ARE there dividing lines between Mainline and Evangelical?

Religions in Austria-Hungary, Andrees Allgemei...
Religions in Austria-Hungary, Andrees Allgemeiner Handatlas, 1st Edition, Leipzig (Germany) 1881, Page 48, Map 2. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, across several platforms, I posted and discussed this question. As you can imagine, it went smashingly well. Everyone loved the list!

Except no. No, they didn’t. Rather, people were upset that I included Catholics and mentioned the Orthodox. Further, even though I stated that people argue over whether or not Rachel Held Evans is an Evangelical or a Mainliner, they still argued. Seriously. Even when I linked to one of her posts about his very topic, they still insisted one or the other.

Eventually, I just updated the post to include the idea I am going to change the title of the list. I’m just trying to make a point, over all, that there are plenty of Christians, influential or otherwise, that are not considered or do not consider themselves the specific type of American Evangelicalism.

There is a great move towards social justice in many Evangelical (sub)groups and for that, I thank God. Do you think the view on Scripture and Tradition (Scripture is infallible in all things, Tradition is near to worthless) is a good start for a line?

Further, there are great theologians that are non-inerrantists.

Basically, I could really find no better dividing line than that of the view of Scripture.

But, I put this to you.

Are there dividing lines between Mainliners and Evangelicals? The lines between Catholics/Orthodox and Protestants of any variety are pretty easy to discern. Either you are a Catholic/Orthodox are you’re not. The same easily exists between various Protestants. Either you are a United Methodist or you are not.

But the dividing line between Mainline (which seems not to be something negative) and Evangelical (some people use this correctly, others not) is not so easy to grasp. I’m guessing because “Mainline” means, for a lot of people, a dying breed of Christianity. Evangelical means… well, it seems for Mainliners it means those who go and witness/serve for the Gospel. For Evangelicals, this term helps to codify something different.

Anyway, thoughts?



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27 Replies to “ARE there dividing lines between Mainline and Evangelical?”

  1. I think Michael may be on to something there. Bibliology doesn’t seem to make sense since there are non-inerrancy Evangelicals (Fuller Theological Seminary; George Fox Evangelical Seminary; Seattle School are three institutions that don’t affirm inerrancy, or, at least require it from faculty). Some Mainliners with a so-called “high” view of Scripture, e.g. N.T. Wright (Anglican) or Richard B. Hays (Methodist), may be “Evangelical” in a Mainline setting though, so that may be one problem with Michael’s suggestion because that would mean some self-declared Evangelicals are also self-declared Mainliners.

    1. Brian, I think we are moving in the right direction. So, a nice dividing line is the value of the Great Tradition as something next/near to Scripture, sharing some of the same qualities? Like Abraham’s canonical theism?

  2. Not to wax philosophic, (to late, I know) but maybe the problem we are having in trying to draw these lines is that they really shouldn’t be there. I am not advocating that we should get rid of the things that make us distinctive, but perhaps trying to draw these lines is somehow inherently a problem. There are obvious lines between catholic and protestant, between Calvinist and Arminian, between dispensation theology, Amillennialism and historic premillenialism. Those lines were not so much created as sprang out of differing theological traditions. When we start with evangelism as a whole and the mainstream church, I don’t know that we are talking about differing traditions so much as differences in emphasis of certain parts of the scripture is all. Either that, or none of this made sense and I am crazy lol.

  3. If I understood the question and the definitions, having traveled across the “evangelical” spectrum, including but not limited to the Pentecostal spectrum, (and other activities in this area, TV, Radio and live translations in crusades, tv lip-sinc etc.), I think these are dividing lines that are thicker and more serious than anyone can surmise: (some are theological and some not)

    (not an exhaustive list, but what I noticed in the 80’s and 90’s when I was operated the “arminian” evangelical crowd)

    1 – Open or closed communion
    2 – Baptism as a means of grace or just a meaningless symbolic memorial
    3 – The crowd who donates (yes… a dividing line and a point of serious competition)
    4 – Immersion alone (some evangelical label some Baptists the “immersion cult” echoing some Lutherans)
    5 – Formal or “spirit led (their definition) worship
    4 – Multiculturalism – some churches have multicultural services not as a ministry, but as segregationlism.
    5 – Left behind’ism (premillennialism, pos, amil)
    6 – Full or partial preterism (this I am sure will surprise some) – 5 and 6 are in the area of eschatology
    7 – Tithe as part of the law or offering as taught by Paul
    8 – Para-church organizations and their existence
    9 – Ecclesiastic discipline
    10 -Full and complete inerrancy not only in doctrinal issues but also “word by word”.
    11 – Assurance of salvation X the possibility of one losing it

    I’m sure there are more, but some in the list above are also dividing lines among Evangelicals.

