No Ecclesiology, No Identity

Here are a few quotations to support the earlier claim that World Vision and evangelicalism more generally is infected with modernist Protestantism:

World Vision now has staff from more than 50 denominations—a handful of which have sanctioned same-sex marriages or unions in recent years, including the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Meanwhile, same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, and federal judges have struck down bans in five other states (Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and—most recently—Michigan) as well as required Kentucky to recognize such marriages performed in other states. (All six rulings are stayed until the appeals process is complete.) . . . .

“Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc.,” he said. “So our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles’ Creed and our statement of faith. We unite around our [Trinitarian beliefs], and we have always deferred to the local church on these other matters.”

The reason the prohibition existed in the first place? “It’s kind of a historical issue,” said Stearns. “Same-sex marriage has only been a huge issue in the church in the last decade or so. There used to be much more unity among churches on this issue, and that’s changed.”

And the change has been painful to watch. “It’s been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church,” he said. “It’s tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We’ve got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity.”

Highlighting the church/parachurch distinction: Board member and pastor John Crosby, who served as interim leader when a number of churches split off from the Presbyterian Church (USA) after the denomination dropped a celibacy requirement for gay clergy in 2011. At a conference that laid the foundation of the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the Minnesota megachurch pastor stated, “We have tried to create such a big tent trying to make everybody happy theologically. I fear the tent has collapsed without a center.”

However, as a World Vision board member, Crosby didn’t have a problem voting for the policy change. “It’s a matter of trying to decide what the core mission of the organization is,” he said.

If World Vision’s leadership is largely worshiping in mainline Protestant churches, then this quotation on the organization’s reversal makes more sense, as in, “wow, we never considered that”:

“The last couple of days have been painful,” president Richard Stearns told reporters this evening. “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”

“Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent,” said Stearns. “Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity … and we’re asking you to forgive us for that mistake.”

“We listened to [our] friends, we listened to their counsel. They tried to point out in loving ways that the conduct policy change was simply not consistent … with the authority of Scripture and how we apply Scripture to our lives,” said Stearns. “We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.”

Somewhere along the line, a lot of U.S. Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) gave up the battle with modernism. In my reading of the record, it started for Protestants with the neo-evangelicals of Billy Graham fame who wanted a kinder gentler conservative Protestantism. That neo-evangelical project ignored ecclesiology for the sake of a broader effort, and so it refused to rule out Protestants who were members of modernist churches. For Roman Catholics, it seemed to come with Vatican II, a time when Pius X’s oath against modernism looked like a quaint relic (can encyclicals be relics?) of an era different from the life and times of the 1960s church. (It is more of a mystery, given all that infallibility jazz, that Rome has gone soft on modernism. Evangelicals have long been confused.) Only where the battles with modernism are alive and well have the saints (Protestant) the capacity to see problems in World Vision even before their recent waffling.

Postscript: As an example of how modernism continued to haunt some confessional Protestants, here’s a quotation from E. J. Young’s December 6, 1955 letter to Carl Henry in which he declined serving on the editorial board of Christianity Today:

As you well know, Carl, there was in the Presbyterian Church a great controversy over modernism. That controversy was carried on by Dr. Machen in part. There were many who supported Dr. Machen in his opposition to unbelief. On the other hand there were many who did not support him. When matters came to a showdown and Dr. Machen was put from the church there were those who decided it would be better to remain within and to fight from within. . . . Since that time I have watched eagerly to see what would be done by those who remained in the church. They have done absolutely nothing. Not one voice has been raised so far as I know to get the church to acknowledge its error in 1936 and to invite back into its fold those who felt constrained to leave, or those who were put out of the church. . . . What has greatly troubled me has been the complete silence of the ministers in the church. They simply have not lived up to their ordination vows.

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Why Do You Need to be A Christian to Feed the Hungry?

The flip-flop of World Vision on gay marriage has attracted lots and lots of comments but no one seems to be asking a couple of important questions. That’s why we have confessional Reformed Protestantism.

1) As the title here suggests, why is it necessary for Christians to dispense aid to the poor and hungry through a Christian organization? World Vision says, for instance:

We provide emergency assistance to children and families affected by natural disasters and civil conflict, work with communities to develop long-term solutions to alleviate poverty, and advocate for justice on behalf of the poor.

And

Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.

That second part of their mission statement obviously raises lots of questions about WV’s original decision to accept gay marriage. But does it make a difference whether the poor and hungry receive aid from a Christian or a non-Christian, a homosexual or a heterosexual? Is the aid any different? And very much related, haven’t we been here before? Evangelicals were responsible for the original social gospel, called the Benevolent Empire associated with the Second Pretty Good Awakening. Eventually, the concern to eliminate poverty and inequality spawned theological liberalism and moral evasiveness. Did anyone really think that World Vision was pursuing humanitarian efforts (which are laudable) in a conservative Protestant way? If you look at the leadership pages for WV, no church is mentioned. Rich Stearns himself leaves church membership out of his “story.” Since membership in mainline (read liberal) Protestant churches is common at evangelical liberal arts colleges, WV would surprise me if they self-consciously steered staff and officers away from non-evangelical churches where humanitarianism did trump orthodoxy and biblical ethics.

Which leads to the second question:

2) Why haven’t the critics of WV brought up the ecclesiological question? It is similar to a point that Patrick Deneen just made about the significance of the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, namely, that social/religious conservatives often miss the forest of institutions and structures for the trees of specific moral convictions:

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction.

The same goes for WV. The fund-raising world and structure of oversight in which WV operates is also abstracted or disembedded — in this case not from mom and pop businesses but from pastor-and-elder churches. Its model is like the parachurch more generally (and the New Calvinists since we’re obsessed right now) 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.

And that may explain why WV’s leadership could think about gay marriage the way they did. If church officers oversaw them, they would not have to flip in response to public pressure. But if that were the case, if WV were overseen by the church, it would likely not exist. That’s because churches have diaconal agencies — either locally or denominationally — and because church officers might likely conclude that this work is something that any number of state and non-state organizations already perform.