Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Is Mainline the Opposite of Evangelical?

Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Is Mainline the Opposite of Evangelical? March 17, 2016

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: I grew up in an “evangelical—fundamental” Christian home. My recollection is that this meant a high regard for scripture and belief in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. During this political cycle, the term “evangelical” is very repulsive to me and unbiblical, particularly with its apparent disdain for “the least of these brothers of mine.” If I ever had any doubts before whether or not I was an evangelical, I certainly know now that I am not.

What are the official attributes of an Evangelical Christian these days? Is the term “Mainline” used mainly to be differentiated from “Evangelical”? In other words the opposite of “Evangelical”?

Let’s start with the basics.  According to the National Associate of Evangelicals, these are the core principles of evangelicalism:

  • Conversionism: lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience.
  • Activism: gospel expression in missionary and social reform efforts.
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

It’s more difficult to find a consensus description of mainline Christianity, but here’s a general outline.

  • Salvation: both personal and corporate, and lived out in the communities of law, politics, business, science and education.
  • Justice issues, particularly for the oppressed and marginalized, take center stage.
  • A respect for the Bible as core to their faith but limited by human authorship and interpreted through historical and cultural critiques.
  • Christ is central to Christian understanding, but God remains free to exercise all options in the redemption of humanity and creation.

Not so much opposites as two positions on a religious continuum.

Now, let’s look at issues facing both Mainlines and Evangelicals.

Mainline denominations, United Methodist, Presbyterian (USA), Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA), American Baptist and United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Quakers and Reformed Church of America, see dramatic numerical declines. While generally respected, their long-term futures as institutions are in doubt.

As for evangelicals, well . . . according to much popular religious analysis, Evangelical now means obsessed with sex, arrogant, bigoted. indifferent to truth, greedy, ignorant, predatory and mean.

This extraordinarily negative view of Evangelicalism comes primarily from one of their core values: obedience to the Bible as ultimate authority. Anyone can readily lift verses out of the Bible and declare, among other things, that white races should be the master of those with darker skin; that women should not speak or have leadership roles in religious settings or control their own sexuality; that non-heterosexual people should be put to death, or if not actually executed, soundly condemned for all eternity.

BUT . . . many self-described Evangelicals are anything but predatory. Generosity pervades the evangelical world, as well as good scholarship and much courage to speak truth boldly. As for mainline denominations fading . . . sure, their structures are problematic, but the strong social influence of liberal Christianity continues to be impactful on nearly every level of life.

In my opinion, however, both sides are suffering the aftermath of having made deals with the devil.

Evangelicalism made their deal in the 80’s when the leaders decided to meld religious beliefs with political aspirations.They planned to bring a renewed sense of morality and Christian beliefs to a nation, always been uniquely religious but which showing greater signs becoming too secularized. The aftermath, however, is the rise of neo-nazism, the “make America white again” mentality, rising racism and sexism that now stains the movement.

Mainline denominational deals came earlier. During their period of ascendency and growth in the 50’s and 60’s, they, too, chose political influence and neglected the roots that had at one point formed vital churches.

Mainline religious leaders assumed that they’d always be in power. They did not give adequate attention to moving people from a comfortable, “Oh yes, I attend such and such a church–such a marvelous place to make friends and social contacts” to “I have encountered the Living and Holy God. M life will never be the same again” experience.

Right now, the negative press about Evangelicalism moves toward the tipping point as more people associate that religious movement with hatred, bigotry and hypocritical self-righteousness. That tipping point simply came earlier and more quietly for the mainlines.

Both ends of the spectrum will eventually collapse under the weight of their own arrogance and inadequate attention to their core health. Every organization, every institution including religion, stays in constant flux and re-invention.

What doesn’t disappear is the search for transcendence, the longing for something more, the unspoken awareness that there is more to life than the physical. New church forms will arise from the ashes of today. We need to find places and participate in the rebuilding process.

Even so, there will always be a new way to make a deal with the devil. Let us be on the alert.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • celia

    Well said! A thoughtful and hopeful analysis. Thanks.

  • celia

    Well said! A thoughtful and hopeful analysis. Thanks.

