April 3, 2014

4 lessons in World Vision’s Flawed Vision

by Jesse Johnson

Last weeks gay-marriage flop-flip with World Vision did not come out of left field. (Monday they announced that a monogamous homosexual relationship was in-step with Christian faithfulness, and on Wednesday they said ‘ummm…nevermind; sorry about that’).  But this was a schisim that was a long time coming, and illustrates a profound danger inherent in mercy ministries that are not built upon a theological foundation.

It was about a year ago when Richard Stearns, the World Vision president,  spoke at Q. There he urged the attendees to stop engaging in cultural battles, and in context the taboo issues were abortion and gay marriage. In fact, he said younger Christians “need to stop shaking their fist at the culture” and then later, “no one ever died from gay marriage…they die from poverty.” The implication being that what really matters is not one’s doctrine of marriage (or of life, or of Scripture), but one’s track record with the poor.

Stearns has justified this triage view of Scripture by saying that World Vision is “not the theological arm of the church.” That reminds me of Richard Baxter’s response to someone who told him he should teach practical theology: “Is there any other kind?”

Dramatic Irony in a book title! Impressive.

Dramatic Irony in a book title! Impressive.

But before last week’s announcement, and even before last year’s Q, the writing was on the wall—or more particularly, in a book. Stearn’s theology is best described in his book The Hole in Our Gospel, which presents a fairly shallow view of the Christian’s call to minister to the poor of the world, and that shallowness is compounded by his understanding of the Kingdom of God (Kevin DeYoung has an excellent review of the book here). It represents an approach to theology that makes confusion over basics (like marriage) almost a given.

Stearns writes:

“Christ’s proclamation of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ was a call for a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people—now. In other words, the perfect Kingdom of God…was to begin on earth” (Hole in Our Gospel, 16).

That statement later gives way to this one: “Jesus’ mission was proclamation of good news, compassion for the sick and sorrowful, commitment to justice.” Then, without explaining what is meant by saying Jesus’ mission was a commitment to justice, he adds that evangelism includes “efforts to right the wrongs that are so prevalent in our world.”

Stearns secession of thought in his book is evidence that a failure to grapple with the nuances of mercy ministry ultimately ends up corrupting evangelism—and all of that comes from a flippant view of theology to begin with.

Because Stearns thinks that every Christian has the obligation to advance justice in such a way that brings about the kingdom of God, but doesn’t ever really define “justice,” he makes the purpose of Christianity ambiguous. It is up to influential leaders (like himself) to say what justice is and what it isn’t. When you couple that with the same leaders confessing that they are not particularly interested in the theology of the thing, it is little wonder that it gets jerked back and forth on some pretty basic biblical issues.

The bottom line: World Vision’s ship had been left to drift in the culture, without being tethered to any substantial theology. The result is that it has been carried straight into the whirlpool of the homosexual agenda, and it remains to be seen if it is even possible to escape.

There are some lessons in this for us:

First: as far as religious organizations go, a lack of theology will always turn out to be deadly. This is why Paul commands us to “keep close watch on your life and your doctrine”—the two are inseparable (1 Tim 4:16).

You can measure an organization by what they stand for, and by how carefully that stand for it. If an organization builds itself on an atheological foundation, and it is only a matter of time before it is fully exposed. Ministries that mock theology end up stuck in bad theology. Mercy ministry has to be carefully done, and theologically explained (as John Piper has said, the least we owe the poor is that our mercy ministry is built with strong theological pillars).

This is a hobby horse of mine, but the main lesson of this is that usually organizations that focus on mercy ministry apart from the local church end up harming the local church. Ministries that down play evangelism end up harming evangelism (cf. Acts 6:2).

Second: What you think about the kingdom of God matters. It you think that the point of giving/evangelism/church is to advance God’s kingdom by supporting “justice,” then you likely will end up having your money going toward some kingdom-building justice project that is neither advancing the kingdom or the gospel. I don’t mean to sound harsh toward World Vision—after all, they did try to walk back their announcement last week. But the marks of indifference towards theology were there before last week. If you are in the kingdom building business, you had better have your understanding of “kingdom” clearly defined. And frankly, the phrase “advancing justice” does not do it justice (cf. Acts 8:12, 20:25, 28:23).

Third: Those that lead organizations need to be clear in their statement of faith on the issue of marriage. I am thankful that Stearns and his board reversed their decision, but also can’t help but marvel at the nature of that reversal. Their original announcement showed such a lack of understanding about the Bible’s view of marriage, and their reversal doesn’t exactly argue for the scriptural view of marriage either.

I’m glad they reversed course…but also wonder what led them down that road to begin with. This was an organization that won a protracted legal battle over the right to hire according to their own statement of faith. If even they can get trapped in the current cultural arguments, than anyone can.

Fourth: The homosexual agenda continues to advance, and Christians really ought to come to terms with the fact that it is only a matter of time when our view of marriage will be plainly illegal. As has been said elsewhere, as that agenda moves forward in our country at breakneck speed, ambivalence is not an option; you will be made to care. As World Vision’s recent announcements illustrates, it will soon not be practically possible to simply love others and preach the gospel, without having a clear explanation about what the Bible says about homosexuality.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • To his earlier thought, though, is it possible we have a misfocused agenda against those two token issues: gays and abortion? Much as I love Al Mohler, for instance, every day when I check his Briefing updates I think to myself, “wonder what the gays are up to today?”

    Personally I’d like to see more pastors address more pressing matters like hetero marriage, the permanence of it, and the sins of oversimplified divorce/remarriage in the church, or the other side of abortion being the seeming lack of interest in adoption in the church for the sake of convenience and materialism.

