The Issue of Biblical Authority
There was a time not long ago when it was pretty clear what it meant to be an evangelical. It was pretty clear because a generation of Christians had worked very hard to separate themselves from the liberal denial of the faith while at the same time avoiding becoming sectarian and mean spirited. The high point of that evangelical ascendancy was the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.[i] The battle for the Bible was over, and those who affirmed biblical inerrancy had won, at least as far as being an evangelical was concerned. If one wanted the name “evangelical,” one had to affirm biblical inerrancy. If one denied biblical inerrancy, it was difficult to maintain that one was evangelical.
In recent years, what was thought to have been a battle already won has re-emerged. It is not that people are out and out denying the inerrancy of scripture as much as they are denying our capacity to know what the Bible says. The wonderful scholars who crafted the Chicago statement actually predicted that this would happen. The last sentences of the statement go like this,
“We are conscious too that great and grave confusion results from ceasing to maintain the total truth of the Bible whose authority one professes to acknowledge. The result of taking this step is that the Bible which God gave loses its authority, and what has authority instead is a Bible reduced in content according to the demands of one's critical reasonings and in principle reducible still further once one has started. This means that at bottom independent reason now has authority, as opposed to Scriptural teaching. If this is not seen and if for the time being basic evangelical doctrines are still held, persons denying the full truth of Scripture may claim an evangelical identity while methodologically they have moved away from the evangelical principle of knowledge to an unstable subjectivism, and will find it hard not to move further.”
We are now at that point of great and grave confusion. It is because of the failure to maintain the total truth of the Bible. Lots of people now, without apology, deny central doctrines of the Christian faith, e.g., the reality of hell for those who do not believe in Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the nature of marriage. AND they do so while claiming to affirm biblical inerrancy! Is it any wonder that the average person in the pew is confused? It is a confusion even greater than when liberal theology conquered most major denominations in the 1920s.
This confusion over biblical authority will bring the dismantling of evangelicalism. We are seeing the disintegration of what has been a pretty clear consensus of nearly 100 years. The world of evangelicalism is collapsing.
The Case of World Vision
What does all this have to do with the recent controversy surrounding World Vision? Only everything. World Vision was founded in 1950 by Bob Pierce. This was not because no humanitarian agencies existed at the time—there were plenty of them. Pierce founded World Vision because there were few humanitarian agencies that took the Bible seriously.[ii] He wanted to develop an organization that did social good, but was also firmly committed to the Gospel and the authority of scripture. Because liberals in the mainline denominations had abandoned the Gospel, they fixed their missional attention on relief of social ills. The conservative fundamentalists wanted to show that they were not liberal and frequently looked with disdain upon anyone who was interested in the alleviation of physical ills in the world.[iii] Pierce believed that one could do both—bring the Gospel and alleviate human suffering. This commitment to both the Gospel and social relief is found in their mission statement and statement of faith. The organization seeks to tackle “the causes of poverty and injustice.” But they also believe that lost people are “lost unto the resurrection of damnation.” [iv] This was Pierce’s “World Vision.”
Let’s fast forward to the present time. World Vision is no longer just an evangelical organization. It is a behemoth of a charitable organization. With a budget of over $1 billion and serving 1.2 million children sponsored, World Vision gains the attention of every NGO (non-government organization) in the world. The means of gaining the income for such a large enterprise are many, including seeking United Nations and United States government support, but just as important, World Vision seeks the support of all churches, whether or not they subscribe to World Vision’s statement of faith. As such, there are many, many influences upon this organization, not all of them helping to aim them closer to biblical authority for their mission.
So, it should not have been surprising that such an organization would be influenced deeply against biblical authority on the most pressing issue of the day, same sex marriage. World Vision changed their policy on March 24 to allow employees to be in same sex marriages. Then, on March 26, they reversed course and reverted to their former policy of not allowing employees to be in same sex marriages. World Vision was hoping, by allowing same sex marriage among their employees, to avoid a controversy. Instead, they created a firestorm, which intensified upon reversal of the policy.
In order to understand how this happened, one must understand that nearly every cultural indicator is leaning away from biblical authority. World Vision was hoping that they could avoid the criticism of being homophobic and still hold to their statement of faith. As it turned out, they offended everyone. By affirming that employees could be in same sex marriages, people who believe in biblical authority saw that World Vision was denying what it said it believed. Then, by reversing that policy two days later, the people who favor same sex marriage were outraged that the organization would capitulate to homophobia. In the end, it seems that they may have made skeptics of everyone.
How to think about the World Vision controversy
Many pundits have argued that whatever position World Vision takes on the subject of same sex marriage should be irrelevant to support of the organization’s mission. If you are sponsoring a child[v], what kind of callous heart must you have if you withdraw your funding over some silly cultural dispute in America?[vi] Keep sending World Vision money, these pundits argue, because the starving children are more important than what we think about same sex marriage.
On one level, this is a very difficult argument to overcome. Who would want to starve a child for a principle? (Al Mohler called it “a moral quandary.”) But here’s the deal: World Vision has made it clear by its statement of faith that principles matter before the mission does. Just going out on mission and not worrying about the principles which guide the mission leads to disaster. Let’s say that World Vision had made the decision to deny the resurrection. Would that have been a sufficient reason to withdraw funding? Let’s say that they decided to help starving children in the name of Allah, or in the name of Satan. Would that affect this argument? Which denial of biblical principle is sufficient to separate from an organization?
