World Vision, Gay Marriage, and the Queer Calling of Serving the Poor

World Vision, a leading international development charity known for its child sponsorship program, created a fire in the blogosphere by announcing (and then retracting) a decision that gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages would be eligible for employment at the charity. In the 72 hours of the news cycle thus far, we’ve seen a lot of opinions expressed: some writers praised World Vision’s initial move as a radical acceptance of gay marriage. Others decried the decision as caving to worldly pressures. Still, others began calling upon progressive Christians to support the charity financially as conservative Christians dropped their child sponsorship commitments. Yet another group encouraged conservative Christians to sponsor children with more theologically orthodox charities. Then, when the decision was reversed, people on both sides of the debate became disgruntled.

The two of us here at A Queer Calling see another perspective on the events of the past three days, and we haven’t seen this discussed much yet: we believe that each Christian tradition has an obligation to define marriage and guide members of that specific tradition to Christ-honoring ways of life. All Christian traditions and organizations should recognize that people are people, create in God’s image and likeness. And lastly, service to the poor is its own kind of queer calling.

Christianity Today interviewed Richard Stearns, the director of World Vision, after the initial decision to allow hiring of staff members in legal same-sex marriages and reported:

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.

Let’s be clear about something: World Vision is not a church, and it hires Christians from a wide range of traditions. We don’t know for sure the variety of denominations represented by World Vision’s staff members, but theoretically, there could be members of the United Church of Christ working alongside members of the Roman Catholic Church. When you insert multiple Christian traditions into the mix, it’s not terribly hard to see that there are many points of theological disagreement. These different traditions have come to varying conclusions about the acceptability of same-sex marriage, but also have markedly different views on virtually everything that could be used to define a Christian tradition: sacramental theology, worship practice, Christology, views on authority, church organization, salvation, you name it. World Vision has kept a practice of bridging these differences by asking job seekers to affirm the Apostles’ Creed or World Vision’s Trinitarian Statement of Faith and to agree to a Christian conduct policy.

In reversing their decision, Richard Stearns published an open letter in which he wrote the following:

We are writing to you our trusted partners and Christian leaders who have come to us in the spirit of Matthew 18 to express your concern in love and conviction. You share our desire to come together in the Body of Christ around our mission to serve the poorest of the poor. We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness.

In our board’s effort to unite around the church’s shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners. As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.

Such is the work of today’s American “orthodoxy.” Divisions in faith and practice can be myriad. Many American Christians shop around for various churches, visiting congregations attached to different Christian traditions and looking for the magical mix that spurs them to consider one particular local church “home.” For many Christians, especially those in evangelical traditions, diversity of belief and practice amongst different denominations and local congregations is viewed as acceptable when it comes to a wide range of issues. Yet, the instant questions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage enter the fray, the loosely organized conservative Evangelical Church appears to fight the good fight in the name of defending the faith, the authority of the Scriptures, the rightness of one particular biblical interpretation, and the cause of Christian unity. It’s no wonder that gay Christians feel frustrated, angry, and hurt when our lives (or people’s assumptions about our lives) become the deal-breaking factor many straight Christians consider when deciding to support (or cease supporting) charitable organizations.

Since World Vision made its initial decision (and even more since the reversal), people have been asking us our opinion on this whole messy situation. Some have assumed incorrectly  that because we are a celibate couple, we were glad to see World Vision’s retraction and apology. Not so. We tend to advocate for the freedom of Christian traditions to define marriage in accordance with their own theologies and guide people within those traditions to Christ-honoring lives. This doesn’t mean we agree with all possible Christian theologies of marriage and sexuality, but it does mean that we respect the autonomy of each church/denomination to make its own decisions on these matters. There are many Christians who, within the contexts of their own traditions, have reached different conclusions on sexual ethics than we have. We don’t see it as our job to impose our own theology of marriage and sexuality upon other people, and we don’t see such as the job of nondenominational Christian charities either. Again, World Vision employs people from many denominations, presumably some that affirm same-sex marriage, and is not a church. 

Now that World Vision has reversed its decision, we wonder how the organization might react to a job candidate who is not in a same-sex marriage, but a civil union or domestic partnership. Call us pessimists here, but we’re not too confident that the terminology used would make any difference. One could make an argument that these other types of arrangements are neither scriptural nor unscriptural–that they are legal relationships having nothing to do with how religious terms are defined. One could make a similar argument about “legal marriage” in contrast to “religious marriage.” But somehow we doubt that most of the donors who pulled their sponsorships of children would be any more amiable toward the idea of LGBT people in civil unions, domestic partnerships, or even as singles working for an organization like World Vision.

