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?”
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.
“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.