Killing the Power Play – Lessons from World Vision and Church History

gotta kill the power play

It’s been over week now since World Vision acted, the Evangelical world reacted, and hundreds of us wrote about it.  This morning, I’m enjoying some coffee and reading John 9, which is a story about a blind guy Jesus heals with spit and mud on some random Saturday.   This leads to some intense questioning and right there in the middle of it all we read this:

Then some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God because he does not observe the Sabbath.”  But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs and miracles?”  So there was a difference among them

People who are experts in knowing the text, when confronted with a real life situation, have differing ideas regarding the proper interpretation.  Imagine that!  It certainly won’t be the last time people disagree about what it means to live faithfully.  Circumcision, meat sacrificed to idols, observance of “a day” devoted to worship will all become issues, just in the first decades of the New Testament.

As church history unfolds, the number of issues about which people who share the same faith in Christ disagree will multiply exponentially:  working in theater, working for the military, the ownership and/or use of weapons, the deity and humanity of Christ, the nature and meaning of the priesthood, the meaning of communion, the permanence or passing nature of miraculous signs in the Bible, women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, the weighted balance of calls to justice vs calls to personal pious morality, whether translate the Bible into common tongue, and once that was decided, which translation is better – and I’m just getting started.

Our sadness and shock regarding events surrounding World Vision last week say as much about our collective amnesia as they do about the state of Christianity.  There really is nothing new under the sun, including the way people have reacted, including accusations and withdrawal.

There’s surely a time for both of these things.  We look back in horror at the church’s collective silence in Germany, or the failure of the Southern Baptists to apologize for racism until the 1990s.  While the majority went one direction, in both these cases there were minorities that actively resisted the trend lines, and withdrew from the prevailing tide of culture.  Bonhoeffer both spoke out against the Reich and began an underground seminary.  There’s a time to quit fighting and simply seek to gather with like minded people, out there on the margins.

Is this such a time?  Rachel Evans seems to think so.  She writes:   “I’m done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, done trying to force that culture to change”  and this is a good thing because forcing culture change has never been our calling.  We’ve always been called to offer an alternative to the prevailing winds of culture, not force culture change.

I don’t think the church gets this right very often because starting with Constantine, the threads of power have been tightly bound with threads of piety, and the results have been ugly, not just in recent history, but for about 1800 years now.   Crusades, Inquisitions, and the boycotting of Disney and Starbucks are all the same iterations of bringing power to bear on people in hopes of changing their view of truth.  Last week, though, it was this same tactic applied to people who share the same mission, as some Christians called for withdrawing financial support for World Vision in protest over a shift in HR policy regarding gay married couples.  Two days later they reversed their decision, leading at least some people I know to withdraw their support over the reversal.  I’m stunned that the same people offended by such tactics when the right invoked them against WV turned around and used them against WV when the shoe was suddenly on the other foot.  It’s loud.  It’s ugly.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s evangelical Christianity in the 21st century.

If you want to leave, there are plenty of places to go.  The Catholics have the coolest Pope ever, but they still forbid same sex unions, keep women out of leadership, and frown on birth control.  The Eastern Orthodox church has a marvelous creation theology, and a compelling view of the atonement, but they tend to think they’re the only ones with the truth (a kind of a “fundamentalism with incense”).  House church?  If it’s healthy it’ll grow and then you’ll need structure and kid care, and who makes these decisions?  No church?  It’s an option, but scripture’s clearer about gathering together regularly and living lives of interdependence in community as a testimony of loving each other than it is about nearly any other subject.  What should we do?

I’m about to write that we need to stop marginalizing people, and I can already hear the comments about how churches do exactly that when they draw lines.  But the reality is that every organization in the world stands for something, and when you stand for something, you draw a line, and when you draw a line there are outsiders.  So, we need to see that churches either have standards or they don’t stand for anything.   The question on the table is what do you do when an organization with which you’re affiliated, either through attendance or support, when you or someone you love is over there on the wrong side of the line on some issue?

 What then? 

Stay or go isn’t, in my estimation, the most important matter.  There are people in the church I lead who’ve done both very well, in spite of disagreements on some matters of faith and practice.  What matters most is that it’s high time to “kill the power play” (a hockey metaphor for my Canadian and Bostonian friends).  A British friend, long since passed away, shared a story with me once about a pastor in London.  He was intent on recovering a “true church” and was, by most counts, a brilliant bible teacher with a real capacity to see truth and communicate it with clarity. The trouble was that he saw things, in his own estimation, with such clarity, that he realized nobody saw the real truth except him.  He died only willing to take communion with himself, a tragic irony given the fact that communion is intended to be a testimony of our shared life in Christ.

And therein lies the problem with withdrawing.  Rachel writes about how great it would be to “focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion

Yes, it would be great.  But of course, there are theistic evolutionists who don’t favor gay marriage, or women in ministry.   What happens when that woman speaks in your new community, or isn’t allowed to?   –  because the reality is that if you’re now a community, you don’t have the luxury of not deciding – either woman speak or they don’t.   We don’t all agree on everything, and my British friend reminds me that when that’s the goal, we’ll end up dining, and worshiping, and bowling, alone.  That’s why the most important thing isn’t being in or out, it’s killing the power play.  Kill the notion that you’ll force change by exercising power!

What does that mean?  It means I need to stand with Rachel and everyone else by putting an end to the notion that our calling is to “force a culture to change” through boycotts, marginalization, and labeling.  It’s time we recognize that Jesus’ people have never agreed on anything, except that he rose from the dead.  This doesn’t mean an end to all discussion and spirited debate.   It doesn’t mean and end to communities and leaders needing to exercise spiritual authority and seek to uphold the faith with humility and courage.  It does mean an end to attempts at making other faith based organizations conform to my exact view of the faith, and rallying the troops to punish them when they fail to conform.

What does this look like in practice?   I think the best answer I can find is written by a former WV employee who is also gay (anonymous for obvious reasons)  Here’s what he writes in response to the decision and its subsequent reversal:

I am disappointed. I feel defeated. 

When it comes down to it, I understand the reasons behind the final decision – donor money makes things happen, and many donors didn’t agree with the policy change. My brain gets it, but my heart feels crushed.

It hurts to think that I could be turned away from my “dream job” at one of the best companies in my industry, not because of a lack of skill or education, but because of who I love and my self-expression.

… I feel all the emotions. Anger. Sadness. Disappointment. Shock. Confusion.

But beyond all of these, I feel love

I think of the millions of lives impacted for good. The children who have been fed and given an education. The parents who have received micro loans and given support for their families. This reminds me of why I love WV.

I think about the countless conversations I’ve had with people about the incredible work World Vision does. The feeling of excitement I get in my stomach when I explain the brilliant approaches WV has made for economic and community development around the globe. I still believe strongly that World Vision is one of the most effective development agencies operating today. This reminds me of why I love WV.

I think of my former coworkers and the relationships I’ve formed through World Vision. Several of my dearest friendships were established there. These are the people who have strengthened my skills, taken a chance on me, and challenged me to grow professionally and as an individual. These are also the friends who have been so supportive during my coming out process. This reminds me of why I love WV.

And so as I prepare for my meeting at World Vision (as an independent contractor not subject to WV’s employment standards), after hearing that individuals in same-sex marriages will still not be employed by WV, I am full of love.

Because love comes first, and the rest will follow. Because love is louder than hate. Even if hate has a louder bullhorn.