President Richard Stearns says change is a symbol of Christian ‘unity’ not ‘compromise.’
by: Celeste Gracey and Jeremy Weber,
World Vision’s American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.
Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America’s largest Christian charities.
In an exclusive interview, World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns explained to Christianity Today the rationale behind changing this “condition of employment,” whether financial or legal pressures were involved, and whether other Christian organizations with faith-based hiring rules should follow World Vision’s lead.
Stearns asserts that the “very narrow policy change” should be viewed by others as “symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity.” He even hopes it will inspire unity elsewhere among Christians.
[Editor’s note: All subsequent references to “World Vision” refer to its U.S. branch only, not its international umbrella organization.]
In short, 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.
Given 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.”
Yet the decision is still likely to be regarded as noteworthy by other evangelical ministries. Aside from World Vision’s influential size—it took in more than a billion dollars in revenue last year, serves an estimated 100 million people in 100 countries, and ranks among America’s top 10 charities overall—World Vision also recently fought for the right of Christian organizations to hire and fire based on faith statements all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and won. It also opposed a 2012 attempt by USAID to “strongly encourage” faith-based contractors to stop discriminating against gays and lesbians in order to receive federal funds.
In other words, other Christian organizations look to World Vision for leadership on defending faith hiring practices. Stearns acknowledges this, but wants observers to understand why World Vision is voluntarily changing its own policy.
Stearns said World Vision has never asked about sexual orientation when interviewing job candidates. Instead, the organization screens employees for their Christian faith, asking if they can affirm the Apostles’ Creed or World Vision’s Trinitarian statement of faith.
Yet World Vision has long had a Christian conduct policy for employees that “holds a very high bar for all manner of conduct,” said Stearns. Regarding sexuality activity, World Vision has required abstinence for all single employees, and fidelity for all married employees.
However, World Vision now has staff from more than 50 denominations—a handful of which have sanctioned same-sex marriages or unions in recent years, including the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Meanwhile, same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, and federal judges have struck down bans in five other states (Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and—most recently—Michigan) as well as required Kentucky to recognize such marriages performed in other states. (All six rulings are stayed until the appeals process is complete.)
Stearns said World Vision’s board has faced a new question in recent years: “What do we do about someone who applies for a job at World Vision who is in a legal same-sex marriage that may have been sanctioned and performed by their church? Do we deny them employment?
“Under our old conduct policy, that would have been a violation,” said Stearns. “The new policy will not exclude someone from employment if they are in a legal same-sex marriage.”
Stearns said the new policy reflects World Vision’s parachurch and multi-denominational nature.
“Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc.,” he said. “So our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles’ Creed and our statement of faith. We unite around our [Trinitarian beliefs], and we have always deferred to the local church on these other matters.”
The reason the prohibition existed in the first place? “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.”
Highlighting the church/parachurch distinction: Board member and pastor John Crosby, who served as interim leader when a number of churches split off from the Presbyterian Church (USA) after the denomination dropped a celibacy requirement for gay clergy in 2011. At a conference that laid the foundation of the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the Minnesota megachurch pastor stated, “We have tried to create such a big tent trying to make everybody happy theologically. I fear the tent has collapsed without a center.”
However, as a World Vision board member, Crosby didn’t have a problem voting for the policy change. “It’s a matter of trying to decide what the core mission of the organization is,” he said.
Crosby, who leads Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minnesota, told CT that the decision was about making sure that World Vision is focusing on its mission to eliminate poverty worldwide. World Vision stretches across countless cultural and theological divides in a hundred countries, and so the issue of theology and how to interpret Scripture should be left to the local church, he said.
“Many of us support World Vision specifically because of its Christian identity. While there are many other good relief organizations, it’s the faith component of World Vision that makes it distinctive for us,” said Crosby. “[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.”
Board member and seminary professor Soong-Chan Rah told CT the decision to leave theology to others “honors the church as a whole.” “It is not a statement in a particular direction, but it is trying to acknowledge the proper relationship between the church and the parachurch,” he said. “If there is something we can learn from [this], it is the value of having conversations and commitment to prayer, over not just this particular issue but all controversial issues that divide the church.”
Stearns was adamant the change will not impact World Vision’s identity or work in the field. “World Vision is committed to our Christian identity. We are absolutely resolute about every employee being followers of Jesus Christ. We are not wavering on that,” he said.
“This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture,” said Stearns. “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.”
In recent years, World Vision and other evangelical organizations that partner with Uncle Sam to deliver humanitarian aid overseas voiced concern over USAID attempts to “strongly encourage” all contractors to develop anti-discrimination policies covering sexual orientation or risk losing federal funding.
“Concerns over government funding had no impact on this decision,” said Stearns, noting that World Vision caps federal funding at 35 percent of its cash revenues. “We fought for the whole Christian community, reminding USAID that faith-based organizations have a religious exemption and are not required to follow government hiring guidelines.
“If the U.S. government ever requires us to give up our religious hiring rights in exchange for grants, we would walk away from U.S. grants. World Vision’s ministry is not for sale.”
