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On the first day of March, a brief email announced a big change at Bethany Christian Services: The organization plans to follow “consistent inclusive practices” and “offer services with the love and compassion of Jesus to the many types of families who exist in our world today.”
The language was vague, but the meaning was clear: After a practice of declining to place children in gay and lesbian households in states that didn’t require it, Bethany now allows same-sex couples to apply to foster and adopt in all of its locations—whether local laws require it or not.
The change was big news for the nation’s largest Protestant foster care and adoption agency, but the email delivered another jolt: Bethany President and CEO Chris Palusky told some 1,500 employees that Bethany “will not take positions on the many doctrinal issues for which Christians disagree.”
After years of Bethany affirming the Bible’s teaching on marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the 77-year-old organization is abandoning its position on the foundational, Scriptural issue.
Southern Seminary President Al Mohler (also a WORLD board member) lamented the decision and said in a changing cultural and legal landscape every Christian and every Christian organization eventually will face decisions about whether they will pivot on this question.
In the meantime, evangelical organizations with formal ties to Bethany must grapple with how to respond to the organization’s seismic shift—and how to make sure their own positions are clear.
Denny Burk, a professor at Boyce College and Southern Seminary, reacted to Bethany’s change in a tweet: “We are watching a great sorting unfold before our very eyes. When the pressure is on, some will follow Jesus, and some won’t. It’s only just begun.”
Bethany's trajectory toward same-sex placements began years ago, as a handful of states and cities began requiring some agencies involved in foster care and adoption to allow same-sex couples to apply.
Plenty of agencies facilitate services for same-sex couples, but some Christian organizations have declined, citing a sincerely held belief in the Bible’s teaching on marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In those cases, organizations referred same-sex couples to another agency, an approach Bethany had followed.
When a Bethany staffer in Philadelphia referred a lesbian couple to another agency in 2018, the city suspended its foster care contract with the organization. City officials also suspended a contract with Catholic Social Services over the group’s similar policy.
The city issued an ultimatum: If the groups wanted to continue facilitating foster care, they’d have to allow same-sex couples to apply. Bethany complied. The Catholic agency refused.
A year later, officials in Michigan made a similar demand. Again, Bethany complied. A Catholic agency refused, and Catholics filed lawsuits in both Michigan and Philadelphia, seeking to retain conscience protections that now await a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Bethany didn’t join the legal action.
In 2019, Kris Faasse—a Bethany senior vice president at the time—told WORLD that Bethany agreed to the government’s demands because it didn’t want to stop placing children in homes. She said the agency considered the probabilities of winning lengthy court battles, then balanced that with a desire to continue serving children in foster care.
She acknowledged the same-sex placements created tension for Christians. It also created tensions for Bethany: Since at least 2007, the organization had maintained a position statement saying, “God’s design for the family is a covenant and lifelong marriage of one man and one woman.”
Faasse confirmed that position in 2019. “Bethany believes that God has a perfect design for family and that that perfect design is a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage,” she said.
“There are many opportunities in our world for a family to not meet that level of God’s ideal. We work with many families, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t believe firmly in God’s ideal and God’s ideal plan.”
Two years later, does Bethany still believe in that ideal?
A Bethany spokesperson declined a phone interview with WORLD, but said in a written response to the question, “As an organization, Bethany is no longer taking an official position on this issue.”
That creates tensions for other Christian groups.
For example, Bethany is a long-standing member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), a group that requires its members to affirm a written statement of faith and abide by other standards.
ECFA President Michael Martin told WORLD his organization is communicating with Bethany’s leadership to understand the recent changes so that ECFA board members can “evaluate any impact on the organization’s membership … especially in relation to Standard 1.”
Standard 1 says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired and the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.”
Bethany says it remains committed to showing the compassion of Jesus to vulnerable children, and its own statement of faith, drawn from the evangelical-based Lausanne Covenant, includes: “We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written Word of God, without error in all that it affirms.”
The solid statement reveals the central question facing evangelical groups when it comes to sexuality: What does the Bible affirm?
