On the World Vision Reaction: Some Bad News, Some Good News, and Some Ideas

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

UPDATE: So it may have been a mistake to post this when feelings were still so raw. I'm concerned that the article has failed to generate healthy dialog - and I take full responsibility for that - so I'm going to close the comment thread at 5 p.m. EST on Tuesday, March 25.  I'm thrilled that so many people have decided to sponsor children or make a donation through World Vision, so I'll definitely leave the post up. Perhaps we can revisit the conversation in a few days or weeks when we've had some time to reflect. Thanks! 


So here's what happened...

On Monday afternoon, Richard Stearns, president of the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision, announced that his organization would not be taking a position on the divisive issue of same-sex marriage. The charity would, however, permit the employment of gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages. 

Stearns told Christianity Today: 

"It's easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support….We're not caving to some kind of pressure. We're not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us. This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We're an operational arm of the global church, we're not a theological arm of the church.”

Across the Web, many evangelicals responded by declaring their intentions to pull their financial support from World Vision over the matter.  Denny Burk of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary tweeted “Farewell, World Vision.”   Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition wrote a blog post placing all the blame for pulled child sponsorships on gay and lesbian people and their supporters, saying he “grieves for the children” who will lose access to basic necessities over the issue, before including single parents and divorcees among those who are destroying the lives of children around the world.  He posted a picture of a crying black child at the top of his post for effect, reinforcing his message that it’s the fault of “those sinners over there” that evangelicals have been forced to deprive that hungry child of food. 

Let me repeat that sequence of events: 

1) World Vision announces it will not take a position on debates around gay marriage, but will employ people in same-sex marriages in its U.S. offices. 

2) In protest, some evangelicals threaten to halt their current funding for food, water, clothing, and shelter to children and communities sponsored by World Vision. 

3) Evangelical spokespeople say they “weep for the children” who will suffer as a result of pulled sponsorships, and blame gay and lesbian people (and divorcees and single parents) for the actions of evangelicals. 

It’s as ridiculous as it sounds. 

And it puts into stark, unsettling relief just how out-of-control the evangelical obsession with homosexuality has become. Organizations don’t get “farewelled” for hiring divorcees. People don’t get kicked out of their churches for struggling with pride or for not wearing head coverings when they pray.  (See “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony.”) But when it comes to homosexuality, Trevin Wax and many others have decided “the gospel is at stake.” 

I have to ask: Since when? Since when has the reality that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again ever been threatened by two men committing their lives to one another? Since when have the historic Christian creeds, recognized for centuries as the theological articulation of Orthodoxy, included a word about the issue of gay marriage? Since when have my gay and lesbian friends—many of whom are committed Christians—ever kept me from loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself? Since when has a single interpretation of the biblical passages in question here been deemed the only one faithful Christians can have? 

The gospel is at stake only insofar as we make one’s position on same-sex marriage a part of it. The gospel is threatened, not by gay people getting married, but by Christians saying support or opposition to gay marriage is an essential part of the gospel when it’s not. 

Furthermore, the notion that the way to “punish” World Vision is to withdraw support from its efforts to feed, clothe, heal, comfort, rescue, and shelter “the least of these” is so contrary to the teachings of Jesus—particularly Matthew 25:31-46—it’s hard to know where to start.  

I’m a longtime World Vision supporter and I’ve seen firsthand the effectiveness of its work, particularly child sponsorships. Like my friend Nish, I beg Christians not to drop their sponsorships or monthly giving to World Vision because they don’t like the idea of gay people working for the organization. (If you’re having second thoughts about that, just imagine writing a letter to your sponsored child explaining exactly why you can’t help him or his community anymore.)

I’m always careful not to equate opposition to gay marriage with hate. But the singling out and scapegoating of gay and lesbian people that’s happening here is deeply troubling to me. When Christians declare that they would rather withhold aid from people who need it than serve alongside gay and lesbian people helping to provide that aid, something’s very, very wrong. It might not be hate, but it is a nefarious sort of stigmatizing, and it’s wrong. 

