Special Report

World Vision Goes Liberal

And of course it doesn't think it has.

By 3.25.14

Richard Stearns, WorldVision.org
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The $1 billion relief group World Vision, which was until recent years seriously Evangelical, has greenlighted same-sex marriages for its employees, who are expected, as according to Christian teaching, to be chaste, i.e. celibate if single and monogamous if married.

Richard Stearns, chief of World Vision in the U.S., in justifying the decision, said some of its over 1,100 U.S. employees belong to denominations that recognize same sex unions, i.e. liberal Protestants like the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ. (Overseas World Vision affiliates have their own self-determined policies.)

“I want to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue,” Stearns explained, as though an ostensibly Evangelical group deferring to declining liberal Protestantism were not the least bit unusual.

It’s likely that relatively few World Vision employees are liberal Mainline Protestants, and fewer still, perhaps a tiny fraction, are in same sex unions. So the shift in policy by the formerly conservative Christian group is mostly symbolic, signaling a new postmodern identity in sync with the secular Zeitgeist.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s chief public policy spokesman was quick to respond. “The constellation of parachurch evangelical ministries founded after World War II have been running headlong, with some notable exceptions, toward the very mainline liberalism to which they were founded as alternatives,” declared Russell Moore. “Some think if we can just barter away Christian orthodoxy fast enough we can catch the wave of that Presbyterian Church (USA) church growth boom.”

Moore’s sarcasm is deserved. The Presbyterian Church (USA), like all liberal denominations, has lost members for decades, a loss that accelerated after it officially abandoned its adherence to historic Christian sexual teachings in 2010. Moore had another good quip: “World Vision is a good thing to have, unless the world is all you can see.” He accurately noted: “There’s an entire corps of people out there who make their living off of evangelicals but who are wanting to ‘evolve’ on the sexuality issue without alienating their base.”

No doubt World Vision, which receives tens of millions from the federal government totaling about 18 percent of its budget ($174 million in 2011), has accurately calculated that it’s so large that it can absorb any significant drop-off in donations from traditional Evangelicals. It will chug along for decades to come, moving further and further away from traditional Christianity, becoming just another generic charitable machine in pursuit of government contracts and foundation grants. Who needs the Gospel when there’re so many good works to achieve?

We know the end to this story. The great relief groups of once predominant Mainline Protestantism at the middle of the 20th century, if not earlier, beholden to the Social Gospel, shed their original spiritual purpose in favor of vanilla humanitarianism. Doctrine divides but good works unite, was their theme. These groups still exist, thanks to endowments and automatic giving from diminished liberal denominations, but they are shadows of their former selves. Twenty years from now, World Vision may reflect back on 2014’s sexual liberalization as the start of its long decline. Actually, Stearns foreshadowed the new policy last year, when he sarcastically exclaimed to some Evangelical hipsters: “No one ever died of gay marriage.” He was stressing the imperative of helping the poor and hungry. But he seemed to forgot an important Gospel teaching from Christianity’s Founder: “Man shall not live by bread alone.”

As a teenager and very young man in the 1980s I began sending donations from my new checking account to World Vision. It seemed like a robustly Christian alternative to the secularized and often politicized relief groups of my own United Methodist Church and the National Council of Churches (CWS), whose Church World Service had, for example, funded Communist Vietnam’s “New Economic Zones,” among other dubious projects. 

Undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of trusting faithful have and continue to fund World Vision with the understanding that it promoted a specifically Christian anthropology and worldview. They will now need to consider whether an increasingly spiritually diluted World Vision deserves that same level of support. It’s the cycle of American religion that as the old wine skins of depleted religious institutions deflate, new ones arise to take their place, animated by a spiritual vigor that long since had departed the old.

“I want to reassure you that we are not sliding down some slippery slope of compromise, nor are we diminishing the authority of Scripture in our work,” World Vision’s chief promised, citing the continued expectation of fidelity to the Apostles Creed. “We are the same World Vision you have always believed in.” Right. 

Ostensibly World Vision will still require celibacy of unmarried employees. But since liberal Protestantism does not uphold such a standard any longer, and such a teaching, even when accommodating of same-sex unions, is divisive, surely World Vision will not maintain it for very long. The Apostles Creed is also needlessly contentious, and not upheld by much of liberal Protestantism, so necessity will require its abandonment too. Who needs creeds when you have government contracts?

World Vision purports to minister to the globe, not just America’s secularized precincts. But nowhere in the world is liberal religion growing. Europe notwithstanding, most of the world is becoming more religious, and every form of growing religion, Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Hindu or Buddhist, is conservative and demanding, not permissive and accommodating. World Vision will win secular applause, but it has chosen the losing side.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.