine biblical authority, and trivialize perdition and its blood-bought remedy, and expect to maintain a vibrant spiritual base. It isn’t going to happen.

This is only, of course, a small selection of the swift response of Christian who felt betrayed by World Vision and wanted to take a positive stand for the teaching of the Scripture. But, of course, there were those who felt the need to attack anyone who would dare hold World Vision to account.  One such example is Jen Hatmaker, a populist writer, promoter of social justice and speaker. Ms. Hatmaker writes on her blog what she believes that her role in this controversy is to be the voice of “peace” and “reason.”

urlI aim to be a peacemaker, because someone has to be.

First of all, the Christian community is not going to reach consensus on gay marriage. Every article, regardless of its position for or against, is the same. The support arguments; same. The rebuttals; same. The circular thinking; same. The responses are fully predictable, the language identical, the interpretations immovable, and after all the energy expended, we discover we are at the same impasse.

This is a fact: Thousands of churches and millions of Christ-followers faithfully read the Scriptures and with thoughtful and academic work come to different conclusions on homosexuality (and countless others). Godly, respectable leaders have exegeted the Bible and there is absolutely not unanimity on its interpretation. There never has been. Historically, Christian theology has always been contextually bound and often inconsistent with itself; an inconvenient truth we prefer to selectively explain.

But regardless of theological bullying, there has never been “one way” to interpret scripture. There has never been “one way” to be a biblical church. Even the early church leaders had severe and lasting disagreements about the nature of God, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, Salvation, Faith, Works, etc. This admission is not an indictment on the Word of God at all. Rather, it is simply a reasonable assessment of the trajectory of the kingdom as God has interacted with each new generation of the church.

Reason and humility occupies too small a place in the analysis of the historical church and the progressive interpretation of Scripture.

In short, Mrs. Hatmaker is saying, “hey, we will never all agree on moral issues, so lets just move on, go out, and do good deeds.”… but more on that in Part 2 of my post.

So back to the controversy….

Only two days after World Vision made their decision that gay marriage is not an important issue, they reversed themselves on March 26th and decided it was important. Here is the full text of World Vision’s letter:

World VisionDear Friends,

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.

We are writing to you our trusted partners and Christian leaders who have come to us in the spirit of Matthew 18 to express your concern in love and conviction. You share our desire to come together in the Body of Christ around our mission to serve the poorest of the poor. We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness.

In our board’s effort to unite around the church’s shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, 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. As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.

We are 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. We ask that you understand that this was never the board’s intent. We are asking for your continued support. We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters, and we will reach out to key partners in the weeks ahead.

While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.

Please know that World Vision continues to serve all people in our ministry around the world. We pray that you will continue to join with us in our mission to be “an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice, and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God.

Sincerely in Christ,

Richard Stearns, President
Jim Beré, Chairman of the World Vision U.S. Board

That is the background for Part 2 of what I hope to write next week. I want to address the connection between this current event with the history of Ecumenism and the resulting moral ambiguity. In the meantime, here are my questions for you, my readers:

  1. What is the most important issue brought to light by this story? Is our discussion focused on the right or wrong things?
  2. How should we respond to the moral ambiguity apparent in the leadership of World Vision?
  3. What should other Christian run Nonprofits do moving forward as we deal with the social pressures to compromise moral convictions?

I will write more on this in my post for next week, but in the meantime, I am interested in your thoughts on this whole issue.

Posts in this series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


  1. Gracey, Celeste and Weber, Jeremy, World Vision: Why We’re Hiring Gay Christians in Same-Sex Marriages, Christianity Today Online, 03/24/14, last accessed 05/02/2014. Note: quotes from Sterns and Crosby come from their interviews with CT. See also my summary in Part 1.

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for other young leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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  • matt.gebhart

    And the evangelical obsession with homosexuality continues. I truly don’t understand how we as the church have become so hung up on this issue. I imagine we might not ever reach a consensus on this but why can’t we get past that? There are a host of other theological (or moral) issues that we seem to be fine about not agreeing on. Divorce and remarriage, gluttony, women in church leadership, head coverings, alcohol consumption, sabbath, baptism, The Supper etc. etc. etc. Can you help me understand why this one issue has become the litmus test for deciding if an individual or organization is “Biblically sound” or “morally correct”? I imagine you’ll go back to “the list” in 1 Cor 6 that Piper feels elevates homosexuality above other sins. But are we forgetting that Paul’s list also includes idolatry, thieves, drunkards, abusive people, adulterers? Those categories are much more open to nuance but arguments can be made to their prevalence in many Christians today (especially idolatry).

