A Southern Baptist church in California has broken with the denomination's stance on homosexuality and has decided to accept the LGBT community without judgment. The church made the change after its lead pastor announced that he no longer holds to the teaching that homosexuality is a sin.
Danny Cortez, who leads New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, explained his journey in a letter to progressive Christian blogger John Shore, founder of Unfundamentalist Christians, last month. At the end of that journey, his son came out to him as gay.
"I recently became gay affirming after a 15-year journey of having multiple people in my congregation come out to me every year," Cortez wrote. After reading many of Shore's writings and hearing testimony from gay friends who felt marginalized, Cortez said his "eyes became open to the injustice that the church has wrought" and in August 2013, he said he "realized I no longer believed in the traditional teachings regarding homosexuality."
Soon after his shift in beliefs, his 15-year-old son, Drew, revealed that he was gay and later came out publicly on YouTube.
Cortez believes that if it wasn't for that 15-year journey and his change in theology, "I may have destroyed my son through reparative therapy."
The California pastor, a graduate of Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, told his congregation in February that he had recently informed the church's elders that he now personally affirmed same-sex relationships.
Cortez explained to his church that his conversations with LGBT members of his congregation over the years had increasingly left him dissatisfied.
"I could feel the dread coming in the person I'm talking to. And I was always wondering why, of all of God's commandments, why is this the one commandment that seemed that it was different that seemed to impart life. And this is the one that created so much self-hatred, this was the sense of people feeling like they were imprisoned. A sentence of life with no chance to love," he said.
The majority of his sermon that day focused on Romans 1, a passage which many Christians interpret as condemning homosexual behavior.
"[Romans 1] wasn't so that we could judge everyone else. Paul, in this magnificent, brilliant, writing style was saying, 'I'm writing all of this, but really I'm getting you to agree with how evil it is and then telling you, guess what? You're just the same way,'" he said. "And therefore, Paul says, 'Don't judge anyone.' And yet we use this Romans 1 as the passage most often to judge all sorts of people."
Cortez also cited Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, in his sermon. In his letter to Shore, he also acknowledged that Ken Wilson's book, A Letter to My Congregation, had been influential.
Cortez's announcement, which the pastor acknowledged had frustrated church elders by its abruptness, left many in the church displeased and the church decided to vote on whether to terminate the pastor or accept his proposition.
After a period of prayer, study and discernment, which also included hearing from gay and straight teachers on both sides of the homosexuality debate, the church voted in May not to dismiss Cortez and "instead to become a Third Way church," Cortez explained.
According to Cortez, as a "Third Way" church, the Southern Baptist congregation would "accept the LGBT community even though they may be in a relationship. We will choose to remain the body of Christ and not cast judgement (sic). We will work toward graceful dialogue in the midst of theological differences. We see that this is possible in the same way that our church holds different positions on the issue of divorce and remarriage. In this issue we are able to not cast judgement (sic) in our disagreement."
Those who disagree with the church will formally leave it on June 8.
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, criticized the idea of a church trying to embrace a third way.
"A church will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them," Mohler stated Monday, suggesting that Cortez's acknowledgement of church members departing evidenced this. "Eventually, every congregation in America will make a public declaration of its position on this issue. It is just a matter of time (and for most churches, not much time) before every congregation in the nation faces this test."
"Even if it is claimed that some continuing members of the church are in disagreement with the new policy and position, they will be members of a church that operates under that new policy. At the very least, their decision to remain in the congregation is a decision to stay within a church that affirms same-sex behaviors and relationships," he added.
Mohler also pointed to progressive Christian blogger Tony Jones, who disagrees with Mohler's views on homosexuality but has made a similar point to that of his conservative colleague last month.
"I've got a few friends to graciously and tenaciously hang on to the idea that a third way can be found on this issue, a middle ground between affirming gay marriage and condemning it. And I agree with them, to a point. ... Those are practices of a middle ground, but that middle ground is necessarily temporary," wrote Jones on his blog.
Why could this not exist?
According to Jones, there could be no middle ground because the same-sex marriage debate in the church is always determined by practices." He cited as an example the World Vision controversy in March, in which the Christian charity announced that it was changing its employment policy to allow for Christians who are in legal same-sex marriages.
"For three years, the WV board of directors studied and prayed about the issue, and no one complained. But as soon as they decided to institute a new practice — that is, hiring legally married gay persons in their U.S. offices — conservative Christians went postal. Spokesmen tweeted, pastors called, and recording artists threatened. In less than 48 hours, WV reversed their decision," he explained.
Mohler said he believes that New Heart will ultimately be forced to leave the Southern Baptist Convention, given that the "the Baptist Faith & Message, the denomination's confession of faith, states that homosexuality is immoral and that marriage is 'the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.'"
"Furthermore, the Convention's constitution states explicitly that any congregation that endorses homosexual behavior is 'not in cooperation with the Convention,' and thus excluded from its membership."