By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist church in California drew scrutiny from denominational leaders and observers after voting May 18 not to dismiss a pastor who said he had changed his mind about homosexuality being a sin.
New Heart Community Church of La Mirada, Calif., entered a period of discernment and discussion after Pastor Danny Cortez told elders he had changed his stance on homosexuality.
“It was understood this was a radical shift from the longtime stance of our church,” Cortez told church members in a sermon posted on YouTube. It was also a “radical shift from our statement of faith” for the congregation aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, which calls homosexuality immoral and regards churches which act to affirm it as not in “friendly cooperation.”
Cortez said it wasn’t long after New Heart Community Church began in 1997 that the first church member confessed to him in counseling of feelings of same-sex attraction. He said between one and three persons made similar statements every year, and that he always felt those sessions were different from burdens carried by other parishioners.
Usually, he said, church members would leave counseling feeling better about their problems. When he would talk about the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, he said, it was more a mood of “dread” and “basically me telling them for the rest of your life you can never fall in love.”
The final straw came in August 2013, when in a conversation about the lyrics of a song they heard on the radio his 15-year-old son came out and told him he is gay.
Cortez told the congregation he regrets “dropping a bomb” on the elders by not telling them earlier that his views were evolving and that he understood such a change could have serious implications.
“I realize that it’s grounds for termination,” he said. “I realize that this might be my last message.”
Many people weren’t pleased with the admission, he said, prompting a scheduled vote on whether or not to fire him. On March 9 the congregation voted to postpone the vote and prolong a period of prayer, study and discernment until May 18.
Instead of firing Cortez, a majority voted to become a “Third Way” church, agreeing to disagree on the morality of same-sex relationships and not cast judgment on one another. Cortez called it “a huge step for a Southern Baptist church.”
The vote wasn’t unanimous, however. “Many who voted to remain traditional will now separate from us in a couple of weeks,” Cortez wrote in a statement published by Patheos blogger John Shore.
“We are in the period of reconciliation and forgiveness,” he said. “Please pray for us in this. Then on June 8, we will formally peacefully separate, restate our love for one another, and bless each other as we part ways. It has been a very tiring and difficult process.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a blog June 2 he expects the matter to come up when the convention meets next week in Baltimore. Mohler said there is no “third way” on homosexuality, and eventually every single Christian and congregation will have to decide how to respond.
“I am confident that the Southern Baptist Convention will act in accordance with its own convictions, confession of faith, and constitution when messengers to the Convention gather next week in Baltimore,” Mohler said. “But every single evangelical congregation, denomination, mission agency, school, and institution had better be ready to face the same challenge, for it will come quickly, and often from an unexpected source.”
The SBC constitution and bylaws forbids churches “which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”
Cortez said in an email to ABPnews/Herald that he wasn’t planning to attend the convention this year because of what his church has been going through, but after gauging reaction to his story feels he should “face the music” and attend the annual meeting.
“It would be good if I made myself available to answer the questions of my fellow pastors,” he said. “Unfortunately, my church didn’t approve of any conference and travel budget this year and it’s a little late in the game to try to raise the funds. I hope something changes last minute where I could come to give an account of what our church has done.”