[Updated 10:45 a.m. Thursday with additional reactions.]
Only two days after announcing it would hire Christians in same-sex marriages, World Vision U.S. has reversed its ground-breaking decision after weathering intense criticism from evangelical leaders.
"The last couple of days have been painful," president Richard Stearns told reporters this evening. "We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision's commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be."
"Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent," said Stearns. "Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity … and we're asking you to forgive us for that mistake."
"We listened to [our] friends, we listened to their counsel. They tried to point out in loving ways that the conduct policy change was simply not consistent … with the authority of Scripture and how we apply Scripture to our lives," said Stearns. "We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders."
"What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs," said Stearns. "We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position."
"Yes, we will certainly defer on many issues that are not so central to our understanding of the Christian faith," he said. "But on the authority of Scripture in our organization's work [and employee conduct] ... and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs. We cannot defer on things that are that central to the faith."
Stearns expects the board to continue to deal with questions about employment and same-sex relationships. "I think every Christian organization will continue to deal with this sensitive issue," he said. "The board will continue to talk about this issue for many board meetings to come. ... We need to have a process to do further and wider consultation with key Christian leaders around the country, and we will be discussing how that can happen."
Today's letter explaining the reversal was overwhelmingly approved by the board, Stearns said [corrected]. The letter is posted in full below. [Editor's note: All references to "World Vision" refer to its U.S. branch only, not its international umbrella organization.]
The initial decision faced heavy backlash from the evangelical community—including Al Mohler, Russell Moore, John Piper, and Franklin Graham—with few voicing open support for the decision. The day after the initial policy change was made, the Assemblies of God, one of America's largest and fastest-growing denominations, urged its members to consider dropping their financial support from World Vision and instead "gradually shifting" it to "Pentecostal and evangelical charities that maintain biblical standards of sexual morality."
"The U.S. branch of World Vision has placed Pentecostal and evangelical churches in a difficult position," said George O. Wood, general superintendent of the 3-million-member AG, before the reversal. "On the one hand, we applaud the work they do among the poor in America and around the world, and many churches have supported that work financially for some time. On the other hand, World Vision's policy change now puts them at odds with our beliefs regarding sexual morality."
On Wednesday night, Wood encouraged "Pentecostals and evangelicals who hastily canceled their sponsorship of children in World Vision programs to immediately reinstate that support in order to ensure continuity of care for the poor children whom Christ loves."
Stearns acknowledged Wednesday [March 26] that "a number" of child sponsors canceled their sponsorship in the past 48 hours in protest of the change to World Vision's conduct policy.
"That grieves us, because the children we serve will suffer because of that," he told reporters. "But our choice is not about money or income. It's a sincere desire for us to do the right thing. To be consistent with our core values, and to respond to the legitimate feedback and counsel we have received from supporters and friends of World Vision."
World Vision had hoped to take what it described as a neutral position in the gay marriage debate by deferring it to the local church. The changed policy still required singles to remain abstinent and married couples to maintain fidelity, but no longer limited marriage to heterosexuals.
"They were not taking a position supporting same-sex marriage or homosexuality," said Tim Dearborn, director of Fuller Seminary's Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching, who previously oversaw how World Vision's Christian commitments were implemented across its international partners. Instead, he said World Vision, which has a "deep commitment to live and serve in ways that are consistent with Scripture," was attempting to do three things.
"First, to focus on the aspects of the biblical mandate that are non-negotiable: caring for the poor, victims of injustice, and especially children," said Dearborn. "Second, to contribute to the unity of the church around those things, at a time when the church is fractured. And third, to contribute as a result of that to the credibility of the gospel and the church in the eyes of American society."