The ethics of Christian blackmail

World Vision

Yesterday, while pondering the Christian reaction to the initial World Vision decision, I wrote a short article (unpublished) on how (not) to talk about World Vision on the Internet – don’t be hateful, clam down before you publish, and other nice things. Appropriately, I waited to publish the article until I had done all of the things I advised others to do. Unfortunately, my waiting made the article obsolete: on Wednesday, WorldVision reversed its decision to revise their hiring policy concerning gay marriage.

Why did they do such a thing? Ostensibly, the board that had previously overwhelmingly voted in favor of the decision suddenly realized they had “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.’ ” Why the sudden realization? Presumably, the weighty change was not done without much contemplation and forethought. How did they not consider looking at the Bible before making the decision? The next sentence reveals the true motivation behind the dramatic reversal:

“And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners.”

So, it was not that the board members at World Vision U.S. suddenly started reading the Bible again. Instead, certain people who read the Bible a particular way demanded that World Vision read the Bible their way.  Blog posts and Internet comments flooded their computer screens saying that if World Vision did not interpret the Bible their way, they would pull their funding. There is no room for neutral ground, they said – it’s our way or no way.

The reaction of the largely conservative Christian blogosphere and the general fundamentalist leadership was blackmail of an insidious Christian variety. Instead of remaining loyal partners of World Vision in serving the poor around the world (as Scripture indisputably commands), they said they would pull their funding of World Vision if the organization did not join them in condemning gay marriage (as Scripture does not indisputably command). In the end, the social agenda against gay marriage was more important than the Christian agenda of serving the poor and the least of these.

The whole scenario called to mind something that happens in the New Testament. It was no secret that the Apostle Paul disagreed with some actions of the church in Jerusalem.  He did not mince words about it, “But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction” (Galatians 3:11-12, NRSV). In numerous other epistles, Paul lambasts this faction that favors circumcision and apparently wields much influence in Jerusalem (e.g., Philippians 2:2-3).

So, when the time comes that Jerusalem was in need, Paul made sure he and his friends were not sending them any funds. Except that’s not what happened. Instead, Paul was an enthusiastic leader in the effort to get funds to the church in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Romans 15:22-29). Did Paul still have dramatic differences with the way the church in Jerusalem was running things? Probably! However, Paul did not let that stop him from coming together with others to serve those with whom he disagreed.

The conservative response to World Vision was the exact opposite of Paul’s biblical example, and we as Christians should be ashamed of that. What happened to World Vision was a concerted effort to intimidate them into bowing to conservative theological opinion. It was not loving, charitable, graceful, or even biblical – it was blackmail.

Wesley Spears

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Wesley Spears is currently a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina (previously studied at Samford University). He is an aspiring preacher and writer. He posts sermons, stories, parables, prayers, and liturgical composition at his blog:

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  • Jonathan Waits

    Wesley, allow me to challenge your perspective a bit. You seem to assume that the folks who threatened
    to (or did) withdraw support from World Vision cared more about “the social agenda against gay marriage” than “the Christian agenda of serving the poor.” For some perhaps this was so. But for many, many more,
    could it be that they were still deeply concerned about the latter in spite of their commitment to (to word it a bit more charitably) an understanding of marriage that seems to better accord with the Biblical record and the cultural, political, economic, and even social justice consequences associated with departing from that? Could it be that if they did withdraw support from World Vision they promptly sent it to another equally good ministry whose position on this particular issue stands more in line with their own? I understand the importance of working charitably with groups whose theology and biblical interpretation differ from our own, but given the choice between partnering with two different, but equally effective social justice ministries wouldn’t you be more inclined to choose the one with whose theological stances you agree?

    World Vision was absolutely free to make this policy change. I confess I thought it a bizarre one that came apparently out of left field—a reaction obviously shared by many who approach the issue as I do. I confess further that my first comment to my wife upon learning of the change was, “They are going to lose a lot of money on this.” Equally, however, folks who are concerned with defending the majority opinion of believers throughout history and the world today on what is the most biblically faithful definition of marriage were free
    to move their support to an organization with whom they agreed on this point. This was not bullying. This was simply an organizational choice to take a stance on a hot-button issue at odds with many of their supporters and the entirely predictable consequences of it. And as World Vision’s quick reversal suggests, it was an organizational choice whose consequences were not thoroughly considered.

  • Jonathan Waits

    Allow me one more quick comment on your New Testament survey. Paul called Peter out to his face on the
    issue of his duplicitous attitude toward the Gentiles well before the Jerusalem Council of AD 49 as recorded in Acts 15. In that Council, James announced what amounted to a church policy change regarding Gentiles that was entirely in line with Paul’s position. In other words, after Paul’s challenging the perspective of the folks from the Jerusalem church, the leader of the Jerusalem church, Jesus’ own brother, announced a policy change to reflect the challenge. So on the contrary, Paul probably did agree with the Jerusalem church on the matter of the treatment of Gentiles at the time he was collecting the Jerusalem relief offering later in his missionary journeys. Now, would he have collected the offering even if James had not announced the policy change? Perhaps so, but given the history, that question is moot.

    To join you in a bit of historical surmising, though, given Paul’s passion about the importance of accepting Gentiles into the church without first requiring them to become Jewish, had James sided the Jerusalem church
    with the Judaizers (the folks Peter was trying to impress), Paul may actually have split with them given his conclusion in Galatians that the Judaizers weren’t really Christians. If that had happened, Paul would have still taken up the offering for the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, but that would not have counted the folks who, in his view, had left the church with the Judaizers and were thus no longer brothers and sisters in the faith. As it turns out, this story seems to better reflect what actually transpired in the World Vision flap than your criticism of it. Now, this is not at all to say that folks who take the position World Vision initially announced on gay marriage have left the church or the faith (I don’t believe that’s the case), but rather to caution the reliance on surmising on Biblical stories that goes beyond the text itself. Thanks for your obvious passion about this issue.

  • tommy9999

    There is no doubt in my mind. It was blackmail. Who cares if people get hurt–just make sure you get your way. Seems to me it is the FUNDAMENTALIST way.

  • Devin White

    I think the thing that disgusts me most about this is that it worked. The conservative Christian force was able to pressure World Vision into reversing its decision. It was able to act like a bully and get what it wanted. Sometimes Goliath wins.

  • Meredith McClendon

    You’re right, the Christian community has handled it poorly. But I wouldn’t put all the blame on them for WV’s reversal decision. WV should’ve expected this was going to be the response (unfortunately) and made a more thought out plan with that in mind – raised money/set aside money/etc to cover the cost of those losses. Their decision would’ve been more successful and stood against the backlash, or blackmail as you put it.