    I see reason in WV’s (original) decision. The many denominations and segments of the church don’t agree on this issue. But popular evangelical Christianity has spoken with their checkbooks and the god of money (mammon) wins again. So WV is forced to take a side on the issue. The poor and needy are the ones who suffer in the name of our never ending quest for moral superiority and selective soapboxing. Lord have Mercy.

    • James Fazio

      To answer this question most succinctly, its because Christian and heathen society is in general agreement that “idolatry, thieves, drunkards, abusive people, adulterers” are not positive healthy lifestyles. Though heathen society may be more accepting of some of these than others, we don’t see curriculum being introduced into our elementary schools aimed at encouraging these types of behaviors–we do with homosexuality.

    • J.R. Miller

      Hi matt.gebhart,

      Firstly, if I read you correctly, you believe the first WV policy to recognize gay marriage was a principled policy having nothing to do with money, but the reversal was simply bowing to the god of money? I’m not sure where I stand on that yet, but I am trying to thoughtfully consider the options, so I appreciate your honest opinion on it.

      Secondly, regarding your question about why the church is “hung up” on the issue of gay marriage. I do agree that there are churches and traditions that have focused on gay-sin and made it the uber-sin above all others and that has not been right. I have written about that very thing. But, one wrong does not justify another wrong. What I also see from some Christian groups is simply a response to the gay-activist christian community that is forcing the issue to the fore. Some of the most popular examples:

      1. Despite his ministry serving the city of Atlanta, Louie Giglio was forced to bow out of Obama’s inauguration for one comment about gay-sin made 20 years prior in one sermon.

      2. Dan Cathy, President of Chick-fil-A made one comment that he believes in marriage between a man and woman and he was ridiculed and boycotted by gay activists in the name of their
      3. Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson had his entire TV show suspended for his personal opinion about gay sex.
      4. Christian business owners who don’t want to serve gay weddings, and being fined and put out of business, their entire livelihood destroyed, because they have a personal conviction about not participating in gay weddings.
      5. In general, gay-activists christians have filled websites calling anyone who holds to biblical marriage a bigot, homophobe, hater, etc… saying they should have NO place in the public square.

      On a personal note, we have friends in common Matt who have unfriended me on Facebook and refused to even call me “friend” over this one “litmus” test of gary marriage. From my perspective it is people in your camp who have made gay marriage the litmus test of genuine faith in Jesus. It is your camp that has refused unity with anyone who holds the biblical view. And it is your camp that has been unwilling to keep the issue in perspective.

      So when I read your question, “why are evangelicals so fixated on this ONE issue.”.. it puts in my mind the image of a man jabbing his thumb into the eye of another man and asking him, “why do you keep blinking?”

  • Jay Hawes

    Looking forward to your response on Ms. Hatmaker in Part 2. I was appalled at her enabling of readers to think that because we as Christians interpret the Bible differently then no one can interpret it at all… or at least in any decisive manner. Read the comments section of her blog and you’ll see all the “praises.” Meh.

    • J.R. Miller

      With hundreds of comments, her viewpoint certainly strikes a chord with many.

      • Kevin Cole

        It’s merely more dissonance in my ears… :)

  • Rebecca Erwin

    I agreed with Ms. Hatmaker. Holy Spirit convicts of sin. My job is to love the people God has brought into my life. Many of my gay friends have been physically, emotionally, sexually and spiritually abused by the same refuge they were to find safety in. There is no savior for them. There is no sanctification for them. They are a people rejected and without hope. The Body Of Christ is not a mentality. It is the embodiment of the great commission. I have come to believe it does fall into that category of theology and a growing number of churches are picking sides. N.T. Wright said something to the effect of: We first need to find a table of neutrality in order to honestly have a conversation.

    I am not interested in a culture war. I am interested in living in a perpetual state of Forgiveness. Loving my neighbor has I am learning to love myself. I want peace. I want people to know we are followers of Jesus because of the way we love one another.

    Keep in mind, twenty years ago we were squabbling over abortion. Some stated then it would be a cause of a new civil war. It was equally as ugly then as we are ALL being now.

