Poor Vision

April 08, 2014

Recently the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision sparked controversy on the issue of homosexuality. The U.S. branch of World Vision announced they would drop their ban on the hiring of individuals legally in a same-sex marriage (but keep their expectation that all employees remain faithful within the confines of marriage). Controversy quickly erupted and less than forty-eight hours later the group reversed its policy change. Regardless what one think of the issue of same-sex marriage, the rhetoric that emerged during that two-day period shows serious problems among the evangelical community. Once the announcement came out, top conservative evangelical leaders appeared to be in a race to condemn the decision first. I have resisted this shoot first, think later approach by reflecting and waiting to sound off after most have moved on to another topic. I remain deeply troubled by the tone and words used to criticize World Vision, but I was not surprised (although apparently World Vision leaders did not see the harsh opposition coming, which surprises me). I am stunned by the news that the initial decision resulted in 10,000 child sponsorships being cancelled, which at $35 each is quite a lot of money being pulled from helping children overcome poverty. And therein lies the rub: thousands of people are so opposed to the hiring of homosexuals that they decided to not minister to children.

The rhetoric that emerged criticizing World Vision's initial decision framed this debate in terms of "gospel." Using the word this way moved the definition to be about opposing gays. Consider, for instance, the comments by Southern Baptist politico Russell Moore that he issued just moments after the initial decision. He called his piece "On World Vision and the Gospel" and wrote:
At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ. ... We’re entering an era where we will see who the evangelicals really are, and by that I mean those who believe in the gospel itself, in all of its truth and all of its grace. And many will shrink back.
For Moore, the gospel can apparently be boiled down to one's position on same-sex marriage, and he implies that those who support same-sex marriage are on the devil's side. That does not quite sound like my Vacation Bible School memories of John 3:16. Yet, many other conservative critics also claimed this was an issue all about the gospel with some (like evangelist Franklin Graham) claiming that World Vision's leaders do not believe in the Bible or practice true Christianity.

There is one big problem with the gospel argument made by the critics of World Vision's initial decision: the Bible never frames it that way. In fact, scriptures instead tell us that the essential gospel truth of whether one is truly living out the Christian faith is how one treats ... orphans. Here is the Cotton Patch Gospel version of James 1:27 reads:
The religion which God the Father considers pure and clean is to look after helpless orphans and widows and to keep one's self free from the taint of materialism.
That verse stands in stark contrast to the 10,000 dropped sponsorships. This does not mean one has to approve of same-sex marriage or agree with World Vision's initial policy change (which they emphasized was not an affirmation of homosexuality but merely a hiring change). But it does mean we cannot pretend the issue is the heart of the gospel. The misappropriation of the word "gospel" in the midst of the World Vision controversy and the harsh rhetoric makes it seem that we have our priorities really out of whack. By protesting anything gay and ignoring the rest of the world, we too often just come across like Fred Phelps with a smile.