World Vision and the Quest for Protestant UnityMar 26th, 2014 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
Christianity Today reports that Evangelical charity World Vision will now employ same-sex “married” couples, although chastity within marriage still remains corporate policy. World Vision president Richard Stearns explains that the policy change is meant to serve church unity. Since Protestant denominations disagree on the morality of homosexual unions, World Vision will (allegedly) not take a stand either way. In this, World Vision attempts to follow the same policy they apply to other controverted theological issues. They do not restrict employment in disagreements over baptism, for instance. Baptists and Presbyterians can both work there.
Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and John Piper have expressed shock and dismay at this reasoning. Piper, in particular, goes straight to the heart not only of the moral issue, but of the hermeneutical issue. Are disagreements over homosexuality analogous to disagreements over the mode of baptism? Piper writes:
Make no mistake, this so-called “neutral” position of World Vision is a position to regard practicing homosexuals (under the guise of an imaginary “marriage”) as following an acceptable Christian lifestyle, on the analogy of choosing infant baptism over believers’ baptism.
Piper rejects the analogy. The sinfulness of homosexuality is non-negotiable. Differences over baptism are another matter. As a Catholic reading this debate, what strikes me is the incoherence of Piper’s hermeneutical objection. On what grounds does Piper single out one set of doctrines (sacramental theology) as negotiable and another (human sexuality) as non-negotiable? As a Catholic, I see this whole way of framing the issue as misguided. Protestantism has never been able to provide a consistent account of the distinction between “essential and non-essential.”
When I regard the history of Protestantism one thing that strikes me are the changes in what counts as “essential.” In 1537, for example, John Calvin sought to impose a common confession of faith on every citizen of Geneva. This confession included matters that Protestants today might consider to be of secondary importance. Questions of Church authority, liturgy, and sacramental theology were not excluded. Indeed, in his Petit traicté de la saincte Cène (1541), Calvin argued that proper Eucharistic theology was necessary for salvation. Calvin’s attitude towards believer’s baptism was likewise intransigent. Anabaptists were excluded from salvation.
If anything, Calvin was a “conservative” on liturgy, polity, and sacraments, and a “liberal” when it came to moral theology and human sexuality. Calvin was one of the first Christian theologians to reject the literal, biblical prohibition on money lending, as well as one of the first to allow for Christian divorce and remarriage. The history of Calvin’s Geneva would therefore seem to invert the distinction Piper draws between “non-essential” sacramental theology and “essential” teaching on human morality.
In the aftermath of the Reformation, confidence in the absolute clarity and sufficiency of Scripture began to wane. Already in the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find hints of a distinction between those matters “necessary for salvation,” and those about which Christians might legitimately disagree. This distinction becomes explicit in the thought of George Whitfield and later evangelical theologians. Contemporary evangelical theologians (like Alistair McGrath) frankly concede that Scripture is not sufficient to settle a host of theological disputes among Protestants. The Amsterdam Declaration on Evangelism (2000), spearheaded by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, likewise admits: “We cannot resolve all differences among Christians because we do not yet understand perfectly all that God has revealed to us.” What counts, presumably, is a “personal relationship with Christ” that can accommodate contradictory accounts of Christian faith and morality.
The Evangelical distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” evolved historically over questions of ecclesiology, but there is no principled reason to restrict it to ecclesiology. Whitefield articulated the distinction this way:
I saw regenerate souls among the Baptists, among the Presbyterians, among the Independents, and among the Church [i.e., Anglican] folks — all children of God, and yet all born again in a different way of worship: and who can tell which is the most evangelical.
Whitefield’s definition is fraught with difficulty. How do you “see” a regenerate soul? Calvin coordinated election and regeneration to the maintenance of a well-defined ecclesial structure. But Puritanism could never agree on the answer to this question, which led to the ultimate demise of “the New England Way.” Antinomian Anne Hutchinson identified regeneration with a spiritual illumination utterly distinct from “legal works.” Puritan authorities disputed her, but the logic of the debate led to multiple “Orthodoxies” in the colonies.
Whitefield’s argument also suggests that theological disagreement is enough to qualify a doctrine as “inessential.” Even assuming we can reliably identify “the regenerate,” if two “regenerate” people disagree on a doctrine, then Whitfield presumes the doctrine is inessential. Modern Evangelical Protestantism, to the extent that it follows Whitefield, is thus implicitly relativist. Although individual Christians may insist on a particular interpretation of Scripture, the reality of denominational difference is treated (selectively) as de facto proof that the disputed question must not be one of those things ” necessary for salvation.”
Evangelical Protestantism offers no principled way to distinguish the “essential” from the “non-essential.” Piper himself does not justify his assertion that baptism is “inessential” and human sexuality “essential.” Indeed, Calvin would have viewed Piper’s assertion as strange and surprising. No doubt, he would have written him off as a heretical Baptist who lacked the Spirit.
The Catholic Church clearly 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 so forth. 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 either unimportant 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 has made the decision tacitly to approve homosexual unions. But I am also sorry that John Piper does not see the difficulties in his hermeneutical theory. World Vision has arguably followed a policy that makes perfect sense within the Protestant hermeneutical paradigm. When denominations disagree, “who can tell who is the most evangelical?” Piper insists that World Vision has misapplied the paradigm, but his insistence is plausibly “just another interpretation.” As I have argued elsewhere, Protestant forays into the debate over same-sex marriage have the potential to do more harm than good. Insofar as Protestants embrace an incoherent doctrine of theological authority, they risk bringing ridicule on the Christian defense of marriage.