World Vision USA, the American branch of one of the world's largest evangelical Christian charitable organizations, says that employees are still expected to abstain from extramarital sex, but for the first time will consider sexual activity within a marriage between two men or two women to be in line with its rules.
Rich Stearns, president of World Vision USA, told employees in a letter that the organization has "not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue."
In an interview with Christianity Today, Stearns said that World Vision USA was not responding to a lawsuit or employee lobbying.
"There is no lawsuit threatening us," he said. "There is no employee group lobbying us. This is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S., based on this single issue, and nothing more."
"Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues," he said. "It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage."
Stearns lamented the impact same-sex marriage has had on Christian churches.
"It's been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church," he told Christianity Today. "It's tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We've got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity."
Criticism of World Vision USA's action came swiftly. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the heart of Christianity is in jeopardy because of decisions like this, The Washington Post reports. "At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said.
"If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it," he added. "If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2,000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish."
World Visions provides disaster relief to 250 million people each year, in nearly 100 countries, and has revenue of about $1 billion per year. According to Christianity Today, the organization "has staff from more than 50 denominations -- a handful of which have sanctioned same-sex marriages or unions in recent years, including the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA)."