World Vision, Ecumenism, and Moral Confusion – Part 2

By on 4-03-2014 in Church, Culture, Ethics, Leadership, Politics, Theology, Worldview

World Vision, Ecumenism, and Moral Confusion – Part 2

Last week in part 1 I presented key statements from World Vision regarding their decision to employ legally married gay couples, their subsequent reversal, and a few of the major responses.

Let me make it clear from the start, this post is not about gay marriage. I want to move the conversation beyond the myopic focus on that single issue because it is only one small symptom of a larger issue. In part 2 of this series, I want to focus on the bigger picture of why World Vision is confused about their “biblical” policy. What confusion? The confusion that leads a man to say on a Tuesday they are doing the “biblical” thing,

“We’re not on some slippery slope… This is not us compromising.”

and on a Thursday declare they did not do the “biblical” thing,

“…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.”

It is my contention that World Vision’s focus on Ecumenism, combined with the invasion of secular ethics into some denominations, has provided the primordial soup out of which WV’s moral confusion has evolved. So rather than fixate on the symptom, let’s look at the disease.

Is “Ecumenical” Bad?

Collins English Dictionary defines ecumenism as, “the aim of unity among all Christian churches throughout the world.” Now, if by this one simply means a respect for those of different denominations and a willingness to treat those of different traditions as genuine brothers and sisters in Christ; then no, Ecumenism is not bad. Unfortunately, the pursuit of ecumenical unity goes far beyond these simple goals.

Almost 50 years ago, Herman Hoyt, then President of Grace Theological Seminary, wrote on this very issue. I reference his work here because I think it offers a culturally-neutral perspective on the debate now eating-away at the Church. He writes of ecumenism’s fruit.

In the last one hundred years, and especially since the turn of the century, as a result of the dilution of the Biblical message and the introduction of the social gospel, the membership of professing Christendom is in large part made up of unregenerated people. Here is a force with which we must reckon (Hoyt, pg. 4).

Hoyt’s observation is prophetic. As WV, and similar groups, have made their tent “large”, they have brought in many unregenerate denominations. Hoyt goes on to draw a clear line of how this compromise takes shape within an ecumenically driven institution.

Agreement precedes alignment, and this agreement centers in matters of fundamental importance (Hoyt, pg. 7)

From an observer writing 50 years in advance, the long-term fruit of ecumenism produced through World Vision is predictable. What then are the Ecumenical “fundamentals” for World Vision?

WV’s Ecumenism Redefines Biblical Unity

Biblical unity has never been about shared theology, mission, or vision. Unity, in the Scripture, has always been our gift of salvation from the Father through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:1-27). Consequent to God’s gift, the Church has been charged with maintaining the unity of the Spirit; not creating it (Eph. 4:3). In other words, our charge is to remain obedient to all God has given us through the Apostles, and to stand firm in His gift. If unity demands we compromise God’s salvation, than it is not biblical, but worldly unity we are building.

In that context, read again the statement of WV’s President Richard Stearns, who tried to create unity through what he perceived to be a “very narrow policy change”; a change he later acknowledged was a violation of WV’s values. For the sake of this discussion, I do not question the motives of WV. I accept their statement that their policy changes were rooted in a genuine desire to foster mission. The problem then is not their motive, but their redefinition of “unity.” Hoyt offers some insightful perspective.

Recognizing the ideal [of unity] in the true Church, the purveyors of false doctrine seek to use this structure for the promotion of their own schemes. Any one of the segments of Christendom would hardly be sufficient to bring ultimate satisfaction and give universal approval to false doctrine, so the effort is under way to remove the external fragmentation and bring together the various segments of professing Christendom in one universal organization. For justification the words of Christ are cited, “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:22). But these words are misused, for they refer to spiritual unity and not to external union.

When at last there is external union in structure, then there will be cooperation in performance (emphasis mine, Hoyt, pg. 5).

Putting motive aside, this quote describes well the recent actions of WV’s leadership. In an effort to create unity, they removed what they saw as an “external fragmentation” and hinderance to their organization’s goals.

WV’s Ecumenism Sacrifices Personal Sin on the Alter of Social Sin

Without question, poverty is a great evil and every individual Christian and church has an obligation to care for the needs of others. The problem we face, is that some are willing to ignore the injustice of personal sin, to combat the injustice of social sin. John Crosby, a WV board member voting in support their original policy change, illustrates this tension in his statement,

“[But] how can we represent ourselves as a Christian organization in such a diverse world? That’s what we’re trying to work through on a daily basis.”

