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What Mainline Protestants Can Teach Evangelicals

Growing up in Texas, I was steeped in evangelical culture from an early age. This was incidental more than intentional, given that my own Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod occupies a unique space in the American ecclesiastical landscape: it’s too theologically conservative for the traditional “mainline,” but too liturgical and traditional to fit neatly within American evangelicalism. Yet when you live in the land of the megachurch, you tend to assume that the rest of American Christianity—if not the world—looks an awful lot like that, so for a long time I viewed Christianity through a narrow prism.

Unfortunately, in contemporary America few Christian factions seem to be more consistently at each others’ throats than mainline and evangelical Protestants. The shared anti-Catholic animosity of generations past has largely subsided, and been replaced by ceaseless clashes over abortion, biblical authority, and human sexuality. The attacks generally fall along shopworn lines: evangelicals accuse mainliners of subordinating clear scriptural texts to left-wing causes, and mainliners charge evangelicals with ignoring biblical calls to social justice. (One need only browse through the “Progressive Christian” and “Evangelical” channels on Patheos to see how harsh the invective can become.) This sparring, similarly, extends into the educational realm: mainliners claim that evangelicalism leads to intolerance and irrationalism (“the earth is only 6,000 years old?”), and evangelicals retort that mainliners have lost sight of Scripture and tradition in their obsession with faddish politics.

This split does not lend itself to a simplistic good-guys-versus-bad-guys framing. The evangelical tradition has given the world winsome voices like Russell Moore, but also incendiary figures like Jerry Falwell. The mainline tradition has produced angry polemicists like Frank Schaeffer, but also insightful and orthodox scholars like Thomas Oden. Evangelicals and mainliners simply don’t seem to talk to each other very often, which is a shame: they may have more ground in common than they think. So in the spirit of healthy ecumenical dialogue, here are three things conservative Protestants can learn from their mainline brothers and sisters.

First, mainline Protestantism possesses a vibrant sense of the institutional church’s prophetic witness—a term with a broad meaning, but one which I use here to refer to the role of the “church in dissent.” Obviously, mainline and evangelical Protestants would probably disagree sharply about the substance of any such social witness, but many mainline scholars and clergy have commendably pushed back against the twin cultural temptations of money and power. One need not subscribe to liberationist theology to appreciate churches that consciously resist the deification of material prosperity. And similarly, the church should not be merely a handmaiden to temporal authority (as I’ve written elsewhere, the co-optation of the Russian Orthodox Church and the suppression of other Christian voices in Russia is a testament to what can happen when church and state become institutionally intertwined). Contemporary controversies surrounding religious freedom in America may, however, be reviving a long-dormant sense of ecclesia contra mundum among evangelicals—and ironically, theological conservatives in the cultural minority may learn valuable strategic lessons from those with whom they may doctrinally disagree.

Second, mainline Protestantism has been particularly overt in articulating a comprehensive theological approach to the created environment. Despite its cultural ubiquity in many discussions of public policy and the future, environmental ethics simply isn’t an issue much discussed in evangelical or other theologically conservative Protestant circles. In fact, until last month, I didn’t even realize that my own denomination had commissioned and published a deeply reflective theological study—Together With All Creatures—on the topic. As above, no doubt the substance of non-mainline Protestant perspectives on environmental issues would differ dramatically from the substance of mainline views, but there is much to be said for opening up constructive discussions in this domain.

Finally, mainline Protestantism has been quicker than evangelicalism to engage in ecumenical and international dialogue across longstanding boundaries. This dialogue need not entail formal Eucharistic fellowship, but simply the recognition that members of other denominations are sincere Christians seeking Christ in good faith. Internecine conflict is one of the fastest ways to thwart efforts toward common purposes (just ask the organizers of the recent Women’s March on Washington, which experienced this repeatedly). When prominent theologically conservative Protestants declare Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions as somehow beyond the pale, and reject collaborative efforts on that basis, they risk reaping a bitter and fragmented harvest. Some evangelical figureheads, most notably Peter Leithart, have moved toward a more ecumenical paradigm—and in the spirit of this website, one might hope he inspires others to do likewise.

Undoubtedly major differences between denominations—and, more broadly, between evangelicals and mainliners—will persist into the foreseeable future. But as deep as those divisions may run, Christians in both groups ought not lose sight of the heritage that binds them, and of the importance of learning from one another.


John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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