As churchgoers around the Valley return home from services this Sunday afternoon, a former deacon named Dave will be hosting a special nondenominational "fellowship meeting" for a select few of his own followers.

Nothing particularly unusual about that, except for one thing. Dave has never actually laid eyes on any of his 20 guests before. Nor do any of the people who'll be attending the couples-only event know each other, either.

Not to worry, though. Since Dave's Christian coffee klatsch is "clothing optional," most guests at the house party will probably not remain strangers for long. And if all goes according to plan, a few members of this newly formed flock may eventually get to "know" each other even better--as in the Biblical sense.

Tryst almighty! What, pray tell, is going on?
According to Dave, the group's director and co-founder, Liberated Christians is a national network of "enlightened" Christian couples interested in exploring "responsible nonmonogamy" with a clear conscience. Recruiting members through ads posted on computer bulletins and in sex tabloids, the Phoenix-based group is believed to be the only Christian-oriented swingers group in the country.

"First of all, we are not a church and we've got no intention of becoming a church," says Dave, who requests that his last name not be used. "And we are never going to be a traditional swing club, just getting together for the sake of having sex."

Heaven forbid!
"We try to avoid the 'S' word around here," explains Dave. "Not that there's anything wrong with it, but most people associate swinging with wild parties and sex orgies, and that's not what we're about. Or at least, not as most people understand it."

Waving a copy of a sensationalistic article about his organization that appeared in a skin magazine several months ago, the good-natured "polyamorist" rolls his eyes to the heavens in mock exasperation.

"Contrary to what Adam magazine might like you to believe, we are not 'holy hedonists,' nor are we 'faithful fuckers,' as they so colorfully put it," says the nonmonogamous messiah during a recent interview in his office in a midtown business complex. Laughing, he adds, "And I can assure you that, no, we won't be conducting any 'Jacuzzi baptisms,' either."

Instead, under the guidance of Dave and a friend named Bill, soul-seeking sybarites attending Liberated Christians' inaugural meeting will spend the afternoon engaged in a variety of exercises--staring into one another's eyes, stroking each other's faces, like that--designed to expand, explore and otherwise spelunk the uncharted depths of human sensitivity and nonsexual intimacy. And if a newly enlightened soul suddenly gets the urge to get in physical touch with himself--or others--well, praise God and pass the KY Jelly. "Some woman wants to climb on the Sybian and go wild?" says Dave, referring to a masturbation machine that'll be available. "Fine. And if someone else decides to drag three men into the bedroom with her, that's okay, too. Liberated Christians is about choices and options. We're not against pleasure. Far from it."

Middle-aged, paunchy and graying, the nonmonogamy messiah may be an unlikely looking sexual libertine. But since slapping a name on his epiphany two years ago, Dave has spent thousands of dollars mailing out his literature, all of it adorned with Liberated Christians' Hallmark Card-like logo and motto--a huggy bear accompanied by the slogan "Huggers Embrace Life." A weird wedding of sex, Scripture and pop psychology (the group's introductory literature may be the only publication on Earth where you'll find the phrases "Old Testament" and "vibrating nipple clamps" on the same page), the information packet currently includes a dozen different brochures. Topics range from a rather impenetrable 50-page treatise on the Liberated Christians sexual ethic to a practical four-pager on G-spots and where to find them. And a special report titled "The Facts, Not Hysteria" offers peace of mind to reticent swingers who fear the threat of AIDS; armed with statistical data, Dave offers the comforting thought that Liberated Christians (the non-drug-using, heterosexual variety) are far more likely to be killed in a car crash en route to a swing club than they are of contracting the deadly virus once they get there.

"The response has been overwhelming," says Dave, whose confidential mailing list now numbers more than 1,000 enthusiasts. No longer able to single-handedly foot the bill for printing, postage and handling, he's now requesting a $20 donation to defray costs of the monthly newsletters, "special reports" and other mailings.

