World Vision is generally considered Evangelical and an Evangelical ministry (though it must be acknowledged that I am using Evangelical in a bit broader sense that for example in the EFCA). This is why their decision to broaden their policy for employees shocked most Evangelicals (theologically defined). They would not have been, and have not been surprised when liberal institutions and ministries have moved in this direction. It is part of how liberal is defined and understood.
Generally Evangelicalism is known for its soteriology, or its commitment to evangelism and salvation (narrowly understood as conversion or being born again), and lesser known for its ecclesiology. Though not a denomination, Evangelicalism is generally known for its plurality of voices on some issues, unlike some who have a singular voice of one, with more of a singular voice on the essentials.
Andrew Walker provided an interesting perspective to the World Vision situation. In light of the many weaknesses associated with Evangelicalism, Walker briefly noted that what we recently experienced with World Vision was a good indicator that Evangelicalism has boundaries, “In Praise of Evangelical Identity: World Vision and Biblical Witness” As he looks on the other side of what transpired, he concludes that this says something about Evangelical identity.
But once in awhile, we get our movement and ourselves right. Leaving aside the (valid) criticisms of para-church ministry structure and its lack of ecclesiological grounding, World Vision’s decision to reverse course from a patently unbiblical and patently unhistorical position, demonstrates that evangelicalism has boundary markers. We have core beliefs about authority. We may not always agree on what the precise boundaries are, but the World Vision event this week helps us identify the approximate boundaries, and when it has been crossed. Evangelicalism did triage this week, and did it well. We saw through the malaise of theological indifferentism and insisted that while evangelicalism remains a big tent, at some point, the canopy ends.
Walker affirms what this says about Evangelicalism.
In a day where American views of sexuality are fracturing, the World Vision episode reveals that the gravitational center of evangelicalism remains decidedly biblical. The challenge before us today is to keep it that way. . . . there were no Papal Bulls. There were no Councils. There were no Synods. There was only evangelicalism with Bibles open, recognizing that a line had been crossed. . . . And good for evangelicalism to have the identity it does to know what its identity is and isn’t.
Though I think Walker overstates this a bit, and though I think it is too optimistic about Evangelicals speaking with a univocal voice rooted in their identity, I do appreciate his perspective. This is our family and there are strengths to our family. Often we focus on the negative aspects and the things that are wrong rather than the things that, by God’s grace, are right.
In contrast to the Evangelicals who stated this policy change was too far biblically, that marriage is not an adiaphora, i.e., a matter of indifference, Walker also commented on the positive response of some so-called Evangelical millennials to World Vision’s announcement of their change. They applauded it, and then bemoaned and cursed (often literally) the reversal of the decision. Walker states,
In American evangelicalism, you can’t believe in anything you want and call yourself an evangelical. That [sic] what Mainline Protestantism is for. That’s the route that “professional dissidents” like Rachel Held Evans want evangelicalism to become, but that only leads to eternal pottage.
To be fair, World Vision serves a broader constituency than Evangelicals and Evangelicalism, some Mainline Protestant churches identify as Evangelical, and there are Evangelicals in Mainline Protestant churches. But those Mainline churches and Christians in those churches who identify as Evangelicals do so with the same voice and for many of the same reasons most Evangelicals responded as they did to World Vision. They are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and biblical truth. The real difference is between an Evangelical and a theological liberal.
Regardless of how one self-identifies, Evangelical is determined by the gospel and one’s understanding of and response to it. So for those who identify as Evangelical and approve of same-sex “marriage,” they are not Evangelical. As one example, Walker refers to Rachel Held Evans. She has self-identified as an Evangelical and continues to do so, though in this post she states she may be moving away from Evangelicals as she has grown tired of defending them. In her words, “I, for one, am tried of arguing. I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly. I’m going AWOL on evangelicalism’s culture wars so I can get back to following Jesus.” But in reality she is a theological liberal, not an Evangelical. You can read her response to the World Vision decision and how Evangelicals responded: “How evangelicals won a culture war and lost a generation”
There are far too many issues to address in Evans’ post. However, I will say this: what we hear – again – from Evans is that the reason the church is losing millennials is because of insensitivity to cultural issues and outdated doctrinal views. My sense is that this is a tired and untrue claim. This claim, as the claim made by the now passé Emergents, bemoans what Evangelicalism has not been and will not become. Though desiring to retain some connection to Evangelicals and Evangelicalism, the views embraced and espoused by people like Evans are with an attempt to make Evangelicalism more progressive on these matters. At the end of the day, this is a sine qua non of theological liberalism. It simply won’t do. A theological liberal by any other name . . .