The following are various thoughts on the recent World View USA brouhaha. The bitter disagreements that have been played out over the last few days have, with a few exceptions, followed familiar and predictable patterns, with the various antagonists performing well-rehearsed parts.
I presume that most of my readers are already aware of the basic facts of the story. The American branch of the Christian charity World Vision announced its decision to change its employee conduct policy, which formerly restricted sexual relations to marriage between a man and a woman, to include Christians in same-sex marriages. Two days later, following a lot of anger, hurt, protest, and outrage at the original decision, the decision was reversed. Over the course of the last few days, existing divisions in evangelical circles have become even more polarized and World Vision USA has alienated or annoyed Christians across the spectrum on the issue of same-sex marriage.
In making the original decision, World Vision USA made clear that they were not thereby intending to take a stand on the issue of same-sex marriage. Rather, they were seeking to conform their employee conduct policy to their broader stance on controversial issues between denominations and churches, taking a neutral stance and deferring to the authority of local churches.
I have been appalled by so many of the uncharitable and vicious responses to these developments on various sides of this debate. I doubt that I am alone in thinking that it represents a new nadir in intramural evangelical discourse. I have written at considerable length in the past about the unhealthy dynamics of much evangelical discourse online, especially within the context of social media. The responses to the changes to World Vision’s policy on both sides of the evangelical aisle have confirmed me in my conviction that we need to give careful thought to the way that we respond to issues and to each other and that we develop processes to encourage healthy discourse and defence mechanisms against the contagion of reactive and hateful outrage.
Among the many unhelpful responses that I have read, there have been a few perceptive and balanced treatments of the issues. It was not a surprise to me that Matt Anderson had some measured thoughts on the original decision in a post over on Mere Orthodoxy and some broader and insightful reflections on the story after World Vision reversed its original decision on Twitter (Matt has brought his tweets together here). Ian Paul also has written a helpful post on the matter here.
The last few days have raised or revived a number of key points, issues, or questions for me. I thought that I would list them and leave others to thrash them out in the comments or elsewhere.
1. Social Media and Evangelical Discourse
Disputes among evangelicals very consistently overheat, and most particularly on social media. We need to give close thought to why this is the case, why social media tends to bring out the worst in us, and the measures that we can take to protect ourselves from these dangerous dynamics. Evangelicals have often been insufficiently cautious and wary in their use of social media. Despite their many notable advantages, they have deleterious effects upon our conversations, not least on account of their false urgency and the other means by which they privilege emotional reactivity over consideration and reflection in response. The reactivity on all sides over the last few days is not a new phenomenon. It has happened before and it will happen again. We need to understand how and why it happens and what we can do to resist or prevent it.
The outrage firestorms that often whip through the world of Christian social media, destroying or harming many relationships and ministries, primarily have to do with a failure of leadership. Seeing the responses of leading voices on both sides over the last few days, I have been dismayed by how many of our leaders manifest a failure to control their reactions and their words. When leaders are reactive, hasty, and intemperate in their responses to issues and events, they validate even more extreme and intemperate responses in their followers. James writes:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
The incendiary power of the hasty word is dramatically increased in the age of social media. We should all be aware of the power of our tongues and our fingers on keyboards to spark huge conflagrations of consuming outrage. If we cannot exercise basic mastery over our words or our reactivity, we should shut down our blogs and quarantine ourselves from others on social media. This is doubly the case if we are in positions of leadership or influence: we will be judged with much greater strictness. If we cannot exercise control over our emotional reactions, we can be the cause of immense harm to the body of Christ and will have much to answer for on that last day.
Some persons make a virtue of the supposed ‘honesty’ of emotional ‘rawness’ in their leading voices. Passion, often expressed in hyperbolic outrage, is seen as ‘real’, ‘authentic’, and ‘heartfelt’. Raw, untamed, and vented emotional reaction is superior to the supposed artificiality of the controlled, channelled, and temperate response. Such persons are playing with fire.
3. Fault lines in Evangelicalism
World Vision’s policy change was an attempt to straddle the gap between conservative and progressive Christians and maintain a ‘big tent’ ministry. They wanted people from all sides to continue to identify with the organization and its values, values that can be shared by Christians on all sides of current debates surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
I have argued in the past that evangelicalism’s identity is largely rooted in the parachurch and its various sodalities. Without other overarching forms of denominational or institutional unity, evangelicalism finds much of its togetherness and shared identity in this area. On account of the importance of parachurch organizations for evangelicalism, evangelicals are very heavily invested in them and the unity and shared identity that they represent. Consequently, when an organization such as World Vision makes a policy change that jettisons their commitment to a core value of many evangelicals, they should expect very strong resistance and opposition. Organizations such as World Vision aren’t just functional means by which evangelicals help the needy but are symbolic of evangelicals’ shared identity.
The problem that evangelicalism now faces is that the fault lines between conservatives and progressives in its ranks have grown so wide—especially on issues such as same-sex marriage—that it is no longer so possible to represent both sides in a manner with which all will strongly identify. Organizations such as World Vision face the difficulty of producing policies that all parties will recognize as a representation of their core values despite deeply polarizing issues. This is almost impossible to do without one party or another feeling betrayed, that an unacceptable degree of compromise has taken place, or that the organization is no longer one with which they feel a deep identification.
All of this raises more general questions about the future of evangelicalism. I fear that the next few years will witness an increasingly acrimonious and protracted divorce between conservative and progressive evangelicals as the various parties bicker and squabble about the ownership of the dissolving union’s various institutional assets. If we were merely dealing with deep theological and ethical differences the problem would be bad enough. However, one only has to observe the reactivity, the antagonism and suspicion, the bitterness and absence of charity, the hurt and the lack of respect that exists between the sides of these debates to realize that the problems run much deeper.
