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?