Are Mainline Protestants Christians?

I mentioned in a recent post the ongoing multi-blog discussion around Pathos on the theme of whether Mormons are Christians. A recent guest post by Steve Webb offered a different approach by asking whether Mainline Protestants are Christians, thus encouraging a three-way comparison between conservative Christians, liberal Christians, and Mormons who might be either, or both, or a third entity.

Certainly on some things, conservative Christians and Mormons might be lined up against the mainline or liberals. I'm not sure how many liberals think Jesus was pre-existent, but conservative Christians and Mormons would agree on this, however much they would then disagree on his nature.

But such comparisons only tell us so much. I remember a Muslim autorickshaw driver in India emphasizing to me how much he loves Jesus. If loving Jesus is what matters, then we can draw a wide and inclusive circle. But calling this man a Christian for that reason, when he self-identifies as a Muslim, would seem to me to be a mistake. He would presumably also accept the virginal conception of Jesus, as do conservative Christians, while most liberals again would not take such stories literally.

So the question obviously depends who is asking, and what definition of Christian they are using. There is a long history of conservatives excluding both Mormons and liberal Protestans, for different reasons. And while liberals have tended to want to be inclusive, they have sometimes felt compelled to affirm that owning slaves, supporting war, and hating your enemies put those conservatives who did or do such things beyond the pale.



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  • Robert Fisher

    I can understand the interesting intellectual exercise this might be, but are we agreed that it doesn’t really matter?

    Being Christian isn’t about judging whether another person is Christian. Being Christian isn’t about arguing over the nature of Jesus.

    Too often we allow these things to divide us and distract us from the point Jesus was trying to teach us.

    • Beau Quilter

      You are illustrating part of the problem.It is very easy to say what “Being Christian isn’t”.

      What, exactly, is it?

      • Robert Fisher

        As the 10 commandments show, negative assertions are a perfectly valid approach.

        It is just as easy to say what being a Christian is. What is hard is saying what being a Christian EXACTLY is or isn’t. Both the positive and the negative approach struggle once you bring that adverb into play. But that’s OK. We don’t have to ever figure it out exactly in order to reap lots of benefits.

        I would offer that the greatest commandment, the penultimate commandment, the 10 commandments, the sermon on the mount, and the prodigal son will get you a long ways towards understanding it enough to put into practice. It’s a nice mix of both the positive and the negative.

        • Beau Quilter

          A perfectly valid approach to what? The Ten Commandments include both positive and negative statements, but the negative statements are not attempting to define who “isn’t” a Christian (or an Israelite). The negative statements in the Ten Commandments identify actions that were considered wrong or sinful. Relating this to your “isn’t” statements makes no sense.

          You are using the words positive and negative with inconsistent meanings.

          • Robert Fisher

            You are illustrating the whole of the problem. Arguing about trivia instead of trying to understand the message.

          • Beau Quilter

            What problem?

          • Beau Quilter

            Have you read C.S. Lewis’s explanation of the need to distinguish who a Christian is? It’s in the preface to Mere Christianity. He compares the use of the word “christian” to the changing use of the word “gentleman” over the centuries.

          • Robert Fisher

            Thank you for the suggestion. I’ve been meaning to read that book, but this gave me the impetus to actually buy it. I have just read the passage you cite. I am undecided as to how much I agree with it.

          • Beau Quilter

            I’m ambiguous about other sections of Mere Christianity, but I think that the book defined for a few generations, the way that Christians viewed each other. My sense is that Lewis’s describing of “mere Christianity” had an overall effect of unifying rather than dividing Christians. After it’s publication, many denominational Christians who had once viewed themselves as separatists, began to see a great many other denominations as being, basically, in the same “camp” as far as their understanding of Christian teachings were concerned.

            You’ll notice in the same book, that Lewis describes different denominations of Christianity as doors along a hallway, and he emphasizes that, whatever door one chooses, it’s most important to find the hallway.

  • VinnyJH

    I have always preferred those varieties of Christianity that focus less on who Jesus was than on who Jesus called them to be. Nevertheless, I’m not sure but that the former don’t have the better historical claim. Jesus himself asked “Who do you say that I am?” and the early church seemed to have been consumed with the question as well. Arguing over the nature of Jesus has a long history as an integral part of the Christian experience.

    • arcseconds

      Maybe that’s the best criterion, then. If you’re not inclined to argue over the nature of Jesus, you’re not Christian :-)

  • John Walker

    Personally, I use the ancient creeds as the boundary marker (apostles, nicene, athanasian). Not that I feel it is our job to make these judgements, but I would want folks to know that by denying, let’s say, a tenet of the Apostle’s Creed, they find themselves outside the Christian tradition. They are free to think that way, yet, they can no longer by described an historically orthodox Christian.

