Calif. convention expels 'Third Way' church
FRESNO, Calif. (BP) -- The California Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Board voted Thursday (Sept. 11) to withdraw fellowship from a church whose pastor says he believes homosexual acts are not always sinful.
In a unanimous vote of the 35 members present (six were absent), the board voted to withdraw fellowship from New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, Calif., for holding beliefs contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message. Article XVIII of the BF&M defines marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime." Article XV states, "Christians should oppose ... all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography."
Board chairman Montia Setzler sent word to Cortez of the board's decision on Sept. 12.
Setzler, pastor of Magnolia Church in Riverside, Calif., said the board was acting as the "convention ad interim" in taking the action. Article VI, Section 1 of the CSBC Constitution gives the Executive Board the "authority to act for the Convention between its sessions."
This is the first time in 74 years of existence that the convention has withdrawn fellowship from a church, Setzler said. He added that the CSBC once opted not to receive Cooperative Program gifts from a church.
New Heart first made headlines when pastor Danny Cortez told the congregation in a February sermon he had "changed [his] stance on homosexuality." The sermon, which Cortez posted on YouTube in March, has been viewed more than 46,000 times.
In the sermon Cortez acknowledged his endorsement of homosexuality "is a radical shift from the longstanding belief of our church. This is a radical shift from our statement of faith, aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention."
Cortez argued that Romans 1 does not condemn all homosexual acts but only those committed in a spirit of violence or unbridled lust. He said modern homosexual relationships are different from the ancient forms of homosexuality Paul was referencing.
In a letter to a prominent gay blogger last spring, Cortez wrote, "The church just voted two Sundays ago, on May 18, 2014, to not dismiss me, and to instead become a Third Way church (agree to disagree and not cast judgement [sic] on one another ...). This is a huge step for a Southern Baptist Church!!"
A former elder at New Heart told Baptist Press that the church in reality never adopted any position on the issue and split into two groups in early June amid unresolvable deadlock.
Following Cortez's controversial sermon, the congregation voted on four possible options and stipulated that it would separate peacefully if it did not achieve a two-thirds majority. According to the former elder, the four options presented were:
-- Terminate Cortez as pastor and maintain the traditional Christian view that homosexuality is sinful.
-- Take more time to consider the issue.
-- Establish New Heart as a "third way" church, neither affirming nor condemning homosexuality but "agreeing to disagree."
-- Become a fully gay-affirming church.
Failure to achieve a two-thirds majority led to the previously agreed upon separation.
The faction that went with Cortez retained the name "New Heart Community Church" and the articles of incorporation. See Baptist Press story.
The faction that went with Cortez was the subject of the CSBC's action.
Setzler told board members he and CSBC Executive Director Fermín A. Whittaker along with D. August Boto, executive vice president and general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, met with Cortez and a member of his church on Wednesday, Sept. 3 in the Los Angeles area.
The "best thing for convention leadership was to actually hear from" Cortez, Setzler said. "It's easy to be misquoted and misunderstood ... so we wanted to actually hear from him. It was a cordial meeting."
Setzler added, "We came away believing that Cortez still believed what he had written to the blogger."
Cortez was given an opportunity to attend the CSBC Executive Board meeting on Sept. 11 and speak, Setzler said, but "he did not choose to do that." According to Setzler, Cortez affirmed during the Sept. 3 meeting with convention leaders that New Heart "still would like to be a Southern Baptist church."
Setzler said he and Whittaker informed Cortez that the CSBC Executive Board was likely to deal with the matter of his church one way or the other. Setzler said he told Cortez that he "did not expect that there would be an outcome that allowed the belief system that the church had adopted to remain compatible with California Southern Baptists."
When an Executive Board member asked in the Sept. 11 meeting how Cooperative Program funds given by New Heart would be handled, Setzler said, "We have not offered money back because money given is given in good faith and spent" for the purposes intended.
After the vote, Setzler said, "I came away grieved that we could not come to an agreement of them moving back to what I would consider to be a biblical stance on this issue. So it is not with any joy, it is out of a sense of loss" that the decision was taken.
"This was not done lightly and ... we took extra steps in order to be able to clarify and know and not assume what [the church's] stance was," Setzler said.
When asked about potential "restoration" of the pastor and church, Setzler responded, "It is our hope that under the pastor's leadership, the church would be led back to compatibility with the articles of faith we follow as a convention. Should the pastor and congregation arrive at that conviction and reverse their current stance on homosexual practice and behavior, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss resuming fellowship with New Heart Community Church.... I believe restoration is possible, and I think there would nothing but Kingdom joy if that were to happen."
At least three board members prayed for Cortez and the congregation.
In related news, the Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association's executive board recommended in July that the association not seat messengers from New Heart at its Oct. 11 meeting. If the board's recommendation is adopted, the association will not receive any New Heart contributions, director of missions Mark Hammond told BP.
The association has not cashed New Heart's checks since news broke of Cortez's announcement that he approves of some homosexual acts. If the association votes not to seat New Heart's messengers, all of its uncashed checks will be returned, Hammond said.
See BP's story on the Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association's action.
SBC Executive Committee chairman Mike Routt told BP he "thought it likely that the EC would consider the same issues the California convention did and perhaps act on the matter" during its meeting Sept. 22-23 in Nashville.
With reporting by Holly Smith, managing editor of the California Southern Baptist, and David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press. Terry Barone is the communications group leader for the California Southern Baptist Convention and editor of the California Southern Baptist.