Tinney was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He exhibited an early and fervent interest in religion. He preached a three-week-long revival service at age 14 and became an ordained minister at age 18. During the 1960s, he was pastor of several churches in Arkansas and Missouri and was also an assistant editor of the Kansas City Call.
In 1962, he married Darlene Wood and they had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1969 when Tinney came out to his wife. Immediately his wife and pastor rejected him and cut him off from family, children and church. Tinney lived quietly with two successive lovers who were also active Pentecostals.
In 1973, Tinney moved to Washington, D.C., and completed his graduate education in journalism at Howard University. During this period, he was the editor of The Washington Afro-American newspaper and a speechwriter for Rep. John Conyers (Michigan) and Samuel C. Jackson, undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon Administration.
In 1976, Tinney became an assistant professor of journalism at Howard University. He helped to establish the first scholarly journal on Black Pentecostalism, Spirit: A Journal of Issues Incident in Black Pentecostalism, as well as the William J. Seymour Pentecostal Fellowship at Howard, an annual Black Religion Writers Workshop and the Society for Blacks in Religious Communications.
In 1979, Tinney came out publicly in an address to the initial Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference. In 1980, he founded the Pentecostal Coalition for Human Rights as part of his mission to help lesbians and gay men to reconcile their Pentecostalism with their homosexuality.
In 1982, he organized a three-day revival for gays and lesbians. This resulted in Bishop Samuel Kelsey, the pastor of the church where Tinney served as lay minister, excommunicating him. Later that year, Tinney founded Faith Temple, a nondenominational church with a largely Black gay and lesbian congregation. Through Faith Temple, Tinney organized several conferences to help build bridges between fundamentalist churches and the LGBT community.
James Tinney died at age 46, from complications related to AIDS.