Readers may recall the World Vision flap from last month. One day the evangelical charity announced that it was changing its employment practices, to permit persons in same-sex relationships to work for it as long as they were “married” under some legal jurisdiction, and with all the usual privileges and benefits of marriage that pertain to their employment with the organization. The ensuing hue and cry from evangelical supporters, however, caused the organization to reverse course in just a couple of days, rescind its change in policy, and reaffirm that it adhered to the historic norms of the Christian faith as an employer. The bruising WV took from the many Christians who support it, morally and (no doubt most importantly) financially, was enough to cause its leaders to come to their senses.
Readers will also notice that in my description above, I do not pretend to be neutral about the choice World Visision had before it, and about how ill-considered I think its initial decision was. In my view, the Christian identity of World Vision was at stake; it chose to compromise that identity, in a way that could have been fatal to it; and it reversed course when this was pointed out, lovingly but sternly by other Christians, to the folks in charge.
Naturally there are people upset not by the initial decision to change World Vision’s employment policy, but by the reversal of that decision. They are equally certain that the organization began to do the right thing, and then regrettably backtracked. “We rejoiced in the initial announcement, and we grieve the reversal,” say the scores of signers of “A Response to the World Vision LGBT Decision,” a letter drafted by a faculty member at Whitworth University, a Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college.
So why does this letter pretend a kind of neutrality? This is incoherent:
There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued. Many of these Christians believe that the present struggle for gay civil rights is very similar to the courageous civil rights struggles of other persecuted minority groups throughout American history.
There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.
Clearly there are disagreements, but disagreement does not have to compromise our work as Christians. Christians have worked together across their differences on a wide variety of issues, and they should continue to do so when a mission transcending narrow doctrinal matters is at stake.
Does World Vision assign goons to follow its employees around and see if they are sinning during their off hours? Has it otherwise devoted itself to policing their private lives? I doubt it. Right now it seems to have the best kind of live-and-let-live practices.
But changing its employment policies to contradict the entire Christian tradition’s understanding of sin and obedience, vice and virtue where human sexuality is concerned would not be, as the letter’s writers and signers seem to imagine, an embrace of an “agree to disagree” accommodation between Christians who differ on “narrow doctrinal matters.” Such a change would be a capitulation by one side, and a victory by the other, on a question that goes to the heart of what it means to be a Christian organization. World Vision got the message loud and clear from many supporters that they would no longer consider it a Christian organization if it really undertook this capitulation.
The signers of the Whitworth “Response” claim with equal claritywhen they want to be clearthat the Christian thing to do would be toss out the Great Tradition wherever it rests on “a few passages in the Bible” that “have been historically misconstrued.” So again, why do they pretend that a victory for their principle, and a defeat for their adversaries’ principle that they revile, is a sweetly reasonable coming-together-across-differences?
In a conversation over breakfast this morning, a friend said to me that the modern liberal identifies strong religious views, perhaps strong moral views of any kind, as threatening. The “solution” is relativism, he saidthe decision against all decisions. Right, I said, but as this episode shows, the relativism is never for real, it’s just a whistle stop on the way to the imposition of a new set of strong views, invariably involving the breaking of old moral norms and the creation of new ones even more strongly enforced (just ask Brandon Eich).
And if incoherent thinking is necessary to get things done, why, so be it. Rarely has the whistle stop gone whizzing by so fast as in this letter. I am only sorry to see that among the signers is Nicholas Wolterstorff, a scholar I’ve met and admired, and who I thought was too smart to sign a statement that cannot be understood as anything other than stupid or disingenuous.