For millennia, historic Christian teaching has held that the Bible affirms marriage as a union between one man and one woman. It’s not simply a secondary issue on which Christians can agree to disagree: Denominations have split apart over the doctrine.
(A spokesperson confirmed the ECFA believes the Bible teaches that “sexual activity be expressed exclusively within the covenant of marriage, which Scripture consistently describes as the holy union between one man and one woman.”)
Bethany is also a member of the Virginia-based Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO). Jedd Medefind, the group’s president, says CAFO asks member organizations to commit to placing children “in healthy families with mature Christian faith to the fullest extent possible.”
He says CAFO policy does allow member organizations to comply with government mandates regarding sexuality in locations that require it. That would extend to Bethany’s practice in places like Michigan, Philadelphia, and other jurisdictions requiring same-sex placements.
But Bethany’s policy now seems to go well beyond the CAFO allowance by requiring all of its branches to serve same-sex couples, whether the government mandates it or not.
When asked about Bethany’s shift, Medefind said his group would be pursuing discussions with the organization’s leadership about the changes.
The changing legal landscape underscores the pressures some Christian groups face, particularly if they accept government funds in conjunction with foster care or refugee services.
Bethany’s 2019 annual report showed private donations from individuals and groups had dropped from $19 million to $17 million from 2018 to 2019. In the same time period, the group’s service revenue had increased from $103 million to $113 million. A Bethany spokesperson confirmed the “vast majority of our service revenue is from government funding.”
Government funding often comes with government strings, and some government officials are determined to tighten those strings for religious groups and others.
In late February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act—sweeping legislation that would write LGBTQ protections into civil rights statutes, prioritizing them over religious liberty. The bill is unlikely to gain the 10 or more Republican votes needed to pass the U.S. Senate, but it demonstrates the kind of pressures on Christians that will likely grow.
Still, religious liberty advocates remain hopeful: In November the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the Catholic foster care agency in Philadelphia, and likely will decide the case in June.
It’s impossible to predict the outcome, but its decision could protect, and even strengthen, conscience protections for religious organizations—and could show legal struggle is worth the battle for Christian organizations.
Meanwhile, foster care remains a gaping crisis in the U.S., with some 400,000 children in the foster care system—a need Bethany rightly says points to the urgency for more families to help.
Many foster children are eventually reunited with their families, but some 63,000 were adopted from foster care in 2018. An ongoing opioid crisis has spiked the crisis in some Midwestern states.
Katy Faust, director of the child advocacy organization Them Before Us, says it’s vital to keep the focus on children and what’s best for them, instead of leading with perceived rights of adults to foster or adopt.
Faust’s own parents divorced when she was young, and she grew up splitting her time between her father’s home and the home her mother shared with a lesbian partner.
She says her mother was a good, loving parent, but she still argues for the need for children to grow up in homes with moms and dads, if possible. Faust realizes that’s not always possible, but she urges agencies not to give up on pursuing that as the ideal: “Any adoption agency that is able to furnish children with a mother and father but fails to do so because of political correctness … fails their true client, which is the child.”
The growing debates aren’t a reason for Christians to withdraw from foster care and adoption, but to step up to it, she says. She hopes those who don’t think same-sex foster care or adoption is best for a child will “send in your application to become a foster parent today.”
Herbie Newell, president of Lifeline Children’s Services, an Alabama-based, Christian adoption and child welfare ministry, agrees that Christians should continue advocating for a Biblical definition of marriage when caring for children.
Newell’s organization released a statement reaffirming its belief in marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, and Newell said Bethany’s recent decision saddens him. But he also remains hopeful for Christians making a case for adoptive mothers and fathers.
“Everything we stand up for is for human flourishing, and human flourishing within child welfare,” he says. “But we’ve allowed the secular world to say that’s bigoted, narrow-minded, and not for good. We haven’t stood up to say—no, this is for human flourishing—this is for good.”
Newell’s organization doesn’t accept government funding, but he knows it’s possible it could face similar government pressures in the future. What would he do?
“I would just say we’re not going to compromise who we are,” he says. “When you base who you are on the Word of God, you don’t change who you are to fit social constructs. You stay true to who you are with consistency based on the Word of God.”