DENVER - The auditorium lights turned low, the service begins with the
familiar rhythms of church: children singing, hugs and handshakes of
greeting, a plea for donations to fix the boiler.
Then the 55-year-old pastor with spiked gray hair and blue jeans launches
into his weekly welcome, a poem-like litany that includes the line "queer or
straight here, there's no hate here."
The Rev. Mark Tidd initially used the word "gay." But he changed it to
"queer" because it's the preferred term of gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender people invited to participate fully at Highlands Church.
Tidd is an outlaw pastor of sorts. His community, less than a year old, is
an evangelical Christian church guided both by the Apostle's Creed and the
belief that gay people can embrace their sexual orientation as God-given and
seek fulfillment in committed same-sex relationships.
Disagreements over homosexuality and the Bible have divided mainline
Protestant churches for years. In evangelical churches, though, the majority
view has held firm ? the Bible clearly condemns homosexual acts. The common
refrain at evangelical churches: "love the sinner, hate the sin."
But with younger evangelicals and broader society showing greater acceptance
of homosexuality, many evangelical churches can expect, at the least, a
deeper exploration of the issue.
"Highlands Church represents a breakout position, where you have a
gay-affirming stance that moves beyond the traditional kind of
liberal-conservative divide," said Mark Achtemeier, an associate professor
at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). "I'm finding lots of moderate conservatives
just think there's something wrong with a default position of excluding gays
from the life of the church."
David Dockery, president of Union University, a Southern Baptist school in
Jackson, Tenn., believes Highlands is ? and is likely to remain ? outside of
the mainstream of evangelical churches.
"I don't think it can be taken for granted anymore that the traditional
evangelical view will be adopted by the coming generations given the changes
and shifts in our culture," Dockery said.
That makes it all the more important, he says, for evangelical leaders to
clearly teach the traditional views on homosexuality.
The people of Highlands Church ? those who stood with their renegade pastor
and others who left feeling betrayed ? have learned that taking an uncommon
road comes at a cost.
Craig Ellsworth grew up in an Assemblies of God church and has spent most of
his life in evangelical churches. He was an administrative pastor at a large
church for 10 years.
But because Ellsworth is gay, he said he felt he could never fully be
himself. While straight co-workers were encouraged to date and find
partners, Ellsworth would risk losing his job if he did.
"There was what I was told in churches, and there was hearing God and
knowing what I believe is true of God," said Ellsworth, 48, who is not in a
relationship. "The two didn't really line up."
Ellsworth started attending Highlands Church last summer.
"I love being in a faith community that is loving and being Christlike to
others without an agenda and without labels," said Ellsworth.
Tidd said Highlands is not a one-issue church but one committed to social
justice. He describes it as "radically inclusive but still rooted in the
essentials of the Gospel." The church discourages promiscuity and encourages
healthy lifelong relationships.
Tidd said he supports gay marriage and would perform same-sex blessings if
asked. A gay man in a committed relationship sits on the church's board of
"Our position is not one of lenience, but a matter of justice," said Tidd, a
married father of five. "It's not that we don't acknowledge the reality of
sin. It's not a sin to be gay or act in accordance with your nature."
Tidd was raised a nominal Catholic in Boulder, Colo. He had a born-again
Christian experience and joined the Jesus movement of the 1960s, which
blended hippie culture and Christianity. Eventually Tidd was ordained in the
Christian Reformed Church and shared its conservative position of
His change of heart began when, as a pastor in Boulder, a distraught couple
sought his counsel when their young daughter began identifying as a boy ?
introducing Tidd to the transgender issue.
He began to question applying the "plain meaning" of ancient Biblical text
to here-and-now homosexuality. The Bible, read literally, suggests the earth
is flat and could be used to justify slavery, he said.
He accepted the Biblical interpretation of other gay-affirming Christians:
that verses condemning homosexual behavior refer to idolatrous pagan worship
"We reach an understanding of the Bible not just by studying God's word, but
by studying his world," Tidd said. "If you think he's the author of both,
they both inform each other."
If evangelicals can disagree about end-times theology and baptism methods
and still be considered authentic Christians, he thought, why can't the same
tent hold disagreements about homosexuality?
Tidd took his beliefs in 2006 to a job as a pastor at Denver's Pathways
Church, an urban evangelical congregation that prides itself as a safe place
to ask questions. Tidd said he didn't hide his views from church leaders but
didn't air them at length as a pastor, either; homosexuality was never a
central issue for the church.
But behind the scenes, the societal debate over homosexuality and Pathways'
welcoming posture had forced its hand. Ed Briscoe, a member of Pathways'
board of elders, said leaders felt they needed guidance on whether gay and
lesbian members not living in celibacy should be allowed in church
A church elder produced a nine-page case for the traditional evangelical
stance. While making clear the church does not consider homosexuality "the
worst sin or the most evil practice," the statement says the Bible uniformly
condemns homosexual relationships and only permits sex between a man and
woman united in marriage. "God made male and female to fit together," it
says, and homosexual acts violate God's intent.
The door at Pathways would remain open to gays and lesbians. But with
leadership had to come celibacy.