    • “lack of interest in adoption in the church”
      I’m not sure what church you go to, but that is not my experience.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      “To his earlier thought, though, is it possible we have a misfocused agenda against those two token issues: gays and abortion?”

      Neither token, nor misfocused. Loving God, loving people, loving God’s Word, and loving the Great Commission leads speaking up for unborn life and Biblical marriage.

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  • Francis

    “Monday they announced that a monogamous homosexual relationship was in-step with Christian faithfulness, and on Wednesday they said ‘ummm…nevermind; sorry about that’)”

    I read their statements, that is not what they said. They did not say it was in-step with Christian faithfulness, but made this policy change in an attempt for Christian unity and allow churches to work this issue out.

    I did not agree with their original decision to hire openly gay staff, and I believe the reasoning they gave did not hold up to logic or scripture. But they did not say it was in-step with Christian faithfulness, and we should be careful to reflect their argument correctly, especially for fellow believers in Christ who do so much good.

    Perhaps that was the message percieved from their actions, but World Vision never said that.

    -Francis (Christian charity staff)

    • Darrell Post

      They did say they wanted to change the policy in an attempt for Christian unity, but unity around what? The truth? I cannot image they would have meant they wanted unity around error. So if they wanted unity around the truth, then it’s logical to conclude that they viewed such relationships as in-step with Christian faithfulness, i.e., the truth.

    • Their organizational by-laws and HR manual say that staff has to be a faithful evangelical, including abstaining from sexual immorality. That is the paragraph they were going to amend, in order to say that as long as you are in a monogamous homosexual relationship, you can in fact be employed by them (implication: be a faithful evangelical).

  • Reagan

    I’m glad you wrote this. Thank you.

    I read A Hole in our Gospel when it came out and noted with frustration Stearns’ confusion over the gospel. I am more alarmed that conservative Christians didn’t see this coming than I was at the original announcement of WV’s decision. And now that WV has back-peddled, it’s amazing to see the readiness of so many Christians to extend trust to them again.

    I hope for the best for WV and would love to see them turn around. But this is a train that jumped the tracks a long time ago. I remember asking my Mom years ago about her opinion on WV and Compassion Int’l and she told me that it has always been her understanding that WV was “less Christian”. I mean, If their head honcho can’t get the gospel straight, why should we trust that they are preaching the gospel accurately to the children we support? There are better alternatives.

    I like what you said about theology and our view of the Kingdom mattering. One thing I’ve been coming to realize is how much ones theology, specifically eschatology, a field I used to write off as unimportant, actually informs how one views the entire purpose of the Church and the gospel.

    Thanks again for your excellent articles.

  • Brad

    “[Religious] organizations that focus on mercy ministry apart from the local church end up harming the local church. Ministries that down play evangelism end up harming evangelism.”

    Does this mean that Christians involved in “mercy ministry” should do so either through a secular organization or the local church?

    • Great question Brad, and I think I’ll write on that next week. Short answer: there are some mercy ministry organizations that work through the local church. That seems to be the NT model. I encourage believers to meet physical needs through their local church, and encourage church elders to meet needs of others according to the wisdom of the local churches in needy areas. This question deserves a longer answer though.

      • Brad

        Looking forward to your longer answer!

  • Ray Adams

    Thanks for faithful and helpful analysis of what has and is happening.

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  • Louise

    What lessons will the 10,000 kids who lost sponsors since the WV announcement learn through this? Matthew Paul Turner tweeted that number yesterday after a phone call with Rich Stearns. What of them?

    • Well, that shows a profound misunderstanding about how world vision works. The child sponsorship thing is more or less a marketing issue. You get a folder with a child, you send money, the money is pooled (along with gov. money, which is the majority of their income, btw), and then transferred to field offices, who acquire/distribute the food. So its not as if a drop in a giver directly affects that particular child–that would be an impossible level of accounting.
      But more to your point, next week I’ll write about a better way of doing mercy ministry that avoids this problem all together.

      • Louise

        Sounds like you are talking down to me, my husband and I sponsor two children one through WV and one through Compassion. What of all the sponsor cards and letters of encouragement that will no longer come to these children that have names and faces. Ours are Ziada and Dayana. No big deal I suppose.

        • Why would you say its no big deal? It is what you make it. Would World Vision let you send them cards and encouragement directly? Why would that have to stop? And I didn’t’ say anyone should stop sending money to WV did I? Did I suggest stop sending them money, or was that someone else on this thread (serious question)?
          More to the point, obviously WV’s decision was made with economics in mind (their biggest donors are governments). But equally obvious is that they did not adequately understand how this would hit their donor base–once they realized that, they reversed course pretty quickly. Finally, IF (and I say IF) someone did stop giving b/c they didn’t want to give to an organization that advances SSM, whose fault is that? The donor? Or WV for using your $30 a month as leverage to make a political point?

      • Melissa C.

        Actually, I think your comment shows a profound amount of spin. Whether or not my $30/month is specifically being used for my child (Efrain), it’s still $30 a month that goes to WV. If 10,000 people pull that funding, that is $300,000 per month or $3.6 million annually in lost revenue. That is a LOT of money!

        So, while yes, it IS true that WV isn’t saying “sorry _____, no more clean water for you – your sponsor quit!” while taking care of other kids in their community, losing $300,000 PER MONTH absolutely limits how many people they can serve. To say that isn’t the case is nothing short of crazy.

        • Which makes their decision to announce that change all the more cavalier, right? I see two options. A: they didn’t really understand that what they were proposing would offend a large number of their donors. B. They did know that, but thought that the amount they would pick up from the US gov. would make up for that. Either way, when people pulled their money, they reversed their course. To blame this on the people who did pull their donations (assuming that is accurate) is surreal. WV made the change, not the donor.
          But I will write more about this next week.

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