Thursday, 27 March 2014

World Vision - Only a Brief Respite

Until recently, evangelical Christians who affirmed the traditional, conservative Church's position on homosexuality have, honestly, had it easy. The Christians who were more approving of homosexuality were liberal protestants, often nominal believers anyhow, with a lower view of Scripture and who were cloistered in mainline denominations: The Episcopal Church, the PCUSA, etc.

And so we separated. We drew lines.

That 'easy' scenario is coming to an end.

Credit: Akuppa John Wigham on Flickr

No longer is it possible to write off 'pro-homosexual' Christians as non-Bible-believers, or nominal, or even as liberal protestants. No longer is it possible to turn away and pretend these people don't exist.

In the next several decades, there will be more and more people who consider themselves Bible-believing, self-described 'Evangelicals' (or something equivalent), who are more moderate on homosexuality. They claim their beliefs are consistent with an authoritative reading of Scripture. They are active in churches and in ministries. They have conversion stories.

World Vision made a decision that, agree with it or not, is one that many denominations, para-church organizations, etc are going to face in the coming decades. No longer are we defining evangelicalism over and against a nominal liberal protestantism, but the very definition (there never was a really good one anyhow) of evangelicalism itself is being entirely redefined.

This identity crisis shows up in slightly (but barely) less controversial venues as well. More and more evangelicals are becoming outspoken about having egalitarian perspectives on gender, more 'liberal' views about evolution (which are often, actually, more consistent with the diversity of views on evolution in the early 20th century) and denominations and para-church organizations are having to choose whether to welcome this bigger tent, or draw lines. Mark Driscoll, John Piper (to some extent), and Cedarville University (which just ruled not to allow women Bible professors teach male students) have drawn lines on women. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the denomination I am a part of, allows a diversity of views on the role of women in ministry among their churches. Self-proclaimed-as-Bible-believing Open Theists are barred from certain denominations or Christian institutions (such as the Evangelical Theological Society), but allowed in others.

We used to say (in practice if not in words):  'just have a high view of Scripture and believe in evangelism and mission and you can be an evangelical.' But then people started proposing interpretations of Scripture that made others of us uncomfortable: maybe husbands don't have to be heads of household (egalitarianism), maybe the future doesn't exist (open theism), maybe imputed righteousness isn't Biblical (the new perspective on Paul), maybe evolution and the Bible aren't inconsistent, maybe it's not wrong to practice monogamous homosexual behavior, etc.  Christians are proposing these arguments who love evangelism and missions and claim that Scripture is their highest authority. And suddenly, we're finding ourselves having to choose either to allow this interpretive diversity as consistent with evangelicalism's basic ecumenism and Bible-centrism, or draw lines regarding which interpretations are okay. We are now faced with having a big, wide, open tent, or go back to a Catholic posture where the Church has to authoritatively draw a line against certain interpretations (which is the posture of an emerging neo-Fundamentalism that makes many of these issues, lines of orthodoxy). We used to feel this way about baptism, predestination, eschatology. But we finally learned to get along and say 'these things are just representative of different interpretations.' But now, that attitude has journeyed into more controversial territory, and many want to slam on the brakes.

The ecumenism and diversity of evangelicalism, the door that Protestantism opened, has now become threatening and the options at either extreme appear to be relativism or a Protestant version of Catholicism.

I'm not saying evolution, homosexuality, women in ministry, are all equal issues. That's another discussion. But these are all examples of a phenomenon sweeping across evangelicalism forcing us to define what evangelicalism, and what orthodox Christianity, is and means and a new tendency to cloister ourselves into different camps in the same way we used to be very territorial about our denominations.

