The U.S. branch of the evangelical humanitarian aid organization World Vision announced this week that it will no longer bar its employees from being in same-sex marriages. Employees are still barred from having sex outside of marriage, but “marriage” will now include marriages between people of the same sex. World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns tellsChristianity Today the change is “not an endorsement of same-sex marriage,” but it’s hard to read it any other way.
It’s certainly a disappointing loss for supporters of traditional marriage, but I’m not surprised, and here’s why.
"I think you have to be neutral on hundreds of doctrinal issues that could divide an organization like World Vision,” Stearns explains to Christianity Today in defense of the decision of World Vision U.S.. "One example: divorce and remarriage. [Protestant] 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?”
In other words, evangelical Christians are divided on such a large swath of issues, with no easy way of settling them for the evangelical community, that an evangelical organization must either deem as unessential as wide a range of issues as possible (even if this means, as in the current instance, sometimes widening that area of non-essentials as positions in the evangelical community change) or else make itself impractically narrow.
The problem comes from sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone,” one of the fundamental operating principles of Protestantism. Evangelicals agree with the Catholic Church that Scripture is the inspired Word of God and final in all it says. But evangelicals disagree with Catholics there is any living interpretive body for the Christian community to authoritatively interpret it (what we call the “Magisterium”). This means, at the end of the day, individual evangelicals are left to determine for themselves what they think Scripture says.
This works out just fine for the evangelical community – but only as long as everyone reads Scripture the same way. As history attests, disagreements arise all the time. What happens when evangelicals sincerely and prayfully come to different conclusions about what Scripture says? There are only a few options.
To start, they can just keep on debating with each other until an agreement is reached. This sometimes works, but often doesn’t. When intractable disagreements arise, unless the evangelical community is okay with remaining in a permanent state of debate and thereby making its witness to the truth of God impossible (it’s hard to preach if you can’t determine what it is you’re supposed to be preaching), they’ll need to do something else.
The next option is what I call the fundamentalist route: individual evangelicals can just declare their opponents wrong and go their separate ways. Since there’s widespread agreement on only a few things among evangelicals, this option leaves its adherents fairly isolated pretty much right away. This is what Stearns is talking about when he says if World Vision U.S. took a position on every contentious issue, there’d be no one left to work for them. Further, most evangelicals today realize that privileging one’s own interpretation of Scripture over other evangelicals is, at best, just ad hoc, and at worst, arrogant.
Which is why World Vision U.S., along with most evangelicals today, have chosen to go with the third option, which is lowest common denominator pluralism. Rather than forming a community based on essential truths, adherents of this option choose which truths should be essential based on their desired community.
This is of course the opposite of how the church is supposed to function. As experience shows, ecclesial democracy pretty much always leads to compromise with error, acceptance of sin, and a general shallowing of the faith. This principle has been taken so far that an increasing number of evangelicals today have abandoned the task of theology entirely, declaring that all that really matters is some vague notion of following Jesus (when a person can make Jesus and the Christian life into anything he or she wants, who can possibly disagree with that?). When push comes to shove, evangelicals who take this route – which appears to me to be most evangelicals – will not be reliable allies in the culture wars.
Some evangelicals might say I’ve forgotten an option: evangelicals can just hold fast to the essentials of the faith while agreeing to disagree on the non-essentials. The problem with this is that sola scriptura provides no way for evangelicals to determine what is essential or not, which just pushes the problem back a step: evangelicals can have intractable disagreements about what’s essential, too. The wide range of reactions among evangelicals to the World Vision U.S. case is an example of this.
Lastly, an evangelical might protest that the Holy Spirit will guide them. Catholics agree that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, but, given sola scriptura, if two evangelicals sincerely and prayfully come to two contradictory conclusions about what the Bible says, how does one determine who is actually being led by the Holy Spirit and who is not? An evangelical might argue that the Holy Spirit will guide the evangelical community as a whole. But then how does one explain consensus in the evangelical community ever changing? In practice, this type of thinking ends up being more about people simply attaching the seal of the Holy Spirit to whatever decision they happen to come to.
All of this is to say, this World Vision U.S. case is not just about World Vision U.S., it also reveals deeper flaws in evangelical ecclesiology. Is this really the situation Jesus left for his followers? Is there a way forward that avoids both arrogant fundamentalism and shallow pluralism?
Yes: the Catholic Church. It's true that disagreements arise among Catholics just as they do among evangelicals, but, unlike evangelicals, the Catholic Church has a principled way to adjudicate them: Catholics believe that Jesus gave authority to the Apostles, who passed that authority on to bishops, who in turn passed that authority on to other bishops all the way to the present episcopate. While the Holy Spirit may be giving doctrinal direction to any given Christian, we know that the Holy Spirit is at least guiding the bishops. So when otherwise intractable disagreements arise, the bishops, led by the bishop of Rome as the successor of St. Peter, are capable of settling them authoritatively for the Christian community.
Someone might point out that self-identifying Catholics often disregard official Church teaching. That’s true, but such Catholics are bad Catholics. They are contradicting the principles of their own claimed Catholicism, namely, to follow the Magisterium. Evangelicals, on the other hand, remain entirely within their rights as evangelicals to disagree with other evangelicals as long as they think their beliefs are based on the Bible. Evangelicals who are convinced that Scripture doesn’t condemn homosexual acts may be wrong, but they are still good evangelicals.
Now, perhaps World Vision U.S. will reverse its stance on same-sex marriage. Or maybe most other evangelicals will, despite these ecclesiastical problems, still manage to hold firm against the growing cultural pressure to accept same-sex marriage.
But I’m not confident they will. To my evangelical brothers and sisters: please feel free to prove me wrong! I’m certainly glad to see evangelical leaders like Albert Mohler and John Piper come out strongly against the decision of World Vision U.S.. But I don’t lack confidence because I doubt the sincerity of my evangelical brothers and sisters. I lack confidence because they reject the full set of tools God gave the Church to guard faith and morals. The consequence of that rejection appears to be manifesting itself right before us.
Brantly Milleganis an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Second Nature, Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity, and is working on a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.