4. Inability to Believe the Best
Reading through many of the posts and tweets written over the last few days, I have been repeatedly struck by an apparent inability or unwillingness of many to put charitable constructions upon the actions, words, and beliefs of those with whom they differ. As Derek Rishmawy observes, an overdependence upon a hermeneutic of suspicion is a dangerous thing. The hermeneutic of suspicion also stands in a very uneasy relationship with our Christian duty to believe the best of others when we can.
The use of vulnerable children as emotional leverage has been particularly unhealthy on both sides of this debate. I am not going to give any links here, but those who have followed this debate will be familiar with the suggestion among the critics of World Vision’s original decision that they were harming vulnerable children and the suggestion among its supporters that critics didn’t care about the vulnerable children. That such vicious and false accusations have been advanced among us should be a cause of deep shame.
5. Follow the Money?
A good example of the hermeneutic of suspicion in action has been the popular suggestion from both sides that, when World Vision made a decision of which they disapproved, the decision must have been driven by money. While such an interpretation of events should not simply be dismissed, it shouldn’t be the first interpretation to which we jump. I am not persuaded that either of World Vision’s decisions were driven purely or even primarily by financial concerns.
For instance, the cynical suggestion that World Vision’s reversal of its original decision was purely about the fear of losing money seems to assume that the relationship between a Christian charity and its supporters can be boiled down to dollars. The possibility that World Vision feels a sense of responsibility towards its supporters, supporters who made it the organization that it is today, isn’t really entertained. Sensing just how betrayed many of these supporters feel by this latest development, World Vision may have felt duty bound to reverse its decision, even apart from the financial hit that it would have taken. When you are acting in people’s name and in partnership with them, making such unilateral changes in core commitments can be an unchristian act of breaking faith with people who trust and support you. This doesn’t mean that such changes can’t be made, but they need to be made in the right way.
6. What is the Nature of Christian Charity?
A common argument among supporters of World Vision’s original decision is that, provided the poor are being helped, we should not really care that much about who the persons are who are doing it.
This argument represents a position on the proper character of charity, suggesting that charity is just about making material provision for those in need and that it can consequently be treated as secular action. This secular action can and will be motivated by core Christian values, but there is nothing intrinsically Christian about it. Governments can often treat Christian charity in such a manner: what makes charity Christian belongs chiefly to the realm of private motivations. However, the actual form of charity should ideally be secular and driven solely by material outcomes.
However, Christians do not typically believe that the works of mercy are essentially secular acts, but that the care and service of the poor is a crucial element of who we are as Christians, expressive of our identity in Christ, an act of worship and mission, and an essential ‘body function’ of the Church. Consequently, it is important to us to serve the poor through organizations that share, express, and are guided by core Christian commitments of faith and practice. Charity is not just about giving money to the needy, but bringing the presence of Christ to and being the presence of Christ in the places of pain in the world. The agencies through which we enact our charity are very important for this reason.
Christian charity is a matter of partnership in the gospel. Even if the money and resources provided to the recipient of charity are exactly the same, it matters a great deal whether that money is given through some secular NGO or through an organization that represents us as the body of Christ to those in need.
There is no reason why Christian charities can’t work alongside other charities of other religions or without religious commitments. A charity is not a church and a Christian charity may even benefit from employing non-Christians on occasions to perform specific roles, provided that their institutional agency is clearly a Christian one. However, employee policies that seek to uphold the Christian identity and agency of a charity are an important means by which identity is defined and maintained.
7. Why make such a big deal about homosexuality and same-sex marriage?
The stakes in the debates surrounding the legitimacy of homosexual relations and same-sex marriage are seldom truly appreciated. I’ve written more secular critiques of same-sex marriage on various occasions before, addressing the more general cultural debates. However, the explicitly Christian reasons for rejecting homosexual practice and same-sex marriage must be clearly grasped. These aren’t issues that can be treated as adiaphorous. There are a number of things at stake here.
The image of God is presented as male and female in Scripture, a fact which is reflected in marriage. Same-sex relations undermine this reality. They represent a distortion of and assault upon the image of God in mankind. As Romans 1 suggests, a distortion of the image of God is an act of idolatry, an act of false worship and false witness, and through such acts the human being is degraded. Within the symbolic world of Scripture, homosexual relations are a deep perversion, a crime against human nature, and an idolatrous act against God. This is why they are treated in such stark terms.
There is no reason why a perversion of human nature as created by God and an act of false and idolatrous image-bearing can’t be completely consensual. The Bible doesn’t subscribe to our modern prejudice that ethics more or less boil down to issues of consent and harm among human parties. Furthermore, the fact that many committed Christians hold to the legitimacy of same-sex relations and even practice them doesn’t mean that they can’t be that serious. It may mitigate the level of their guilt, but it does not diminish the seriousness of the sin. There were many pious Christians who were slave-owners in the American South, for instance. Their relationship to their slaves may have revealed many Christian virtues, which would be worthy of great praise if viewed in isolation. However, the fundamental relationship was founded upon an attack upon the image of God, one that many were incapable of seeing on account of a catastrophic moral blindness that afflicted the society more generally.
The notion that marrying mitigates the sin of homosexual relations, as World Vision’s changed policy might suggest, is also misguided. Same-sex marriage merely exalts acts that are presented by Scripture as idolatrous and places them on a par with the union that he created and blessed at the beginning. This parodying of marriage compounds the sin.
The Bible hardly says anything about homosexual acts, why should we make such a big deal about them? Homosexual acts and same-sex marriage strike at the heart of Christian sexual ethics, which have always been central in guiding and defining Christian practice. They also threaten our theological anthropology. Finally, contemporary arguments in favour of same-sex marriage and homosexual relations represent a crisis in our more general understanding of Scripture. For these reasons among others, we cannot budge, compromise, or split the difference on this issue.
8. Wasn’t World Vision just being neutral?
In its change in policy, World Vision was presenting this issue as adiaphorous. As Ian Paul writes:
But, as the old saying goes, not to decide is to decide. In deferring to the (conflicting) views of different denominations, Stearns is saying that this is a matter of adiaphora between churches. It is something on which we can agree to disagree. WV are perfectly entitled to say this, but I don’t think it is possible to present this as a lack of decision. It really is a decision on the status of the question—and that is the heart of the matter.