Indeed the challenge to serve the poor in a world of shifting mores is great, but condescending holiness is not the answer. In a more recent work, J. Ronald Blue explains the dilemma this way,

In the strong attack on social sin, there has been a concomitant tendency to excuse personal sin. In the attempt to draw all men into a common cause against societal injustice and to create an ecumenical climate to unite diverse religious groups, liberation theologians advocate a universalistic approach in their solutions. All men are called to join in the battle. Even atheists are included in the universal family, a “family of God” that is said to help curb social sin and to bring about perfect harmony. Liberationists claim that iniquity must be purged from society through the joint effort of mankind.

The proposal sounds admirable, but in the pursuit of social equality through holistic universalism, individual iniquity seems to go unnoticed. Universalism is an attractive whitewash treatment, but the rust of sin keeps seeping through. Liberation based on universalism and ecumenicalism is cosmetic and temporal (Zuck, pg. 137-138).

The sin of poverty cannot be addressed in the long-term by ignoring other sins; even those sins that have become culturally and legally acceptable. Hoyt again provides prescient-insight.

Actually the problems of injustice, inequity, and insecurity are byproducts of a deeper social problem called sin. Iniquity abounds, and where iniquity abounds other destructive elements run rampant. The problem is clear: “Theologically, this situation of injustice and oppression is characterized as a ‘sinful situation’ because ‘where this social peace does not exist, there we will find social, political, economic, and cultural inequalities.’ ” At the heart of the inequalities and injustices of society is the theological question of ethics.
While they recognize the problem of personal as well as social sin, almost all liberationists focus on social sin. Miranda decries the sin incarnated in social structures “which by no means is reducible to the sum of individual sins.” Liberationists develop what Scott concludes is the “thoroughly biblical notion that sin is not only individual and private but also institutional and public” (Hoyt, pg. 31).

It is impossible to resolve institutional inequality and societal injustice by minimizing other forms of personal sin. We cannot bring justice by partnering with the lost, but by a wholesale commitment to Jesus Christ as the only savior from ALL sin! We cannot end world-hunger by ignoring the hunger for holiness.

WV’s Ecumenism Suffers from Moral Equivocation

Building from the previous point, I see in the various responses to World Vision an inability of many Christians to discern between what is legal and what is moral  As I have written before, “many Christians are left shackled by the Age, unable to discriminate piss from milk—convinced… that the biblical morals of God are nothing more than the passé customs of a bigoted generation.”  Stearns reflects this lack of discernment in his statement on sexual purity.

“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 believes that the law of some States and the practice of a few denominations provides a valid definition of marriage.  In accepting their new morality over the Scripture and tradition of the Church, Stearns deforms the meaning of fidelity. Stearns affirms that WV policy is determined by the shifting practice of culture and denominations when he writes,

“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.

From Hoyt’s historical perspective, “[t]his pattern begins with nature, issues in ethic, produces doctrine, creates structure and culminates in action (Hoyt, pg. 4).” He goes on to conclude, “[t]his nature has at last reached such predominance that it now dares to defy all the moral restraints imposed by purity and holiness (Hoyt, pg. 4).” Ultimately the confused policies of WV reflect “the development of false doctrine that will rationalize conduct and ease the conscience (Hoyt, pg. 5) and “theological areas of importance have been surrendered in order to realize present, worldly benefit and prestige (Hoyt, pg. 10).”

WV’s Ecumenism Places Mission Above Gospel

In my post, “Compassion Needs A God,” I warned how a myopic focus on mission can lead to the destruction of the very goal to which we aspire. When it comes to the mission of helping the poor, I observed,

There are movements of atheists, agnostics, and even christians to “do good” yet they no longer accept the direct link between their desire for compassion and need to worship God.

Be warned, as Western society rushes forward to embrace a secularized compassion… change will come.  Eventually, the political “gods” will shift their attention to more pressing matters and compassion itself will follow “God” into oblivion.”

This is the challenge facing World Vision as they chase the ever-shifting shadows of cultural values rather than standing fast in the Light of Christ. As reported by CT,

“It’s kind of a historical issue,” said Stearns. “Same-sex marriage has only been a huge issue in the church in the last decade or so. There used to be much more unity among churches on this issue, and that’s changed.”

And the change has been painful to watch. “It’s been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church,” he said. “It’s tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We’ve got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity.”

Driven by mission, alongside the need to be accepted, WV has proven unable to discern the divisive nature of those seeking to change the Church and has pursued the elusive ethic of populist-mission. As Stearns himself admits,

“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.”

World Vision, I concede, sought only to do what was “reasonable”, but reason rooted in a shifting sand. As Hoyt forewarned,

Evangelicals decry the fragmentation in Christendom. They feel that there is a definite need for social emphasis. They long for a united image before the world. All this leads in one direction, toward ecumenicism. But are not these longings due to the feeling that God is not accomplishing His purpose in this age (Hoyt, pg. 9)?

