Wednesday, March 26, 2014

World Vision Shifted the Center on Gay Marriage: Facts, Implications, & Questions

World Vision is blowing up the internet via gay marriage.  What's going on?

Just in case you've been living under a rock, let me update you on some of the basics.

1. Rapid Legal Change. The United States is experiencing radical and rapid changes in our cultural and legal stances on gay marriage.  At the beginning of 1999, no states allowed same-sex marriages or civil unions.  Now, 15 years later, 17 states have legalized gay marriage; 4 have legalized same-sex civil unions; and federal courts have struck down gay-marraige bans as unconstitutional in 5 states.  That's a total of 26 states in which gay marriage or civil unions are considered legal (at least by federal courts).  If you can do the math, that's a majority of US states.  Zero to majority in 15 years.  That's fast.  (See this map for a very helpful visualization of this change.)

2. Change within the Church.  Officially, a few large denominations have accepted gay marriages or unions or given room for local churches and pastors to make their own decisions (eg. Episcopals, some Lutherans groups, United Church of Christ, and Presbyterians).  Acting independent of their denominations, quite a few Christian leaders have come out in favor of gay marriage, and some pastors are performing gay marriages or blessing gay "unions" despite prohibitions from their denominations.  Furthermore, within the larger Christian Church, opinions "in the pews" are changing much faster.  According to this Gallup Poll, 66% of Catholics and 41% of Protestants say "gay/lesbian relations are morally acceptable."  Other studies show (like this one), those numbers skyrocket among people under 40 and even more for people under 25.  All of this is a drastic change in a very short time.

3. World Vision Changed Policy about Gay Marriage.  On March 24, Rich Stearns (WV's US President) announced that WV "will now permit Gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed" at WV.  (If you don't know, World Vision is one of the largest and most respected Christian charities in the world.)  Basically, they made a small change in their "Code of Conduct" to reflect the changes mentioned above - including gay marriage as a form of marriage.  They still expect their employees to abstain from any sex outside of marriage.  The rational was simple (even if bold).  WV has a simple mission: to reduce poverty around the world.  WV has consistently refused to take stances on divisive issues within the Church: divorce/remarriage, abortion, modes of baptism, women in leadership, evolution, etc.  Given the extreme debates currently happening, gay marriage is CLEARLY a debatable issue for Christians (as in it is being debated), and this issue is extremely divisive and emotional.  So WV was trying to take a neutral stance to stay out of the debate.  WV was trying to say, "Some of our partners think gay marriage is OK, and some don't.  We're going to remain neutral and let you guys sort that out yourselves so that we can all work together to combat poverty." Alas, that didn't work - see the next fact.

4. Conservative Backlash.  Obviously, neutrality is impossible - or at least unacceptable - for conservative Christians.  Although some moderate and liberal leaders applauded WV's decision, a wide variety of conservative Christian leaders blasted WV for not believing the Bible, betraying the gospel, betraying the family, taking a stance in favor of gay marriage, compromising on ethics, selling out, and even apostatizing (intentionally leaving the Christian faith).   Some major Christian denominational leaders even urged their members to reconsider supporting WV.  Probably some major donors (individuals and groups) threatened or promised to remove support of WV projects and WV in general.

5. World Vision Issues Reversal.  On March 24, WV issued a public apology and reversal of their decision to allow employees who are in a legal gay marriage.  They will return to defining marriage as one man and one woman and to expecting abstinence outside of that relationship.

1. World Vision Shifted the Center.  Even with their quick withdrawal, WV named gay marriage as a debatable issue on which Christians can (should?) take a neutral stance.  This irrevocably shifted uncertain neutrality to the center space of the Christian opinion spectrum - even for Evangelicals.  Before this, the center space was more like this: "According to the Bible, gay marriage is wrong, but we accept and love our gay brothers and sisters and want to make space for them in our lives and maybe even in our churches (though we are totally confused about how to do that)."  Whatever their intentions, WV has created space for more leaders and organizations to identify as neutral or undecided on the issue of gay marriage.

2. Conservative Christians Are Still Powerful.  The Conservative Christian leaders still have a huge amount of power and money - which may be the same in this case.  Conservatives are slowly becoming more and more isolated in the public sphere and even within the Church, but they are still strong and vocal.

3. The Center Is Dangerous.  Public opinion is changing.  Legal opinion is changing.  Christian opinion is changing.  But this battle is still going full-force.  As this tide continues to change, conservatives are responding with more and more invective toward each new centrist.  As Christian leaders and organizations slowly move to the left (affirming gay marriage) or center (officially undecided), the remaining conservative Christians feel increasingly abandoned by their friends and former allies in a "culture war" that they are losing badly.  Still, because of what happened to WV, leaders and organizations with deep ties or financial dependence on conservatives will all think long and hard before moving to the center.   When you're in the center, you get shot at from both sides, but especially from the right - lots and lots of shooting from the right.

4. Another Sign of Social Change.  WV's brief foray into neutrality is itself a sign of social change.  No major Christian organization - especially not one with evangelical roots - would have even considered a move like this 10 or 20 years ago.  Even though it didn't "work" for WV, the fact that they tried is indicative of massive social change.  America (and the whole world and the whole Church) is shifting rapidly on all issues related to homosexuality.


1. Will other Christian leaders and organizations fill the void created by World Vision's expansion of the center?  WV has proved how dangerous the center is, but other smaller, less visible leaders and groups may venture into that expanded space.

2. Will this be a small step toward Christian civility amidst disagreement?  On the surface, at the present moment, this question seems absurd.  Most of the discussion (both liberal and conservative) is full of raw emotions of anger, pain, and betrayal.  However, maybe - just maybe - after the dust settles, there will be enough center space for us Christians to dialog more openly about our opinions about gay marriage and how we should think and feel about this critical issue of our time.

3. Will World Vision lose major sponsors?  Probably.  Despite their reversal and apology, their conservative status is now in question.  Could they have regained lost ground through increased support from LBGT affirming groups?  Maybe.  But now, they have shot themselves in both feet.  They have weakened their integrity toward all.  The conservatives and the liberals all feel betrayed.  The lesson here is that if you're going to make a controversial stand, you had better be sure because you can't really change it once the cat is out of the bag.

4. Is social and ecclesial change on gay marriage unstoppable?  This is perhaps the biggest question of all of this debate.  This is not exactly a moral or theological question.  This is specifically a question of social dynamics.  Will we look back on this week in 10 or 20 or 50 years and say, "What was the big deal?  Of course, gay Christians can get married"?  Will gay marriage be like other extremely controversial issues of the Christian past like slavery (completely settled) and equality of women (mostly settled)?  How long will this take?  Many disagree about whether slavery, women, and gay marriage belong in the same ethical categories (as in issues on which Christians had and should have had major changes in our understanding of the Bible's teaching).  However, my question here is whether the tide of social change is the same.  Is the social change (witnessed in facts 1 and 2 above) unstoppable?  Is it just a matter of time before all (or almost all) Christians affirm gay marriage?  That and whether or not the change is good are some of the biggest questions of our era.

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