    Believe me, pastors, individuals and entire denominations who stand for one or more points on that list will draw a very visible dividing line between them and those who do not; points of agreement are rendered irrelevant. Again: 1) If I understood the question; 2) If I understood the definitions. But these are the dividing lines between Evangelicals and Mainlines that I was able to detect.

    My humble cooperation based solely on experience; not a scientific assessment.


    Because Protestantism has no defining anchor – no fixed center of worship such as the Vatican or Mecca – it is much more prone to drift. Consequently, unlike Catholicism or Islam, Protestantism has no central identity around which to coalesce.

    To further complicate matters, even mainstream Protestants tend to identify themselves by denominational subsets – such as Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. – instead of Protestant. This is especially true of Baptists. American spinoffs such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are even more emphatic in their separateness.

    Much like the Democratic Party, Protestantism often consists of a sociological outgroup. Democrats are typically the Republican antithesis. They tend to be neither rigid moral conservatives nor members of the county club class.

    Detractors have defined Protestantism as both an abyss and a morass.

    Another difficulty besetting Protestantism stems from its close association with the original founding of the United States. (This should not be confused with the wholly secular Constitution of the United States as penned in 1787.) The Pilgrims were an outgroup in England. Much like today’s Religious Right, they found the British government of the day too liberal!

    As a result of this close association with the origins of the United States, as trust in the economic and political system crumbles, so does faith in the religion most associated therewith.


    Before the whole scheme began to collapse, mainline denominations tended to convert by example. Evangelicals tended to proselytize.

    While mainline denominations were less conformist in their lifestyle, spent a lot of time trying to drive square pegs in the pews into round theological holes.

    Whereas mainliners were more prone to persuasion, evangelicals seemed to have an affinity for coercion. Hell was more of a big deal than was heaven. Satan was their primary pitchman!

    As compared to mainline Protestants, Evangelicals were decidedly more anti-intellectual. If the Bible said it, that settled it. Not surprisingly, however, the Evangelicals’ Bible was considerably smaller and some verses in their scripture had MUCH LARGER TYPE than did other verses.

    Anti-intellectualism among evangelicals has come at a cost. In order of occupancy of the Oval Office, there is an inverse relationship between the number of Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist presidents of the United States and the percentage of each of those denominations in the broader population. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there are no evangelicals among the current justices of the Supreme Court! In fact, there aren’t even any Protestants these days!!!

    Although typically more affluent the Evangelicals, mainline Protestant denominations were usually pluralistic rather than elitist. Conversely, Evangelical churches tended to be dominated by a relatively few wealthier families. In some instances, an individual might quite literally own the church – pulpit, pews, and hymnals!

    Generally speaking, mainline Protestants tend to be inclusive while evangelicals tend to be exclusive. In other words, mainline Protestants are more ecumenical while evangelicals engage in perpetual purification binges.

      1. Given the current state of affairs, how likely is Protestantism to become a wing of Catholicism?

          1. I’m seeing a much broader drift into what, for the moment at least, might be best described as a neo-Medieval period of human history.

    1. This, “Generally speaking, mainline Protestants tend to be inclusive while evangelicals tend to be exclusive. In other words, mainline Protestants are more ecumenical while evangelicals engage in perpetual purification binges.”
      resonates with me. When I was in the PCA (sub-group of Presbyterians), it seemed to me to be a pastime to judge other people’s Christianity on whether it was “really” Christian or not. Around people in a mainline denomination, it’s more likely that someone would look at someone in, for example, the PCA, and take issue with their theology or practice but not whether they were “really” Christian or not. It may be just a difference in word choice….

