And the change has been painful to watch. "It's been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church," he said. "It's tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We've got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity."
Highlighting the church/parachurch distinction: Board member and pastor John Crosby, who served as interim leader when a number of churches split off from the Presbyterian Church (USA) after the denomination dropped a celibacy requirement for gay clergy in 2011. At a conference that laid the foundation of the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the Minnesota megachurch pastor stated, "We have tried to create such a big tent trying to make everybody happy theologically. I fear the tent has collapsed without a center."
However, as a World Vision board member, Crosby didn't have a problem voting for the policy change. "It's a matter of trying to decide what the core mission of the organization is," he said.
Crosby, who leads Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minnesota, told CT that the decision was about making sure that World Vision is focusing on its mission to eliminate poverty worldwide. World Vision stretches across countless cultural and theological divides in a hundred countries, and so the issue of theology and how to interpret Scripture should be left to the local church, he said.
"Many of us support World Vision specifically because of its Christian identity. While there are many other good relief organizations, it's the faith component of World Vision that makes it distinctive for us," said Crosby. "[But] how can we represent ourselves as a Christian organization in such a diverse world? That's what we're trying to work through on a daily basis."
Board member and seminary professor Soong-Chan Rah told CT the decision to leave theology to others "honors the church as a whole." "It is not a statement in a particular direction, but it is trying to acknowledge the proper relationship between the church and the parachurch," he said. "If there is something we can learn from [this], it is the value of having conversations and commitment to prayer, over not just this particular issue but all controversial issues that divide the church."
Stearns was adamant the change will not impact World Vision's identity or work in the field. "World Vision is committed to our Christian identity. We are absolutely resolute about every employee being followers of Jesus Christ. We are not wavering on that," he said.
"This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture," said Stearns. "People can say, 'Scripture is very clear on this issue,' and my answer is, 'Well ask all the theologians and denominations that disagree with that statement.' The church is divided on this issue. And we are not the local church. We are an operational organization uniting Christians around a common mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ."
In recent years, World Vision and other evangelical organizations that partner with Uncle Sam to deliver humanitarian aid overseas voiced concern over USAID attempts to "strongly encourage" all contractors to develop anti-discrimination policies covering sexual orientation or risk losing federal funding.