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Codes of Conduct

World Vision and the definition of marriage.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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On March 24, World Vision, one of the nation’s best-known Christian relief and development nonprofits and one of the world’s largest charities, announced that it would no -longer exclude from employment, on its stateside staff of 1,100, Christians who are in legal same-sex marriages. Two days later, having heard from church partners and supporters who disagreed with the decision, the board rescinded it. Thus, as before, no one in a same-sex marriage may work for World Vision.

AP / TED S. Warren

World Vision’s Federal Way, Washington, headquarters

AP / TED S. Warren

The World Vision story is about same-sex marriage, obviously, but it arose in the context of the religious nonprofit’s employment policies. Chief among the conditions of employment is that of being a Christian, a condition that may be met by an affirmation of World Vision’s Statement of Faith or the venerable Apostles’ Creed. Other conditions of employment concern conduct, including sexual conduct, and until March 24, World Vision had required abstinence of unmarried employees and fidelity of married, with marriage defined as the union of one man and one woman.

That happens to be the historic teaching of Christianity on sexual conduct, and you’d expect standards of sexual conduct for employees at a Christian organization, if they exist, to reflect the traditional ethic, as they did in the case of World Vision. But some members of the organization’s board thought the old standards needed to
be revised.

Founded in 1950 by evangelical Protestants, when that branch of American Christianity had begun its midcentury revival, World Vision has since diversified theologically; its staff now represent more than 50 denominations. Some have allowed same-sex marriages or unions, including the Episcopal church, United Church of Christ, and mainline Lutherans and Presbyterians.

In light of that development, as well as the legalization of same-sex marriage in 17 states (including World Vision’s home state of Washington) and the District of Columbia, the board grew concerned that if a member of one of those churches who was in a legal same-sex marriage were to apply to World Vision, the organization would have to turn the applicant away. Anxious about such an outcome, the board found a way to avoid it—by treating same-sex marriage as it does other “debated issues,” including baptism, remarriage, and divorce. On such issues World Vision doesn’t require specific beliefs or conduct as conditions of employment. That is, it takes no position at all on these matters, leaving them under the authority of the churches World Vision staff attend.

By taking that approach to same-sex marriage, said World Vision president Richard Stearns in an exclusive interview with Christianity Today, the organization could “treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within it,” with “marriage” encompassing both same-sex marriage and traditional marriage. Thus, Christians in same-sex marriages, just like Christians in traditional marriages, could be hired—and fired if they were  not faithful to their partners. And unmarried gay Christians could be fired, just like unmarried heterosexual Christians, if they were not abstinent.

Applying fidelity and abstinence to homosexual and heterosexual conduct alike was odd, if only because fidelity and abstinence are biblically rooted standards and intended to support traditional marriage. But World Vision’s equality principle apparently demanded as much. In any case, the organization’s objective was to free itself to be able to hire a Christian in a same-sex marriage. And by making the necessary change in employment conduct policy, World Vision would be spared, the board hoped, infighting over same-sex marriage that could destroy the unity needed to carry out the charity’s core purpose of serving the poor.

In the interview with Christianity Today, Stearns characterized the change in policy as “very narrow,” involving “a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment .  .  . based on this single issue, and nothing more.” He stated his hope that “all of our donors and partners will understand it, and will agree with our exhortation to unite around what unites us. .  .  . I’m hoping not to lose supporters over the change.”

World Vision did lose some supporters, but its quick action probably stemmed any significant financial losses. In a letter to friends of World Vision announcing the about-face, Stearns, joined by board chairman Jim Beré, said the change in policy was a mistake. “We failed to be consistent with [World Vision’s] commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, ‘We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.’ ”

A failure to be consistent was putting it mildly. Objectively considered, World Vision had violated its own Statement of Faith by failing to accept what the Bible says about marriage, which is that it is the union of a man and a woman.

The World Vision story concerns Christian theology and ethics, the church and its mission, and parachurches (like World Vision) and their operations. But it is also a reminder of how in the right circumstances a particular culture can wield considerable influence. Here, World Vision heard in no uncertain terms from an evangelical culture that was caught unawares, a culture that World Vision is still a part of and indeed that constitutes its “base,” to use a political term. It is a culture that tends to be theologically conservative, accepting of the biblical understanding of marriage, and unwilling to treat same-sex marriage neutrally. “We .  .  . failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners” is how Stearns and Beré obliquely put it.

In stopping World Vision in its tracks, this evangelical culture wielded influence where it plausibly could—just as the nation’s high-tech culture, symbolized by the place name Silicon Valley, which strongly favors same-sex marriage, did in forcing (albeit shamefully) the resignation of Brendan Eich, the chief executive officer of Mozilla. Eich’s sin was that he made a donation in 2008 in support of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. It’s not surprising, by the way, that the one person who quit the World Vision board over the organization’s reversal of policy is the director of corporate giving at Google.

World Vision’s reversal also cuts against the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage. At the turn of the century, few would have anticipated the decisions over the past decade by legislatures and courts and voters in favor of same-sex marriage. But now a respected religious nonprofit has felt compelled to reinstate as a condition of employment fidelity in marriage defined as the union of husband and wife. This may not be an indicator of anything more; with support for its cause among all Americans now at 54 percent, according to the Pew Research Center, the same-sex marriage movement may be on its way to prevailing. But here, with the change of policy by World Vision and then the abrupt reversal, it saw a setback.

Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty observes that same-sex marriage and religious liberty are in tension, with more and more litigation involving them a likely prospect. World Vision has already proven itself one of the strongest defenders of the hiring rights of religious nonprofits and can be expected to keep its lawyers busy. It won’t be surprising to see World Vision on a brief in defense of a religious nonprofit whose hiring policies are said to violate nondiscrimination rules—including ones prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Terry Eastland is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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