World Vision and Evangelical Identity

Greg Strand – April 1, 2014 4 Comments

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 . . .

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

4 responses to World Vision and Evangelical Identity

  1. Thanks Greg for helping me process Rachel Held Evans’ article. But are you concerned at all that the reaction of so many to simply cancel their child sponsorships in the wake of World Vision’s decision exemplifies a failure to show the world what we’re for instead of just what we’re against?

    • Thank you for your important question, Jeff. I did not address that issue in this post since I did previously in my earlier posts on this issue. Here, however, are my thoughts in reply: (1) I am not sure how many were actually cancelled. (2) Many responses provided options of how to go about this, while not condoning the change made by World Vision at the same time still supporting the child. Support of the child through World Vision, however, was not considered support for World Vision. (3) Most responses I read or heard were not recommending the termination of all support for children, but realigning their support with other ministries. This would have meant some child that was being supported through World Vision might no longer have received support, at least from some, though they would have continued to support a child elsewhere. (4) The gospel is foundational and it has entailments. This means that one who truly understand this will be committed to alleviating needs for time and eternity. It is not either/or but both/and. To claim, as has been done, that one who would have stopped supporting through World Vision because of the critical move away from the authority of the Bible is, in a sense, to allow the orthopraxy to trump the orthodoxy, or to say that the true love of Jesus is to do the former, regardless of the latter. This has not, is not and will not be reflective of Evangelicals. Though the decisions before one are real, affect real people and come at a cost, it feels a bit disingenuous to make these sorts of claims. Often, they are claims that would be made by those leaning in a theologically liberal direction. (5) Admittedly, this is complex. That is why I included some options and alternatives. We need wisdom and discernment to live, minister and support the ministry of the gospel without compromise or accommodation. In our day of the radical change in our culture and cultural mores, there are fewer things and times at which we will be able to do either for or against. It will be both for and against, stated and lived with conviction, compassion and love.

  2. You are dead wrong. I stopped going to church because I was sick of how the church constantly damns gays to hell, even on Easter, the day of forgiveness and grace the evangelical pastor spent most of the sermon damning gays. Why is the gay topic so hot? Leviticus condemns allot of things, why of all of them is the church stuck on this? Jesus actually got very angry with people who went around damning and accusing people of their sins. He never damned a single soul while he was on earth. He also commanded the primary mission of the church is to be feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, aiding the poor, showing companionship to the lonely and most importantly spreading the good news that Jesus will save everyone who asks, even gays. Jesus would be very irate to see his church excluding gays from its charities and organizations. Jesus would welcome gays with open arms and you know it! Jesus washed and kissed sinners feet and invited them to dinner. He would never exclude them or treat them poorly. The church is shrinking, you live in a bubble. Not sure where you get your facts but they are wrong. Atheism is the fastest growing religion in the United States and all across Europe. I know you won’t listen to me, and will likely delete this, but remember God will judge you as harshly as you judge others. So remember that the next time you rave about gays going to hell and being the rot of society.

    • Jared, I am encouraged you read this blog post. Obviously we read and interpret the Bible differently, which also means we understand life, especially life lived by God’s grace and for God’s glory, differently. Furthermore, you have a number of misstatements. Since the comment section is not the place to carry on a debate I will forego a more detailed response. I do, however, thank you for reading and commenting.

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