The difficulty with World Vision’s stance was that, to the extent that people hold a more traditional (and, I would argue, biblical) Christian position on homosexual relations similar to that outlined above, it will never be something that can be viewed as adiaphorous. To make such a change is to become a sort of organization with which conservative evangelicals can no longer so strongly identify.
If World Vision didn’t have such an employee policy in the first place, or if its employee policy didn’t place expectations regarding sexual behaviour upon its employees, this situation wouldn’t necessarily have arisen in the same manner. However, many of us might be less inclined to identify the organization that would result as a distinctively Christian one. This wouldn’t mean that we couldn’t support it, in much the same way as many of us—myself included—support various non-Christian charities, whose employee policies don’t give any significance to Christian ethical values.
Over to you. What are your thoughts?
I fear that the next few years will witness an increasingly acrimonious and protracted divorce between conservative and progressive evangelicals as the various parties bicker and squabble about the ownership of the dissolving union’s various institutional assets.
This was inevitable once evangelicalism started to grow a liberal wing.
Also, the pressures from the secular world to accept gay sex and gay marriage have forced people to make the choice on which side they stand sooner.
I’m not entirely persuaded of that. The liberal wing could have fizzled out, been largely marginalized, or have dispersed for other pastures. I don’t believe that it was inevitable that we would be struggling for the control of institutions and parachurch organizations.
While I don’t think liberal evangelicalism has a long term future, secularization, particularly delayed secularization in North America, has meant that there was and is a sizeable cohort of young people on their way out of evangelical churches. Not all of those people were or are willing to totally abandon organized religion or evangelical culture though. For a lot of people it’s hard to leave their cultural setting, particularly such an intense one as evangelicalism can be. So, the liberal wing of evangelicalism was always going to have a sizable constituency to play with. That means that it was never likely for it to fizzle out quickly, nor could it be easily marginalized.
It’s also easy to say that these liberal evangelicals, for example, should just have joined the liberal mainline, but liberal mainline culture is not evangelical culture. Those who grew up evangelical have a cultural and institutional attachment that is hard to break.
I don’t believe that it was inevitable that we would be struggling for the control of institutions and parachurch organizations.
Liberals tend to gravitate towards academic institutions and NGOs, so it isn’t surprising that seminaries and charities will be the principal battlegrounds here.
Because evangelicalism has pragmatically focused on the local congregation, even when attached to denominations like the Anglicans, the liberal wing is much less strong “on the ground.” It is much harder to take over a movement congregation by congregation, especially when churches can be so easily closed or started up. In fact, the failure of liberal evangelicalism to start up their own churches is rather shocking. It’s not that hard; you rent (or borrow) a room and you start teaching and preaching the gospel. Yet, somehow it hardly ever seems to happen.
A good deal of how these fights go will be determined by how many on the Evangelical left just up and leave over incidents like this, or how many stay and fight.
Even if many on the Evangelical left don’t leave, I suspect most self-identified Evangelical organizations will remain traditional in their theology and moral standards. However, in this case, the Evangelical left will probably carry off a few prominent institutions.
On the other hand, if most of liberal Evangelicals leave over incidents like this, as liberals are prone to do, then theological conservatives could almost entirely carry the day.
I seriously wonder how many on the Evangelical left have the stomach to continue identifying with a group that is so obviously out of step with their, and mainstream society’s, morals. I mean, get with the program already.
Yes, every time that some issue like this comes up, I see a number of progressive evangelicals openly dissociating themselves from evangelicalism and saying that they will never identify themselves in such a manner again. Admittedly, as in a revivalist’s altar call, often it is the same people as dissociated themselves the last time. However, this will have a wearing effect on people over time and many will drop out altogether or move to other contexts.
Of course, things are different in the UK. Evangelicalism here is a lot more palatable to progressives and conservatives are the more marginalized.
“Even if many on the Evangelical left don’t leave”
I think it’s unhelpful to use the right/left division here. Outside the US there are plenty of Christians who are socially small-c conservative but economically left or left-liberal.
True, but here I am speaking about the US situation, where the division does apply and is relevant. As I pointed out at the end of my last response to The Man Who Was… the situation here in the UK is different. Many of us, myself included, wouldn’t tidily fit into the various camps in the US scene.
In this context, I was referring to theology and morals not economics etc.
If we were merely dealing with deep theological and ethical differences the problem would be bad enough. However, one only has to observe the reactivity, the antagonism and suspicion, the bitterness and absence of charity, the hurt and the lack of respect that exists between the sides of these debates to realize that the problems run much deeper.
Accusations by theological conservatives that liberals just want to be popular with the world obscure the fact that liberal evangelicals sincerely believe what they believe. They feel a genuine attachment to the institutions and cultural mileau that they’ve grown up in, and most genuinely feel they are doing a good thing by pushing evangelical institutions in a liberal direction. They are trying to save evangelicalism not destroy it.
On the other hand the suspicion that liberal evangelicals are using the vocabulary of conservative theology to disguise the the very different things they often mean by those words is very well founded.
This whole debacle will certainly not allay the suspicions of conservative evangelicals that many people in the organizations that purport to represent them don’t actually agree with them much substantively. And they’d be right to be suspicious of that.
I very much agree. It will be interesting to see how World Vision will go about trying to rebuild trust after this.
Hi Alastair! Thanks to you I have learned a new word today (not an uncommon occurence when reading you, I have to admit!). “Adiaphorous”, in this instance.
Unsurprisingly, some people are very upset at the reversal of WV’s policy change. Rachel Held Evans reports feeling ” frustrated, heartbroken, and lost”. Yet how much of this frustration could Christian people be spared if they realised that they are desiring a unity and inclusiveness that is deeply contrary to God’s stated will?
