World Vision and the Elusive Quest for Protestant Unity

Protestant Charity World Vision announced a few weeks ago that they would now employ same sex “married” couples. World Vision president Richard Stearns explained that the decision was meant to serve Church unity. Since Protestant denominations disagree on the morality of homosexual unions, World Vision decided (allegedly) not take a stand either way. World Vision said they were following the same policy they apply to other controverted theological issues. They do not restrict employment in disagreements over the mode of baptism, for instance. Baptists and Presbyterians can both work there.

World Vision donors did not accept this reasoning. The Evangelical Charity quickly reversed its decision when they began to lose donor support. I first learned the news because of the uproar that it caused among conservative Protestants. Evangelist Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) issued a public condemnation of the initial decision. Other prominent Protestant leaders also came out against World Vision. They objected not only to the tacit acceptance of homosexual unions, but also to the reasons that World Vision gave for this acceptance. Conservative leaders argued that sexual morality is not like the mode of baptism. Sexual morality is absolutely essential to Christian faith and life. The mode of baptism, they argued, is not.

Viewing this as a Catholic, I was troubled by the World Vision announcement. There are solid, rational grounds for resisting the secular push for same-sex “marriage.” You do not have to be a Catholic or even a Christian to realize this. The World Vision decision was one more example of fuzzy thinking about a matter that is really quite simple. Sex is for babies. Marriage is for families. Societies sanction marriage to support families, not to give political cover to “lifestyle choices.” But I was also dismayed by the nature of the debate among Protestants. The conflict evidenced a deep confusion about the grounds of Christian unity and the nature of Christian belief. Supporters and opponents of World Vision were locked in conflict over how to define the deposit of faith. Both sides agreed on the authority of Scripture. Both sides acknowledge that Christians can disagree. But what do you do when Christians disagree?

Protestants have answered this question historically in very different ways. Early in the Reformation, leaders did not hesitate to argue that one interpretations is correct, or that everyone should conform to one creed. But over time, as denominations proliferated, the dream of doctrinal unity seemed more and more elusive. By the eighteenth century, many Protestant leaders (especially in America) settled on a “least common denominator theology.” What counts, they said, is what we all agree on.

The World Vision flap exposes the vacuity of that reasoning. The core of “what we all agree on” (for Protestants) has gotten smaller and smaller over time. And here’s a further irony. World vision applied a traditional Protestant principle, but with very untraditional results. There is no longer widespread agreement on the meaning of human sexuality, so World Vision concluded it must not be essential. The “conservatives” strongly rejected this conclusion, but on what basis? They admit disagreement on issues like baptism. Why not human morality? Scripture alone can’t answer this, because it’s a debate about how to read the Scripture.

Fortunately, Catholics have no difficulty answering these questions. We know for sure what counts as essential because we do not rely on Scripture alone. Christ left us a revelation in Scripture and tradition, but He also left us a living Magisterium to interpret the faith with authority. We are not dependent upon a vague consensus or a shrinking common denominator. We acknowledge the Church Christ founded, the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)

The Catholic Church teaches the immorality of homosexual unions, but it also clearly defines the necessity of baptism, the structure of Church government, the nature of the Eucharist, and many other doctrines that Protestants teach are “negotiable.” This is not to say that Catholics regard all doctrines in exactly the same way. We acknowledge a “hierarchy of truths,” in which some doctrines are closer than others to the foundations of our faith. But that doesn’t make subordinate doctrines inessential or optional. The reason for Catholic clarity is the existence of a living Magisterium, the patrimony of tradition, and the dictates of natural law.

I am sorry that World Vision made the decision tacitly to approve homosexual unions. But I am also sorry that Protestant leaders do not see the difficulties with their doctrine of Scripture. More and more, they are going to have a hard time defending marriage and all the doctrines of the Christian faith. Fewer and fewer people take for granted the basics of Chrisitianty. Even fewer agree on what the faith means. More than ever, therefore, the quest for Christian unity will not be fulfilled apart from the promise of Christ: “You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church.”

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