Among members of America’s mainline Protestant denominations, there is a sadly widespread condition I call “mainline myopia.”
I realize that the use of the term “mainline” to describe certain churches is contested in various ways. Some argue that these denominations are now more accurately described as “oldline” or even “sideline.” Within my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, one of our leading theological voices, Professor Scott Kisker, has powerfully argued in his brief, easy-to-read Mainline or Methodist? Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission that in pursuing a mainline Protestant identity, leaders of our denomination across many decades have betrayed some very core treasures of our particular tradition. Similar internal critiques have arisen within other mainline denominations.
But for the sake of convenient reference, I am here using “mainline” to refer to the denominations that were in 1989 identified as “the seven sisters”: The United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Churches USA, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
What these all have in common is a combination of a long history of overlap with America’s elite cultural establishment (in contrast to newer and/or more counter-cultural denominations), significant influence of theological liberalism, majority-white membership, and affiliation with the National Council of Churches.
Suffering from mainline myopia involves living in a bubble with no meaningful Christian fellowship with non-mainline believers, having an tunnel-vision view of Christian faith and the church that ignores the realities of other Christian churches, lacking much self-awareness of how much U.S. mainline Protestantism is really a tiny and shrinking fraction of even American Protestantism (let alone the wider, global body of Christ across 2,000 years), and often uncritically accepting even the most striking biases and blind spots promoted by mainline denominational leaders.
So for fellow members of the above-listed denominations, I have provided a handy guide of the top 25 symptoms you can check to test your level of infection with this harmful but often undetected condition.
You might have a case of mainline myopia if you are a member of one of these denominations and (in no particular order):
1. You have ever used a phrase like “all the major denominations” or “the churches in America” and not meant to include any outside of those identified above.
2. You have mentally or verbally used such dismissive classifications as “VERY conservative,” “ultra right-wing,” “extreme,” and/or “fundamentalist” to describe the renewal movement(s) within your denomination, or for that matter, institutions like Fuller Seminary or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
3. You are significantly more theologically liberal than any of the folk listed in the previous item, and yet think of or call yourself a “centrist,” somehow.
4. You think that two or more of these theological descriptors mean the same thing: “orthodox,” “creedal,” “evangelical,” and “fundamentalist.”
5. You have never heard of an actual case happening within the last couple of decades, not even to friends of friends, of a lay member of a local congregation facing formal church discipline.
6. You think of your own denomination as being, overall, racially diverse in its American context (never minding what the record actually shows).
7. You use “the young people” to refer to those in your church younger than 60.
8. You have ever excused your congregation’s or denomination’s decline with the (absolutely false) claim that “well, all churches are declining in America.”
9. You think it is obvious that such values as compassion for the poor automatically and necessarily involve strong support for an expanded federal welfare state, more progressive taxation, and liberal Democratic politicians. And you do not readily admit that this involves any partisan or left-of-center ideological biases on your part, but insist that this is just a very simple and undebatable matter of being faithful to the Gospel.
10. You assume that someone having a high position in your particular denomination’s hierarchy, such as a bishop or a denominational agency staffer, is any evidence of them being a spiritually mature disciple of Jesus Christ.
11. Your idea of Christian ecumenism is largely limited to (1) working with members of other mainline denominations on feel-goody secular social causes and/or (2) nominal Methodists who don’t really follow John Wesley’s theology, nominal Lutherans who don’t really follow Martin Luther’s theology, and nominal Presbyterians who don’t really follow John Calvin’s theology sitting around to share their disdain for traditionalist evangelicals and Catholics.
12. You would find it more shocking, unacceptable, and wrong if a leader of your denomination declared that he did not support women’s ordination than if he refused to unambiguously affirm the historic, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
13. After reading the previous item, you are more concerned about questioning if John Lomperis supports women’s ordination (for the record, I do) than about removing the resurrection-deniers from leadership in your denomination.
14. You are utterly unfamiliar with complementarian vs. egalitarian, cessationist vs. charismatic, or pre-trib vs. post-trib debates. (Bonus point if you have no idea what any of those terms even mean!)
15. You are unaware of how much of the body of Christ in this country views your denomination as not just having different opinions, but as apostate.
16. You cannot remember the last time you seriously, non-jokingly called something “heretical.” You don’t use such language, which you regard as extremely outdated.
17. You sometimes use the phrase “people used to believe…” in reference to traditional beliefs and values still held by a great many Christians (outside of your circles).
18. You think of approval of homosexual practices as the sort of matter on which Christians are very divided, with little appreciation of how marginal support for revisionist agendas is among the body of Christ as a whole.
19. You think that the use of male-gender pronouns for God is one of the major reason churches fail to attract more people.
20. You assume that New Testament warnings against individuals within the church who are false teachers and/or seek to use religion for their own financial gain could obviously not apply to any leaders within your denomination’s hierarchy.
21. You think of it as unusual or extreme for a non-ordained Christian to have actually read the entirety of the Bible.
22. You do not think it’s odd when leaders in your church speak as if those you should seek to draw in are limited to religious “nones” – to the implied exclusion of atheists, adherents of other religions, and merely nominal Christians.
23. You have not received much teaching in your congregation on many biblical passages other than Matthew 7:1a (“Do not judge…”), 1 John 4:8b (“…because God is love”), and Micah 6:8b (“…what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”).
24. As an Episcopalian, you find yourself at least quietly nodding in agreement with the quote attributed to a professor in your denomination: “Every funeral service conducted with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer brings the Episcopal Church one step closer to justice.”
25. When you hear the terms “evangelical” or “megachurch,” you immediately think of one or more of these images:
(Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Harley Pebley/Wikimedia Commons, Robert Wilonsky/YouTube, Robert M. Worsham/Wikimedia Commons, and Pixabay. Kudos to my colleagues Jeff Walton and Joseph Rossell for, respectively, contributing #24 and #25.)
So, Dear Readers, how did you do with the above check-up? How many of these symptoms of this serious condition have you found in yourself?
None: Congratulations, you get a clean bill of health! Remember to exercise, and come back to see us again within the year.
1-2: Early warning signs. Let this be a friendly wake-up call.
3-5: Uh-oh. This merits some significant self-reflection, and such New Year’s resolutions as intentionally studying Scripture and the original theological writings of your denomination’s founders, widening your social circles, and thinking more critically and broad-mindedly about some of the rhetoric you may be accustomed to using and hearing in church contexts.
5-9: You appear to have a serious case. I would prescribe tutoring to help you get deprogrammed.
10 or more: Advanced Stage Mainline Myopia (ASMM)! Pray for a miraculous healing – remembering that the God of orthodox faith is one of miracles.
In all seriousness, I have seen first-hand how mainline myopia is rather crippling for people’s faith, and leads to such things as passive acceptance of mediocrity, alienation from the wider body of Christ, and approaching faith with a set of priorities very different from, and at times directly contrary to, the priorities of Scripture and the riches of their own denomination’s theological tradition.
If you know of other symptoms of mainline myopia besides the 25 listed above, please let us know in the comments!