Christena Cleveland yesterday expressed the thought that we hate “black sheep” **, i.e. people who think differently from our group. We should be as inclusive as possible, inclusivity being apparently the very definition of true Christianity. But this call for inclusivity is sounded in the wrong place in our spiritual walk: Cleveland wants included the very things that God says should be excluded.
We desperately need to come to the realisation that while forgiveness of sins is available to all (gay, straight, etc.), it comes with the call to repentance and holiness, which involve leaving our sins behind. Thus anybody may enter through the door that is Jesus – but upon going through, we have to abandon our old, sinful nature and put on the new nature, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness”. (Ephesians 4:24)
Until we, as a whole church, get revelation of this truth, we are destined to keep telling people they are okay with God, when in fact they are not, with eternal consequences.
This article is well worth engaging with. It raises some key issues missing here.
As uncomfortable as these days are for theologically conservative Evangelicals, this has to be absolute hell for the Evangelical left. They really are caught in the middle. Theologically conservative Evangelicals keep on unapologetically doing and saying things that are just appalling to the Evangelical left. It has to be exquisitely painful to realize how far you actually are from the mainstream of the group you identify with. And the secular left just won’t let up on forcing issues of family and sexual morality to the front. That leaves no room for papering over differences.
I have some pity for these people.
I agree. The many people that I follow on the evangelical left on Twitter and elsewhere are obviously torn up by these recent developments.
I’m not really sure whether it will be ultimately fruitful to persist on dialogue with you or not. What’s completely missing from what you’ve laid out here is very symptomatic of the problem. All of your analysis occurs on the level of the surrounding rhetoric in the twittersphere. The fact that thousands of children were dumped by their sponsors in one day should be the real alarming issue regardless of the ideological catalyst. It is not merely that children are being “used as pawns” in rhetorical games. Their lives are actually being impacted by people who want to “make a statement” with their economic clout. There is no reflection on whether consumer activism is the appropriate means of communicating within the body of Christ. How many of those kids are not going to get picked back up because their sponsors simply forget or feel embarrassed that they lost their temper and acted impulsively at those gay-lovin’ World Visioners? It goes to show that the whole World Vision thing itself is mostly ideological consumerism for a large chunk of its supporters even if their money is accidentally being used for good. They want to be able to think in their heads that they’re paying for a couple of brown kids to go to school in India when they launch into a tirade against big gubment. What would have happened if instead of voting with their pocketbooks they had called the World Vision office to express their concern about the decision and asked to pray with the person picking up the phone? This idea that we are political activists first and disciples second needs to be repudiated loudly by people of your side of the aisle before it’s too late. You don’t have to because I say so but if you don’t, then your movement will continue to wither into a nursing home full of Fox News-programmed angry geriatric patients and the world will hopefully be rid of you in a couple of generations.
I was on a trip the last few days and so missed this big explosion, but my first thought when I heard about this brouhaha was that surely no one would stop sponsoring a child so quickly in a situation like this – dumped, as you said. I can actually say that I was fairly heartbroken to find out that exactly that had happened – I say all that to say that I pretty much think you’re spot on in your analysis of the WorldVision being ideological consumerism, rhetoric aside. But that children were in fact dumped is a very, very disturbing fact.
Matt Anderson addresses the reality behind the ‘dumping children’ claims quite helpfully here. In most cases, I was not and am not in favour of cutting off support immediately and was dismayed by the precipitous action, intemperate character, and reactivity of many conservative evangelical responses, as I made clear in my post. However, I can quite understand why many would consider dropping their support and supporting other organizations instead after they have completed their current sponsoring. I can also understand why people who had not developed any sort of direct relationship with a particular child would consider dropping their support immediately and don’t believe that we are necessarily justified in condemning such action.
Most importantly, I think that the accusations being thrown around on either side about the other’s treatment and disregard for children are appalling, and don’t really reflect the reality.
Most of the issues you bring up were dealt with by Matthew Anderson and Ian Paul here and http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/a-lot-of-nonsense-about-world-vision. I suspect Alastair didn’t deal with those issues because they had already dealt with them so well.
the world will hopefully be rid of you in a couple of generations.
It always amuses when lovey dovey liberals bring out the fangs. BTW how are those UMC membership stats?
Perhaps, I shouldn’t have been so snippy. Mr. Guyton was being a jerk, but, then, he and other progressive Christians have had a really painful couple of days here. Apologies.
I think that almost everyone involved in this brouhaha has had a painful couple of days. While we should all try to be patient and charitable with each other, one of the points of my post is that we must all learn to take responsibility for our words.
Reactive comments such as Morgan’s, which grossly caricature others and declare deeply uncharitable sentiments, shouldn’t just be given a pass, even though we ought not to react in like manner. We all need to learn how to control our tongues here.
Morgan, thanks for the comment. In point of fact, the money does not go directly to the children, but is pooled. Matt Anderson makes this point in his post. Cutting off support for World Vision isn’t going to leave a particular child without resources. That just isn’t the way that it works.
Oh I’m well aware of that. I’m just talking about the state of somebody’s soul when they’re so casual about exchanging their Juanita with World Vision for a Maria through Compassion International or whatever.
How do you know that people are so casual about such decisions? A lot of people have been agonizing with knowing what to do in a difficult situation over the last few days.
Also, no one is saying that we are political activists first. Conservative evangelical Christians have been giving millions of dollars to World Vision for years as an expression of practical and committed discipleship, apart from some deep political agenda. World Vision’s changing of their policy was the key political move that sparked all of this. Conservative evangelicals didn’t start this. The open toleration and celebration of same-sex relations and marriages is very much a matter of political activism in our day and age and something that we would very much like to keep out of our charitable commitments and efforts, thank you very much.
Even given all of that, I’m not really convinced that it’s in any way right to withdraw support because of a disagreement over WV’s company policies regarding sexual ethics (which is a whole ‘nother conversation). I might be convinced that, if this was a standing policy, then it wouldn’t be right to support them on the basis of such a disagreement – but if I were already committed to supporting a child, then I can’t think of any way it wouldn’t be wrong to withdraw said support based on this decision. Basically, once you’re committed to something as good and as (in my view) serious as providing financial support to a child, I don’t think you should stop because of something like this.
