It’s no secret debate over homosexuality has divided many of the main denominations in the United States. Some denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the ELCA Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal Church have taken the liberal path, voting to allow gay men and women to serve as pastors and lay workers, as well as allowing same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states, with more states expected to come on board in the coming months. In Colorado, same-sex civil unions have been approved, but same-sex marriage is still not yet legal.
One denomination that has stayed out of the fray has been the Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest denomination in the United States, second only to the Catholics. That being said, recent statistics show that Southern Baptist membership is declining. In 2013, it was in its seventh year of decline, down to 15.7 million from 15.9 million the previous year. Weekly attendance also decreased by more than 2 percent, while the number of congregations increased to 46,125.
Thanks to a Southern Baptist church in California, the issue of homosexuality is about to become a matter of debate within the ranks of the churches. The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Church was last week in Baltimore, and it was expected that New Heart Community Church of La Mirada, California, would spark debate.
The SBC constitution and bylaws forbid churches “which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.” At the center of the storm is New Heart pastor Danny Cortez, who announced to church elders that he had changed his mind about homosexuality being a sin. He admitted in a sermon that “it was understood this was a radical shift from the longtime stance on our church” and it also was a “radical shift from our statement of faith for the congregation aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The leaders of the church agreed to keep their pastor after he came out in support of homosexual behavior. The congregation also was to be re-categorized as “Third Way,” meaning it would be more open on the issue of homosexuality and identified as neither liberal nor conservative.
That decision by Cortez’s church didn’t sit too well with Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who basically said no way, third way. He made it clear when he said “The convention’s constitution states explicitly that any congregation that endorses homosexual behavior is not in cooperation with the convention, and thus excluded from its membership.”
How Pastor Cortez reached his conclusions is interesting. He stated that shortly after the church began in 1997, church members started coming to him confessing in counseling they had feelings of same-sex attraction. He felt there was something “different” about those confessions than those from other parishioners. He stated that when he would talk about the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, “it was more a mood of ˜dread and ˜basically me telling them for the rest of your life you can never fall in love.” Then came the final straw in August, when his his 15-year-old son told him he was gay.
The pastor’s church voted last month on whether or not to fire him, but instead the majority voted to become a “third way” church, agreeing to disagree on the morality of same-sex relationships and not cast judgment on one another. Cortez called it “a huge step for a Southern Baptist Church.”
I have no doubt the “third way” movement will become a topic of discussion in Southern Baptist churches across the country. It will be interesting to see how different churches will react to the issue that has been a source of conflict and controversy for hundreds of years, but much more so more recently.
The fact thatthe Southern Baptist Convention – the second largest Christian denomination in the United States – is currently ready to debate the phenomenon of homosexuality is a sign that most evangelical Christians are no longer at odds with both the etiology and public recognition of the rights of homosexuals to be part of the Christian Church.
No longer are misogyny and homophobia welcomed in the lives of most Christian people, whose modern understanding of gender and sexuality has changed radically over the past two decades. Since the furore unleashed by the acceptance by The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States of homosexual clergy and bishops; other denominational churches have been forced to re-visit their own culture of resistance to open acceptance of gay people in ministry – largely as a direct result of the refusal of young people to accept the denial of the common human rights of LGBT people, who are no longer considered to be ‘agents of the devil’ and unworthy of church membership.
It took just one pastor of the conventional Southern Baptist Church to experience his own family crisis – with the revelation of the fact that his own son was actually gay – to precipitate what has turned out to be a strong movement in the conventional churches of the Southern Baptist Union to re-examine the basis of its attitude towards homosexuality as a naturally occurring phenomenon among a small percentage of human beings.
If the Southern Baptists join with the other evangelical Churches in the U.S. in their acceptance of Gays in their community, this could be a very strong influence to protestant Christians to follow suit. This would be a sign of justice prevailing in an area of concern for many of us in the Church.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand