Facing a firestorm of protest, the prominent Christian relief agency World Vision on Wednesday dropped a two-day-old policy that would have allowed the charity to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.
The aid group told supporters in a letter that the board had made a mistake and was returning to its policy requiring celibacy outside of marriage "and faithfulness within the Bible covenant of marriage between a man and a woman".
"We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness," the agency said in the letter, signed by World Vision president Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Bere.
Based in Federal Way, Washington, and started by evangelicals, World Vision has an international operating budget of nearly US$1 billion ($1.2 billion) and conducts economic development and emergency relief projects.
In a conference call with reporters, Stearns said World Vision had not consulted enough with its partners before announcing the initial policy change. Since Monday, Stearns said the board had heard from major evangelical groups and leaders who had told them they had strayed from their core beliefs.
"We shouldn't have been surprised but we were a bit," Stearns said of the backlash.
"Again, I think it goes back to we hadn't done enough consultation on this. We hadn't vetted this issue with people who could have given us really valuable input in the beginning. In retrospect, I can see why this was so controversial and troubling for many of our partners and supporters."
The agency had announced on Monday that its board had prayed for years about whether to hire Christians in same-sex marriages as churches took different stands on recognising gay relationships.
World Vision says its staff members come from dozens of denominations with varied views on the issue. The board had said World Vision would still require celibacy outside of marriage and would require employees to affirm a statement of faith that they follow Christ, but would change policy in the US as a way to avoid the divisive debates that have torn apart churches.
But the change drew widespread condemnation, with many donors posting on the agency's Facebook page that they would no longer fund the sponsor-a-child programmes that are central to World Vision's fundraising and education.
Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog that the new hiring policy was "a betrayal of the nature of the Christian community" and "a denial of how Jesus defined marriage as between a man and a woman when he was asked about divorce".
The Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination, had released a statement urging members to shift support away from World Vision to other charities.
Evangelical supporters of hiring Christians with same-sex spouses also rallied, increasing their donations and urging others to do the same.
However, in a meeting on Wednesday, Stearns said the board unanimously voted to reverse course and "stand on the traditional belief on the authority of Scripture". Stearns said he didn't know how much money World Vision had lost or gained over the two days.
A few other conservative religious charities have tried to change hiring policies to recognise gay relationships, prompting controversy and a drop in donations, but World Vision was the largest and most prominent by far to take the step.
Rachel Held Evans, a Christian blogger and author who had been urging readers to increase donations in support of the policy change, wrote on Wednesday, "This whole situation has left me feeling frustrated, heartbroken, and lost."