Without rendering a judgment about whether conservative evangelicals are too preoccupied with boundary maintenance, I want to comment on how cavalier some of them have become about kicking people out. In the Twitter age, it has become as simple as sending out an excommunitweet.
World Vision USA President Rich Stearns envisioned last week's proposed policy change as an extension of the organization’s self-conscious choice to remain neutral on many issues that divide constituent denominations, including divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women’s roles, and evolution vs. creationism. Without specifically referencing evangelical (and particularly Baptist) distinctives like liberty of the conscience and autonomy of local churches, Stearns took care to emphasize in the clearest way possible that World Vision was not endorsing homosexuality, but rather acknowledging that it is one of many issues over which Christians disagree.
Reaction from fundamentalists, some Pentecostals, and many conservative evangelicals was swift, fierce, and decisive. Echoing John Piper’s excommunication via Twitter of Rob Bell in 2011 for denying belief in Hell as eternal conscious torment, a Southern Baptist seminary professor tweeted, “Farewell, World Vision” and linked to a commentary arguing that World Vision had just sold out the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself.
By day’s end, many leading conservative evangelicals had weighed in against World Vision. For 48 hours, thousands of angry Christians abandoned their sponsorships of needy children around the world. Many who greeted last Monday’s announcement with joy began new sponsorships either out of support of the policy or out of concern for the children who were being dropped by Bible-believers.
On Wednesday, March 26, World Vision USA reversed its position and reaffirmed that it would not employ Christians in same sex marriages. Stearns expressed the board’s pain and heartbreak over the confusion it caused. He also admitted to “inadequate consultation with our supporters” in advance of the change. Stearns asked for forgiveness from World Vision supporters who also believe, as he evidently now does, that gays and lesbians should never be allowed to work for a Christian organization. As one commentator noted, Stearns did not seek forgiveness from Christians who supported the Monday announcement.
Predictably, moderate and liberal Christians were as dismayed and angry over the reversal as traditionalists and conservatives were over the initial policy change. People on both sides had to think about the ethics of making child sponsorships into consumer choices contingent on doctrinal or ecclesiological factors. Some saw evidence that evangelicalism remained a big tent with self-correcting accountability structures. Others were so frustrated with the anti-gay tenor of evangelicalism that they began eschewing the evangelical label altogether.
In a very real sense, the World Vision episode was a debate about evangelical authority and boundary maintenance. The authority issue has been hot lately, and is the subject of an important new book by historian Molly Worthen. Albert Mohler made some important observations on the subject of authority in evangelicalism in a December commentary about Pope Francis being named TIME's Person of the Year:
Evangelicals often get a kind of “magisterium envy” when we look at Roman Catholics. After all, there is an official mechanism for establishing the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Catholics have an official magisterium that is charged to establish the official teaching of the Church, to defend Catholic orthodoxy, and to speak with authority on what the Roman Catholic Church teaches and believes. Evangelicals lack any kind of magisterium. We certainly lack a pontiff—we have no pope. There is no evangelical who speaks with magisterial or monarchial authority. There is no one who can stipulate individually or hierarchically exactly what evangelicals are to believe and then define the boundaries of evangelical doctrine and teaching.
Denying eternal conscious torment (as Bell did, presumably among other heresies) and saying that Christians can disagree about homosexuality (as World Vision did for 2 days) are, obviously, lines that the mainstream of evangelicalism cannot cross. So maybe the farewell tweets weren't much of a stretch for two elites with prestigious platforms. But the phenomenon has taken on a life of its own, and more evangelicals may soon feel empowered to follower their leaders' examples and, in 140 characters or less, attempt to publicly disfellowship whoever they decide is an enemy of God.
Perhaps as intended, the "Farewell, _________" meme insulted and infuriated some of the very people evangelicals have long been eager to disfellowship. One prominent blogger whose inclusiveness puts him out of the holy men's good graces pushed back with his own "farewell" to the gatekeepers.
Another expressed the frustration of many faithful evangelicals who lately find themselves being told the Church would be better off without them.
"Farewell, ________" excommunitweets are authoritarian and unbecoming. They seem to connote a certain gleeful "good riddance," as if to say, "We've been wanting to kick you out for a long time now, and this time you've finally done it. You're out!" This is a meme evangelicals should end. I'm not sure exactly how you're supposed to strip a person of their identity in Christ. But you should probably do it with a little more humility and trepidation.