    It seems to avoid the issue of letting our modern concerns govern the conversation. I haven’t though through this issue too much, but it seems to be a model that may by fruitful.

    John Walker |

  • Lothar Lorraine

    I have tried to define the word “Christian” here:

    Many people (both at my left and at my right) are going to disagree but I think it is a rather useful distinction.

    “And while liberals have tended to want to be inclusive, they have
    sometimes felt compelled to affirm that owning slaves, supporting war,
    and hating your enemies put those conservatives who did or do such
    things beyond the pale.”

    I think there were right. To my mind the Westboro baptists are not Christians. They are worshiping a monstrous demon they call “God”.

  • dangjin

    Paul said, if any man or angel bring a different gospel than the one we brought brought let them be accursed Gal. 1:6-9. Moroni and Joseph Smith brought a different gospel than the one Jesus, the disciples, and Paul brought.
    Mormons are not Christian and there is no discussion on this issue. They are a cult filled with false teaching and they do not know God.

    • VinnyJH

      But of course the Mormons claim that the Gospel had been corrupted by Protestants and Catholics over the years and that they had simply recovered Paul’s original message.

      • dangjin

        except that the Mormons do not have a written historical record to fall back upon to support their accusation. Please produce a tenth century Mormon (or any) manuscript that corroborates the Mormon point of view.

        • VinnyJH

          Why should Mormons care about a written historical record when they’ve got supernatural revelation?

  • Loren Crow

    When I was growing up, the question was “Are Catholics Christians?” We knew the answer: of course not, since Catholics smoke and drink.

    • VinnyJH

      My father frequently traveled to Germany on business. He was once approached by a couple of Mormon missionaries whose German wasn’t very good. After toying with them for awhile, my father finally let them know he spoke English whereupon they asked him whether he would like to attend a meeting with them. My father said “No. I already have a religion (Catholic) that I don’t like very well, but at least it lets me have a drink once in awhile.”

  • Andrew Dowling

    There is a widespread myth among evangelicals that mainline Protestants all follow the theology of John Shelby Spong. From my experience the wide majority of mainline Protestants follow and confess your basic orthodox Nicene Christianity.

  • Ian

    Interesting in all these discussions is the implicit assumption that ‘being a Christian’ accrues some benefit. Christians are saved, privileged, chosen, or blessed (its implicit, so I guess different people can have different ideas of what that means).

    As opposed to ‘Christian’ being a label, like ‘Jesus-fan’. Are Mormon’s Jesus-fans?

    Is there anywhere in the NT or early Christian writings that establishes this kind of function in the definition of Christian – i.e. ‘being a Christian’ is a metaphysical state?

    • James F. McGrath

      On the one hand, Paul’s language of being “in Christ” sounds as though it might envisage a metaphysical difference. On the other hand, Paul didn’t use the term “Christian.”

      • Ian

        Exactly. Peter talks about ‘suffering as a Christian’, and Luke says Agrippa says that Paul almost persuaded him to be a Christian. Luke also says that disciples were called Christians at Antioch. And that’s all I could find. So Christian was a common term by the time Acts was written, so I figured the early Christian texts outside the NT might have more information about what it connotes. But I don’t have a good searchable version of the Apostolic Fathers.

    • Robert Fisher

      In just about any fandom, you can find those who will say other fans of the same thing are not true fans. I am not convinced that this is really any different.

      • Ian

        That’s a really good point, Robert, nice spot. Yes.

        As for your last sentence, do you think these discussions are happening on the ‘are you a true Jesus-fan’ level, rather than on the level of attaining some benefit, then?

        • Robert Fisher

          Well, I phrased it the way I did for a reason.

          But also, we don’t necessarily consider whether there is benefit from a conversation before starting it. Whether there is any benefit can be part of the conversation itself.

          I do think the implication you pointed out is key here. Can you meaningfully answer whether someone is Christian or not without first asking why—for the purposes of that question—being Christian or not matters?

          But this is the only Patheos blog I follow, so I don’t really have all the context. Take what I say with a pound of salt.

          • Ian


            “Can you meaningfully answer whether someone is Christian or not without first asking why—for the purposes of that question—being Christian or not matters?”

            Personally I think it is a lot of angels-on-a-pinhead type stuff, but I am interested in the meta-conversation. What kinds of arguments are marshalled, what assumptions they demonstrate.