The Challenges and Blessings of Being an Open and Affirming Congregation in New Mexixo Today

February 28, 2014

The Challenges, Blessings, and Graces of Being an
Open and Affirming Congregation in New Mexico Today
Many years ago the First Christian Church initiated a year-long study of matters relating to Human Sexuality in keeping with Denominational suggestions. We prayerfully considered the Bible and questions of homosexuality. The study concluded with a prayerful determination that God’s grace was not measured by a person’s gender or sexual orientation. Consequently, we applied as a congregation to be registered as an “Open and Affirming” congregation with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and have maintained that status for nearly a decade as has been lived out in both our denominational and congregational identification statements.
The First Christian Church is intentionally a “Caring, Open-Minded Community of Faith.” This descriptive expression of our presence in Carlsbad has been a guiding principle of our church and its ministry for many years and remains as a cornerstone of our shared ministry and outreach to the people of Carlsbad. Additionally, our denominational identity statement reads: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one Body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
In practical terms, we welcome as God welcomes—with unconditional love and a desire to restore wholeness where sin has left brokenness.  A large part of that welcome necessarily states that we do not make distinctions between or among people. In fact, our congregational Statement of Welcome reads, in part, “As a worshipping community, we gather at the Table of God’s love and grace as children of God united through our shared humanity and faith in Jesus Christ and humbly reject distinctions of age, economic status, education, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, nationality, social position, or any other identity or status that might divide us from God or one another. Such distinctions not only shatter community and destroy lives, but they disgrace the image of God.”
This created a challenge. By welcoming and blessing all, very little distinction was ever made to define who “all” represented. We did not say one is welcome here because they are gay, straight, white, black, rich, poor, young, old, or whatever. We simply said, “You are a child of God and therefore are welcome to be part of this family of faith.” The challenge arose from the fact that not everyone in this church understood scriptural admonitions the same way. There are some realities that were considered sinful and hideous by some, and were conversely blessed and affirmed by others—most notably the sensitive issues of human sexuality. Yet, in the spirit of full inclusion, these topics were rarely discussed and it was never a matter of any great concern. Quite frankly, it was not a topic we wanted to talk about and most really did not care one way or the other so we joyously went along with our shared ministry and denominational identity.
Things changed in New Mexico when same-sex marriage was legalized and Pastor Dave started preforming those weddings. This challenged many of our notions of what was right, what was sin, and what was acceptable for the church. Yet the practice was a natural, and necessary, extension of our long-held beliefs in full equality, blessing, affirmation, wholeness, and ministry expressed out of God’s love and one affirmed by our denomination.
For some, the confusion was complicated as friends and co-workers who did not understand or approve of same-sex marriage began to challenge, ridicule, and condemn our pastor and our church for the practice. In some cases, our embarrassment over the public outcry was matched only by the fact that some in this church simply did not know how to answer the hurtful and critical remarks.
The Bible does not speak of same-sex relationships in terms that are commonly understood today. The actual word “homosexual” and the concept of “sexual orientation” have no meaning in the ancient texts of the Bible. All the phrases that are used to condemn homosexuality in scripture (and there are only seven of them in the entire Bible) refer to conditions of criminal, hateful, or manipulative forms of sexual exploitation, prostitution, and rape. They bear no relevance on adult couples who are naturally, biologically, and consensually joined in a covenantal union forged in love. It is on this basis that many churches, and many in our denomination, understand the blessing of same-sex marriage to be an affirmation of God’s love and a blessing of what true marriage is—a loving, monogamous, and affirming lifetime partnership of two equals bound in God’s love.
What has happened since the change in State law has been nothing short of a miracle. Loving couples, some with 2 and 3 decade long partnerships, have had the opportunity to enjoy the same basic martial rights under the law that heterosexual marriages have long enjoyed. Additionally, our church has stood as a beacon of God’s love for many heterosexual marriages in light of the fact that there are no local judges who will preform civil ceremonies.
In a world where more and more couples are opting out of marriage in preference for simple co-habitation relationships, it is a blessing that the church can continue to advocate for the priority and blessing of marriage, regardless of gender, and still remain true to our central faith in Jesus Christ. It is who we are as Disciples of Christ.