Did you notice that in the name of “unity” and “mission” WV’s original decision to accept gay-marriage was only for the USA? If they wanted to do what was “right”, why not make it a global policy?  The answer is because they do not have a foundation for making “right” decisions, they can only do what is expedient for their social-mission. WV was, and is, under the mistaken impression that biblical-morality is secondary to missional-unity.  Does that imply being missional is bad? No. But it is the unintended flaw in Missional Theology taken to the extreme.

WV’s Ecumenism Misunderstand Compassion

Finally, and probably the most difficult concept for some to grasp is that feeding the hungry is not compassionate if you only serve to delay a person’s entrance into hell.  In CT we read a summary of the WV position from authors Gracey & Weber,

World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently “tearing churches apart” over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.

Now compare this assertion to what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth over 2,000 years ago.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:3).

Admittedly, the context is different, but the principle here applies; feeding the hungry is not the same as divine-love. Jesus never fed or healed the flesh, without showing concern for the spirit. Feeding the hungry then is only one possible expression of love, but alone is still an incomplete reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If compassion is offering pure water in a dirty container then compassion is not enough!  Or as Russell D. Moore writes, “World Vision is a good thing to have, unless the world is all you can see.”

It is with great hope that I write these words. Hope that the Church can look beyond the hot-button issue of gay-marriage and recognize the deeper issue that “goodness without redemption is really no good at all

Looking Forward

Does all of this make World Vision evil? No. Flawed? Yes, but not evil. There are hundreds of great people working for WV who love the Gospel and do not want to see it compromised.  So moving forward, should churches revoke support for WV?  To properly answer that question, we must move beyond analyzing the flaws of ecumenism. In part 3 of this series, I will outline a possible way forward; a way to foster Divine-unity while still serving the needs of the poor.

Posts in this series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

FOOTNOTES

  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.
  2. Hoyt, Hermon A., The Ecumenical Movement in Present Day Professing Christendom: Revelation 17:5, Grace Journal 6, no. 3 (1965): 4-11.
  3. Zuck, Roy B. ed., Vital Contemporary Issues: Examining Current Questions and Controversies (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Resources, 1994)

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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  • Kevin Cole

    Is that post the long way of saying,”No, the end does NOT justify the means?” This whole mess seems to me to be a case of just that…

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Yes, but then that would only be a long Tweet :-)

      • Kevin Cole

        That stinkin’ radio newsguy training! I always do it backwards and make it shorter!!! :)

      • Kevin Cole

        On a more serious note, it’s SO sad to see the “para-church” get caught up in precisely the same “wrong metrics breeds wrong methods” nightmare that the North American church (uncapitalized, specifically) has been trapped in for (a hundred or so?) years now. We really are NOT going to improve on the strategy or instructions that the Lord gave us before he changed addresses, so we ought to just follow them.

        • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

          What you say makes sense, and it made me think. If just doing good deeds (social justice) were enough, why is America become so secular? Precisely because doing good works is not enough to spread the Gospel.

  • Drew Roberts

    Great post Joe.
    I know the singular topic of gay marriage is myopic, but if you will allow me, I would love to expand on something I’ve been wondering about for a while.
    In regards to reaching the lost and looking at ecumenical theology, is it fair to say that the “church” in America is in a wrestling match (so to speak) with how best to minister to the gay community?
    I know that a church in San Fransisco is going to have to deal with this differently than say, a church in Topeka, but at the same time, does the issue of discipleship amongst the gay community look terribly different depending on the church you attend?
    Ecumenicism is obviously dangerous when it whitewashes theology in order to attempt to serve a greater community, but can ecumenical theology be of any good moving forward as the American church seeks to reach out to the gay community?

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi @drew_roberts:disqus, I am not sure I will answer your questions 100%, but I will do my best.

      1. Yes, the methods of outreach and discipleship will look different in different communities. That is true for every issue and type of ministry, so I don’t see why the answer related to this topic would be any different. The Gospel does not change, but the methods can, do and will vary.

      2. Does ecumenism play a part? I guess that depends on how you use that term, but within the context of my post, then no, it does not have a part in healthy ministry. However, rather than rely on the label, I will say that I have no problem if churches work with other churches outside their own denomination to minister the Gospel. Even more, that is healthy. I have worked with many churches over the years who have different theology, but it is important that we partner wisely with churches who exist within the pale of orthodoxy.

      I hope that answers your question. If not, let me know.

      Blessings.

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