What are Mainliners? (Compared to Evangelicals and Fundamentalists)

I am building up a (sorta) response to Thom Rainer’s 20 Influential Evangelicals list. My list will include mainline Christians, but in asking the question last night on Facebook, I was equally struck by the conversation about who and what is a mainliner.

No, mainliners does not include heroin addicts. Well, I guess it does. But you know what I mean.

]] gives several points as to what is a Mainliner:

  • Mainline Protestants have a different perspective. They have a more modernist theology. So, for instance, they would read the Bible, not as the inerrant word of God, but as a historical document, which has God’s word in it and a lot of very important truths, but that needs to be interpreted in every age by individuals of that time and that place.
  • Mainline Protestants tend to also believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. But many mainline Protestants would believe that perhaps there are other ways to salvation as well. People in other religious traditions, even outside of Christianity, may have access to God’s grace and to salvation as well, on their own terms, and through their own means.
  • Mainline Protestants are much less concerned with personal conversion. Although they do talk about spiritual transformation, they’ll often discuss a spiritual journey from one’s youth to old age, leading on into eternity. So there is a sense of transformation, but there isn’t that emphasis on conversion — on that one moment or series of moments in which one’s life is dramatically changed.
  • Finally, mainline Protestants are somewhat less concerned with proselytizing than evangelicals. Certainly proselytizing is something they believe in. They believe in sharing their beliefs with others, but not for the purposes of conversion necessarily. The idea of spreading the word in the mainline tradition is much broader than simply preaching the good news. It also involves economic development. It involves personal assistance, charity, a whole number of other activities.

Theopedia suggests that Mainliners are basically liberal with little or no concern about doctrine. I don’t think that is fair. Indeed, as the discussion shows — there are several theologians that are active in the life of the Mainline Church. Of course, they may just mean the Mainline Protestants.

In describing Mainline, I would start with our view of Scripture. Believe it or not, but George W. Bush, even though he was described as an Evangelical president, probably put it best when asked if the “bible was literally true:”

You know. Probably not … No, I’m not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it, but I do think that the New Testament, for example is … has got … You know, the important lesson is “God sent a son.”

Bush is, of course, a United Methodist Christian. His statement of faith, I would suggest, begins not with some reliance upon the “truth of Scripture” as “infallible” but with Christ.

I wrote last week about defining Scriptural Authority and mentioned the Articles of Religion. Even conservative (on the issue of women ordination and homosexuality) mainline churches do not define Scripture as evangelicals do. For instance, the Anglican Church in North America.

Further, even the uber-Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) does not hold to the “infallible word of God” line, but like their Anglican (and Wesleyan) neighbors, believe Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation. Jack Rogers, once a strong inerrantist, writes about the WCF,

The question of the errancy or inerrancy of the Scripture is one which is strange to the Westminster Divines.…To contend that the Westminster Confession teaches the inerrancy of the Scripture because it does not assert that there are errors in the Scripture is to impose a modern problem on a pre-scientific statement.…Thus in an ahistorical manner, the Westminster Confession is still drawn into a controversy to which its authors were not a party. Certainly the Westminster Divines believed, and the Confession states, that the Bible is true and infallible. But to equate these terms with the modern concept of inerrancy is to impose upon the Westminster Confession criteria for proof and apologetic implications which had no place in their thinking.

Granted, some do not take kindly to this interpretation of the WCF. Others, such as the well beloved Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while upholding the WCF, affirm the inerrancy of Scripture.

Modern Evangelicals place “inerrant and infallible” upon all things to which the bible speaks — history or some some deluded notion of science. Scripture is devoid of the human witness and becomes something God himself wrote. Thus, for them, Scripture is all-sufficient. Mainliners reject this notion. Mainliners should agree that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, but that Scripture is not all sufficient (as it states in the WCF, for example). Further, Mainliners will adopt some form of historical criticism (usually) in digging deep into Scripture to discover what the authors said, compared to what we have been told, and what we say, the authors say.

