If nothing else, the decision by World Vision in the United States to no longer discriminate in its employment policy on the issue of same sex marriage is a pointer to what the future may look like for Christian organisations, and for churches themselves, throughout the western world.  You can read the full article in Christianity Today here, in which WV USA President, Richard Stearns, outlines why the policy change was made.  Make sure you read the whole article, as there are nuances within World Vision’s policy direction that run counter to that change.  For example in the US Supreme Court recently they fought and won for the right of faith based groups to hire and fire on the basis of faith statements. They also lobbied hard against USAID’s push to “strongly encourage” faith based groups to stop such hiring/firing if they are to continue to receive federal funding.

Nevertheless, World Vision in the USA has crossed the Rubicon.  In making the decision Stearns made the point that since churches have disagreed throughout history on many issues – and he cites mode of baptism as one such theological argument – the board felt that same sex marriage now falls into that category in the worldwide church.  Here is what he said:

“Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues…It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage…It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there…This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.”

With all due respect to Stearns, it is not how the board views the decision that determines whether it is an endorsement of anything, but whether the watching world thinks it is.  And the watching world DOES think it is an endorsement of same sex marriage.  Hence the huge response on FB to a post by Nadia Bolz-Weber, aka Sarcastic Lutheran, to the decision. The not altogether surprising decision of many Christians who hold to the Christian tradition of monogamous, lifetime heterosexual union between a man and a woman to withdraw their financial support for World Vision, was met by a steady stream of those who affirm same-sex marriage saying they will start to give because of the decision.  In other words, THEY read it as an endorsement by WV of same-sex marriage, just as those who disagree do.  Stearns is naive if he thinks that this is simply a neutral decision made in the interests of Christian unity and an opportunity to ensure their mission to serve the poor continues.  Sexuality and same-sex marriage is the white hot potato topic within western culture today.  You cannot be a Christian in the public square without being quizzed on your view on it.  At the same time WV will continue its policy of hire/fire on the basis of abstinence before marriage and fidelity within it.

What Stearns misunderstands, or at least miscalculates, is the enormous weight our culture places in relational and sexual satisfaction as the foundation of the good life.  A flourishing life, one that matters, can only be achieved if I am allowed to self-actualise.  All around I am being urged to “be true to myself”, and every day I am bombarded with messages that say that ultimate fulfilment comes with finding the right sexual partner.  In fact to fight your urge on this is to betray yourself and risk missing out a flourishing life. Our culture completely links sexual satisfaction with ultimate satisfaction.  That is at the core of the push for same-sex marriage, no two ways about it.  Unfortunately for WV and Stearns, it is also the reason why the rate of divorce on the basis of adultery has pushed through the roof in the Western world.  If my husband/wife is not particularly satisfying, if my relationship is on the rocks, if I feel I am being suppressed or oppressed, then it is wrong for anyone to say that I cannot seek true fulfilment and flourishing in another relationship. And if I am single, unable to find the right partner, is “friends with benefits” not simply a way to make me feel better about myself, more productive at work, and a better all-round citizen?  How can Stearns and WV police such a discriminatory policy?  If, ultimately, who I marry is about the freedom of the individual, then so is who and when I divorce, and who or what I sleep with in order to self-actualise.   The irony is that whilst most Christian denominations opened the door to “no-fault divorce” first – ushering the way for same-sex marriage – Stearns and WV have gotten it the other way around!  Their “celibate before/faithful after” policy cannot last on the basis of the decision they have just made.

Now at this point you may disagree with me, and that is fine.  But read on.  I believe that what WV USA has effectively done is to throw a stone into the pond, whose ripples will spread out with a reach they did not intend.  The reason I think so is this: The secular context in which the West finds itself today is unlike the secular desires of those who founded it.  Secularism, by its very definition, is supposed to be disinterested.  In other words secularism claims to have room at the table for all sorts of belief systems because it knows, like the Papa Bear it is, that all of those competing beliefs are simply like unruly children; tolerated at the table, but not permitted to eat all of the dessert in a single sitting.  Hence secularism should be able to live comfortably with a great number of different “moral communities” and their various belief systems that may at times run counter to each other. Secularism should have the self-confidence to fund such groups, even if it disagrees with them.  Secularism has, however, due to its brittle understanding of itself, found this increasingly difficult to do. It does, in fact, feel threatened by, and in turn, increasingly tend to threaten legally, any group that does not fall within its parameters of what is fair and right.  Stearns’ own experience of USAID pushing hard for religious groups to sign off on anti-discrimation laws in order to receive federal funding should be a warning to him.  WV has made it that much harder for such groups in the future to stand firm on faith beliefs and receive federal funding.  WV is not some bit-part player, it serves over 100 million people in 100 countries and is a top-ten US charity.  Hence it’s not the decision that is made “this time” that is most revealing about the true state of secularism, but the decision that is made “next time” in light of that prior decision.

None of this, by the way, is to endorse discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference, or even same sex marriage,  in the public square.  If I run a public business as a Christian and the best qualified person for a position in my company is in a same-sex relationship then not offering them the job because of that issue neither serves my interests, nor honours that person created Imago Dei. God has given us common grace to enable our wider community to flourish, and if my business runs better, that person finds a good fit in the office, his/her skills help others to flourish, and customers are happy, then that’s how it is supposed to be! My theology, at this point, is their friend! That’s a vision, although a broken one, of how the world is supposed to operate. And why am I comfortable with this? Because I rightly understand what it means to live in a secular society.  I rightly understand that that there are different, and often competing, levels of moral community within the larger setting.  To deny this is to deny true freedom.  I am increasingly coming to the position that there are very few people who understand the nature of freedom of conscience, and that worries me for the future of faith communities in the West, Christian or otherwise.   Stearns’ – and the board’s – decision in the USA makes that task of cultural negotiation just that bit harder for the rest of us.  It’s worth quoting Stearns again:

“We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us.”

On the first two of those four statements above, I would have to respectfully disagree.  And on the last two?  Well you may have avoided that problem this time around, but if the trajectory we are on is any indication, World Vision USA made it just that little bit harder for the rest of us.