let’s start over: Defining “Mainline” and “non-Evangelical”

Over the past week, I posted several explorations of the mainline/evangelical divide. (Milton has one as well.) It hasn’t been pretty.

Well, I think we need to step back. An ‘E’vangelical is pretty easy to spot. They will more often than not hold to some form of strict inerrancy/infallibility. I do not mean that “scripture contains all things necessary for salvation” but that Scripture is infallible in all things it touches — science, theology, history. Words and phrases like “inerrant,” “infallible,” and “all sufficient” are tossed around as supreme and needed additions adjectives to Scripture. Further, they usually reject other elements of T/traditional Christianity.

In the discussions last week, several thing became clear:

  1. The Mainline/Evangelical divide is a uniquely American thing. Evangelical in Europe and Canada can mean something different than how we would use it. For instance, while Wright is a high church Anglican without a high view on inerrancy, he is still an evangelical.
  2. Evangelical is a word/label that should apply to those who believe in the power of the Gospel and as such, Mainliners who are not inerrantists but believe in the power of the Gospel feel somewhat slighted when you take the label away from them.
  3. The Old Mainline was the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism.” These were the established (European-based/point of origin) churches, in some form at the start of the country. They were the central focus of the local communities and held sway for much of the country’s history. Thus, if we define “mainline” as one belonging to dominant denominations or communions, it is possible to now include the Roman Catholic Church as a mainline denomination.

So, “mainline” is an American thing. It doesn’t require a belief in inerrancy but can and should believe in the power* of the Gospel*. Further, a mainline denomination holds sway upon large parts of the American public and may even become involved in the political sphere. The denominations are larger than a sect, has historic doctrine, and is seen.

So, the new mainline would be who?

  • The Roman Catholic Church
  • The United Methodist Church
  • The Southern Baptist Convention
  • The Latter-Day Saints (remember, they are the dominant group in several western States)
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • Assemblies of God

But, there is a problem with limiting a group to just the big X (6 in this arbitrary case). Further, it doesn’t get us to where we need to be in determining who are those non-inerrantists/infallibilists Christians with some measure of influence in American Christianity. It doesn’t really help in defining anything except for who the powerful groups are.

So, let’s get down to the personal level. What describes a non-Evangelical Christian?

  • Separate evangelical from Evangelical. A non-inerrantist can still believe in the power of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture as Wright has so eloquently demonstrated. While there is some disagreement about what Vatican II’s definition represents, I tend to agree with a plain sense reading of it:

    “Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.”

    This looks like Articles of Religion VI,

    “Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of Holy Scripture, we do understand those Canonical books of the Old and New testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.”

    Thus, a non-Evangelical is one who simply does not hold to a strict inerrancy of Scripture.

    A non-Evangelical is also likely to accept science asa beautiful book” and as such, seek via media when it comes to understanding Truth.

  • A non-Evangelical Christian will understand, appreciate, and often highlight the role Tradition plays. Everyone has Tradition, whether they know it or not, even inerrantist Evangelicals who refer to codified language to support inerrancy, or any of the solas. Tradition may approach some measured stature in the eyes of the non-Evangelical. This may be called canonical theism, where Scripture is not alone in acting as an authority for the Church. Tradition includes the creeds and other aspects often dismissed as extra-biblical by Evangelicals, such as a high liturgy. Like Tradition, even “free churches” employ a liturgy, even if they do not place it on a piece of paper and candles are absent. If you are brave enough, walk into, say, a Church of Christ and ask the pastor to preach first and then have everything else afterwards. Liturgy, including lectionary readings and litanies, not only has shaped doctrine but so too shapes us approaching God. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The liturgy is designed, or should be designed, to have Christ as its center, preferably in the Eucharist or in the delivering of the Gospel. We participate in the Liturgy and as such, our individuality is shaped and molded into a corporate experience of celebrating the Risen Savior.
  • A non-Evangelical Christian will have a higher view of ecclesiology. For example, I maintain that the United Methodist Church is a non-Evangelical church because of the Book of Discipline. My ecclesiology is as such that even if I disagree with various items in the BoD, I do not believe pastors should break covenant. We are an episcopal church, with oaths given and taken to act in concert with the covenant. If I were a pastor, I do not believe I should find it within myself to act as an independent. Rather, I surrender my authority to the Bishop. While the Southern Baptist Church is part of the New Mainline, it is still a deeply Evangelical church because in the end, it is an association of independent pastors and congregations.

There – Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I think we’ve narrowed it down enough to start to present a list of influential non-Evangelicals (if non-Evangelicals we mean non-inerrantist/infallibilists).

So… thoughts on this?

Post By Joel Watts (10,049 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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21 thoughts on let’s start over: Defining “Mainline” and “non-Evangelical”

  1. I am going to stick with my unknown people in the trenches and two little known individuals that have had a large impact, Mike Foster and Craig Gross. Those shall be my suggestions.

  2. Sociologists often treat Southern Baptists as a subculture. After all, it was a breeding ground for Ku Klux Klan inculcation. As with Catholicism, it’s various prohibitions, phobias, and paranoias make this species of Christianity more reactionary than dynamic.

    • i wonder if we can – and with pause because I am a southerner by the grace of God (insert rebel yell) – consider reactionism as part of the southern make up?

      • My ancestors were in the South before the Lost Cause. Males fought and helped finance both the American Revolution as well as the War Between the States. Some of the latter were first generation Klan. Before some of their descents died of old age, a few still celebrated Lee’s birthday as if he were one of the family. Consequently, I am very much aware of the Southern disposition. That’s one reason I still pack!

      • Why naturally, he’s SBC’s great black hope. (If you don’t understand the humor in that one, look up the two Jacks – Johnson and London.)

  3. Are you sure you meant Evangelical Lutheran Church and not the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church? Just checking my own understanding of both factions…

  4. To say that the Southern Baptists were a breeding ground for the KKK is a fairly drastic over simplification. Religion did not really enter into clan life at the beginning. It’s start was political, not religious. The fundamentalist interpretation of scripture came to play an important part in the clan, but the SBC does not adhere to the same literal interpretation as the clan does or did. The clan came to accept a perverted interpretation of serpent seed doctrine, itself a perverted interpretation. The SBC, the largest organization of Baptists, has denounced the KKK as a matter of record. Now, it is a fact that the KKK went out of its way to infiltrate and recruit from churches, notably the southern baptists, saying that they promoted the KKK is an over simplification.

      • The KKK started as a social club for confederate veterans and turned into a violent and disgusting hate group as a reaction to the political decisions regarding southern reconstruction by the then Republican party. It’s beginnings were rooted in politics, so I think that we should lay the blame for them where it belongs is all. They did a masterful job of infiltrating the church and perverting the teachings, but it did not begin there. The poor whites in churches were simply easy victims for recruitment. Just to be clear, the KKK and what it did and does represent is repugnant.

        • You’ve managed to homogenize Klan history. The reaction to Reconstruction was true for the first Klan. The appeal to poor whites describes the second Klan. What the Klan did, and is doing, during its various incarnations is more complex than described in most descriptions. So has the socioeconomics of its adherents.

          • I am sure that the nuances and complexities of the Klan are beyond me.

          • We’re not talking “nuances” so much as very different organizations in term of both structure and membership over time.

      • Actually, the academic research extends back to the days before the internet became popular.

        • Why naturally, he’s SBC’s great black hope. (If you don’t understand the humor in that one, look up the two Jacks – Johnson and London.)

  5. I always think of the SBC as more evangelical than mainline. That shows my own bias, though–I think of the SBC that way mainly for its hardline stance on “gender roles”. Their interpretation of scripture also tends to be pretty literal in general, though, from my limited knowledge/exposure.

    The PCA strikes me as the SBC but with alcohol. (And with a band instead of a choir, but I digress ;-) )

    None of this takes into account governance of any denomination. Having said that, the Convention has centralized power somewhat, making the convention feel more like a denomination. Have you heard of/about the Baptist Faith and Message?

    • SBC evangelism explains how the regional denomination became a quasi-national church in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even into the 1990s, a surprising number of movers and shakers on the national scene had Southern Baptist affiliation. If fact, that list almost constituted a who’s who of Washington politics.

    • Yup, I have. I guess for the new mainline, it is more about presence and power – and for now, the SBC has both. ;(

      But you are correct – the SBC is centralizing.

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