Of course, some of his promotional attempts haven't panned out as well as others--like last fall's unsolicited mass mailing that succeeded only in puzzling some 3,000 single women in the 85016 zip code area who received it. Intended to equalize gender balance within the group, the pricey fiasco didn't draw a single response.

And Dave hasn't been much more successful in bringing the message to baffled bachelors in the lay community. Such confusion is probably inevitable: The group's plea for Christian carnality is frequently sandwiched in the back of sex magazines between ads for amateur porn videos and transsexual dominatrixes. "Although we spell out 'couples' in the ad, we still hear from single guys--a lot of them," rues Dave. "Some send us letters describing in inches just how well they're endowed. Others send snapshots of their genitals." Dave shrugs. "If we could offer something for single guys--some sort of sex club--we could fill America West Arena and make a fortune. Well, number one, we can't. Number two, we don't want to. That doesn't mean we're not unsympathetic, but just that we can't do for them what they want done."

Pointing out that he and co-founder Bill can't exactly pass out fliers in the pews or advertise in church bulletins, Dave remains confident that the pair's message has finally found its audience. Even if it's taken two long years. Prior to Sunday's hands-on get-together, the group's first, his movement was nothing more than a school of thought--or of wishful thinking. "I don't think we're looked upon as two horny single guys trying to get laid," insists Dave.

Well, maybe.

The product of a "repressive Christian background," Dave jokes, "If my parents knew what I was doing, they'd die. In fact, one of them already did." The 47-year-old bachelor now claims he wasn't even aware of the lifestyle he now espouses until his marriage broke up in the early Eighties.

"Are you kidding?" asks the man who used to think swinging was something you did on a porch. "Back in Minneapolis, I was a Billy Graham counselor, and you don't get much more conservative than that. I was very active in the church. My wife and I were seen as the ideal Christian couple."

But the marriage everyone assumed had been conceived in heaven was actually a living hell. Alarmed over his wife's escalating bouts of violence (when riled, she made tracks for the cutlery drawer), Dave sought the services of a church marriage counselor. To Dave's astonishment, the counselor advised him to get out of the marriage for his own safety.

"The surprise to me was that here was a Christian counselor suggesting that we separate," recalls Dave. "That's when I started to question some of my fundamental beliefs, like the idea that marriage is forever, for better or for worse, no matter what happens."

Suddenly "resingled," the future nonmonogamist took a long, hard look into the figurative mirror mounted over his onetime marital bed. He didn't like what he saw. That prompted the intense self-awareness odyssey that's taken him from theological debates and nude encounter groups on through sex surrogate workshops and practically every touchy-feely movement of the past 25 years.

"In the context I was raised, which was a very conservative Christian context, the whole idea of sex, period, was sleazy," explains Dave. "Outside of sex in the marriage bed to make babies, sex was sleaze. Well, number one, the Bible never condemns multiple relationships; it never says a word against them. Number two, human beings are not monogamous by nature. My God, just look at the divorce rate."

Several years ago, upon answering an ad placed by a Christian nudist network, Dave found a kindred spirit in Bill. Like Dave, the former minister asks that neither his last name nor certain identifying details of his life be used.

"While we may be cowards, we are not fools," says Bill of his request for semianonymity. "I know a lot of people for whom these liberated ideas have created a lot of conflict within families and marriages because one spouse will 'get it' and the other spouse doesn't. That's a difficult thing."

A fit, intense-looking man who appears a good ten years younger than his actual age of 52, Bill speaks from experience. Although his own wife never did "get" his desire to share their love with other couples, she eventually got something else--a divorce. When the eyebrow-raising story behind the split hit the grapevine, Bill claims he was "persecuted" by friends and family.

"In polyamory like Liberated Christians are talking about, people have made careful, conscious decisions to do what they're doing," he says. "This is not something that came up overnight because somebody likes the looks of the lady across the street."

And shame on naysayers who would even deign to suggest that Liberated Christians is just an elaborate way to rationalize a deep-seated guilt trip that might be more effectively dealt with on a psychiatrist's couch rather than a communal water bed.