  • Christy, an excellent article. One I’ll probably refer to. Thanks for writing it.

  • Christy, an excellent article. One I’ll probably refer to. Thanks for writing it.

  • ‘A new way to make a deal with the devil.’
    Even goodness has its darkside but one type of goodness I abhor is telling other people how they should lead their lives.

  • ‘A new way to make a deal with the devil.’
    Even goodness has its darkside but one type of goodness I abhor is telling other people how they should lead their lives.

  • Bobby Ellis

    Most excellent read. I’ll be sharing this with my Covenant class tonight.

  • Bobby Ellis

    Most excellent read. I’ll be sharing this with my Covenant class tonight.

  • Theresa

    This answered questions I’ve recently had about attitudes in the bible belt. The attitude of bigotry and hypocritical self-righteousness is exactly what I’ve noticed; so many people in this area have that evangelical attitude. I moved from New England and the attitudes here, from Christian people, is so puzzling.

    • I’d love to know more about your observations on church and religious life as someone new to the Bible belt. Please feel free to email me (dr.christy.thomas@gmail.com) and get into conversation.

      • cken

        Just start by accepting people as people regardless their religion race or sex. All people contain good traits and bad traits. Have no greater expectations for the religious than you would an agnostic. Some you will like and some you will like less and that is OK. Just be yourself and accept others as they are.

  • Theresa

    This answered questions I’ve recently had about attitudes in the bible belt. The attitude of bigotry and hypocritical self-righteousness is exactly what I’ve noticed; so many people in this area have that evangelical attitude. I moved from New England and the attitudes here, from Christian people, is so puzzling.

    • I’d love to know more about your observations on church and religious life as someone new to the Bible belt. Please feel free to email me (dr.christy.thomas@gmail.com) and get into conversation.

      • cken

        Just start by accepting people as people regardless their religion race or sex. All people contain good traits and bad traits. Have no greater expectations for the religious than you would an agnostic. Some you will like and some you will like less and that is OK. Just be yourself and accept others as they are.

  • Dan

    I hope that the mainline churches return to their confessional roots. Be religous conservatives without being political conservatives. Have a high view of Scripture but eschew inerrancy. Accept science, but still be open minded about the miraculous. And I know this is very unpalatable to progressive Christians, but maybe Jesus DID bodily resurrect from the dead.

    On sexuality issues, it is indeed hard. Despite every liberal exegete to the contrary, the Bible still says that homosexuality is frowned-upon. We should accept them, but we should still consider that their lifestyle is deviant.

  • Dan

    I hope that the mainline churches return to their confessional roots. Be religous conservatives without being political conservatives. Have a high view of Scripture but eschew inerrancy. Accept science, but still be open minded about the miraculous. And I know this is very unpalatable to progressive Christians, but maybe Jesus DID bodily resurrect from the dead.

    On sexuality issues, it is indeed hard. Despite every liberal exegete to the contrary, the Bible still says that homosexuality is frowned-upon. We should accept them, but we should still consider that their lifestyle is deviant.

  • Jeff Wyborski

    “Mainline” is not the opposite of “Evangelical”. There are problems in both groups. “Mainline” churches have abandoned biblical teachings regarding Christ and morality in favor of the tenants of today’s political secular progressives. Evangelicals, however, while more faithful to biblical teachings, just don’t know them. Stand in front of most Evangelical Churches and take a survey on what people know of the Trinity. Half will not know what you are talking about. The other half will know “Father, Son, and Spirit” but will have no further understanding. And a large percentage will reject the whole idea of theology, knowing nothing of the history of the early church and the issues they dealt with to pass the Gospel on to us.

    • Bob Lundgren

      Sorry, not “tenants”, as in renters. The word is “tenets”, as in beliefs. This error is becoming rampant.

  • Jeff Wyborski

    “Mainline” is not the opposite of “Evangelical”. There are problems in both groups. “Mainline” churches have abandoned biblical teachings regarding Christ and morality in favor of the tenants of today’s political secular progressives. Evangelicals, however, while more faithful to biblical teachings, just don’t know them. Stand in front of most Evangelical Churches and take a survey on what people know of the Trinity. Half will not know what you are talking about. The other half will know “Father, Son, and Spirit” but will have no further understanding. And a large percentage will reject the whole idea of theology, knowing nothing of the history of the early church and the issues they dealt with to pass the Gospel on to us.