Finally, all this overdramatic “farewelling” over non-essential issues is getting tiresome. It’s shutting the door of the Kingdom in people’s faces. It’s tying up heavy burdens and placing them on people’s backs. It’s straining gnats and swallowing camels. It’s playing the gatekeeper with smug, self-righteous pride when it is God who decides who comes to the table, God who makes the guest list, God who opens the doors the Kingdom.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that in rejecting the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, the outcast, and “the least of these,” these brothers and sisters have essentially “farewelled” Christ Himself. What a lonely world they have created! 


But now, the good news…

The good news is that the Gospel isn’t a coalition to delineate and defend, but an expansive, worldwide movement that knows no political or geographic boundaries. It is a like a tree that is growing toward the sky, with enough branches for all the birds of the air to find a place to nest. It’s like a hidden pearl, like wheat growing among tares, like mustard seeds splitting beneath the soil.  It’s alive and it’s growing and it won’t be stopped.  

The good news is that God makes the guest list to the heavenly banquet—not you , not me, not Denny Burk, not John Piper. 

The good news is that thousands of World Vision staff from around the world will continue their good work today - building wells, providing life-saving vaccinations, caring for Syrian refugees, partnering with communities to develop business and agricultural opportunities, lifting families out of poverty, and  feeding, clothing, and sheltering vulnerable children. 

The good news—and I want those of you who are discouraged to hear this— is that things are changing. As loud as these legalistic voices may seem right now, you will notice that they are often the same voices, over and over again. What I hear every day on the road and in my office is something different. It’s a freedom song, and it’s coming from thousands of pastors, writers, parents, teachers, and Christ-followers from all walks of life from all around the country and world. My desk is cluttered with books arguing for a more compassionate and inclusive way forward. Where I once scoured the internet for articles in support of women’s equality and LGBT equality, they are now plentiful, overwhelming. Letters detailing changed hearts and minds clog up my inbox. Things are changing. Hearts are softening.  People are listening to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and engaging Scripture in fresh, yet faithful, ways. And even when we disagree, there is a  growing desire to drop our weapons, stop waging war, and start washing feet. 


So what do we do now? 

Well, a few things come to mind: 

1)    Let’s remember that we’re talking about real people here—real sponsored children, real World Vision employees, real Christians on both sides of the issue. Let’s pray for Richard Stearns, for the few employees who are caught in the middle of this and who must be experiencing a profound sense of isolation and sadness over how people are responding to their presence, and for the children, families and communities that are currently benefiting from the good work of World Vision. And let’s pray too for our enemies, real or perceived, that we can love them better in the midst of differences. 

2)     Let’s speak up. The singling out, bullying and scapegoating of gay and lesbian people by the Christian community really must stop. It has gotten totally out of hand. Let’s push back on this idea that gay marriage is a “gospel issue” and that we must break fellowship with those with whom we disagree. And let's take responsibility for our giving or lack of giving instead of blaming it on other people. 

And let's talk. Michael Hidalgo offers up some great conversation-starters here

3)   If you are so inclined, consider sponsoring a child or making a one-time donation to World Vision, to help compensate for the funding and sponsorship being pulled.  I’d love to see us partner with my friends Kristen Howerton and Nish Weiseth to help care for the children and communities left in a bind because of pulled funding over this issue. World Vision is doing important work right now with Syrian refugees, for example, and it would be a shame to see that work suffer.

If you’re interested in learning more about how sponsorships work, check out my reports from Bolivia: 

Trickle-Up Economics and a Dam Good Story

A Different Kind of Mommy War

The Healing Power of Play

WATCH: “We are the dinosaurs!” “We are the rabbits!”

Confessions of a Sponsorship Skeptic

“Eshet Chayil!” – Six Bolivian Women of Valor

What Happens to My Sponsored Child When He Grows Up?

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