World Vision’s policy reversal turns tables in same-sex marriage debate

Critics of World Vision’s decision to drop its ban on hiring gays who are legally married hailed the policy reversal as a return to common sense, while those who previously celebrated it as a victory for LGBT Christians were licking their wounds.

By Bob Allen

As bloggers both left and right shut down comments because of heated arguments about World Vision’s recently announced decision to hire gays, the tables turned suddenly March 26 when the parachurch charity publicly reversed the policy and apologized for misreading donor attitudes about same-sex marriage.

World Vision U.S.A. President Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Beré said in a letter to donors that it was a mistake to change the charity’s employment policy to allow a professing Christian who is legally married to someone of the same sex.

Stearns previously told Christianity Today that ministry leaders believed the compromise position in the same-sex marriage debate was consistent with the ministry’s standard of “abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.”

After conservative evangelicals threatened to withhold financial support, however, World Vision leaders issued a mea culpa and reinstituted the old policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within marriage between a husband and wife.

“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,” Stearns and Beré said in the apology letter. “And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners.”

World Vision-LogoThe letter said numerous leaders and trusted partners expressed concern about the policy change. “We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness,” it said.

“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,” Stearns and Beré said. “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.”

Conservative critics of the gay-friendly policy welcomed its reversal.

“World Vision’s right decision, as articulated in their board letter, conveys a spirit of Christlikeness and humility in tone and content,” Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, commented on Twitter.

Previously Moore criticized World Vision’s proposal to drop its ban on openly gay employees as anti-gospel.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, applauded the reversal as “an historic and much welcomed announcement” and “a singularly happy event.”

“Earlier this week I published an article at very critical of World Vision for having taken that step, announced earlier this week, that would’ve violated the authority of Scripture and the Scripture’s teaching on marriage and sexuality,” Mohler said in his daily news briefing podcast March 27. “I now need to come back with equal clarity to what was demonstrated in this letter from World Vision and say that they have changed their position. They have gone back to affirm a biblical understanding and that is clearly good news, and I want to make my judgment on that fully clear.”

Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, Southern Seminary’s undergraduate arm, described the letter announcing the policy reversal as “stunning.”

“I was heartened and encouraged by what I read in the letter,” Burk said in a blog posting March 27. ”I think this kind of public repentance is courageous, and I praise the Lord for it.”

For more liberal Christians who support fuller inclusion of gays in church and society, meanwhile, it came as a huge step in the wrong direction.

Rachel Held Evans, a popular progressive evangelical blogger who encouraged readers to donate money to make up for child sponsorships World Vision was losing because of the policy change, said she understands if people who followed her advice now feel betrayed.

“I don't think I’ve ever been more angry at the Church, particularly the evangelical culture in which I was raised and with which I for so long identified,” she said on her blog. “I confess I had not realized the true extent of the disdain evangelicals have for our LGBT people, nor had I expected World Vision to yield to that disdain by reversing its decision under pressure. Honestly, it feels like a betrayal from every side.”

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, executive religion editor for the Huffington Post, termed it “World Vision's (failed) attempt at justice for gay Christians.”

Not all critics of the policy to recognize same-sex marriage were satisfied by its reversal. Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said the incident shows that World Vision needs a leadership shakeup.

“I would say they don't have any choice but to relieve the chairman of the board of his duties and their president — all those who made this decision to equate homosexual ‘marriage’ with a man and a woman being married,” Wildmon told the AFA media outlet OneNewsNow. “They need to go and start over with a new board.”

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