mainline protestants

Are Mainline Protestants Christian?

on December 7, 2018

Often snarky social media posts contrast Mainline Protestantism with Christianity. Real Christians who might inadvertently attend a Mainline congregation are advised to find a real church, etc.

The Bush funeral events at two prominent Mainline sanctuaries evince Christianity still exists in Mainline Protestantism. National Cathedral, which is Episcopal, hosted the state funeral, and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Bush’s congregation, hosted the family rite. There the Oak Ridge Boys sang Amazing Grace. Both services movingly showcased vibrant orthodoxy through preaching, eulogy, prayer, liturgy and hymnody.

Of course, the services were organized by the Bush family and reflected Bush’s own preferences. St. Martin’s is theologically conservative and is the largest Episcopal parish in America, with 9,000 members. National Cathedral is much more liberal, with a much smaller congregation,

Bush, as a wealthy Ivy League educated New Englander devoted to public service, was the consummate Mainline Protestant. His lifetime covered the tragic trajectory of what had been America’s most influential religious force. By the time of his birth in 1924, theological liberalism/modernism had seized nearly all Mainline seminaries. By his death, Mainline Protestantism was in its seventh decade of continuous decline.

But heterodoxy in the Mainline never extinguished orthodoxy. And arguably the Mainline was far more heterodox 50 years ago than today, when modernism was at its peak. Surveys in the 1960s showed pluralities and sometimes majorities of Mainline clergy rejecting Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Today Mainline clergy are likelier to affirm those central doctrines while touting heterodox views on marriage and sexuality.

The National Cathedral service included the Apostles Creed, which affirms Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Mainline liberals for decades crossed their fingers when reciting, since their strict rationalism rejected literal supernatural events as the Creed affirms. But postmodern liberals are largely okay with supernaturalism.

Even when strictly modernist liberalism reigned supreme for much of the last century, open heterodoxy in the local church was rare. Very liberal clergy preferred to avoid controversy and usually disguised their views with orthodox language. And liturgical congregations continued with their orthodox sounding liturgies. The hymnals remained orthodox and sometimes were the strongest Gospel voice in local churches where sermons were at best very opaque.

For decades many orthodox laity have stayed in denominations largely governed by theological liberals because the worship typically seemed orthodox. The battles over sexuality in the Mainline partly ended that truce because the Apostles Creed’s true meaning could be fudged but the definition of marriage could not.

The Creed’s appearance at Bush’s funeral has excited national conversation. Four former presidents recited the Creed while the current one did not. There’s debate over what it means to recite or not to recite. Much if not most of Evangelicalism, especially if nondenominational, doesn’t recite the Creed, even though Evangelicalism affirms the Creed’s orthodox theology. Consequently, many if not most American church goers, even if devout, may not know the Creed.

Bush’s rites, by utilizing the Creed with traditional hymnody and liturgy, have vividly recalled what is best about Mainline Protestantism. It represents a centuries long tradition of stately beauty and reverence in Protestant worship, which contemporary nondenominationalism often minimizes or avoids.

Mainline Protestantism never, as snarks suggest, fully stopped being Christian. But it has often forgotten what it means to be Christian, hence its confusion and implosion.

What if the ordered beauty of Mainline tradition once again could align with firmly orthodox theology and ethics, along with evangelistic passion? The results for American Christianity and wider culture might be remarkable. Bush’s funeral rites demonstrated that synthesis. Perhaps more than a few will be inspired to replicate.

  1. Comment by William on December 7, 2018 at 9:54 am

    “What if the ordered beauty of Mainline tradition once again could align with firmly orthodox theology and ethics, along with evangelistic passion?” The United Methodist Church is standing at this fork in the road RIGHT NOW, facing this very question. 864 delegates are facing this very question as they plan their trips to St Louis. Do they recognize the awesome task facing them? They either vote to answer this question in the positive and turn this once great denomination back in God’s direction, or they vote to follow the Great Deceiver into destruction.

  2. Comment by Luke on December 7, 2018 at 12:21 pm

    So I’m (for now) a seminarian in the ELCA. This article really articulated what I’ve been trying to figure out with my experiences.

