Joel Watts has written a couple of posts inquiring into what defines “Evangelicals” and “Mainliners” and how does one distinguish between the two: see What are Mainliners (Compared to Evangelicals and Fundamentalist) and ARE there dividing lines between Mainline and Evangelical? I think these are great questions and I recommend leaving your comment(s) on one or both of these posts. I’ve noticed quite a few blog posts circulating around the Internet suggesting that the recent controversy where World Vision went from affirming benefits for and acknowledgment of their employees who are in same sex marriages to renouncing that stance the next day has caused some to either seriously doubt their affiliation with the label “Evangelical” or denounce it altogether. Those who declare themselves to be leaving Evangelicalism for Mainline Christianity assume that there is a black-and-white divide between the two, but this isn’t necessarily true. Many Mainliners would call themselves Evangelical while many Evangelicals may affirm doctrines (or reject others) that would allow them to easily align with the Mainline.
Of course, this returns us to the problem of definitions: What is an Evangelical? I’ve asked myself that question several times on this blog. I don’t think I reached a conclusion. Do all Evangelicals find themselves outside of so-called “high-Church” traditions? Nope. There are Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. Do all Evangelicals affirm sola scriptura? Not sure: there seems to be a resurgence among Evangelicals in affirming Creedal Christianity because the uninterpreted canon doesn’t necessarily result in obvious Trinitarianism or the dual nature of Christ or the personhood of the Holy Spirit or many other essentially Creedal dogmas that Evangelicals want to retain even as they declare sola scriptura. What about inerrancy? No. There are whole Evangelical institutions of higher learning that don’t require one to affirm inerrancy as an identity marker as well as many Evangelical parachurch organizations, non-profits, and local congregations, of course.
Maybe the quest for a singular definition is misguided? Maybe “Evangelical” means a dozen things, sociologically, although it seems to mean only one blurry thing theologically: people of the Gospel. Mainline is a tad easier since only various traditions often with European roots and contemporary expressions influenced by the evolution of the United States can be included.
Rudolf Bultmann argued in his attempt to defend the Jewish people in Germany prior to WW2 that, “Understood properly, a people is not a biological, but rather a historical phenomenon, and therefore our participation in it is a matter not of descent, but of existence.”  Whether or not this is wholly I accurate I do not intend to debate, but there may be something applicable to this discussion. Maybe a people are not defined wholly by doctrine as much as “a historical phenomenon”. What makes a Methodist in the UMC different from a Wesleyan in the Church of the Nazarene? What differs a Presbyterian in the PCA from the PC (USA) from those groups splintering off of the PC (USA) now, including independent congregations? Sure, doctrine is part of it, but mere history may be more central. If this is so, Evangelicals are all those who think the starting point for doctrinal formation and ecumenical dialogue must be an attempt to understand the meaning of the Gospel in today’s world. If this is true, than an Evangelical may be part of the Moral Majority or the Emerging Church. An Evangelical may be someone like N.T. Wright, who formerly served as an Anglican Bishop or John Howard Yoder of the Mennonite tradition. Evangelicalism’s “history” may be beginning over and over again as different groups and new generations decide that it is OK for them to walk down the street from their Baptist Church to visit their Pentecostal neighbor in order to ask, “What is it that we both proclaim?”
 Theologische Enzyklopädie, 65, cited in Konrad Hammann (2013-01-16). Rudolf Bultmann: a Biography (Kindle Locations 6648-6650). Polebridge Press. Kindle Edition.
Reblogged this on Cataclysmic and commented:
Some good questions over at Near Emmaus by Brian LePort about what it means to be “Evangelical” or “Mainline”… or somewhere in between. He also links to Joel Watts posts on the discussion as well. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately so appreciate both Joel and Brian providing an avenue for discussion on the matter. Check out their blogs and join the discussion!
Good questions Brian. I’m really interested in this discussion as well. As someone who doesn’t quite identify with either, though I have roots both in Evangelicalism and Mainline traditions, I am left wondering where I belong today… my hope is that I can stretch out my arms and hold on to both.
.. insightful and nicely written. It really crescendos nicely with the question contained in the very last line!
@Jessica: Thanks and I credit Joel for getting the discussion going which inspired these questions. Currently, I am part of a mainline congregation. I haven’t been part of a self-identifying Evangelical group since moving from PDX, but I continue to interact with Evangelicalism and draw influence from it. So, like you, I see myself as being a bit here and a bit there, though not completely sure I know what that means!
Seems like only those who label themselves are able to define the labels… maybe. I am a Methodist, considered a mainline denomination, but I call myself Evangelical. But I don’t know how to defend/define that label for myself. And what about inerrancy? What IS that?
