Just two days after announcing it would hire Christians who are in same-sex marriages, the board of the prominent evangelical relief charity World Vision U.S. has reversed its decision, acknowledging it “made a mistake.”

In a letter today to its “trusted partners,” World Vision U.S. President Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Bere explain that the non-profit group has decided to “revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant marriage of a man and a woman.”

As WND reported Monday, World Vision’s U.S. branch, in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, Wash., had announced it would permit Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed in an effort to encourage “unity” among its church partners.

The policy change drew a wave of strong criticism from evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who said he was “shocked” to hear of the decision, arguing the Bible “is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

World Vision U.S. President Richard Stearns

Graham said he was offended by World Vision’s insistence that it was endeavoring to unify the church, “as if supporting sin and sinful behavior can unite the church.”

In their letter Wednesday, Stearns and Bere note that many had come to them “in the spirit of Matthew 18 to express your concern and love and conviction,” referring to Jesus’ teaching on how to confront sin in the church.

“We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness,” the letter says.

The leaders say they are “brokenhearted 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.”

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

World Vision, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue, is No. 10 on the Forbes list of the 50 largest U.S. charities. It was founded in 1950 by Bob Pierce as an evangelical relief and development organization with the stated goal “to follow our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God.”

The U.S. branch, in Washington state, has about 1,100 workers, but it has reduced its workforce by 10 percent over the past 15 months as expenses have risen and government grants have decreased.

In 2012, Washington became one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote.

‘Never more angry at the church

When the policy to hire Christians in same-sex marriages was announced Monday, social networks were filled with vows by World Vision financial supporters to drop their child sponsorships. At the same time, the organization was attracting new donors who saw the policy change as a bold move in support of “tolerance.”

Blogger Rachel Held Evans, who yesterday was encouraging readers to donate to World Vision to make up for the lost supporters, said today she was “deeply, profoundly sorry that I inadvertently rallied these fundraising efforts in response to a decision that would ultimately be reversed.”

“This whole situation has left me feeling frustrated, heartbroken, and lost,” she wrote. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more angry at the Church, particularly the evangelical culture in which I was raised and with which I for so long identified.

“I confess I had not realized the true extent of the disdain evangelicals have for our LGBT people, nor had I expected World Vision to yield to that disdain by reversing its decision under pressure,” she said. “Honestly, it feels like a betrayal from every side.”

The major homosexual advocacy group Human Rights Campaign accused World Vision of giving in to 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, the group’s religion and faith program director.

Stearns, meanwhile, told reporters in a conference call after the reversal Wednesday that if he “could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.”

“We need to have a process to do further and wider consultation with key Christian leaders around the country, and we will be discussing how that can happen,” he said.

Stearns said that, like every Christian organization, World Vision expects to continue to deal with the “sensitive issue” of same-sex relationships.

“The original decision was overwhelmingly ratified by the board, and the decision to reverse the policy today after a lot of deep reflection, a lot of listening to supporters … was also overwhelmingly supported today,” he said.

‘Narrow policy change’

In an interview Monday with Christianity Today, Stearns called it a “very narrow policy change” that should be regarded as “symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity.”

“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 Monday. “It also allows us to treat all of our employees in the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.”

Stearns told CT Monday that the decision was not “an endorsement of same-sex marriage,” choosing not to get into that debate,” but a matter of “deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues.”

“We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church,” he explained.

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