The pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Los Angeles, California announced last month that he is now “gay affirming” and has accepted his son’s homosexuality, a declaration that is causing a rift in his local congregation and sparking controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention.
In an hour-long sermon released on YouTube and a letter submitted to John Shore’s Patheos blog, Danny Cortez, pastor of New Heart Community Church, told his congregants that after a “15-year journey,” he has shifted away from his negative stance on homosexuality and is now accepting of LGBT people.
“In August of 2013, on a sunny day at the beach, I realized I no longer believed in the traditional [church] teachings regarding homosexuality,” Cortez said in his letter. “And it was especially the testimony of my gay friends that helped me to see how they have been marginalized that my eyes became open to the injustice that the church has wrought.”
Pro-LGBT Christians are becoming more common in the United States, but Cortez’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) makes his new gay-affirming theological position highly unusual. The SBC, the largest protestant denomination in the country with nearly 16 million members, decries homosexuality and defines marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime,” a view shared by many churchgoers. But in a rare move for a SBC church, Cortez’s congregation did not vote to expel him from the pulpit after he declared his gay-affirming stance, but chose instead to keep him as their pastor and become a “Third Way” church — that is, a worship community where members “agree to disagree and not cast judgment on one another” on the topic of homosexuality. Although some members plan to split off from the church on June 8th, Cortez will remain head of New Harmony Community Church as it embraces a live-and-let-live approach “in the same way that our church holds different positions on the issue of divorce and remarriage.”
“This is a huge step for a Southern Baptist Church!!” Cortez said.
Cortez, who calls himself “everything that a conservative Christian is,” said his feelings on homosexuality changed just before discovering that his son, Drew, was gay. After hearing rapper Macklemore’s hit single about same-sex marriage “Same Love” while driving his son to school, Cortez asked Drew about the song and mentioned his new gay-affirming stance. Drew, surprised, remained silent for a few minutes, then came out to his father when they arrived at the school.
“My heart skipped a beat and I turned towards him and we gave one another the biggest and longest hug as we cried,” Cortez said. “And all I could tell him was that I loved him so much and that I accepted him just as he is … If it wasn’t for this 15 year journey and my change in theology, I may have destroyed my son through reparative therapy.”
The finer details of Cortez’s new theological stance — particularly his exact feelings on whether or not homosexual behavior is sinful — were not immediately clear, although his insistence that LGBT couples should be accepted as they are is a notable departure from conservative Christian churches that refuse to condone the presence of same-sex couples in their pews. Cortez also argued that biblical passages supposedly condemning homosexual behavior were in fact addressing antiquated understandings of sexual domination, and are not applicable to today’s committed, loving homosexual partners. You can watch Cortez’s sermon explaining more details of his position below, and his son’s own powerful “coming out.”
Despite the local church’s inclusive response, however, other members of the larger SBC denomination were quick to express outrage over the decision. Albert Mohler, the influential president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, denounced the church’s stance in a blog post on Monday, calling homosexuality sinful and challenging the possibility of a “Third Way” congregation.
“There is no third way on this issue,” Mohler wrote. “A congregation will teach a biblical position on the sinfulness of same-sex acts, or it will affirm same-sex behaviors as morally acceptable. Ministers will perform same-sex ceremonies, or they will not.”
Mohler’s post appears to be geared towards influencing conversations at the SBC’s annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland next week, where delegates will likely vote on whether or not to dismiss Cortez’s church from the denomination. But while the SBC has expelled churches in the past for affirming homosexuality — it kicked out a Texas church in 2009 for “allowing members who are openly homosexual and unrepentant” — many church leaders are starting to take a closer look at the issue. The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is planning to meet this October to discuss “the Gospel, homosexuality, and the future of marriage,” and several SBC leaders have pushed for a softer approach to homosexuality in recent months, with one minister saying, “We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage.”
The controversy involving New Harmony Community Church also comes on the heels of renewed conversation around homosexuality within the larger umbrella of evangelical Christianity. In February, Ken Wilson, pastor of Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, published A Letter to My Congregation, in which he detailed his experience as an evangelical pastor who shifted from an anti-gay stance to a pro-LGBT position. The book elicited fiery reactions from many conservative evangelical leaders, but is proving influential for many who struggle with anti-gay theology; Cortez specifically cited the book as inspiration for his congregation’s “Third Way” approach. In addition, Matthew Vines, a young evangelical, released another book entitled God and the Gay Christian this spring, which stoked its own round of controversy for making the biblically-based case for accepting homosexuality.