In Mainline Christianity, Tradition will play a part as well. This is clearly evident in Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy (reserving the notion that members of these two groups may object to such a label), the United Methodist Church, the various Anglican groups, and various Presbyterian groups. Thus, that which separates Evangelical from Mainline is the view of Scripture. Scripture is not infallible, inerrant, or all-sufficient.

So, I want to know — who are the mainliners you find inspirational. Unlike Rainer, I am not going to restrict the list to the United States. But, they should be mainline. While Evangelicals may lay claim to some of them (such as Bush and Wright (odd pairing) if you look at their statements and theology, they are Mainline).

Thus far, I have a list:

  • George W. Bush
  • Rachel Held Evans
  • Diana Butler Bass
  • James Cone
  • Bishop Gene Robinson
  • Jim Wallis
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Brian McLaren
  • The unknown visitor, soup kitchen workers, hostel supervisor, sunday school teacher
  • Archbishop Justin Welby
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Leonard Sweet
  • Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Agnes Abuom
  • Frank Scheaffer
  • Adam Hamilton
  • Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • Hong-Duk Kim
  • Stanley Hauerwas
  • Miroslav Volf
  • Sharon Watkins
  • Charles Taylor
  • Alvin Plantinga
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • Cornel West
  • Steve Chalke
  • Walter Brueggemann
  • William Abraham
  • Scott Hahn
  • Desmund Tutu
  • Rowan Williams
  • N.T. Wright
  • Tripp Fuller
  • Craig Gross
  • Michael Foster
  • Pope Francis
  • Sam Childers
  • Rob Bell
  • William Willimon
  • Phyllis Tickle
  • Marcus Borg
  • Kallistos Ware
  • Thomas Jay Oord

I’d really like this list to grow. So, here’s what I’m asking. Comment to add to the list or to affirm someone on the list. You can add or affirm as many as you feel is necessary.


Here are some other reading materials.

Please note, I do not consider Catholics and Orthodox mainline. I am, however, collecting names and the such – as well as additions to the definition of what makes something mainline. Others will disagree.

I’ve updated the list – and will update the list. I’ve also had the benefit of discussing on various forums, from various angles. I think we done, I’m going to call the list “Top X Influential Non-Evangelical (i.e., inerrantists) Christians.”

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28 Replies to “What are Mainliners? (Compared to Evangelicals and Fundamentalists)”

  1. No Catholics? By your lead-in, “My list will include mainline Christians”…
    I’m not Catholic, but seems like the “Nuns on a bus”, and the current Pope, might be your bracket-buster.

        1. Oh oh. I might have to revise my Catholic comment. CBS news tonight had some arch bishop apologize for building a $2.5M house for himself in Atlanta. I take it, he is still going to live in it, because nothing more was said. Maybe you need a naughty list, to go along with your nice list. All religions included.

  2. Wright & Welby are, I think, both British evangelicals, a slightly different beastie to the American version..

  3. While you might think it would be the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson, retired bishop of New Hampshire, that isn’t his name. His actual name is Vicky Gene Robinson. He goes by Gene Robinson.

  4. I am pretty happy a couple of my suggestions got on the list, but I have another idea for you…instead of listing a bunch of famous names as a response, what about some people no one has heard of. People who suggested names maybe and what they have done as individuals. Try to show that the most influential are often the least heard. OK my obligatory plug for the little guy is done now. lol but There may be merit to that idea.

  5. Joel,

    You seem to think that inerrancy is the dividing line. It might be for ETS, but it isn’t in the evangelical movement (as opposed to the ETS as an organization). Fuller Seminary is not, and never has been, inerrantist in approach. Yet they are staunchly in the evangelical wing. The whole inerrancy thing was started by Lindsell in the late 1970s; prior to that, it was a nonissue—as it should be!