    On most of the core debates in the modernist controversy (Christ’s divinity, virgin birth, miracles, work of the Holy Spirit, and so on) orthodoxy seems to be winning, at least at my seminary. I have never heard anyone rebuked or challenged for adhering to traditional doctrines in that area.

    The problem, from what I can see is that most of my classmates and pretty much all the professors have gone in for what I call the “gospel of inclusion.” Everyone in, nobody out, unless you disagree with that formulation, then you’re a problem. That theological prior then demands that wide swaths of Scripture and tradition need to be either ignored or radically reinterpreted. The aforementioned orthodoxy in certain areas only stands, as far as I can see, to the extent that it doesn’t get in the way of the project of liberation, feminist, postcolonial and intersectional theologies. So echoes of traditional Christianity are still there but the historic teachings have largely been warped and mutilated to make them compatible with contemporary secular progressivism.

  3. Comment by Thomas on December 7, 2018 at 6:10 pm

    I suppose you must be thinking about joining the North American Lutheran Church?

  4. Comment by Luke on December 7, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    Either the NALC or Roman Catholicism. I grew up in a split Protestant-Catholic household and I’ve been wrestling with whether I’m an Evangelical catholic or an evangelical Catholic for years. I thought I had settled in favor of the former, but two years of ELCA seminary, along with a couple of classes on patristics and reformation theology has frankly rattled my faith in the Lutheran project. Scripture alone in postmodern hands isn’t much of a defense against heresy.

  5. Comment by Andrew on December 9, 2018 at 10:17 am

    Ever thought about the ACNA? (Anglican Church of North America)
    It varies from parish to parish but it’s very Anglo-Catholic/orthodox/traditional. It was formed out of the episcopal church to return to orthodox tradition

  6. Comment by Eric on December 7, 2018 at 7:43 pm


    As a member of an officially confessional body (The LCMS), I am heartened to hear that there is still a voice of Orthodoxy in the ELCA. If I may ask, which seminary are you currently attending? I ask, because one of the temptations I suffer from now is painting the ELCA with a very broad brush. In my years in the LCMS, I have heard much in the way of ELCA bashing (but never in an official capacity like from the pulpit or bible study).

    Keep fighting the good fight and continue to earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints.

  7. Comment by Ted R. Weiland on December 7, 2018 at 4:49 pm

    George Bush Sr. was one of the first national politicians to come from behind closed doors with the term and unabashedly promote the New World Order, which until then was always dismissed as a conspiracy theory promoted by a bunch of right-wing nuts.

    But more consequential is what made America’s participation in the New World Order possible, something very few are courageous enough to identify and address.

    The New World Order is impossible under a biblical government of, by, and for God established upon His unchanging triune moral law, beginning with the First Commandment and its respective statutes and judgment.

    America’s involvement in the New World Order is but one of tens of thousands of consequences today’s America is reaping thanks to the 1787 cadre of Enlightenment and Masonic theistic rationalists (aka, the constitutional framers) when they replaced Yahweh’s immutable moral law with their own capricious man-made traditions (aka, the biblically seditious Constitution):

    “[B]ecause they have … trespassed against my law … they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind….” (Hosea 8:1,7)

    For more regarding these two polar opposite forms of government, see Chapter 3 “The Preamble: We the People vs. Yahweh” of free online book “Bible Law vs, the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective” at

    Then, find out how much you really know about the Constitution as compared to the Bible. Take our 10-question Constitution Survey in the right-hand sidebar and receive a complimentary copy of a book that examines the Constitution by the Bible.

  8. Comment by Byrom on December 7, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    What is a “Mainline Protestant?” Am I, a conservative/Traditionalist United Methodist, “mainline?”

    I’ve got a different take on the Bush state funeral. I appreciated hearing traditional hymns played during the various ceremonies, and hearing Christianity proclaimed on local and national TV. Of course, I did not agree with everything which I heard, especially from the news media. (And I did not like my beloved Aggieland being called “Aggie nation.”)

    My only real question is what did all of this cost the American taxpayer?