    • J.R. Miller

      Hi Rebecca Erwin, thanks for taking the time to post and share you thoughts. You and I agree that the church can do better at expressing humility and love towards those lost in sin and who need healing from hurt.

      I also am with you in that I am tired of hearing about the culture war. People are fighting the wrong battles when it comes to forcing others to share their views. Jesus came to transform us from the inside out, not outside in. I hope you will take the time to read a bit about this in one of my previous posts on the disfigurimng politics of Gay Marriage

      That being said, before healing and before forgiveness must be individual repentance. It is not loving to accept sin in ANY form. That is why Jesus died and rose, to save us from our sin, not so that we could feel good about denying it. I hope you and I can agree on that last part as well.


      • Rebecca Erwin

        We agree that Jesus died and rose again to save us for our sin. I think, for now, that is all that matters.

  • Kevin Cole

    Ms. Hatmaker seems to think the founding document of Christianity (the Bible) is not also governing authority – that moral/spiritual authority is more or less crowd-sourced; that there is nothing not open to reinterpretation as society and culture flow…

    The idea that we should accept/require/defend no definitive position on anything – even if clearly delineated in the Bible – unless it is generally agreed to by a secular society is not only wrong – it’s silly. It redefines Christianity as a call to “niceness” rather than holiness. The unchanging nature of right and wrong is only because it derives from the character of an unchanging God – and that is precisely one of its/his great benefits. Because of that we are NOT left waving in the breeze of fad or fashion over time.

    There is no excuse for Christians to operate to less than the standards of I Corinthians 13 whether in relationship to believers or non-believers, BUT to cut the faith off from its right to authority is to attempt to deny its unique character as the revelation of reality, rather than just another competing attempt by man to connect himself to something significant and eternal.

  • Don Purvis

    I am concerned that a Christian organization may be seen as condoning sin. On the other hand, isn’t gluttony a sin? So I am really not sure how I feel about this. It does seem to be troubling but is something I have to think about.

    • J.R. Miller

      Yes, and I think that is the thing that gives others pause. I look forward to reading your comments as you consider things more deeply Don.

  • pilgrim_13601

    Ms. Hatmaker, excuse me, Jesus did not come to bring your liberal peace non-sense, but a sword! He came to save people from their sins. This is done through preaching the gospel not preaching your world peace that can never happen until Christ sets up his Kingdom. a He was not concerned about settling the inheritance issue between the to brothers; etc. Your wit can fool some of the people some of the time…

  • Mike Martin

    Dr. Miller, after reading your thorough blog of the World Vision
    Reversal, the ethical point that stood out was our response to biblical
    authority, and infallibility. My wife and I sponsor a child through World
    Vision. Our first response was to question whether we should stop supporting
    World Vision, but then we knew we would just be hurting the child we sponsor.
    Then we began to get angry. By their action, to hire same-sex couples, tells
    their supporters that they don’t believe the authority of the bible, or at the
    very least, believe that the Bible is fallible. From there, it is only a matter
    of time before other churches and para-church organizations decide that the
    have license to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe and follow.

    As every celebrity
    or public figure knowes, they serve as examples that the rest of the culture
    looks to as their heroes. I can hear young people questioning this decision,
    and reversal. Sadly, our morally bankrupt culture can learn a lesson from our
    Christian brothers and sisters from the South and east. From my Foundations of
    Missions course, the following quote resonates:

    Philip Jenkins
    recounts the story of a meeting between several Anglican African leaders and
    their Episcopalian counterparts to discuss homosexuality and other related
    issues. After several hours of heated discussions between the conservative
    Africans and the liberal Episcopalians, the African bishop asked his
    Episcopalian colleague, “If you don’t believe the Scripture, why did you
    bring it to us in the first place?”[1]

    Need I say more!

    [1] Timothy C. Tennent, Theology
    in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the
    Way we Think About and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 13.

    • J.R. Miller

      Hi @disqus_EbSYXVG3hM:disqus, thanks for taking the time to share your response. I think there are a lot of folks in your position who sponsor a kid through World Vision because you not only want to feed their hunger, but get them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In effect, what I hear from you, is that you now see that World Vision is only doing 50% of what you thought it was doing with your money. I think in the near future we will see other aid organizations like Samaritan’s Purse start to get more support from people dropping WV. Kids will still be fed and clothed, but they will also get a stronger Gospel message.

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