Sex wars in ‘Mainline’ near end?

We had an interesting discussion the other day in the comments pages after my post about coverage of the decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to approve the ordination of noncelibate gays, lesbians and bisexuals (and potentially cohabitating straights, as well). The discussion focused on the old, old, old Godbeat term “mainline Protestantism.”

A reader commented, with a valid hint of anger:

Will says …

So, does this mean that the Swedenborgian Church in North America is not “mainline”, or, like the Ron Paul campaign, has simply been declared an nonentity?

If the former, then not all members of the NCCC are “mainline”. If so, who is in this exclusive “mainline” club? …

The term “mainline” has always been used, of course, to refer to the historic and once numerically prominent churches that church historians refer to as the “seven sisters” of American Protestantism. The term “mainline” has always been linked to “mainstream,” which is as judgmental as all get out, but for decades or a century or so this word was probably culturally and statistically accurate.

At the same time, the churches listed have long had a strong northern and theologically progressive cast to them, as well. Think Philadelphia “Main Line” and you have the style of this.

Thus, the term “mainline” was a fighting word for the large and powerful churches of Southern Evangelical culture. Northern Baptists were mainline. Southern Baptists were not, no matter what the numbers said.

The question now, of course, is whether the “mainline” has become the “oldline” or even — other than in the halls of Washington, D.C. power — the sideline. Are the Assemblies of God now “mainline”? The Southern Baptists? How about Catholics? Look at the U.S. Supreme Court, which now contains at least three kinds of Catholics, in terms of faith and culture.

So the big question: Is the term officially out of date? I now strive to avoid it, other than in contexts in which I can explain what it once meant.

However, in the wake of the PCUSA decision, the Religion News Service ran a crisp, solid news feature that asked another provocative question: Are the “mainline” battles over sexuality over? In other words, due to decline in some parts of the nation and increases in others — I’m thinking the polity of the United Methodist Church — has the pro-gay theological camp won its last big victory? Here is a key chunk of that:

The momentum of the gay clergy movement, however, may soon grind to a halt.

“There is not another denomination I see on the horizon right now that is on the cusp of this,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research and consulting firm.

Officially, the PCUSA’s decades-old barrier will fall in July, after Presbyterians in Minnesota voted to effectively revoke a rule that had barred sexually active gays and lesbians from becoming ministers, elders and deacons. …

But even as gay and lesbian Christians celebrated, some acknowledged that steep challenges lie ahead in other denominations, particularly the country’s largest four: the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those four denominations, whose leaders show few signs of accepting gay clergy or relationships, together count nearly 100 million members. By contrast, the four largest denominations that allow gay clergy together count less than 11 million members. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, has about 2.1 million members.

And in one of the few “mainline” churches that remains relatively large?

Gay rights activists in the United Methodist Church, for example, have labored in vain for years to remove a rule that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and bars the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, just 32 percent of Methodist ministers want to allow gay clergy. …

Moreover, the UMC, which has about 12 million members worldwide, is growing most rapidly in Africa, where Christians tend to hold conservative views on theology and sexuality, noted Alan Wisdom, vice president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

In other words, as in the Anglican world, this story is becoming local, regional, national and global. And when one thinks about the ancient churches and the global churches, the word “mainline” takes on a completely different meaning.

It’s time to make a sincere effort to shelve this label and simply describe the reality on the ground. Name names. Quote the numbers. Detail the changes in doctrine.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John M

    The mainline denominations just haven’t been the same since the Downgrade Controversy.

    Wait, which century are we talking about again?


  • Mollie

    I really liked how the RNS advanced the story and added some perspective of the larger church. Nicely done.

  • Jon in the Nati

    rule that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,”

    If the goal were to most accurately portray the United Methodist Church’s position on the matter, it would say that the church “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

    From the UMC’s statement on Human Sexuality,here.

  • Dave

    One hundred million versus 11 million is a stark contrast. If the respective sides hold their positions it means that Christian opposition to certain BGLT goals will be an enduring fact. That is, there will often be religious overtones to the disputes.

  • Harold

    It’s time to make a sincere effort to shelve this label and simply describe the reality on the ground.

    It’s curious that you work so hard to preserve the traditional meaning of the term “Fundamentalist” a movement that has largely died of yet seem so troubled and want to toss out the term “mainline” which has a meaning that is broadly understood and continues to exist.

  • Chris Jones

    It’s curious that you work so hard to preserve the traditional meaning of the term “Fundamentalist”

    Not curious at all. The term “fundamentalist” is widely mis-used, with the effect — intended or not — of framing any discussion into which it is inserted with a secularist perspective. The term “mainline” just doesn’t carry that amount of freight. The simple use (i.e. not mis-use) of “mainline” affords the denominations to which it refers more relevance and cultural weight than they now deserve.

    It’s true that the historical meaning of “fundamentalist” isn’t that useful (outside of discussions of the history of 20th-century Protestantism). Perhaps if a new and commonly agreed-upon definition of “fundamentalism” could be developed, we could use the term in a way that is usefully descriptive rather than simply pejorative. I just don’t think that is going to happen.

  • Jon in the Nati

    The simple use (i.e. not mis-use) of “mainline” affords the denominations to which it refers more relevance and cultural weight than they now deserve.

    I would suggest that the term mainline is no longer appropriate for two reasons:

    Firstly, this group of denominations (seven or more, depending on how one looks at it) no longer represents the theological and demographic center of American protestantism. ‘Mainline’ denoted, at least in part, the social and cultural influence wielded by these churches, an influence that has, at very least, been severely blunted by demographic declines and increasing theological liberalism.

    Secondly, and most pertinent to this article, the mainline churches are no longer completely uniform in their reaction to theological and cultural liberalism. For instance, the ELCA, Episcopal Church, PCUSA, and UCC have all confirmed their openness non-celibate LGBT persons in the laity and clergy. By contrast, the American Baptist Churches, United Methodist Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal churches (considered by some to be mainline) continue to hold to more-or-less traditional Christian teaching on the subject, while the Disciples of Christ and the Reformed Church in America have yet to take really definitive stands on the issue. Point is, mainline may not be a useful term to describe a group of churches that, at least in some ways, is no longer as homogeneous as it once was.

  • tmatt


    Which is one of the crucial points made in the RNS story. I simply stressed the GLOBAL element of that, in terms of church polity.

  • Bob Brooke

    No way that the PC(USA)’s move, due to gay activist and secular humanist pressures, to ordain practicing homosexuals for their churches ends the debate. Whether or not we have the right to define for ourselves what we can do on the basis of our desires, or whether God has the power to tranform us into the image of Jesus as God sees fit for us still remains the main question for the vast majority of Bible believing Christians.