If the Southern Baptist Church is a bastion of conservative American culture, then that culture is following the rest of the country toward a more accepting view of homosexuality. This year, Pastor Danny Cortez led his church, New Heart Community Church in Los Angeles, through a process of becoming officially LGBT affirming
This is a distinct break from the teachings and constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the country at 16 million members. The convention specifically defines marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.” After Cortez announced his change in position to his church, they had the right to vote on whether to expel him from the pulpit — and on May 18th they voted to keep him as their pastor. The church will become what he calls a Third Way church, meaning that congregants will agree to disagree on the topic of homosexuality.
In a letter to John Shore of progressive Christian site Patheos, Cortez wrote:
So now, we will 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. We will work towards 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 in our disagreement.
Some congregants will formally separate from the church, and Southern Baptist Convention president Albert Mohler responded to the decision on his website and stated that “there is no third way” and all but called on the convention to kick Cortez’s church out of the organization when it meets in two weeks. Even if New Heart loses its status, this pastor’s personal shift and his congregation’s openness demonstrate a ripple of change that has reached even very conservative corners of society. Cortez said that a 15 year process of discernment and hearing the testimonies of gay friends and congregants led him to reject the traditional interpretation of the Bible’s teachings about homosexuality. A few months later, he was driving his 15-year-old son Drew to school and “Same Love” by Macklemore came on. Cortez told his son that he liked the song and had changed his position on homosexuality. Once they reached the school, Drew came out to his father. Sanchez wrote, “My heart skipped a beat and I turned towards him and we gave one another the biggest and longest hug as we cried. And all I could tell him was that I loved him so much and that I accepted him just as he is.”
On February 9, Cortez delivered a sermon to his congregation about his shift in position and to invite them to participate in a time of discussion and prayer to decide how to move forward. He stated that his church’s traditional teaching of homosexuality conflicted with his faith because a commandment against homosexual relationships creates self hatred and a “sense of people feeling like they were in prison, a sentence of life with no chance to love.”
The church as a whole is currently in a process of discernment, conflict and progress. The journey is slow and at times very painful, like last month when Mary Ann Barclay, a lesbian from Texas, was blocked from continuing her ordination process in the United Methodist Church. But change is brewing. Many Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, allow the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors and clergy. More and more congregations are calling gay and lesbian pastors to serve and performing gay and lesbian marriages. Organizations like Believe Out Loud create space for LGBT Christians to tell our stories, call for change and be in community. Queer theology is gaining traction as a legitimate course of theological study. And now, a Southern Baptist Church and its pastor are officially welcoming to queer congregants.
In Mohler’s statement, he wrote:
For some time now, it has been increasingly clear that every congregation in this nation will be forced to declare itself openly on this issue. That moment of decision and public declaration will come to every Christian believer, individually. There will be no place to hide, and no place safe from eventual interrogation. The question will be asked, an invitation will be extended, a matter of policy must be decided, and there will be no refuge.
Mohler is right, albeit not exactly in the respect he thinks he is. And if New Heart Community Church and the large shifts in some other denominations are any indication, more and more churches and congregants will insist that married and single gay and lesbian Christians belong in the same pews and pulpits as straight Christians.