  9. Comment by Luke on December 7, 2018 at 10:03 pm

    Hi Byrom,

    Regarding your first question, “mainline” Christianity generally refers to seven Protestant churches:

    United Methodist Church
    Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
    American Baptist Churches
    Presbyterian Church (USA)
    Episcopal Church
    United Church of Christ
    Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

    Wind back the clock 100 years, and these seven churches (or their predecessor bodies) utterly dominated American Protestantism, and thus, American Christianity. Thus, “mainline.” They all liberalized throughout the 20th century to greater or lesser degrees, but there remains conservative/evangelical elements in all of them, to greater or lesser degrees (greater in the UMC, lesser in the UCC). So yes, even as a conservative Methodist, you would be considered a “mainline Christian” (as opposed to a liberal or progressive Christian).

  10. Comment by Thomas on December 7, 2018 at 6:13 pm

    Great article. I think Mark Tooley should have pointed more clearly that Mainline Protestantism liberal theology nowadays is very into same-sex marriage, gender ideology and pro-abortion stance. Clinton and Obama, while I have many doubts about the sincerity of their faith, I have none about their full endorsements of these un-Christian beliefs.

  11. Comment by Dan on December 7, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    I take exception with your assertion that the trajectory among clergy has been more orthodox of late. The latest survey I could find by Pew, in 1997 IIRC, shows that UMC clergy were the lowest of mainline denominations in believing the tenets of the Apostles Creed. A majority of UMC clergy did not believe in the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus. As a matter of fact, when I still belonged to the UMC, it was more likely that one of the “modern” fashionable creeds would be said instead of the Apostles or Nicene during a service. The Athanasian was never used. Also, confession and absolution of sin was rarely used, and these were so-called traditional services.

  12. Comment by Jack Rickman on December 7, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    Everyone here would benefit by reading Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. It will hurt. It sure made my head spin and helped me to see through the facade of what passes for orthodoxy in most schools and churches the past 100 years.

  13. Comment by Dan W on December 8, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Born the same year as President Bush (1924) my dad was also a decorated WW2 veteran. An Apostle’s Creed believing Methodist, he felt American society changed for the better post WW2. While never a social justice warrior, he was proud when Methodists took a stand against real injustice. Maybe that was the appeal of mainline Protestantism in the late 20th century – not just creating disciples for Christ but also teaching them how to love their neighbors?

  14. Comment by MikeS on December 8, 2018 at 6:45 pm

    My observation is that formal belief in (or at least willingness to recite publicly) the Apostles Creed and other traditional abstract theological doctrines poses no serious threat to what progressives really and primarily value, namely [as one of our previous commenters put it] “the project of liberation, feminist, postcolonial and intersectional theologies”.

  15. Comment by Malcolm T on December 9, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    One of the key roles, if not the primary role, of the Ministers and Deacons of local churches, parishes, congregations (call them what you will), is to minister to the needs of their flocks. We are repeatedly told that we must believe such n’ such (insert your favorite community outreach project and/or modified, updated Christian belief here), and that we must fully support the real ongoing battles in the hardship areas of our central cities and in the faraway sites of our sponsored missionary work. To do otherwise or to want a different orientation is to be a bad, non-inclusive Christian. Churches have succeeded in removing that emphasis on the flock of needful sinners that in very real ways supports all the Church’s endeavors. Infidelity, domestic violence, marriage counseling, and drunkenness are just a few of the issues that are needful of the Congregation’s formal attention, and all are or should be inherently local issues.

  16. Comment by Dr. Daniel Mercaldo on December 10, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    I watched the outflow of evangelicals from the mainline denominations for over four decades while serving on the Board of Directors of NAE. Some finally rejected the allusion that the mainline denominations could or would return to orthodoxy as denominations. Yes, there were, and are today, some individual churches, pastors, and people, who still affirm doctrinal orthodoxy personally, but out of the allusion that an entire denomination could or would be renewed came the vibrant new denominations such as the PCA and EPC. Of course, we all hold out the hope of a genuine spiritual awakening and revival in America. We gain some hope from what has happened in the SBC. However, if and until that comes, I believe we will see these newer identifiably evangelical bodies grow and flourish while we continue to see the continuing decline in mainline denominations. I recommend IRD to all my friends interested in following these happenings. Thanks for your efforts and honesty as you lead the way.

  17. Comment by Rev. Dr. Richard Allen Hyde on December 10, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    Great article. Thank you, Mark.

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