As evidence of just how complicated the intersection of religion and same-sex marriage can be, World Vision has reversed a decision it made only two days earlier to hire married gay Christians — a move as stunning as the initial announcement.

Calling the last few days personally painful, Richard Stearns, president of the Federal Way-based Christian global aid organization, said his U.S. board realized its mistake and reversed itself at a Wednesday meeting.

“Rather than creating unity, our decision created division,” Stearns said.

On Monday, the organization announced it would begin hiring married same-sex Christians — a move Stearns said the board had discussed and prayed on for years.

The announcement sparked an immediate backlash from evangelical and conservative Christian supporters and donors, Stearns said, who were hurt and confused by it and expressed their displeasure in visits, emails and phone calls.

Many canceled donations.

World Vision had received kudos earlier in the week from gay-rights supporters who welcomed the new hiring policy but got an earful from them after the flip-flop.

“We have created a division we didn’t want to create and in the end the board concluded we must stand by our belief and view of traditional marriage,” Stearns said Wednesday.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a major gay-rights organization, called the reversal devastating and accused World Vision of buckling under pressure from the radical right.

“At a time when people are losing their lives around the globe simply for being who they are, such a reversal is not just sad but it sends a potentially catastrophic message,” said Sharon Groves, religion and faith program director for HRC.

Stearns said he was surprised by the intensity of the reaction — but shouldn’t have been, given how divisive an issue it is.

He acknowledged that World Vision had done an inadequate job consulting with its more conservative supporters and donors before initially changing its hiring policy.

In a letter, he begged them to stay their financial support and to “forgive our poor judgment in the original decision.”

“We are broken hearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority,” he wrote to supporters and partners.

“We ask that you understand that this was never the board’s intent.”

Stearns said he couldn’t say what the cumulative financial impact of the backlash has been, but that many had canceled donations to the group’s child-sponsorship program in protest.

“That grieves us,” he said. “The children we serve will suffer for that.”

Federal law protects the employment rights of religious-based employers such as World Vision, allowing them to hire and fire based on their own religious values.

World Vision is the largest global Christian relief organization, with more than $1 billion in annual revenues and more than 40,000 employees in 100 countries, including about 1,200 in the United States.

More than 15 percent of its employees worldwide are not Christian, though all its U.S. employees are.

Statement of faith

Upon employment, those in the U.S. must sign a statement of faith affirming they believe in the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity.

Stearns said World Vision touches 100 million people a year through its work and is helping victims of sexual trafficking around the world, those in the civil war in Syria and victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

“We’d much rather be having conversations about those things that are at the core of our mission than this issue, which has led to a great deal of controversy and confusion,” he said.

World Vision said it made the decision to employ married gay Christians, recognizing that many of the 50-plus denominations represented within its staff support same-sex marriage.

Stearns was quick to note that while World Vision has returned to a policy of not hiring married gay Christians, it doesn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation and “believes everyone is created by God and should be treated with love and respect.”

As more states legalize same-sex marriage, clashes such as this aren’t likely to go away.

“I think every Christian and secular organization is dealing with, and will continue to deal with, this sensitive issue,” Stearns said. “It’s divisive, politically and challenging in faith communities, as well.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.