@Rick: I don’t know either. I know how to explain what I believe that I believe, but then when it comes to matching that with established-labels-that-aren’t-as-established-as-people-presume-it-to-be becomes quite difficult. Now, as to what Inerrancy means anymore….only God knows, and maybe Norm Geisler, and possibly John Piper.
Good piece, Brian. The question should be discussed more, and with specifics on various points. I’m actually glad that it’s become tough to label or to even self-label via such terms. I see it as an indication that a welcome melding of factions (not really sects or denominations) is taking place.
I do think there are some general differences of worldview, Evangelical to Progressive. (And I think that Progressive has become a clearer descriptor than Mainline in recent years.) But, to add to your comments, some Evangelicals call themselves progressive and some Mainliners don’t. While I’m generally comfortable with Progressive, I don’t like that it is heavily confused with classical liberalism (which it does share some feature with). Ideally, I prefer to add that I come from a Process perspective in my progressive faith, but that often needs further explanation as well.
After attending the great TransFORM 2014 conference this past week-end in San Diego, I also am less averse to being (accidentally) called Evangelical or affiliated with Evangelicals… if it’s known they are of the progressive type, particularly. TransFORM was a wonderful demonstration of the power and joy of people focusing on needs and “what would Jesus do” about them, on listening and healing and on finding ways to live as healthy communities of faith. Many there consider themselves Evangelical and many Mainline (some, maybe most, of both also “progressive”).
@Howard: I think in many ways Progressive/Liberal v. Conservative may be better demarcations than Evangelical v. Mainline, though these words are quite relative as well. One person’s conservative is another person’s liberal. Personally, I’ve refrained from using “Progressive” because it assumes an objective goal that we know exists (or should know), but the exact nature of that goal is hard to define. We may suggest that many people who are “Progressives” are indeed “progressing” in many areas, but to say this holistically seems to require much hubris. For example, someone’s ideas about immigration may be “progressing” if one is finding a way to come to a better understanding of how to love their neighbor from other lands as themselves. That same person may support economic practices that negatively impact the neighboring countries from which these people are immigrating whether it be by participating in unfair trade or practices having a negative environmental impact. So, on one hand, one may be progressing; on the other hand, they may be regressing. That inconsistency that we all face is enough of a reason for me to avoid saying “progressive” because I’m not quite sure I’m as consistent in my ethics—knowingly and unknowingly—as that title requires.
This can be applied to “doctrine” or “dogma” as well. To progress in truthfulness seems to require some sort of general knowledge of what is ahead of us. It can’t be as simple as “not like it used to be” for that would mean regression is impossible and we’re always moving forward….an idea I think that last century dispelled.
That TransFORM Conference sounds interesting. I hadn’t heard of it before your comment.
I see and agree with your points about “progressive”. There just is no single term (or even 2 or 3 combined) which can realistically “locate” a person or group on even one dimension, let alone several at once (such as theological, worship style, lifestyle or practices, etc.)… which you know, of course. I guess the main reason I’ll settle, for now, on “Progressive Christianity” is that it has been a somewhat defined or “bounded” term, particularly by what had been “The Center for Progressive Xnty” (now “ProgressiveChristianity.org”) for about 20 years. It’s clearly more recent (tho not necessarily up-to-date) a term than “liberal Xnty”. And on the PC site, for at least 2-3 years, has been an 8-point definition of one conception of it. I worked through similar issues myself before I knew of those 8 points and came up with 7 that overlap quite a bit, but I add one about the need for openness to and further exploration of a wide range of “spiritual phenomena”, including what many call “paranormal” or “parapsychology”. I’ve found both science and virtually all of Xnty – conserv. to most liberal – to be embarrassingly silent on and even avoiding of this crucial area which CAN be systematically studied, and HAS been to some degree, though little publicized.
@ Brian (as is the one I just submitted): I forgot to mention about TransFORM… the conf. schedule is still online, at this time, here: http://www.transformnetwork.org/2014/schedule?xg_source=activity. I guess the thing that might give some flavor of the people and issues, etc. is that it seems to be tied somewhat (informally) to the Wildgoose Festival, with some of the same people involved. I’ve not been to any of those, but I’d also liken it some to what I did attend in Phoenix, Feb., 2011… the Big Tent Christianity conf. which drew about 300 people and was exciting. Big Tent has not continued.
@Howard: I recognize a few names from the TransFORM Conference schedule. Seems like it could be interesting. I’ve heard good things about the Wildgoose Festival, but I hate camping, and I’m not a fan of festivals or crowds, so I don’t see myself attending one.
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