The World Vision dust-up and schools’ statements of faith

Anyone been following the World Vision kerfuffle this week?

On Monday Richard Stearns, the President of Christian aid organization World Vision U.S., apparently apropos of nothing, announced that the organization would allow itself to employ Christians in legal same-sex marriages (at least in its U.S. offices). The decision, he said, emanated from the organization’s desire to pursue Christian unity in helping the world’s poor over taking any particular stand on a divisive issue.

Predictably, Christians all over America, especially those from the more socially conservative Pentecostal and Evangelical churches from whom World Vision draws much of its support, took up arms. A few came to World Vision’s defense (including this article by Rachel Held Evans, which was the first I read of any of this business), but most slammed Stearns and World Vision for compromising the gospel, for sacrificing truth for some dream of unity, or for other such sins–you know, the standard accusations Christians in one group level against Christians in another group who are willing to work with people Christians in the first group don’t want to work with. (Billy Graham faced similar accusations, early in his career, from Fundamentalist churches who were happy to support his crusades until he made clear that he was willing to share a podium with Catholics and liberal Protestants.) Today, Stearns and World Vision announced that they were reversing the decision.

There are arguments to be made on both sides, certainly. There are plenty of faithful Christians who believe World Vision’s decision on Monday was the right thing to do, or at least a step in the right direction, and there are plenty of faithful Christians who believe World Vision’s reversal of that decision on Wednesday was the right call.

But today I want to focus less on World Vision’s actions than on Christians’ reactions.

First, while noone else quite matches its reputation for scope and effectiveness, World Vision isn’t the only game in town. Christians who want to support international aid and relief efforts, sponsor children and communities, and otherwise participate in work similar to World Vision’s do have other options. Both World Vision’s detractors and its defenders would do well to remember this point. Calls to stop supporting World Vision should be followed immediately by suggestions of other worthy organizations to support instead. Likewise, accusations that World Vision’s detractors would rather let children starve than support them through that organization should be tempered by the recognition that many (though probably not all) who pull their support from World Vision will direct it to another organization also doing good work, and by the recognition that World Vision’s policy change may–or may not–attract new support that offsets what was lost.

Second, and more importantly, this whole incident highlights a disturbing overemphasis on issues pertaining to homosexuality in American churches today, an assumption that a particular set of beliefs concerning the acceptability or unacceptability of homosexual behavior is a core part of the gospel message. Here’s Evans:

I have to ask: Since when? Since when has the reality that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again ever been threatened by two men committing their lives to one another? Since when have the historic Christian creeds, recognized for centuries as the theological articulation of Orthodoxy, included a word about the issue of gay marriage? Since when have my gay and lesbian friends—many of whom are committed Christians—ever kept me from loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself? Since when has a single interpretation of the biblical passages in question here been deemed the only one faithful Christians can have? [Emphasis in original.]

On this point I agree very much with Evans, although to her last question I would add, “And to whom has God given the final authority to deem it so?”, since there are plenty of Christians with differing ideas who seem to think their deeming is the correct one.

A few years ago I was considering the possibility of trying to teach history at a Christian high school somewhere, so I started checking out various schools to see what kinds of things they required of their teachers. Nearly every school had a statement of faith which it required all its faculty to sign. Fair enough; parents who want to send their kids to a religiously-affiliated school are quite reasonable to expect that the teachers who will be filling their children’s heads with knowledge will do so in a manner consistent with the family’s and the school’s professed faith. And, much as I expected, there were some statements that I could sign in good conscience and some that, for a variety of reasons, I could not.

But what disturbed me most about those statements of faith was the astonishingly large percentage of them that included a line about the wrongness of homosexuality or the rightness of traditional heterosexual marriage. And what disturbed me about those lines was not so much the position the schools were taking on homosexuality, which was more or less the position I’d expect most of those schools to take. What disturbed me was that so many schools had decided that that one issue was so important that it belonged in the statement of faith at all.

Affirming the Trinity? Yes. The saving work of Jesus on the cross? Sure. The Resurrection? Absolutely. The authority of the Bible? Maybe, maybe not, depending on how you’re asking me to interpret the text. (You’ll notice I said there were a variety of reasons I couldn’t sign some of the statements of faith; a line insisting on six-day creationism was one of them.)

The definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and the sinfulness of same-sex romantic relationships? Um, sorry, how is that central enough to Christianity to even be on this list?

See, most of those statements of faith didn’t include a word about race issues, about poverty and economic justice (a topic Jesus himself addressed a lot more than sexual orientation), about violence on large scales and small, or about a host of other social issues. No, the one social issue they mentioned was homosexuality, and specifically the wrongness thereof. Is that issue–and only that issue–really so close to the heart of the gospel, the core of the Christian faith, that it belongs in a school’s statement of faith? Or anyone’s?

Well … no. Not anyone’s I’d be willing to work for, anyway.