The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest protestant denomination, has kicked out a California church whose pastor embraces homosexuality, claiming that the minister and the church are not in “cooperation” with the SBC’s stance on LGBT issues.
On Tuesday, the SBC’s highest committee voted unanimously to “disfellowship” — or effectively break ties with — New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, California because it voted in May to become a “third way” church, or a congregation where members “agree to disagree” about homosexuality and not cast judgment on one another. The committee held that the church “does not presently meet the definition of a cooperating church” under the SBC’s constitution, which outlaws congregations that “act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”
“[New Heart has] walked away from us as Southern Baptists,” Ronnie Floyd, SBC President and pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, told the Baptist Press. “We have not walked away from them. So it is with compassion that I would appeal to them to reconsider their decision, mostly their position related to the Word of God on homosexuality.”
Controversy first sparked at New Heart earlier this year when its pastor, Danny Cortez, announced to his congregation that he no longer believed that homosexuality is a sin. In a sermon entitled “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality,” he explained that he shifted away from his anti-gay stance after years of prayer and theological reflection, and that his position was reaffirmed when his son came out to him as gay last year.
“My heart skipped a beat and I turned towards [my son] and we gave one another the biggest and longest hug as we cried,” Cortez said, recounting the experience of his son coming out. “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.”
After Cortez’s sermon, members of New Heart had the option to simply remove him from the pulpit. Instead, the congregation voted to keep him as their pastor and embrace a live-and-let-live approach “in the same way that our church holds different positions on the issue of divorce and remarriage.” The church’s decision, which came weeks before the SBC’s annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, triggered a number of heated responses from prominent baptists such as Albert Mohler, the influential president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mohler published a blog post in June blasting the church’s position and condemning homosexuality.
“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.”
Nevertheless, the church has stood firm in its decision to embrace a diversity of opinions. Deacons from New Heart submitted a letter to the committee ahead of Tuesday’s vote explaining that their congregation holds a multiplicity of positions, but also acknowledging their pastor’s firmly pro-LGBT stance.
“Some ‘members in our church’ believe that same-sex marriage can be blessed by God, while other members in our church believe that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman,” the letter read, according to the Baptist Press. “While ‘our church’ remains without an official stance on same-sex marriage, our preaching pastor has officiated a same-sex marriage.”
New Heart now joins the ranks of other churches the SBC has broken ties with for taking a more inclusive approach to homosexuality, such as Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas which was expelled in 2009 for “allowing members who are openly homosexual and unrepentant.” The expulsion of New Heart, however, comes at a time when the SBC is actively wrestling with LGBT issues: this year several prominent SBC leaders urged the church to soften its approach on homosexuality, and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is scheduled to meet next month to discuss “the Gospel, homosexuality, and the future of marriage.”