Many people pulled their support from World Vision when the decision was announced. Many churches who support World Vision were going to have serious debates (and still might) about their relationship with World Vision. The seminary I attend has a close relationship with World Vision, and I imagine there was going to be a pretty big controversy here over it. This is just one taste of a series of controversies that is going to threaten to tear the Evangelical world apart over the coming decades. Seminaries, para-church organizations, denominations that were created to try and stand in the middle on various controversial issues, are going to be torn right down the middle and/or pressured to take sides. Whether it be homosexuality, women's ordination, open theism, Reformed/Lutheran vs. N.T. Wright's soteriology, more and more rifts and team-choosing is going on. And places like Gordon-Conwell, where I am, are right in the middle and it's going to be harder and harder to stay out of things.

This is just the beginning.

What if this same thing happens for the International Justice Mission, who does some of the best human trafficking work in the world? Or at Young Life? Or Intervarsity Fellowship? What happens when an otherwise conservative self-proclaimed-Christian gay couple ask to go as missionaries with Wycliffe? As far-fetched as those might sound, it's not outside of the realm of possibility in the coming years. And organizations are going to start taking sides. Para-Church organizations are, most likely, going to go more to the left in order to try and keep as wide a constituency as possible so they can accomplish the things they want to accomplish. That was exactly the calculation World Vision made.

And the fact of the matter is that World Vision does things that no other organizations do. It cannot be avoided that choosing to provide or deny support based on their decision or re-decision requires making, at least to some degree, choices of priorities. And you are setting a precedent that will bear certain fruit in the future, because this is just the start. And so, while possibly off-base in the short-term, in the long term, the question being posed by those who support WV's initial move is actually prescient: 'is having rules against homosexual practice [or your beliefs about Open Theism, or women in the pulpit], or helping the poor, or supporting evangelistic meetings for college students, etc., most important to you?'  At the moment, that might be a false choice. But I think we're inevitably headed to a world where it won't be and we must choose between compromising and negotiating between those difficult questions, or retreating from the rest of Christianity (and maybe the rest of the world) all together. We will have to decide if we can be in or give to churches, denominations, organizations, that contain Christians who hold beliefs that we might find reprehensible. And our solution might be to create a whole lot more relief agencies. A non-gay version of World Vision. A non-complementarian version of Young Life. And the goals of each of those endeavors will suffer. So, the choice between 'helping the poor' and 'evangelism' and doctrinal uniformity, is going to be a choice many of us will have to make.

Conservative evangelicals have not won a victory in World Vision's retraction. We/they have just put off for another year or two something none of us will be able to avoid.

We might assume that, clearly, this debate over homosexuality is different than those over baptism, or Donatism, or transubstantiation, or over women in ministry. But, gosh darn it, people once  saw (and some still see) these as the deal-breakers between the Church and not-the-Church. Wars have been fought over (at least ostensibly) these issues. It's a bit anachronistic of us to think that this is necessarily different. Maybe it is different. But let's be honest with ourselves. What were once 'hills to die on' are now just matters of opinion. We need to have very careful, historically-informed, reasons to see the homosexual debate within the Church as different than the things we now don't care as much about.  Things that we now don't let get in the way of unity or para-church cooperation. But homosexuality is clearly unbiblical - it's different. Ok. Maybe so. But the same exact thing has been said about plenty of other issues too. That needs to be seriously weighed. And I do think the historical-theological argument against condoning homosexual practice (the claim that this has never been questioned in Church history) has quite a bit of weight. But to be fair, the issues that are arising represent questions that have never really been asked in Church history.

At the very least, we need to learn to listen to one another's arguments. The vilification and name-calling and shouting gets nobody anywhere. The conservatives hate poor people! Or The liberals hate the Bible! Neither accusation was really quite fair and showed a lack of listening. It might have been fair to certain extents, or in certain specific cases, but those accusations get in the way of real dialogue. If you think the pro-homosexual group are clear apostate heretics, that doesn't change that the correct and most powerful, Christ-like, posture is still humility and an attempt at understanding. The same if you think the conservatives who pulled support are poor-hating reprobates. What are you afraid might happen if you listen, and give them a fair hearing? What are you afraid might happen if you quietly wait and try to discern the best response, waiting on the Holy Spirit? We have not been given a spirit of fear, but a spirit of courage, and of hope. Because in the midst of all these things Christ is still on the throne. God is still in heaven.