World Vision’s 2010 victory before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on faith-based hiring practices was watched closely by many Christian organizations (500 people signed up within 24 hours for a related ECFA webinar in April 2010). World Vision general counsel Steve McFarland later gave a series of ECFA webinars advising how other ministries could best structure their statements of faith to defend their hiring practices.
Yet Stearns said World Vision is not suggesting other ministries should now follow its lead.
“We made this decision for our organization based on who we are. Every organization has to come to its own conclusion,” he said. “We are still passionate about protecting religious hiring rights—making sure that every Christian organization gets to decide this issue for themselves and not have the government decide it for them.” (The latest example: World Vision’s amicus brief on Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court case against Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.)
“We’re not doing this for any legal reasons,” he said. “If we wanted to, we would fight another battle on this all the way to the Supreme Court.”
So the question becomes: Will supporters, particularly theologically conservative ones, let World Vision adopt a neutral stance on same-sex marriage? One of the first prominent voices out of the gate: Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who tweeted, “I’m glad Carl Henry didn’t live to see this,” and promptly penned a reaction, concluding: “World Vision is a good thing to have, unless the world is all you can see.”
Maintaining neutrality on such divisive issues is proving increasingly tricky for Christian organizations with broad coalitions. The most recent example is Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which has declared neutrality on abortion, same-sex marriage, and guns as it seeks to encompass more Christians yet preserve its diverging base of 2.5 million Lutherans. Yet Thrivent’s theologically conservative wing has not been pleased.
And the policy change comes as World Vision has reduced its U.S. workforce by 10 percent over the past 15 months as expenses have risen and government grants have decreased, reports The News Tribune in nearby Tacoma, Wash. “The last 12 to 24 months have been among the most challenging of any we have ever faced,” Stearns wrote to 408,000 donors in a January letter that marked “the first time Stearns had sent out a letter asking child sponsors to increase their giving due to cutbacks,” the newspaper reported.
Stearns hopes World Vision will not experience similar division like Thrivent and risk losing conservative supporters as a result.
“I don’t want to predict the reaction we will get,” he said. “I think we’ve got a very persuasive series of reasons for why we’re doing this, and it’s my hope that all of our donors and partners will understand it, and will agree with our exhortation to unite around what unites us. But we do know this is an emotional issue in the American church. I’m hoping not to lose supporters over the change. We’re hoping that they understand that what we’ve done is focused on church unity and our mission.”
And Stearns believes that World Vision can successfully remain neutral on same-sex marriage.
“I think you have to be neutral on hundreds of doctrinal issues that could divide an organization like World Vision,” he said. “One example: divorce and remarriage. Churches have different opinions on this. We’ve chosen not to make that a condition of employment at World Vision. If we were not deferring to local churches, we would have a long litmus test [for employees]. What do you believe about evolution? Have you been divorced and remarried? What is your opinion on women in leadership? Were you dunked or sprinkled? And at the end of the interview, how many candidates would still be standing?
“It is not our role to take a position on all these issues and make these issues a condition of employment.”
Stearns said he doesn’t expect any outcry among World Vision’s 100 country affiliates, since World Vision International allows each country to set its own hiring policies appropriate to its local legal context. Even in Uganda, where a high-profile new law criminalizing gays and lesbians has been opposed by World Vision Uganda, it stated: “The issue of same-sex relationships will neither prevent us from serving children, families and communities around the world, nor obstruct our collaboration with one another and with our partner organizations.”
The policy change will also not affect World Vision’s partnership with ministries that maintain current faith-based bans on same-sex behavior. “This is a very narrow policy change. It’s strictly about whether this issue should be a condition of employment at World Vision.”
How would Stearns respond to critics who bemoan the decision as yet another Christian organization caving before the advancing gay rights movement?
“We’re not trying to do anything that’s symbolic for the rest of the church,” he said. “But if we’re making a statement at all, I hope it’s a statement about unity.
“I hope it’s a statement that says when Christ left, he gave us the Great Commission [to make disciples] and the Great Commandment [to love others as ourselves], and we’re trying to do just that,” said Stearns. “Bridging the differences we have, and coming together in our unity.”
Stearns has even written books on this subject. “In some manner we haven’t finished Christ’s mission for the church because we’ve been divided and distracted by too many other things,” he said. “We’ve got to find our way to unity beyond diversity in the Christian church.
“I know the Evil One would like nothing better than for World Vision to be hobbled and divided on this issue, so that we lose our focus on the Great Commandment and the Great Commission,” said Stearns. “And the board is determined not to let that happen.
“I hope if it’s symbolic of anything, it is symbolic of how we can come together even though we disagree. We—meaning other Christians—are not the enemy. We have to find way to come together around our core beliefs to accomplish the mission that Christ has given the church.
“We feel positive about what we’ve done. Our motives are pure,” said Stearns. “We’re not doing this because of any outside pressure. We’re not doing this to get more revenue. We’re really doing this because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do for unity within the church.
“I’m hoping this may inspire unity among others as well,” he concluded. “To say how can we come together across some differences and still join together as brothers and sisters in Christ in our common mission of building the kingdom.”