An attempt by the US branch of World Vision to address the issue of same-sex marriage among its employees has backfired spectacularly, with the organisation forced within days to reverse a move to become more inclusive.

The charity’s president Rich Stearns had written to staff saying that World Vision US would recognise same-sex marriage as within the norms of its employees’ code of conduct, which stipulates ‘abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage’. He said the charity’s employees came from a range of theological traditions and that it had ‘chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue’.

‘The board and I wanted to prevent this divisive issue from tearing World Vision apart and potentially crippling our ability to accomplish our vital kingdom mission of loving and serving the poorest of the poor in the name of Christ,’ he added.

However, a storm of protest from influential conservative evangelicals broke around Stearns and World Vision’s board.

Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin Graham said he was ‘shocked’ at the move, adding: ‘World Vision maintains that their decision is based on unifying the Church – which I find offensive – as if supporting sin and sinful behaviour can unite the Church.’

Author and pastor John Piper said: ‘This is a tragic development for the cause of Christ, because it trivialises perdition – and therefore, the cross – and because it sets a trajectory for the demise of true compassion for the poor.’

Fears that the donation base of World Vision US would be hit appeared to have been realised when the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, George O Wood, issued a statement saying that World Vision’s move had enlisted it ‘on the liberal Protestant side of the same-sex marriage debate as opposed to that of Pentecostal and evangelical churches’. He continued: ‘I encourage Assemblies of God churches and individuals to begin gradually shifting their support away from the US branch of World Vision to Assemblies of God World Missions and other Pentecostal and evangelical charities that maintain biblical standards of sexual morality.’

In a dramatic climb down, Stearns and World Vision US chair Jim Bere issued a letter to supporters saying: ‘The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.’

He said that the board had failed to be consistent with the commitment of World Vision US to ‘the traditional understanding of marriage’ and had failed to ‘seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners’. The statement said: ‘We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends.’

Wood issued a statement encouraging Assemblies of God churches and individuals ‘to continue supporting World Vision with prayers and finances, along with other Pentecostal and evangelical charities that have similar humanitarian missions’ and urging those who had cancelled their sponsorships of children in World Vision programmes to resume them.

A statement from World Vision UK clarified its own position, saying, ‘World Vision UK does not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation. Individuals are hired and their performance monitored from job-specific criteria only. At WVUK we are saddened by any distraction from our core mission to bring hope to the world’s most vulnerable children.’