I would say the same thing whether we were talking about Arianism, Gnosticism, or any other great heresy of Christian history. There's nothing to be afraid of by listening and engaging.

(I'm not necessarily saying a pro-homosexual perspective is heretical, I'm just playing in hypotheticals here to get a point across).

And as we go through all these debates I - along with most evangelicals/post-evangelicals my age - really wonder where our priorities are. Because whether liberal or conservative, starving kids in Africa seemed to be treated pawns in a culture war, last week. And that scares us, and that angers many of us. To support or stop supporting World Vision over this issue, while I understand to an extent, was done so quickly and decisively it seemed more like personal comfort as far as being on the 'right side' took the front seat, and suffering human beings took the backseat. Jesus loves doctrinal purity, but I think He may love people more. Those aren't mutually exclusive, but sometimes they do come into conflict. We need to be darned careful what we do when those things are at odds.

Do not forget justice and mercy. Do not forget that we will give account for what we did for 'the least of these' at the pearly gates. Switching to an organization more in line with your beliefs might be the right thing to do. I don't necessarily want to judge or condemn people who feel/felt convicted to switch to a different organization. But don't think of helping the poor as 'points' you rack up before God, or treat sponsorships as 'votes' for or against right doctrine. Think about the people. Think about the kids. Don't let kids become pawns, collateral damage, to satisfy your conscience or even collateral damage to orthodoxy. I will repeat that: do not make children collateral damage, not even to orthodoxy. Take a moment and think of Marco - the Bolivian child who had a sponsor one day and not the next. That kid had nothing to do with any of this. Jesus is with that person, and you will have to explain to Jesus why you pulled His support and gave it to another organization. And, yes, other funds may be used to pick up the slack. And yes, you may still be giving the same amount of money somewhere else. But that is not enough to make your decision 'right,' it is only enough to satisfy your own conscience. In the same way, if you start supporting Isaq in Sudan because you like your favorite organization's decision to allow gay employees, remember you will have to explain to Jesus your motives. That is not enough to make your decision 'right,' it is only trying to please your conscience (though, gosh darn it, I'm thankful that Isaq gets support whatever your motives). In both cases, suffering children are objects. That is worthy of judgment, even if you have all the 'right beliefs' about everything else.

2,000 kids were dropped from World Vision before the decision was retracted. World Vision got themselves into quite a pickle, and retracting their decision was a pretty big sacrifice and an embarrassment for them. I respect that they seemed to have those 2,000 kids as their top priority in it all.

(Although it's kind of a moot point, this excellent post suggested that if you felt inclined to pull support from World Vision, the wise and most loving thing to do in terms of the kids, was to give a 3-month notice or to draw support gradually. I don't think you'd be in danger of hell-fire for that. This is an example of the right posture: being honest with yourself and your convictions, but also making sure children didn't become objects).

Those are not black and white rules I'm offering. Just considerations that I think should be reflected upon.

You thought the wars between liberal protestants and conservative evangelicals/fundamentalists were harsh? That was nothing compared to what's coming; the very splintering of evangelicalism itself.

And we need to be very careful, very creative, very nimble as we enter this new world. Pray first, speak second. Wait for the Holy Spirit, not relying first on our own judgment, or our own exegesis, or our own feelings. Wait on God. Be patient, hopeful, calm, confident in the Lord. Because the very work of the Gospel is going to be constantly at risk of being sidelined. Yes, doctrinal purity is key to the Gospel. But don't forget that the Pharisees had their doctrine, and their exegesis, technically correct and still were condemned by Christ. They still missed the point. I daresay that doing what is best for the Gospel will matter a lot more in the end, and that may mean losing fights - even fights we see as matters of heresy.

I mean, don't we worship a man, a God, who lost a whole lot of fights, at least by the world's standards, anyhow?

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