The Philadelphia Daily News recently featured an article about the growing polyamorous community in Philadelphia. The polyamorous triad featured in this article are members of the Love Zion Baptist Church where I serve as pastor. While I was surprised to stumble upon the article, the nature of their relationship has been common knowledge for some time. The article does well documenting the growing number of non-monogamous relationships, so I will not spend time detailing the trend, instead I will address the topic from a theological and church practitioner standpoint.
I do not presume to tell other pastors how to respond to our changing society in their unique contexts, but I can speak from my own experience. At the Love Zion Church our official position remains that God’s ideal for marriage is one man and one woman. However, without contradicting that doctrinal statement, my position as a pastor is that I love all of my members just as God does. As such they are welcome, they are loved, and they are fully included in the life of the church regardless of marital status, gender identity or sexual practice.
In addition to the polyamorous family featured in the article we also have a transgendered member who attends service from time to time. While the polyamorous community is certainly not the same as the LGBTQ community they overlap in that they represent alternative expressions of sex and sexuality and are grounds for dismissal or demotion in many churches. There are many in the greater Christian community who take offense to our open door, inclusive policy, in fact, I personally have experienced backlash. Most Love Zion members understand the love, grace and welcoming mentality that I preach every Sunday, but I have received hate mail from visitors who do not understand or agree with our policies.
Inclusion of all believers in the life of the church is in keeping with the very core of our theology. Theologically speaking we must make a choice, either we are saved by the grace of God through the blood of Jesus Christ, or we somehow earn salvation through our actions. The overwhelming Christian witness and history stand with the former. Issues of Christian lifestyle and practice are often confused with salvation, but while we should strive to meet the Godly standard of perfection, thankfully our salvation does not depend on it. Grace is by definition a free gift and salvation, while not free was paid for in full by Jesus on the cross.
I have not hidden or “sugar coated” my teachings on issues of sex and marriage, and our positions on the subject are clear to anyone who is listening, yet I have been accused by some gatekeepers of “good theology” of being soft on sin. On the contrary I am vocal in my opposition to sin; particularly the sins of self-righteousness, hatred and the malice often directed exclusively at those with alternate expressions of gender or sexuality. I do not affirm any sin, I simply choose to focus more attention on the weightier sins of the heart.
As a doctoral student I happen to be in a class now addressing the church and various issues of human sexuality, but as a student/practitioner I do not have the luxury to wrestle with these issues in theory only, or be sheltered in the halls of academia. Issues of marriage, sex, gender and human relations are front and center in the life of the church, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach of previous generations will not fly today. As pastors we need to talk about these issues of marriage, sexuality and gender because they are not going away. The views of society have already shifted, and the church must decide; is our best course of action to shun, dismiss and castigate, or to welcome all to work out their faith in a community of believers? Inclusion does not equal endorsement, it is merely acknowledging the truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. If being sin free is the standard for church membership and activity, then the church should be empty every Sunday.
My personal conviction is that a marriage involving more than 2 people does not meet the ultimate Godly standard, but I am also abundantly conscious that the same could be said of divorce. As someone in his second marriage, I dare not point the finger of accusation at someone else. Furthermore, I am certain that God has blessed and ordained my marriage, though some would see it as illegitimate. We are all at different stages on our path of discipleship and are required to be patient with those at a different place than we are. We must also live at peace with those who have come to a different conclusion on what constitutes sin based on their own reason and interpretation of scripture. Yes, the church must lift up a standard for Godly living, but that standard begins and ends with love.
My conviction is that these are not simply “issues” to be debated or wrestled with, these are people, real people, living real lives, working jobs, raising children and in need of spiritual guidance and loving community. They are people who I love dearly, and as their pastor I am more concerned with building their relationship with Jesus Christ than policing their relationship with each other.