Should Christian organizations participate in excluding gay persons from assisting in philanthropic work? Can or should a gay person aware of some Christian denomination’s history of discrimination against them partner with Christian organizations? Would you partner with someone in ministry whom you knew discriminated against someone in a same-sex relationship or marriage?
As head of World Vision Richard Stearns has had to wrestle with these types of questions over the past few days. The answers he came up with have sent a ripple of shock and confusion throughout the evangelical world.
World Vision made a declarative statement saying that it will not employ those in legal same-sex marriages. According to Stearns this was done in order to commit to greater unity in World Vision’s task of taking care of poor and hungry children. Many in the evangelical community see it not as a commitment to unity but a compromise of standards.
Stearns declared in a letter that he was not endorsing same sex marriages but had “chosen to defer to local churches on this issue. We have chosen not to exclude someone from employment at World Vision on this issue alone.” Now World Vision has reneged on this policy decision on the basis of following the authority of the Bible and failing to consult their supporters on this issue.
These decisions over policy will impact many other non-profit and para-church organizations in the near future as the same-sex marriage debate within the American Evangelical church continues to be a divisive issue. World Vision’s initial reasoning in changing their policy was that they are not a church and if those who want to work for their organization are in churches that affirm their same-sex committed relationships then they can join the organization to work for a greater task: tackling poverty and injustice on behalf of the poor.
In the matter of same-sex marriage marriage they planned to defer to the local church. This was the organization’s attempt at making a statement that Christian unity and serving the least of these is more important than people’s sexuality. The repeal of this decision is grounded in World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority and they have stated “marriage is an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs.”
The question Stearns and all who have to face similar decisions must answer is where to draw the line between gray areas and the central tenets of the faith. This is something the church will have to wrestle with not only on the issue of same-sex relationships but also on a whole host of other issues including recent attempts in Arizona and Kansas to pass legislation which allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people.
But has there ever been a precedent for those of differing beliefs working together for a greater cause?
One case in point is the Civil Rights Movement. The main spokesman for the movement was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, but the movement was comprised of a multitude of different groups and individuals who didn’t necessarily hold the same religious beliefs and govern themselves by the same code of morality.
The demonstrators of the March on Washington were Jews, Catholics, Atheists, and Communists. These groups managed to work together for a cause, which was greater than their differences.
In fact, during the 1963 March on Washington one of the deputy organizers, Bayard Rustin, was an admitted same-gender loving man and a former sympathizer with Communists. Despite the controversy Rustin played an active role in the civil rights movement as an adviser and organizer.
King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement believed the greater cause–the fight for equality–trumped their differences. This seemed, initially, to be the route Richard Stearns was taking in regards to the change in World Vision’s employment policy but the verdict is still out on whether the reversal truly embodies a commitment to unity or compromises the gospel call to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We can say that Stearns and World Vision are doing great things for the cause of overcoming poverty and injustice on a global scale, but we must also ask the question “Have they missed out on an opportunity to partner and ally with a group that is isolated and shunned by the Christian community?” That is a question that has been left unanswered.