What the folks who make this argument are saying is that the issue of same sex marriage is not very important. There would be some issue for them that doubtless would be important enough for them, but this one is not it. One lesson to be learned here is that the controversy about homosexuality will not go away. It will be an issue that continues to divide. And it is an issue that is dividing evangelicals. In fact, this issue, in my opinion, will be the dismantling of evangelicalism. Here is why:
1) Evangelicals are increasingly soft on biblical authority;
2) Evangelicals like to be liked by the broader culture, thinking that by being liked they will be more effective evangelists;
3) The broader culture will only grow in its support of homosexuality and same sex marriage;
4) So, evangelicals will increasingly abandon the teaching of the Bible on that subject for acceptance by the broader culture.[vii]
5) However, other evangelicals will continue to hold to biblical authority. This will mean a divide, a dismantling of evangelicalism.
The end game, of course, is that for many evangelicals, personal experience/”happiness” will trump biblical authority. Here is how theologian Luke Johnson put it, “I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.”[viii]
As evangelicals are pulled in that direction, there will be a fracturing of what it means to be an evangelical. New labels will need to be created to describe various positions, much as the words, “liberal” and “fundamentalist,” became labels to describe positions in the 1920s. I do not know what words can be used, but good labels always have the advantage of being embraced by those labeled by the word, and yet can be used by opponents with equal appreciation. That was why “liberal” and “fundamentalist” worked for awhile, and “fundamentalist” turned into “evangelical” when “fundamentalist” became too pejorative of a word.
Prepare for isolation, then persecution
There is something more important than a label, however. As many evangelicals are peeled off from biblical authority, those who do hold to it will become increasingly marginalized. We “Bible Christians” will be regarded as increasingly weird. Especially since the LGBT issues are now cleverly framed as civil rights issues, there will come, as evangelicals leave the Bible’s teaching, an isolation of true believers in biblical authority.[ix] This could come in the form of loss of tax exempt status for churches, the treatment of these churches as enemies of the commonweal, and discrimination in employment for anyone who publicly avows the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality.
After the marginalization, it will become quite easy to see real persecution. Belief in traditional marriage could become regarded as a psychological disorder requiring treatment. Children could be taken from homes who affirm a biblical view of marriage. Property could be confiscated as an anti-racketeering measure. Now, these are extreme indeed. Who knows if something will stop the express train of sex-without-consequence in our culture? I hope indeed that something (or, more particularly, Someone) does stop it. But these are measures that we must consider as possible, even as alarming as they seem.
For the Bible Christian (is that the possible new term?), there must be a readiness to forsake all to follow Christ. If tax exempt status is stripped, will I give to my church anyway? If I am regarded as an enemy by my neighbor, will I still love him? If someone takes my home and even my children, will I say that I still have Jesus? Am I committed to love those who persecute me for righteousness’ sake? Hebrews 10:34 speaks of those who “joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” This sort of thinking is important, not because it is alarming but because it forces us to think about what really matters to us. The words of Jesus come with increasing force upon us, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next . . . And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 10:16-23a, 28-33)
It is precisely here that the resurrection of our Lord should matter to us. If the tomb is empty, then Jesus is Who He claimed to be. If He is Who He claimed to be, then what He claimed about scripture is true. What He claimed about scripture was that it was God’s inerrant, authoritative Word. One cannot consistently believe in the resurrection of Jesus and deny the authority of the Bible.
A Final Word: What Should I Do About World Vision
As mentioned earlier, the policy change and its reversal at World Vision created lots of skepticism. Many folks who applauded the reversal of the decision are now wondering if they should continue to support World Vision. I understand the skepticism, and it would be important to monitor World Vision’s future policies. However, I think that people should support World Vision who have been partnered with them in the past and not allow this to change their connection. Support sends a signal to World Vision that they made the right choice. World Vision asked for forgiveness on this issue. Forgiveness ought to be granted, and that should include continuing one’s support. World Vision referred to its stand on biblical authority as the reason behind the policy reversal.[x] This is a wonderful thing! We ought to support any organization that calls itself closer to biblical authority.
The authors of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy had it right: We are conscious too that great and grave confusion results from ceasing to maintain the total truth of the Bible whose authority one professes to acknowledge. We live in great and grave confusion in the evangelical world today. Only a recovery of the authority of the Bible will bring clarity. May God give us strength to hold fast to His Word, no matter what.
Satisfied in Christ,
[i] One can read this wonderful statement at: http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
[iii] See John Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World, pp. 15ff for a clear description of this divide.
[v] I will not go into the arcane details of “child sponsorship” in this article. Suffice to say, “child sponsorship” by all relief organizations is more a means of cultivating the heart of a donor to the agency’s work than it is any direct infusion of money to the child. That is not a bad thing; it just seems to me that “child sponsorship” should be more clearly communicated on what it means and what it does not mean.
[vi] This is the argument made by Jesse Tink, a pastor and blogger in Iowa. See: http://www.keeppointinginwaterloo.com/blog/
[vii] There will be attempts, of course, to show that same sex marriage and homosexual behavior are biblically moral. These attempts at self-justification fly in the face of the text of scripture.
[ix] See Al Mohler’s Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance, pp. 95-102 for an excellent description of how two men changed homosexual rights into a civil rights issue.
[x] See: http://www.worldvision.org/press-release/world-vision-us-board-reverses-decision for the full World Vision statement. Of great import is this statement from the release: In our board’s effort to unite around the church’s shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.”