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"I don't want to predict the reaction we will get," he said. "I think we've got a very persuasive series of reasons for why we're doing this, and it's my hope that all of our donors and partners will understand it, and will agree with our exhortation to unite around what unites us. But we do know this is an emotional issue in the American church. I'm hoping not to lose supporters over the change. We're hoping that they understand that what we've done is focused on church unity and our mission."

And Stearns believes that World Vision can successfully remain neutral on same-sex marriage.

"I think you have to be neutral on hundreds of doctrinal issues that could divide an organization like World Vision," he said. "One example: divorce and remarriage. Churches have different opinions on this. We've chosen not to make that a condition of employment at World Vision. If we were not deferring to local churches, we would have a long litmus test [for employees]. What do you believe about evolution? Have you been divorced and remarried? What is your opinion on women in leadership? Were you dunked or sprinkled? And at the end of the interview, how many candidates would still be standing?

"It is not our role to take a position on all these issues and make these issues a condition of employment."

Stearns said he doesn't expect any outcry among World Vision's 100 country affiliates, since World Vision International allows each country to set its own hiring policies appropriate to its local legal context. Even in Uganda, where a high-profile new law criminalizing gays and lesbians has been opposed by World Vision Uganda, it stated: "The issue of same-sex relationships will neither prevent us from serving children, families and communities around the world, nor obstruct our collaboration with one another and with our partner organizations."

The policy change will also not affect World Vision's partnership with ministries that maintain current faith-based bans on same-sex behavior. "This is a very narrow policy change. It's strictly about whether this issue should be a condition of employment at World Vision."

How would Stearns respond to critics who bemoan the decision as yet another Christian organization caving before the advancing gay rights movement?

"We're not trying to do anything that's symbolic for the rest of the church," he said. "But if we're making a statement at all, I hope it's a statement about unity.

"I hope it's a statement that says when Christ left, he gave us the Great Commission [to make disciples] and the Great Commandment [to love others as ourselves], and we're trying to do just that," said Stearns. "Bridging the differences we have, and coming together in our unity."

Stearns has even written books on this subject. "In some manner we haven't finished Christ's mission for the church because we've been divided and distracted by too many other things," he said. "We've got to find our way to unity beyond diversity in the Christian church.

"I know the Evil One would like nothing better than for World Vision to be hobbled and divided on this issue, so that we lose our focus on the Great Commandment and the Great Commission," said Stearns. "And the board is determined not to let that happen.

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