  • I’m with J. Gresham Machen on liberal Christianity.

  • I’m with J. Gresham Machen on liberal Christianity.

  • John

    I think the rapid move to the evangelical tipping point and the abundance of recent articles on this topic are revealing that many evangelicals are upset over the very same things about their “label.” Many of us evangelicals recognize and have complained ad nauseam over the erroneous and harmful marriage to politics. The term evangelical may be irreparable now, but the foundations are still there and a good many of these “evangelicals” wholly reject the fear, hatred, judgmental, sex obsessed, greedy, all white position. So what will be the new label or term as those who prefer another way flee the evangelical label, and how will be viewed?

  • candide

    Evangelicals are gnostics, not traditonal Christians.

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  • “They did not give adequate attention to moving people from a comfortable, “Oh yes, I attend such and such a church–such a marvelous place to make friends and social contacts” to “I have encountered the Living and Holy God. My life will never be the same again” experience.”
    Much of this difference lies in temperament.
    The lack of high personal drama and focus on regular corporate liturgy and formation are a draw to me, for instance. It’s not the only thing that lead me to more mainline traditions, but it’s certainly a contributing factor. My time within evangelicalism made me leery of intensely personal experiences, testimonies, and other. . . enthusiasms. There’s a high church vs. low church phenomenon that’s been on since the Reformation.
    I’m not going to question the religious experiences of others. However, in my observations the most spiritually mature people I’ve known were pretty level over time. Oh there was progress in their growth, no doubt – but that growth was steady and grounded by a temperament that seemed introspective, with an aversion to feverish spiritual crisises. It was affiliated with a focus on a public focus on the life of the church community. By contrast, it is the spiritually immature who constantly needed the dopamine hit of dramatic ground-shaking, come-to-Jesus style found in much of mainstream evangelicalism. The “conversionism” part of evangelicalism often (to me) felt forced and merely going through the motions: a show, a spectacle. To me, it’s the difference between reality television and a well made documentary.
    I don’t want to overstate the case here or pretend that this is a monolithic observation. Obviously there’s a lot of overlap and counterexamples. Some evangelicals have a very subdued and intellectual frame of mind (pietists and Calvinists) and some mainliners can be charismatic as all get out. These are stereotypes and like all stereotypes break down when you get too specific. But I do think it is the more somber, composed tone set by mainline churches that contributes to their reflective positions of current social issues, compared to the more reactionary elements in evangelicalism. So temperament can make a moral difference, in the end.

  • jjuulie

    a) why do so many of the comments here seem to have been posted twice? I don’t see this in other blogs on Patheos.
    b) Quakers are a wide mix, and shouldn’t be lumped into the “mainline” list. There are three main groups in the US, the Evangelical group; the FUM group, which is a very uncomfortable mix of more liberal and more evangelical; and the FGC group, which is just very liberal, with quite a few members that cling to Christ, but in a liberal way. Most Quaker congregations are either more conservative or more liberal than the mainline category. Although when it comes to Quakers, almost none of us like to even USE categories! We are an argumentative and troublesome lot, and proud of it! Generally…

  • Edwin Woodruff Tait

    The complication is that “mainline” describes certain denominations, pretty much all of which include some evangelicals. The UMC may have an evangelical majority at this point. Some of us who belong to mainline denominations and consider ourselves evangelical are happy to go to church with people who are not evangelicals. That, of course, bothers some other evangelicals and makes them call us not evangelical at all. But then, some evangelicals in mainline denominations fight really hard to make their denominations evangelical. Perhaps, if they won, the denominations would no longer be called mainline (the SBCs and the LCMS are no longer considered mainline because their conservatives took over and kicked everyone else out). But I think on the whole, “mainline” should apply to denominations, and it should be recognized that mainline denominations include both evangelicals and non-evangelicals.

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