This article appears in Faithfully Magazine No. 1 (Spring 2017).
On Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, pastor Danny Cortez delivered a sermon entitled “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality.” Before the year was over, his congregation, New Heart Community Church, had lost about half of its members and been dropped by the Southern Baptist Convention for choosing to become a Third Way congregation. As a Third Way church, New Heart holds that its members can enjoy fellowship while agreeing to disagree on whether the Bible condemns homosexuality. Three years later, the California pastor says his church is better off, as it is a body that now understands more intimately the gospel’s liberating power. But does he have any regrets? Are there things he wishes he could change about his confrontation with the SBC and disaffected New Heart Community Church members?
It’s going on three years now since your church was dismissed from the Southern Baptist Convention. How have things developed with the faith community you’re leading? How is your relationship with folks who decided to leave?
Our faith community has gone well. I think we’ve stabilized from the split. We went through a healing process and we’re now… I think what it did, was it actually helped us to see other areas that we were being oppressive with. When you open your eyes to one area of discrimination it helps to open your eyes to a lot of other things. So as a church, we’re not just focused on LGBTQ discussions, but also with racial issues, with women’s oppression, the ban on Muslims now, and just a lot of other things. So there definitely has been a greater awareness of justice issues.
I read in some reports that half of the congregation left when you decided to take this new direction. Was it really half? And have any new members joined your faith community?
When the church went through a split, the vote was 60 percent to become Third Way and 40 percent chose to remain traditional. So even though 40 percent chose to remain traditional, another 10 percent were kind of in the middle, felt like it was a divorce and just couldn’t stay. So yeah, it was roughly about half the people that left. So we are what we call a Third Way church where we are willing to hold the tension, disagreements in different areas of theology, and this being one of them.
One of the things I told the Southern Baptist Convention in our process of dismissal when they said the Third Way is impossible, was that as a denomination and as local churches we are already Third Way. Especially in regards to divorce and remarriage, where some pastors are officiating divorce and remarriage. You know some pastors are officiating divorces and remarriage that under Southern Baptist theology would be considered adultery. So I’ve told the denomination that we’re already practicing the Third Way in regards to straight issues, to what we would call straight sins. But we don’t seem to…we aren’t willing to hold disagreements in other areas. That’s what I was trying to call attention to with our denomination.
So why do you think that might be? Why divorce, some would say, gets a pass in the SBC?
I think, for one, it has to do with relationships. Most of us know a couple that has been involved in a divorce and remarriage that would qualify as non-permitted. Non-permitted would be there wasn’t adultery involved and yet they chose to remarry anyway. So because we have these relationships, we develop a greater empathy for people that are going through that. I think that’s a large part of it. Part of it is also because… We hear their stories and we know that they’re good people, that they shouldn’t be ousted from the church. We aren’t aware of those kinds of stories with LGBT Christians. I think because we aren’t interacting and we don’t know them on a personal, deep level, it’s easier to pass judgment on people we don’t know.