I generally agree and would encourage the phase-out model of withdrawing support, for those who want to withdraw support. However, although it would not surprise me if many acted in an unwise, overly hasty, and unchristian fashion, the nature and stage of people’s relationship with the children that they sponsor varies widely and I do not believe that we are justified in categorically condemning those who ended their support immediately as ‘abandoning’ their children.
Good for you Alastair. You have a something to say back to everything. Read Titus 3:9-10. No children or non-profit bureaucrats are going to lose funding when I unsubscribe from your blog and disengage from dialogue with you. But I will have more time to focus on what God has put in front of me in ministry. As they say, fare thee well.
Sorry to see you go in such a manner, Morgan. I would request that you prayerfully consider that the motives of those who differ with you here may not be as base as you currently suppose. Is there any way in which you could believe better of them?
While I agree with Matthew that precipitous withdrawal is perhaps not the wisest course, you need to understand the perspective of the sponsor. They believe that they are giving money to invest in the physical *and spiritual* good of these children. Further, they are concerned that the socially influential face of Christianity is more concerned with making good with “the world” than God, which is (in their view) toxic. And their proxy suddenly demonstrates that they are more aligned with the former rather than the latter.
At this point, two things are true:
(1) The donors feel betrayed
(2) The donors suddenly feel that one of their two goals for giving is gone (and is well on the way to being actively negated)
This is exactly the opposite of “political activists first and disciples second”. The reaction isn’t one of “political activism”. It’s a (possibly too quick) response to the proxy saying “Hey, we’ve more in common with the destructive influences than you”. OK, there may a lack of consideration of the secondary consequences, but it’s not political action – it’s pulling back from the stovetop that has suddenly flared with fire, and warning everyone else that the stove is burning too.
I agree. These were my thoughts as well.
And, in this case, it did get WV to do the right thing.
Good points, Andrew. In another comment thread—I can’t recall where—I read a comment that referred to the supposedly positive reports that one supporter was receiving that the child that they sponsored was growing up to be a committed Hindu. They made the point that this was not why they were sponsoring in the first place.
As I remarked in the post above, evangelical Christian support groups such as World Vision to represent their agency to those in need. World Vision’s changed policy was a breaking of faith for such people. While it is easy to blame those who drop their support—and while I believe that this might not be the most prudent response to this complex situation—laying the blame purely at the door of the supporter here is unjustified. The organization has a responsibility to represent the values and agency of its supporters and it failed in this regard.
1) That’s not very nice.
2) Your argument is true only if charity is the first, by far, Christian value and others can never conflict with it. Not promoting gross heretical evil is also a Christian value, I think. Progressives promote the idea that they are the most charitable, more charitable than thou, and thus get the final say on everything.
Also, from what I gather, research seems to suggest that in the US conservatives are generally more charitable than liberals within all income groups. Conservatives are frequently tarred as uncaring because they challenge the role that the State plays, but when it comes to private charity, they seem to give more than their more liberal peers. Liberals talk very loudly about the duty of the State and other agencies and condemn conservatives, but their actions might suggest a different set of priorities and values. It would be interesting to see where progressive evangelicals fit in this picture. I certainly don’t believe that we should just assume that they are more charitable than their conservative evangelical peers.
Actually, the research you allude to has been challenged: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2148033
From the abstract to the paper cited:
“Finally, we show that any remaining differences in giving are an artifact of Republicans’ greater propensity to give to religious causes, particularly their own church.”
So, basically, conservatives aren’t any more generous to secular charities than liberals. (Banging my head against the wall.)
Exactly what I was just about to point out. The suggestion that ‘political conservatives compensate for their opposition to governmental intervention by supporting private charities’ is not a claim that most of us would make here. Rather, political conservatives’ opposition to government intervention does not mean that they are uncaring about the poor.
Behind so many of these issues are competing notions of charity that are seldom directly discussed.
I only brought up the paper because of the first sentence in Alastair’s reply. That said, that quote doesn’t say what you think it does – if you read the entire paper. Basically the more religious you are the more likely you are to give, regardless of political orientation.
It would be particularly interesting to study the different nature of giving between progressive and conservative evangelicals in various contexts. To what extent is giving shaped and inspired by involvement in a local church? Do progressives give a greater percentage of their money to charities apart from denominational charities and the local church than conservatives? Etc.
Bonhoeffer’s arguments in Ethics regarding honesty are helpful here. He argues that, in fact, such “honesty” is fundamentally dishonest.
Tony Jones has done some very good reporting on what went on inside the organization. See here and make sure to read through the comments.
Apparently, it was mostly some big donors and other partners that threatened to pull the plug, rather than cancellations by individual donors that did the trick. As some people noted in the Jones thread, it seems unbelievable that they didn’t consult with anyone before doing this. Perhaps they were judging the strength of progressive Evangelicalism by the number of blogs out there.
That is helpful in filling in some information. The size and weight of progressive evangelicalism is very hard to ascertain. While there are many very vocal voices online, the more that one discovers about those voices, the more one realizes the absence of deep engagement on the ground. So many leading progressive evangelical voices are isolated, scattered in disparate contents, in the process of disengaging from evangelicalism, without any church at all, and one gets the impression that some are moving away from any sort of active Christian involvement altogether..These are not signs of a movement in good health.
It matters immensely for ethics what the cosmos is like. Is it just made up of meaningless little bits, with maybe a soul or a God slapped on at the end? If so, who puts what where when wouldn’t seem to much matter. But if everything is charged with meaning and purpose then the form of our bodies as male and female does have immense implications for what the good is. Yet, nobody, not even many conservative theologians, seems to want to make this point, though Oliver O’Donovan gestures towards it.
Getting away from ethics, it also matters immensely what kind of cosmos God was incarnated into. Was he incarnated into a world rich with meanings, ideals, essences, and purposes, or was he dumped into a hunk of bits. Not that there’s anything wrong with the bits, but the cosmos they’re not just bits. Yet, again, nobody mentions this.
