World Vision, Same Sex Marriage, and the End of Evangelicalism

How the World Vision controversy shows that "Evangelical is not Enough."

Last Monday, World Vision announced a change to their employee conduct policy that would have allowed them to hire “gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages.” Two days later, the change had been reversed. World Vision’s president Rich Stearns went from touting the policy change as an inspiring symbol of unity, and “the right thing to do,” to reaffirming the authority of scripture as traditionally understood. How could such a prominent evangelical organization take such a symbolic and decisive step into a new stance on gay marriage and then take it right back? The answer probably has much more to do with history than with the predictable internet attacks and counter-attacks that proceed such events. Though it has caused frustration, anguish, and confusion for people on both sides of the issue, it is also a fruitful opportunity to take stock of the state of Evangelicalism in America, where it has been, and where it is probably going.

The Legacy of the Mid-Century Revival

World Vision was founded by a pastor, Bob Pierce, in 1955 at the midst of a decade-long religious revival in America. Ross Douthat, in his book Bad Religion describes this era as a “golden age” for American Christianity, in which Christian institutions of all stripes were seen favorably in the public eye, and figures as diverse as Fulton Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King Jr. provided a common language of faith and morality in which the issues of the day–both social and economic–could be discussed and dealt with. World Vision was forged in the fires of this mid-century religious efflorescence, and took on the two major characteristics of that heady time. First, the revival was ecumenical. Douthat writes, “In the postwar revival, the divided houses of American Christendom didn’t just grow, they grew closer together, reengaged with one another after decades of fragmentation and self-segregation.” This probably had a lot to do with how awful World War 2 had been and how disillusioned Americans were with Western secular answers to life’s most pressing questions, but nevertheless it did mark an unusually fruitful time for relations across denominational and doctrinal aisles. World Vision was born in and of a time when the sweep of public religious sentiment made commonalities between the major Christian denominations seem far weightier than their differences, and it has always benefited from ecclesiastical cooperation around the common goal of pursuing Christ’s passion for the poor.

Second, the revival carried an intensely entrepreneurial spirit. American religion has always flourished by the fervor and labor of common, everyday people (aided by enterprising, but no less devout capitalists), but the postwar religious revival saw this spirit soar to new heights. Bob Pierce is in almost every way the archetypal example of American “do-it-yourself” Christianity: a young Youth for Christ missionary whose zeal for alleviating suffering in the name of Jesus led him to found what would become the flagship evangelical poverty relief organization in the world and find support and endorsement from the most successful and influential preacher of all time, Billy Graham. Graham’s own ministry, it should go without saying, was the very epicenter of evangelical entrepreneurialism in the postwar years. Darren Dochuk’s book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt describes Graham’s movement as the mainstreaming of “plain-folk religion” possessed by the idea that with faith, character, and oil money, one could, from the ground up, build a better world than the old one that had let everybody down with personal moral failure, racism, and war. The city of Houston was a major symbol of this marriage of church and capital.  In 1965, Graham held a revival in the Astrodome and gloried that it must be “the eighth wonder of the world.” Animating the history of modern American Evangelicalism is the sense that anything is possible for anyone. A defining hallmark of American evangelical Christianity was the assumption that religious institutions were at the command of determined and willing men, not the other way around.

Viewed in the light of the mid-century evangelical revival, it is possible to see both World Vision’s decision makers and the conservative evangelicals they first alienated, and then returned to, drawing on the same common heritage, true to the founding spirit of World Vision and the post-war revival, but ending up, inevitably, in conflict.

The Limits of Ecuminism

Stearns and the decision-makers at World Vision probably saw their decision to allow same-sex marriage as reasonably consistent with the organization’s ecumenical heritage, and it is easy to see how this would appear sensible at first blush. Some of Stearns’s quotes in the first CT article resonate strongly with the mid-century evangelical commitment to keeping core issues first, and  “We have to find a way to come together around our core beliefs to accomplish the mission that Christ has given the church” and also, “Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc.” Gay marriage, they thought, could be placed alongside these other disagreements that have always divided the church, but that could be transcended by that founding spirit of ecumenicalism and church cooperation in World Vision’s mission to the poor. One’s beliefs on sexual ethics need not interfere with Christian charity does it?