    Also, prior to the late 1970s/early 1980s, Southern Baptists didn’t consider themselves evangelical—evangelicals were to liberal for their taste. I remember those days; I considered myself an evangelical then, before Moral Majority took over the movement and slammed everything to the right and pushed out social concerns. I think that evangelicalism now is more fundamentalist than the evangelicalism I considered myself a part of back then. Of course, I am Wesleyan/Holiness in orientation, so maybe I always was an 18th century evangelical and never a 20th century one…


      1. I am with James. I was brought up being told I was part of a long evangelic tradition, but now the things I was taught are closer to the emerging movement than evangelical. Maybe divide by theology? Wesleyan/Armenian and calvinistic are fairly mainline. Catholics as well. Dispensation theology I’d say is not, nor would serpent seed or other sects. Probably not universalism either.

      2. Joel,

        That’s really a tough one to answer. Here’s a couple of links that you might find helpful:
        Roger Olson, an Arminian Baptist (yes, they really exist!) Theologian who self-identifies as an evangelical has tried to define it several different times, but here’s two:

        And then there is Scot McKnight, who is in favor of what he calls “Big Tent” evangelicalism. Here’s a good summary of what he considers evangelical:

        If you want to see more (25,900), type this into Google’s search box:
        site:www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed big tent evangelicalism

        Basically, they both agree that if a person self-identifies as evangelical and holds to the necessity of person salvation and has the Bible as their primary (prima, not necessarily sola) source, they are evangelical. By that definition, I would consider myself an evangelical. But!!! I don’t consider myself an evangelical if you add all the other stuff that so many do. I’m a semi-reformed former near-Marxist but still socialist who encountered Jesus and was radically transformed; I hold the scriptures to have sufficient information for salvation and godly living; I believe in the real, active, and transforming power of the Holy Spirit giving the power to live that godly life and give understanding to us about what in the world the Bible is saying.

        But!! I don’t—and never have—believed in inerrancy, voted Republican, etc…

        Does that help or hinder?

        I read somewhere that back in the 1990s, some theologians were trying to define evangelical. Finally, one of them said, “anyone who like Billy Graham.” At that time, that was enough. But, with the passing of his influence, you’ve lost that “simple” definition. Now big tent evangelicalism is on the decline and you’ve got little two-bit influence peddlers trying to set themselves up as gatekeepers. More’s the pity. That’s why I can say I’m an 18th century evangelical in the tradition of Wesley, but not a 21st century one in the tradition of, say Albert Mohler or John Piper. I would consider Mohler a fundamentalist.

        This has gotten longer than I wanted…


  6. Robert Jenson (Lutheran), Bill Clinton (Methodist), Bruce Reyes-Chow (PC USA), Richard B. Hays (Methodist), J. Ross Wagner (Methodist), Beverly Roberts Gaventa (I think?). Justo L. González (Methodist), Alister McGrath (Anglican), Richard Bauckham (Anglican), Lauren Winner (Episcopalian), Anthony Thiselton (Anglican), Sarah Coakley (Anglican), Ben Myers (Anglican).

  7. A side matter:
    The view from the pew in the PCA includes a reliance on the inerrancy of scripture, in my personal experience. The website you linked to is part of the PCA, but it is a group that claims that administration is its ministry to the denomination (they don’t determine the theology).

    The view on inerrancy seems to be part of why the denomination was formed: http://www.pcanet.org/history/
    And it’s written into the way the church functions: http://www.pcanet.org/beliefs/

  8. A few potentials come to mind (not being sure I exactly grasp the criteria): John Dominic Crossan, Tony Jones, Joerg Rieger, James Fowler. And then a whole bunch of somewhat varied “Process theology” people, either Evangelical or Mainline “connected” and who might identify one place or the other, a few of the better known being John B. Cobb, David R. Griffin, Bruce Epperly, Marjorie Suchocki, Katherine Keller, Philip Clayton, Monica Coleman, Mary Elizabeth Moore. I know some of these a bit personally and know that they tend to have a strong personal faith and commitment to the Church.

    Then there are several (besides Clayton) in the science and religion arena who might also be included, though professionally more in science than theology, generally: Ian Barbour (recently deceased), John Polkinghorne, John Peacocke, Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson, etc.; or credentialed in both fields such as Alister McGrath. And what about Richard Foster?

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