I wonder if conservative theologians often don’t really see this because they are working with a largely pre-modern view of the world. They just assume it. Or maybe they’re modern Cartesians posing as orthodox Christians.
(I don’t see how the incarnation could possibly make sense from a Cartesian point of view [what’s the point of the body?], and a pure materialism would seem to commit you to eliminativism.)
An interesting blog post I stumbled on here makes a similar point:
Such emerging Evangelicals have played, and played loudly, the problems of Evangelical neo-gnosticism, and rightly so (cf. Parker’s Back by Flannery O’Conner). However, in disabusing themselves of gnosticism, Evangelicals, with the much chronicled scandal of their minds, do not have the deep liturgical and philosophical traditions of the Catholic church, which is the home of TOB [Theology of the Body]. Thus, whereas Leah and John Paul II can reject gnosticism but also imagine a form of Christian embodiment different from secular materialism, I am not sure that emergent Evangelicals have the tradition necessary to give them the imaginative capacity for this. Let me put it this way: When I go into the Cathedral at Notre Dame U in South Bend, I am certainly called out of my gnostic proclivities – here is an entire building where every stone cries out to God – but there is a difference between this kind of embodiment and the materialism that a secular person might consider embodiment; in the former, heaven and earth meet, while in the latter, there is just earth. However, when I go into an emergent “pub church” or “coffee shop” church, I suppose I am embodied insofar as I am enjoying the material culture of a secular world. However, I am not made uncomfortable by the fact that there must be something more than coffee shops and pubs – there is no yearning – and so while I may be very embodied, that embodiment might be too comfortable to be church, however commendable it might be as a social activity; the Church should pique in us a longing for embodiment of a holy kind, the kind that hungers for the Eucharist, and that experiences this as an expansion rather than a reduction of meaning. So, while Catholics and other churches with liturgical and philosophical traditions in some ways have built into them a safeguard against mere materialism, I would caution emerging type Evangelicals to be careful because they do not have this safeguard.
This all reminded me of Donald Miller’s cookie and hot chocolate eucharist. Tony Jones has proposed rebranding Progressive Christianity as Incarnational Christianity; I’d just call it Materialist Christianity.
Yes, for all of the faddism about being ‘incarnational’, on account of their philosophical liberalism, progressive Christians tend to have a significant lacuna where a theology of the body should be.
Just to be clear, I think it is really important for both sides (liberals especially, but conservatives too) to realize how utterly different their views of the world are on a fundamental level. Right now a lot progressive Christians (and others) just think we are perversely ignoring our own Christian principles. You can see it all over the comments progressives are making about this debacle. So, the first step we have to take is not to convince them that we are right, the first step is to convince them we are different.
A lot of conservatives take a premodern cosmology for granted; it’s what comes utterly natural to them. Unfortunately, they assume that liberals who grew up in conservative churches are working with the same cosmology. What they don’t know is that progressives have been formed by modern society to have a modern cosmology, to which they have then adapted Christian vocabulary and concepts. Words like incarnation, love etc. mean utterly different things to conservatives and progressives. But the progressives don’t know this, and neither do most conservatives.
Conservatives tend to view these progressive young people as their lost sheep who have only gone a little astray, and who can be brought back to the fold with either some good doctrinal catechism or a little compassion, depending on the tastes of the individual person. But for the most part they are immensely concerned about not alienating people on the edge, and these kids have grown up in church, so it’s best to focus on commonalities, right? Progressives, on the other hand, have grown up in the church, and share an enormous amount of distinct culture with it, as well as social and familial ties to it, so they feel an enormous amount of attachment and affection for that milieu. Because of this, they tend to think that the conservatives are just like them, only a little bit behind the times, or a little bit fearful of change. Neither side has much incentive to clarify those deep divisions. But then something like this World Vision debacle comes up and throws those differences into high relief. And people feel utterly betrayed.
We need to explicitly teach Christian cosmology to people. I’m so much of a fool as to think that people will be convinced by such explicit teaching, but we need to stop pretending that we share a common background, even with people who grew up in the same churches.
It’s the cosmology stupid.
NOTE: I am referring to theological conservatives here, not necessarily people who are “conservative” in economics.
Yes, there is a lot of speaking past each other in these debates. Actually, I think that conservatives typically understand liberals and progressives much better than they understand us. Many of us spend most of our lives around them, so we get how they think.
The flipside of this, however, is that conservatives have a much harder job of it making themselves understood. People like Jonathan Haidt go to great lengths to try to provide the terms to liberals upon which conservatives could be understandable. However, translating conservative positions into liberal or progressive terms cannot be done without significant loss.
There’s this idea that if we keep marginal Christians around we will have a shot at converting them. That’s not totally preposterous, but it often leads us to soft pedal important differences. And theologically conservative Christians usually aren’t going to go looking around for more differences to separate us from those people, especially if those differences can be something a little hard to see, like our assumed cosmology.
The attack on traditional sexual morality is an assault on meaning. The gospel presupposes meaning. The attack on the traditional sexual morality is an assault on the gospel.
Absolutely. Gender, sexuality, and marriage in Scripture are treated as realities bound up with and symbolic of larger cosmic and theological order and meaning. One simply won’t take the first step to understanding biblical sexual ethics if you don’t grasp this.
“not so much of a fool”
I think that conservatives typically understand liberals and progressives much better than they understand us.
Yes, but many progressive Christians still use a Christian vocabulary, which can seriously confuse theological conservatives. See: incarnation, love, authority . . .
Many of us spend most of our lives around them, so we get how they think.
This helps, but the major advantage conservatives have is that conservatives still use the two moral foundations that liberals rely on: harm and fairness. Still, being around others a lot doesn’t necessarily mean we really understand them. A good example is secularists and progressive Christians who have grown up in conservative churches. They often think they understand religious conservatives, but they usually do not. Despite growing up in these communities! And theological conservatives quite often falsely impute religious or morally conservative thinking to liberals when that is not the case.