For many churches, it did, and they showed their displeasure by dropping monetary support, mostly in the form of individual child sponsorships at a much higher rate than World Vision probably predicted. This is because there is far deeper disagreement today over what truly defines a faithful Christian life. The reality is that in the 1950s, there was much more fundamental agreement over what the Christian life, practically lived out, would look like. Even the heresies of theological liberals of the time, whose revisions to the historic Christian doctrines of the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth and Christ’s all-sufficiency for salvation, had long ago taken them outside the stream of orthodox Christianity, could be overlooked since they didn’t usually result in anything so publicly radical as same-sex marriage. Doctrinal differences that had riven nearly every mainline Protestant denomination in the 1880s through the 1930s had, by the 1950s, in the shadow of the common experience of war, cooled to a détente, and so divided Christians could, at least in a limited way, come together around the safety net of a common American culture.

In short, there was a basic foundation of custom that all Christians could draw on in the 1950s, but after the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, the sexual revolution of the 1980s and the gay rights movement today, no common practices can be counted on anymore to provide ecumenical stability. Controversies surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage have to do with revising or upholding long-held definitions of sin, and for an organization like the church, whose job is to deal directly with sin through repentance, there can be no solid unity with those who have departed from a common definition of sin. One’s congregation must be all one thing or all the other if the work of calling people to repentance is to proceed consistently.

The corporate (or in World Vision’s case, “para-church”) version of this reality is that of an organization behaving in consonance with its values. “We weren’t true to ourselves” was the line from Mozilla’s recent apology for hiring (and then forcing the resignation of) a CEO who held private anti same sex marriage views. Since it appears that even secular corporations must be doctrinally pure on this issue, World Vision could never have hoped to achieve any sort of neutrality on it without abandoning the logical consistency needed to maintain an employee conduct policy that adheres to Biblical authority on matters of sin. One would need to go on to decide exactly what is or is not sinful according to scripture, or otherwise jettison the pretension to scriptural authority altogether. Since the orthodox (or “traditional” if you like) Christian doctrinal stance on marriage carries with it a prohibition on same sex marriage, the removal of that prohibition amounted to an endorsement of the other side.

The Return of Evangelical Entrepreneurialism

Much of the conservative Christian dismay over the tidal wave of positive public sentiment that has surrounded same-sex marriage over the past ten years is the fear that this new social paradigm will erase the church’s public witness, and limit true religious freedom to “freedom of worship” within the walls of their own sanctuary. World Vision’s decision was taken as a loss of ground. In reality, it was a division of ground. The decision said to conservative Christians that World Vision had capitulated to the new American paradigm that says to religious groups that one may pursue only one Christian virtue at a time, charity over here, sin and repentance over there (or more probably for the future “in there, out of sight.”) But a church’s job is to promote and pursue the moral vision of the New Testament in all its facets at once, to “create culture” as it is sometimes put, by being “in the world but not of it.” It is understandable that conservative churches would want to either fight to retain the public space in which one is legally allowed to pursue that orthodox moral vision or else pull out of the compromised territory and plant oneself on new ground.

Here, the entrepreneurial side of the mid-century evangelical revival reared its head to retaliate. That populist, do-it-yourself spirit that animated Graham and Pierce still runs through the veins of many Evangelical pastors, and they showed it with the oldest political move in the book: the power of the pocketbook. World Vision would have done well to note that there is a good deal of precedent in the church for long-gestating theological disagreements finally turning into very real battles with real consequences once missions money enters the picture. In 1936, Princeton professor of Theology John Gresham Machen along with a few other conservative church leaders were purged from the PCUSA after refusing to encourage their congregations to support the progressive “sociological” missionary work of Pearl S. Buck. They went on to found an entirely new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Theological Seminary. The Anglican Church of Uganda has long refused to accept aid money from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada precisely because of their progressive views on gay marriage and ordination. World Vision’s latest travails are not the first time that irresolvable doctrinal conflicts have been waged with funds.

The rapid drain of money was a reminder that the American evangelical world as we know it was built by ordinary yet inventive and determined people who cast their own visions and then pursued them to great success, seemingly by the strength of their own individual efforts, their own money, and the sweat of their own brows (as well as a knack for attracting powerful donors.) Hence, there is an evangelical suspicion of institutions, especially those who have been around a while. For American evangelicals, institutions are temporary and limited vessels for professing the eternal truths of the Bible, and everyone with conviction and dedication can be the next Bob Pierce or Rich Stearns. If any institution–even one as old and beloved as World Vision–loses its way, then why not start over? For American evangelicals, nothing that has been built cannot be rebuilt.