In the worldview of many Christians, it is totally acceptable to make a number of assumptions about a person’s sexual ethic, way of life, faithfulness, and so on if that person is LGBT. That a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (or any combination thereof) couple has acquired some form of legally recognized relationship says nothing about that couple’s sexual ethic or religious understanding of marriage. Since so many of the basic rights tied to caring for another person are granted only with a government-recognized marriage, it’s entirely possible that a couple in our own situation might find state-sanctioned marriage the only means of protecting each other legally. But regardless of a couple’s (or a single person’s) situation or convictions, it’s difficult for us to see how hiring a person for work that involves service to the poor necessarily implies endorsement of that person’s sexual ethic or theology of marriage. We’ve read a couple of arguments that World Vision’s retraction was a move to protect marriage/a Christian sexual ethic and not an attempt to keep LGBT people in general out of employment in Christian charitable organizations…but to us, that seems to be wishful thinking. How many of the donors that pulled support from World Vision still would have done so if the original announcement had been about acceptance of LGBT people rather than willingness to hire married LGBT people? We’ll never know the answer to this, but we remain highly skeptical of the claim that this controversy has only to do with gay marriage.

In our estimation, service to the poor is its own kind of a queer calling. With so many social messages that happiness, fulfillment, and a life well-lived come from acquiring many assets, opting out of the materialistic rat race is surely countercultural. Individuals who take on this work forgo many benefits assumed with employment in other positions, and usually people interested in faith-based international development jobs are willing to move every few years to advance different projects around the world. Often, workers–irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status–make radical commitments to serving others at the expense of their own comfort and wellbeing. There is a reason Christians of all sexual orientations and gender identities are committed to establishing a preferential option for the poor: the Gospel compels us to care for the least of these. World Vision has consistently displayed a commitment to enter communities that would most benefit from their services, including those significantly affected by AIDS. World Vision sees these people as people and fights for the chance to serve them. It seems a bit ironic that an organization so committed to seeing Christ in the global poor has offered such a mixed message on the inclusion of LGBT Christians in its work.

As we have read the developing story, we’ve been stricken by how easy it can be to overlook the lives of real people in favor of combatting an ideology one might perceive as threatening–and in most situations, that goes equally for liberals and conservatives. We’ve read a number of posts in the blogosphere that suggest the decision for faith-based charities to hire people in same-sex marriages would endanger a broader Christian theology of marriage. We’ve read others that claim World Vision’s reversal is unchristian because it shows compassion for the poor (at least in terms of wooing donors back) at the expense of the LGBT community. While we aren’t going to pick an argument with those who hold these positions, we will say that we find it troubling how often Christians fail to see people as creations beloved by God rather than “enemies” or “allies.” We are grieved for the thousands of children who lost sponsors as a result of reactions to World Vision’s original announcement, the unknown number of LGBT Christians denied the opportunity to serve Christ by serving the poor via World Vision or similar charities, and a worldwide Church that is in such desperate need of peace and healing.

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4 thoughts on “World Vision, Gay Marriage, and the Queer Calling of Serving the Poor

  1. Very eloquently and calmly said.

    It saddens me that some seem to see opposition to, or at least dislike of, LGBT people as a badge of orthodoxy. As you say, we disagree on so much and manage to work together, so it’s sad this seems to be a deal-breaker for many. My experience is that it’s very painful trying to love people who refuse to see me as a brother in Christ simply because I’m transgendered. However, ‘love your neighbour as yourself doesn’t come with a get-out clause, I guess.

    • Hi Karl. Thanks for the comment. We agree with what you shared, and the feeling excluded as members of the Body of Christ because of sexual orientation and gender identity resonates with us strongly.

    • We do not believe it is okay for any Christian church to exclude certain people from membership or participation in the life of the congregation. Excluding people from the Body of Christ is not a Christian practice. We regard it as a church’s role to guide people toward Christ-honoring ways of life within the context of that tradition. As we said in the post, churches will have different ideas about exactly what that means. Regardless, we do not advocate for any Christian denomination to adopt or continue in the practice of dismissing LGBT people rather than listening to their stories and learning about their faith journeys and experiences.

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