Evangelical Denver church embraces gays

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Anthony Venn-Brown
Joined in 2005
December 23, 2009, 11:36

Evangelical Denver church embraces gays


The Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — 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 trustees.

“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 homosexuality.

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 or violence.

“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 leadership.

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.


There is disagreement about how the issue played out as Tidd was to launch Highlands as a Pathways satellite in a gentrifying Denver neighborhood last year. Tidd said he was told his stance on homosexuality would not be a problem, but Briscoe said it wasn’t clear what Tidd intended for the new site.

Last summer, the Pathways statement on homosexuality, which had not been intended for general distribution, began circulating among church members. Tidd, who said he had only recently learned of the paper, began fielding questions about where he stood. Some Pathways members made it known they would stop donating if Tidd remained on staff, he said.

So Tidd and Pathways parted ways. Highlands become a stand-alone church no longer under Pathways’ authority and Tidd announced it would be open and affirming to LGBT people.

Tidd said that in light of the decision, he also plans to give up his Christian Reformed Church ministerial credentials because his position conflicts with the denomination’s.

The exodus from Highlands began as the reason for the break became known. Tidd said over two months, the church lost half its attendance and two-thirds of its financial support.

Jim and Chris Stuhr, who were members of Highlands’ leadership team, said they were initially troubled after learning of Tidd’s views and set out to research a subject they didn’t know well.

Their conclusion — that the Bible strictly prohibits the practice of homosexuality — led to what the couple called a heart-wrenching decision to leave a church they had such hopes for.

“I have read the explanations and Biblical arguments of those who promote the gay lifestyle as acceptable in the Bible and it seems to me that they are an exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics,” Jim Stuhr said.

At the same time, the church’s position began to attract new members and strengthened the resolve of existing ones like Maura Weiler and Chad DiPrince, a married couple from the neighborhood.

“We have no real reason to champion this thing, other than we think it’s right,” said DiPrince, a 34-year-old Web developer and artist. “I just didn’t feel God would tell a person to deny a big part of who they are and to keep it a secret.”

For others, it’s not black and white. Briscoe, the Pathways elder, said he and his wife are still weighing where they stand and worship at both Highlands and Pathways.

“I think people are going to reopen their Bible and look at it and not assume anymore,” Briscoe said, adding that he thinks the Highlands position can be held by “mature, faithful, Bible-believing people.”

The two churches maintain a relationship — their members will head to New Orleans over spring break to work on a housing rehabilitation project, and other joint service projects are planned.

Just over a month ago, 81 adults showed up for 10 a.m. services at Highlands Church. Tidd started draping white ribbon over the back rows so people would sit together up front.

Last Sunday, there was a record crowd of 220. The auditorium was twinkling with Christmas lights. And four couples carried babies to the front of the church for Tidd to bless.


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Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press.

Ann Maree
Joined in 2008
December 23, 2009, 21:15

Hi Avb,

That’s really interesting and encouraging to read.

Thank you for posting,

Ann Maree

Anthony Venn-Brown
Joined in 2005
December 24, 2009, 10:44

signs of the times we are living in Ann Maree eh…..change is on its way….these stories are like the little shoots that spring up from the earth….that will eventually grow into a forest……..OMG….how poetic

Joined in 2009
December 26, 2009, 22:00

Praise God. Let us pray that this will go from a trickle to an avalanche throughout the church.I have been myself in touch with another church on the outskirts of Denver who are coming to the same conclusion as highlands community church and also a evangelical church. That the church might know what unconditional love is. The church really needs this, i have found that unconditional love can do great things within people that love Jesus.I have in my own life found it is the base for miracles.

To the church in Australia,

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love ,Ihave become sounding brass or clanging cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,and though i have all faith,so that I could remove mountains,but have not love. I am nothing

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor,and though I give my body to be burned but have not love .It profits me nothing

Love suffers long and is kind, love does not envy,love does not parade itself,is not puffed up

Does not behave rudely,does not seek its own,is not provoked,thinks no evil

Does not rejoice in it iniquity but rejoices in the truth,

Bears all things, believes all things ,hopes all things,endures all things.


1 Corinthians 13 1-8

Unconditional love is the answer

God Bless

Joined in 2007
January 9, 2010, 15:04

I maintain an attitude of cautious hope to stories like this one. Hopefully, things can and will change and are changing for Evangelical churches, but for me, I feel it may be too late in coming.

I am far too much involved and in love with my newly found Spiritualist faith, now to turn back.

But it does give me cautious hope for future generations. 🙂

Joined in 2009
January 10, 2010, 12:16

Nice to hear from you Mags. The Original story of Highlands church has become National news and The church although losing congregation when the opened their doors to Gay have since had the tables turned their congregation has increased. I feel God is starting a reconciliation in a lot of churches in the states and that will happen here. Would still love to meet

Ann Maree
Joined in 2008
January 10, 2010, 14:00

I like that the churches are still in partnership in a couple of projects despite their differing views. I think it’s encouraging that Tidd stood up for the LGBTIQ community in the way he did, and I’m glad. Perhaps as Meg said though, it may be too little too late for me to go rushing back to a similar church. I’ve outgrown some of the things I used to like.

Joined in 2007
January 10, 2010, 17:09

Nice to hear from you Mags. The Original story of Highlands church has become National news and The church although losing congregation when the opened their doors to Gay have since had the tables turned their congregation has increased. I feel God is starting a reconciliation in a lot of churches in the states and that will happen here. Would still love to meet

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is great that churches are starting to open up, but as Ann Maree said. I feel I’ve outgrown that kind of spiritual expression and praxis now.

I’m happy for the generations to come who may find a place within Christian, Evangelical Churches that is less exclusivist than what my experience has been.

Ann Maree
Joined in 2008
January 10, 2010, 18:38

Hi Meg

I think you expressed hope for others as well as openness to change in the church – it didn’t sound like you were being negative, just that you are in a different place now. And I think that’s fine. In fact it’s great that you have found such love and support in your spiritualist group. 🙂

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