But entrepreneurialism too has its limits. The truth is that American Evangelicalism’s greatest successes owed less to determined individualism and more to a time when the cultural capital of Christianity was very high. Today, the forecast is not so sunny. Church attendance is at an all-time low, and America seen through the mirror of the mainstream media looks about as ready as France to walk away from its religious heritage altogether. There is very little chance that any evangelical movement today could galvanize such a nation and rebuild anything of World Vision’s caliber. Giving up World Vision is to leave behind one of evangelical Christianity’s most important achievements, an internationally recognized presence combating humanity’s worst afflictions. Institutions of World Vision’s pedigree take time to build and do not simply spring from the ground, certainly not in today’s climate. Given the state of the soil in 2014, it may have been prudent for conservatives to cut their losses and accept what Christians in the Roman World and many other non-Christian societies knew: that in a culture hostile to orthodoxy, virtues are divided one from another and must be pursued separately.

A Doctrinal Future

But then World Vision reversed its decision. Though the aftermath has not been pretty, it appears that the conservatives have won, at least for now. For those hopeful that evangelical Christians will accept same-sex marriage as a God-blessed institution, it seemed as though World Vision had taken a promising step forward, only to take it right back. Many conservatives felt relieved, but many others now feel exposed, seen as even deeper offenders now than they were to begin with having their prayers for a reaffirmation of traditional marriage at World Vision, suddenly and unexpectedly answered. But this should not be taken too quickly as a victory for conservatives who care about the social stance of World Vision. If anything, the question has only been postponed. Also, the current landscape of legal and social pressure toward institutions that are perceived to take a discriminatory stance toward gays, portends that many smaller Christian charities–who lack World Vision’s endowment to combat lawsuits–will soon come under expensive scrutiny.

The upshot of this turbulent episode (which is not over by any stretch) is that Evangelicalism as we know it may be cracking up. For over a half-century, American Christians could use the term “evangelical” as a byword for “faithful Christian.” For a time–a time now coming to an end–“salvation” was all that mattered. One did not need to come to “a right conception of God,” (in A.W. Tozer’s words) by doing the sticky work of writing up firm doctrinal charters or affirming their beliefs in creedal confessions, but rather by the simple act of encouraging people to “accept Jesus.” The doctrinal makeup of Evangelicalism was always fuzzy and fluid because the conversion experience itself was regarded as the locus of all religious experience, and doctrinal questions would work themselves out inside people’s hearts and inevitably end up looking like traditional orthodox Christianity. In a time like the 1950s, when the norms and assumptions of traditional Christianity informed America’s cultural spirit, one could reasonably expect that to happen. “Evangelical” described a set of attitudes that, it was assumed, would only animate those who took Jesus seriously as a personal Lord and Savior, and lead people, naturally and inevitably, to accept traditional Christian teachings on sex through religious experience alone. But an attitude can never wholly supplant doctrine, which is a set of truths and practices that one must either accept or reject. Attitudes can be useful when times are good and folks are generally all in agreement, but they are flimsy when there are hard questions to be answered. “Evangelical” no longer possesses any definitional power, now that the common feeling of the mid-century revival has dissipated. It must be replaced with doctrine.

The end of Evangelicalism does not, of course, mean the end of evangelism as a Christian pursuit, nor do I mean that moral persuasion should be a thing of the past. There is an erroneous, though understandable, impulse in some Christian circles to brand all serious persuasion regarding moral and doctrinal questions  as “culture war” issues, and thus lowbrow, unseemly affairs that ought to be ignored and avoided. But World Vision has disclosed how no one is exempt from the doctrinal questions at issue. No organization that bears the name “Christian” is exempt from coming down on one side or the other of the question. Indeed, I do not know anyone who has successfully charted a “middle course” or how that could possibly be attained. It was not attained in the early 20th Century when nearly every mainline Protestant denomination was cloven down the middle over doctrinal disputes. Reasonable people may disagree and treat each other cordially and respectfully, (though they usually don’t) with a sincere conviction to love one’s enemies, but no one can transcend disagreements over sin and scripture in the name of Christian unity. This is because there is also such a thing as a false unity in which the real work of confronting sin and bringing men and women to repentance is set to the side in favor of public shows of oneness. Modern American Evangelicalism is one kind of false unity that is finally going away, revealing how American Christians may have relied too much upon common feeling instead of the hard, important, and now absolutely essential work of theology, doctrine, and creedal confession.

One Response to “World Vision, Same Sex Marriage, and the End of Evangelicalism”

  1. Taylor

    Well written and researched. I appreciate the historical background, and your considerate tone. For a while I’ve been sensing the end of “Evangelicalism” but hadn’t until now seen how the World Vision story fit into that.


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