[Update: Added comments from board members and Russell Moore.]
World Vision's American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.
Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America's largest Christian charities.
In an exclusive interview, World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns explained to Christianity Today the rationale behind changing this "condition of employment," whether financial or legal pressures were involved, and whether other Christian organizations with faith-based hiring rules should follow World Vision's lead.
Stearns asserts that the "very narrow policy change" should be viewed by others as "symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity." He even hopes it will inspire unity elsewhere among Christians.
[Editor's note: All subsequent references to "World Vision" refer to its U.S. branch only, not its international umbrella organization.]
In short, World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently "tearing churches apart" over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.
Given that more churches and states are now permitting same-sex marriages (including World Vision's home state of Washington), the issue will join divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors among the theological issues that the massive relief and development organization sits out on the sidelines.
World Vision's board was not unanimous, acknowledged Stearns, but was "overwhelmingly in favor" of the change.
"Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues," he said. "It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage."
Stearns took pains to emphasize what World Vision is not communicating by the policy change.
"It's easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there," he said. "This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support."
"We're not caving to some kind of pressure. We're not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us," said Stearns. "This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We're an operational arm of the global church, we're not a theological arm of the church.
"This is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S. based on this single issue, and nothing more."
Yet the decision is still likely to be regarded as noteworthy by other evangelical ministries. Aside from World Vision's influential size—it took in more than a billion dollars in revenue last year, serves an estimated 100 million people in 100 countries, and ranks among America's top 10 charities overall—World Vision also recently fought for the right of Christian organizations to hire and fire based on faith statements all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and won. It also opposed a 2012 attempt by USAID to "strongly encourage" faith-based contractors to stop discriminating against gays and lesbians in order to receive federal funds.
In other words, other Christian organizations look to World Vision for leadership on defending faith hiring practices. Stearns acknowledges this, but wants observers to understand why World Vision is voluntarily changing its own policy.
Stearns said World Vision has never asked about sexual orientation when interviewing job candidates. Instead, the organization screens employees for their Christian faith, asking if they can affirm the Apostles' Creed or World Vision's Trinitarian statement of faith.
Yet World Vision has long had a Christian conduct policy for employees that "holds a very high bar for all manner of conduct," said Stearns. Regarding sexuality activity, World Vision has required abstinence for all single employees, and fidelity for all married employees.
However, 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.)
Stearns said World Vision's board has faced a new question in recent years: "What do we do about someone who applies for a job at World Vision who is in a legal same-sex marriage that may have been sanctioned and performed by their church? Do we deny them employment?
"Under our old conduct policy, that would have been a violation," said Stearns. "The new policy will not exclude someone from employment if they are in a legal same-sex marriage."
Stearns said the new policy reflects World Vision's parachurch and multi-denominational nature.
"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."