April Fool’s Day seems a fitting day to review what happened last week, when, within just two days of announcing its decision to hire gays in recognized same-sex marriages, World Vision reversed its decision. An official statement from World Vision president Richard Stearns communicated “heartbreak”— “over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.”
The turn of events went something like this:
1) World Vision announced its decision to hire gay Christians in recognized same-sex marriages, with the disclaimer that in no way was World Vision making a political statement in support of gay marriage.
2) Then, popular bloggers like the more progressive evangelical Rachel Held-Evans, who has had close ties to World Vision, took to the blogosphere in a show of support, encouraging like-minded readers to adopt a World Vision child—this while a tidal wave of fierce protest came from another segment of evangelical Christians outraged by World Vision’s decision and threatening to drop the children they sponsor through World Vision.
3) Then, within two days, psych—“April Fool’s Day,” in other words—World Vision would not be hiring married gays after all and would continue to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Enter here that favorite, often misused code word with which evangelicals (particularly conservatives) have a love affair, “Biblical authority”—as if granting gays in same-sex marriage an equal opportunity to employment meant that World Vision would now no longer be taking the Bible seriously…Huh? [Note: a better substitute for the term "Biblical authority" would be "conservative evangelical interpretation." Can I say again how much I squirm whenever I hear the term "biblical authority"—not for what it really ought to mean, but, rather, for how it is so often co-opted for one particular, politically conservative agenda in the church?]
Sadly, I’m not surprised by how things ended. My own course of development in following this chain of events went from initial surprise at World Vision’s first announcement to anger to resignation and reflection.
Sure, I was surprised when World Vision came out with this very public stance. Having worked for World Vision before, and having much respect for the organization—as I continue to hold—I had wondered why the organization’s leadership had felt so compelled to force into the open an implicit fault line among supporters? Surely there had to be a persuasive reason.
And then I began to feel angry when the threats of discontinued child sponsorships began to pour in: why should one change to guidelines in a Christian organization’s employee handbook hijack the far more important and urgent needs of poor children in the developing world?
And yet, it has. And this sort of thing happens all the time. Over and over again churches and Christian communities divide over their interpretations of “biblical authority,” and the mission of God suffers. Churches bicker over issues such as women’s ordination and the submission, or lack thereof, of women. And the mission of God suffers.
I have a number of good friends who are committed Christians living lives of Christian hospitality to the world, who happen to be gay and in committed, sometimes marital, relationships. Because I love them, and because I believe that in Christ sexual orientation, like every other human category by which we seek to divide ourselves, shouldn’t have the last word, I find it hard to understand the vehemence of protest that resulted in World Vision’s April Fool’s Day moment; I find it hard to understand even as it does not surprise me.
The church in the time of the apostle Paul had its own battles of course—about dietary differences, like eating kosher or food sacrificed to idols, or about the practice of circumcision. It is striking in these instances to see how Paul on the one hand seems consistently to acknowledge the expanding compass of God’s grace (which will now include not just Jews but Gentiles) while, on the other, to be sensitive to the needs of those Paul dubs “weaker in faith”—those, for example, who refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols for fear of contamination.
I am inclined to consider today’s disputes over sexual codes of conduct within the church and within Christian organizations like World Vision a contemporary manifestation of this same sort of dispute that once forced the letter-writing hand of the apostle Paul in his own time. My friends who are deeply committed Christians and happen to be gay in committed, monogamous relationships have their own consciences to contend with; just as we all must contend with our own consciences with “fear and trembling,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. For the sake of those “weaker in faith,” for whom a sexual code of conduct really does become the exclusive means by which we define who is in and who is out within any particular Christian community, there is in Paul’s letters a note of gentle sensitivity. We must not put a “stumbling block” in front of the faith of another Christian—even if we find assurance, with our own consciences, of God’s freedom in Christ.
That said, Paul’s letters remind me that if, as Martin Luther King once put it, “the arc of the universe bends towards justice,” the arc of God’s grace is ever bending wider and larger. Like a mother’s womb making room to house her child and prepare for birth, that arc is forever opening and expanding to receive the “stranger” in our midst, be they the black slave or woman preacher or polygamous tribal chief or gay couple with a heart for following Jesus to wherever Jesus takes them. In fact, if I had to place a bet, I’d gamble on grace over the law any day—or, at least on the days when I’m most aware of the sins in my own closet.