Yes, that is true. My suspicion is that, once abandoned, former conservatives’ ability to employ the broader range of moral foundations soon atrophies.
Absolutely. That said, I think that there are a number of us who are trying to make such points. It really is an uphill battle against the zeitgeist, though.
The Reformation shifted the center of judgment from the institution to the individual. Now the individual could take and create his own meaning. Apply reason to the Bible, and you can reason the whole thing away. Apply subjective emotion to the Bible, and you can wish the whole thing away. There’s something promethean, possibly Faustian about it.
And yet the Bible provides a space for the sexually abnormal, a space of love and honor. “Conservative” Protestants move the locus of religious life from the church to the bourgeois family. In your “conservative” Protestant low church, you don’t want to be a single adult over a certain age. Gay activist Christians go too far in saying eunuch in the Bible means gay, but it does at least in part. Marriage and family life are wonderful gifts from God, but they are not the pinnacle of existence.
Very true. The elevation of the natural family over all else isn’t biblical. However, when the honoured space for the ‘sexually abnormal’ doesn’t involve a legitimation of sexual practice or marriage, it won’t satisfy many.
Probably also worth bearing in mind that, given the shape of contemporary society, the companionate character of marriage has an especial significance. In choosing a spouse you are choosing a friend who will accompany you in a rootless society. This means that gay persons face a tougher struggle. This is a real issue for us to address as the Church.
There are some useful thoughts here http://oldlife.org/2014/03/need-christian-feed-hungry/, whilst much of the critique centres on the parachurch nature of WV (and the connected lack of ecclesiological oversight) some of it connects back to the disembodiment theme talked about above:
“The fund-raising world and structure of oversight in which WV operates is also abstracted or disembedded … . Its model is like the parachurch more generally .. and, as Deneen puts it, its work is through “ministries of scale” that transcend the ordinary or local networks of fellowship and accountability by which denominations and congregations operate.”
Thanks for the link. Some important points raised there. There have been a few who have raised the ecclesiological questions, but not many. I’ve been discussing this precise issue on a private e-mail discussion list, actually. It has been heartening to hear people’s positive experiences with certain denominational charities.
I do think that we need a broader conversation around the question of charity and the Church. Could a denominational charity easily do the scale of work that World Vision is doing? Is the charity of the Church supposed to be super-functional (I’m especially thinking of those who see Christian charity as a viable substitute for the welfare provided by broader civil society and the state), or is it primarily symbolic and formational? Etc.
“Could a denominational charity easily do the scale of work that World Vision is doing?”
I’d like to go back to a comment Andrew made further up the thread:
“They believe that they are giving money to invest in the physical *and spiritual* good of these children.”
The thing that gets obscured in the evangelical world is the definition of this ‘spiritual’ good. From a confessional conservative viewpoint it is clear what the faith to be transmitted would actually consift of. In evangelical circles, things are vaguer and the definitions of ‘acceptable faith’ would vary – hopefully around some kind of central core. The problem is that the organsation carrying out that work will have it’s own scale – and regional branches of the WV have different positions anyway – and will anyway have to actually ‘instantiate’ some version of that faith by virtue of working with some local churches and not others.
Yes, evangelicals are often much more woolly on what exactly is involved in addressing people’s spiritual good. More problematic is the common tendency implicitly to discount charity addressing people’s spiritual good as some sort of optional extra to the real thing.
When you said “discount charity addressing people’s spiritual good” did you mean “discount charity addressing people’s physical good” ?
No, sorry. I wasn’t clear. The first sentence referred to evangelicals, the second to more secular and political views about charity.
“Of course, things are different in the UK. Evangelicalism here is a lot more palatable to progressives and conservatives are the more marginalized.”
Really? What makes you say that?
I’ve only been in the UK for a few years and I don’t know the Christian landscape here as well as I know my own (Caribbean) landscape or the American landscape, but I definitely don’t get that impression. The British evangelicals that I know are definitely more theologically liberal than the Americans (and obviously more than the West Indians) that I know and read about, but it seems to me to only affect things like how to read Genesis 1 – 11, not things like sexual ethics.
Or am I not drawing the line between conservative and progressive evangelicals where you do? Are you thinking of women’s ministry? From the top of my head I can’t think of any other big, divisive liberal-orthodox issues on which I think British conservative evangelicals are more marginalised than progressive ones.
Or did I completely misread you?
Thanks for the comment, Kamal. I’ve lived in the UK for over sixteen years and lived in Ireland before that. When it comes to the differences between UK and US evangelicalism, I would say that the following are key:
1. The big player in US evangelicalism is the Southern Baptist Church. In the UK, the biggest group of self-identifying evangelicals are Pentecostals, with sizeable bodies of evangelicals among Anglicans and Baptists. Both Pentecostal and Anglican evangelicals have a rather different form of evangelicalism from American Southern Baptists. Over here, ‘evangelical’ can often serve as a synonym for more charismatic worship styles. When it comes to the things around which the identity of UK evangelicalism galvanizes, it tends to be around such things as HTB, Soul Survivor, Spring Harvest, etc. Such things shape the emphases of UK evangelicalism. Identifying as an evangelical may place a lot less weight upon such things as issues of sexual ethics as a result.
2. Evangelicals in the UK are considerably more likely to be left-wing politically than their American cousins. The ‘Religious Right’ is a predominantly American phenomenon.
3. Although UK evangelicalism has spoken out on issues such as same-sex marriage, it is much less politicized than American evangelicalism.
4. UK evangelicalism has fewer really big ‘names’ and dominant personalities than US evangelicalism.
5. UK evangelicals are much less likely to hold to the doctrine of inerrancy (which is something of a shibboleth for many American evangelicals), much more likely to believe in evolution, the majority support women in ministry, and a large percentage wouldn’t be complementarian, all lines in the sand for American evangelicals. We are also much less likely to believe in pretribulation rapture theology.