      But yes, definitely I observed an emphasis on “purity”….of motive, of belief, of person. We’re human, and none of that is going to happen. But maybe there are wings of evangelicalism that are more open. My experience is limited to that one denomination (or sub-denomination).

      Also I have seen a replacement of anti-intellectualism with faux intellectualism. So long as your reading and studying is done with authors/experts who have approval in your denomination, you are free to study yourself in a circle…But they don’t see the boundaries, and like to consider themselves intellectual.

      1. Thank you for pointing out “faux intellectualism.” Although I failed to mention the trend, it constitutes a component of what I perceive to be the drift toward neo-Medievalism.

      2. Michelle,

        This “limited resources” you described, where we can only read what is produced for us, is something that is common across American evangelicalism. How dare you challenge inerrancy! Or Genesis 1! or the such.

        1. This level of thought control is another reason I suspect Western civilization is ripe for neo-Medievalism.

        2. The thing is, it seems to be…voluntary, in a sense. Most of the people who stayed in the PCA* don’t seem to have an interest in exposing themselves to new authors or new ideas. They seem to trust their trusted authors’ description of the beliefs of other people’s/”dangerous” ideas, etc., and don’t see a need to verify, I guess. The lack of curiosity strikes me as odd.

          So it isn’t that they can read only what is produced for them, as much as they do read only that…and things like it. But there does seem to be a fear of ideas there. It’s as if they (some of them, at least) are afraid one of the dominoes of their belief is knocked over, the rest will fall….

          I am sorry but not surprised to hear that this “thinking in circles” is common across American evangelicalism. Why is this?

          And you are more than welcome, KMTIS. Thank you for sharing your observations.

          *My friends from church who did read books by other theologians left the PCA, sooner or later.

  5. “Mainline” is an American term and doesn’t exist as a category in the UK, hence categorizing, for example, Wright and Welby as “Mainliners” is problematic.

    1. Thanks to Henry VIII’s appetites, England had a state church. Also, unlike America, that nation had the good sense to export its religious nuts – and guess where they wound up?

  6. Forget your intellectualist, pseudo-theological ramblings of the mind, which leads to pride. Jesus said, ‘unless you turn and become as a child, you’ll never enter the Kingdom’. The Kingdom is about relationship with Jesus and others, not this endless debate. Instead of going on about ‘social justice’, why don’t you just give….your own money…to the poor? I know this might not be as cool as clamoring about social justice and lobbying governments to give more taxpayers’ money to social welfare programs, but it’s actually more what the gospel is all about.

  7. I didn’t say the Gospel is about an individual relationship, I said the Kingdom is about relationship with Jesus and others. The Gospel is the good news of the Kingdom. Whatever else you make it is empty fluff. You can speak with tongues of men and angels, rattle on about your brilliant theology and give your body to be burned, but if you have not love, you’re nothing.

      1. However this may sound to you, the words of the Apostle Paul pretty much describe my view, I resolve to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. My ‘theology’ is nothing more brilliant than meditating on the Word of God. It’s the Word that is brilliant. By meditating on the Word, I have the mind of Christ. It’s no longer I that lives but Christ that lives in me. I don’t care about denominations and other divisions. If someone else shares the mind of Christ with me, we are one in the spirit.

  8. Echoing other Brit comments that you have Evangelicals on your list and that this whole distinction doesn’t make sense outside the US – which is difficult if you want to include the worldwide Church!

    The word protestant conjures up images of sectarian violence and so forth. From outside the US Mainline has the impression of uber-liberal – So as a UK Anglican I would not see myself as Protestant or Mainline. Apostolical, Reformed Catholic, Sacramental are fine.

    For me that is the only way to divide movements in the worldwide church – between those who tend towards sacramentalism and threefold order and those who tend away. Others have suggested similar – do we divide on doctrine or sacraments?

    Nice to see at least one Charismatic on the list. Being a Charismatic is what saves me from fundamentalism because in my own heart I would quite happily set the minimum for Christian Orthodox as a sacrificial understanding of the Mass. Meeting Charismatics, be they Catholic, Liberal or Evangelical reminds me that God seems to be far less strict and particular!

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