"Many loving people share sexuality selectively with others," insists Dave. "There doesn't have to be something wrong at home, which is what the therapists always make it sound like. Although we're not suggesting that this is for everyone, in some cases it can actually help make the primary relationship stronger."

In spite of Dave and Bill's proclamations, the brave new sexual utopia advocated by Liberated Christians will come as a revelation only to someone who's spent the last 25 years with his nose buried in green bean casserole at the church potluck dinner. Strip away the theological justification and the group isn't saying anything new. Way back in '69, swinging suburbanites Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice wrestled with identical issues in the popular group-grope comedy of the same name. (Okay, so B&C&T&A never did get around to exploring, as Dave and Bill have, the concept of "extended male solo orgasm.")

Like many of the once-daring ideas explored in that film, sexual revolution groundbreakers such as nude encounter therapy and open marriage haven't aged gracefully. Viewed from the vantage point of the morning-after a quarter-century down the road, these dated notions now seem every bit as intellectually and erotically compelling as a thrift store copy of The Sensuous Woman.

Dave counters that no message is stale if you're hearing it for the first time. "I just wish that I had had me to listen to 15 years ago," he says.

Aware that fundamentalists will probably see them as shop teachers in the devil's workshop, the founders of Liberated Christians suggest that their critics should take another look at original Scripture, not latter-day adaptations he says mistranslate or misapply the intent of the original text.

"The guys in the pulpit have been telling us that God says only one-on-one couple relationships are right," explains Dave. "But if you go back to Hebrew times, that's not how it was practiced."

Trotting out Biblical factoids (Solomon had 700 wives and umpteen concubines, the old swinger), Dave says, "We seek to understand what was really said in the original Greek/Hebrew texts as understood by the culture in which it was written. We believe that a more loving, caring, open and honest lifestyle"--read: "responsible nonmonogamy"--"is totally compatible with true Christianity and Christ's love."

But what about the seventh commandment, the one that takes a dim view of adultery?

No problem, says Dave. He explains that, as originally written, the edict "was understood only to apply to women, because back then they were understood to be the property rights of man." And, he reasons, since men no longer "own" their wives, the commandment theoretically doesn't apply to anyone.

While there's debate among learned theologians over translations and interpretations of some aspects of the Bible, some observers dismiss Liberated Christians' manipulation of the facts and half-truths as little more than a means to an end.

"There are lots of people making the kinds of arguments they're making," concedes Joel Gereboff, associate professor of religion at Arizona State University. "But the point is that if you're going to do that, you need to develop a consistent position and then apply it consistently--something these people don't seem to be doing. You can't simply cherry-pick your way through the Bible, ignoring things that don't happen to strengthen your case."

Adds Gereboff, "Their arguments sound very self-serving."
Which is probably to be expected. Claiming he isn't at all surprised to hear that Christianity has somehow infiltrated the swing community, another religion authority at ASU who prefers to remain nameless says, "People are constantly trying to find justifications for their behavior."

Having seen the light, Dave and Bill are eager to share the lamp. Truth be told, even Liberated Christians' founding fathers haven't yet got it made in the shade.

"I'm sure there have been people turned off by us because they think we're a couple of horny guys," admits Bill. "We're both working away from that, though."

Both guys have a ways to go.
Bill already has a partner, a female minister named Julie. Trouble is, she lives in Pennsylvania. "We're trying to get her out here, though," says Bill.

Dave is not as lucky. Although he estimates he's met "hundreds" of women through newspaper personal ads, he's still looking for that certain Christian someone who shares his "the more, the merrier" zeal for loving.

There was someone a while back, but Dave says the relationship fell apart when he and the woman couldn't find another twosome who measured up. "We were looking for something between the ears, not just between the legs, and we couldn't find a couple like that," he says.

The courtship ended on a bittersweet note when Dave helped the woman find another man through a personal ad in the paper. The couple eventually married and today, Dave reports, leads an idyllic--and monogamous--existence.

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