6. There isn’t the same degree of an ‘evangelical subculture’ in the UK as there is in the US. There are fewer evangelical schools, there aren’t the same evangelical colleges and universities. We have hardly any homeschooling movement by comparison with the US. We don’t have the same opportunities to form self-sufficient and fairly culturally insular Christian communities. The extreme cultural expressions of American evangelicalism don’t really take off in the same way over here.
7. We don’t have much of a ‘purity culture’ as American evangelicalism has. Although most evangelical churches would be relatively theologically conservative on sexual matters, the issue is not one upon which a great accent is placed. In my experience, many young people who identify as evangelicals are fairly relaxed on such issues in practice. I have also seen a steady shift on issues such as homosexuality.
8. Evangelicals are much more likely to be interacting with progressives and liberals in the UK. We are much less isolated from Christians who disagree with us. Within the wider UK Christian world within which evangelicals have to operate, conservatives are far more marginalized than they would be in the US, where evangelicals are often much more dominant.
9. Some leading voices in UK evangelicalism are highly liberal/progressive. Steve Chalke is a good example here, especially with his recent statement in favour of homosexuality.
I’ve observed 1-7. 2 probably holds throughout the world; in my corner of the globe, for example, what Westerners call social conservativism is assumed for virtually all Christians, but very few people — Christian or not — take economic conservatism seriously.
I’ve seen the divorce between doctrine and (emphatic?) practice in 7, as well. But given 6, I’m not that surprised at it.
8 is spot on, and is probably thanks to the Church of England.
9 I found very curious. I heard about Chalke’s statements, but I don’t follow things here well enough to know what became of them and him. I imagine it’s being treated more like 8 than like, “This is an acceptable view for an evangelical to hold”, right?
I still feel as though I misread your original statement, though. I took you as saying that, in the UK, conservative evangelicals are more marginalised than liberal evangelicals within evangelicalism — which is the opposite of the US (and most of the rest of the world?) where conservative evangelicals dominate evangelicalism. That struck me as strange given my experience of evangelicalism in the UK, and given that I define evangelical in a way that almost makes “liberal/progressive evangelical” an oxymoron.
Probably worth throwing into the mix the fact that UK evangelicalism is fairly diverse with no single dominant form and that, depending where you are situated, it can look rather different.
Evangelicals in the UK are considerably more likely to be left-wing politically than their American cousins. The ‘Religious Right’ is a predominantly American phenomenon.
Correct me if I’m wrong here, but everything I’ve read suggests the the CofE is still really the Tory party at prayer, and that the Tories do best among voters who identify as Christian, even though self identified Catholics tend to strongly vote Labour.
Also, how much of this is due to immigration? Ethnicity tends to trump religion in politics and minority groups tend to vote for the party of the left, regardless of religiosity. I haven’t read much on how Pentecostal groups in the UK tend to vote.
I’m going off articles like this, here, and here.
Yes, the CofE skews Tory, although Tories definitely don’t dominate it. I imagine that, if anything, CofE evangelicals would be more Tory than non-evangelical CofE members. This is definitely not the case among evangelicals outside of the CofE, I don’t think. They would skew more towards Labour, I would guess. Class is probably the key force here.
“Over here, ‘evangelical’ can often serve as a synonym for more charismatic worship styles.”
I would note though that ‘more charismatic worship’ is – outside of the small group of charismatics in the CofE – a synonym for being morer socially conservative (i.e Elim, AOG, NFI, Black pentecostals). However, these groups would be strongest in working class areas and so are likely to lean left – though a surprising number of them would still vote Tory primarily because of hot button issues like homosexuality.
For the same Tories that have just given the country same-sex marriage…
Absolutely – there doesn’t necessarily have to be any consistency between the platforms parties stand on, and their actual legislation.
To be fair, though, whatever my opinion about their party, there are some very good Tory MPs on this issue.
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Thanks for your article. Insightful and sensitive. I’m not so sensitive. I’ve been a Christian for about 40 years. I graduated from Moody Bible Institute about 30 years back. After some time on the mission field, (some time spent in humanitarian aid in Bosnia) I now reside in Baltimore, where I attend a non-denominational church that was voted the most diverse congregation in the USA (I believe this was Christianity Today who gave us that honor.). We are super aggressive in evangelism and have a Bible college on campus. About 600 churches worldwide are affiliated with our ministry. We teach the Bible. We make disciples. We show up on Wednesday nights. We love one another. This is a work of God, so I’m not tooting our horn. I say that to say this. When Donald Trump won, my pastor was overjoyed. Not because of him (admittedly the man is in need of Christ) but because Liberalism was slowed down, in the defeat of Hillary Clinton. This rant isn’t about politics. (0; The scripture says “we are not ignorant of his devices.” (Meaning the Devil.). He has an agenda. The last administration used the LGTB agenda to divide our country and vilify Christians. This is the core focus of the Left. Vilify Christians and make them look like hateful people. That’s only the tip of the iceberg as I’m sure you know. We cannot, and will not redefine morality to suite a few radicals that attempt to destroy the moral fiber of the country.
To say there is a divide between Christians and so-called Progressive Christians is a red herring. Self described liberals make up about 20% of America. Most of these folks are probably hostile toward Christians. Of this group, how many claim to be Christians? How many of those are truly born again? Precious little, I can promise you that. Of those, how many are millennials who just got finished jr college and are all worked up by some professor who is hostile toward our faith? How many of those “progressive Christians” are graduates of a solid Bible College? My point is, there really isn’t a divide between these two equal sides who need to come together and make amends. The tenants of Liberalism are at odds with scripture. Go to their churches and see if the Spirit is moving to convict of sin, righteousness and judgement. See if Christ crucified, risen and coming again is preached. No sir, this isn’t a rift. This is a small minority of people who are seeking to change the church from within by sowing discord and false doctrines. We don’t need to come together for common ground. Those so called “progressive Christians” need to be taught the scripture and removed from places of authority and influence until they can grown in knowledge, or just get converted to Christ.