What is a Mainline Church?
Mainline is a cross-denominational categorization of churches. Denominations typically are divided down the lines of doctrines and interpretation of scripture.
Mainline churches have come to represent the most liberal and ecumenical group of churches. The main way to distinguish a mainline church is to look at the differences between mainline churches and Evangelical churches.
Before we make this comparison, it is important to recognize that there are churches that are very close to being Evangelical that are within the mainline denominations. One of the features of Evangelical churches is that they practice a level of separation, such as separation from churches that reject biblical inerrancy or from churches that reject evangelization. But there are some conservative-type churches still in mainline denominations that would seem pretty close to evangelical, except they don’t mind being linked up with theologically liberal churches. We’re not going to be discussing these churches in this discussion, but you need to be aware that they do exist.
Evangelical Churches teach that a person is not born a “Christian.” Even if a person is born into a family that is Christian, and grow up always behaving like a Christian, they need to have a “born again” experience, called “salvation” or “conversion.” Anyone who doesn’t have this born again experience will go to hell, no matter how much they otherwise look and behave like a Christian.
Mainline churches don’t teach this born again theology.
Evangelical churches are generally more focused on the afterlife than this life. Since any person will live, by definition, an infinitely longer time in eternity, heaven or hell, than they will on earth, it’s much more important to try to get more people to be born again, and therefore go to heaven, than it is to make sure that a person is comfortable, or well fed, in this life. As a result, Evangelical churches will spend much less time and effort on temporary things of this life, and are more focused on proselytizing. (That is, getting people to be born again)
Mainline churches, on the other hand, are much more concerned with the here and now. Most church-run hospitals, soup kitchens, and social organizations are operated out of the mainline denominations. The justification for this “earthly” focus is how they view the ministry of Jesus.
Evangelicals see Jesus’s ministry to the poor and the sick as a verification of who he was. He healed the sick and raised the dead to show that he was truly God, but his main ministry wasn’t to be a magical doctor. After all, as God, he could have done a much better job healing way more people if that is really what he wanted to do.
The Mainline denominations see Jesus’s ministry to the poor and sick as being not only an example for us to follow, but really THE main example for us to follow. They tend to focus more on that aspect of what Jesus did than they do on his death on the cross, or his call to be born again in John 3. As a result, the ministries and outreaches of the mainline denominations are concerned with helping people’s earthly problems first, and eternal problems secondarily.
Mainline churches don’t have any primary evangelization or proselytization. You won’t ever have a mainline church member knock on your door or hand you a tract on the street. They don’t send missionaries to convert people in other countries so much as to help them with earthly needs. In fact, many mainline churches look down at the idea of conversion.
In a similar vein, the Mainline churches are focused on social Justice. If a race of people, or gender, or sexual orientation group have been discriminated against, they seek to right those wrongs. If some people have too much money, and others too little, mainline churches will often promote fixing that through government policy. They are for equality, inclusivism, multiculturalism, and pluralism.
Doctrine takes a back seat in mainline churches to unity. Because of this, most of the mainline denominations get along very well. They often accept the baptism of other mainline denominations, and ministers frequently will change denominations without a second thought. This is known as ecumenism. Because mainline churches are so ecumenical, and willing to work together with other denominations, they frown on ideas of judging others over doctrine. The most liberal in these denominations may disbelieve nearly everything in the creeds of their church, but that doesn’t matter, so long as they are still practicing within the very broad area of acceptable teaching. Mainline churches cringe at the idea of claiming any other group of people is “unsaved” or not going to heaven. They tend to claim “only God knows” on a lot of things that seem to be clear in the scripture, but this stems from another mainline tenet:
Mainline denominations reject biblical inerrancy. They tend to believe that the Bible is right as it relates to matters of doctrine, but anything else is not necessarily so. They accept what is known as “higher criticism,” that some things in the Bible aren’t written by the authors that the Bible claims wrote them, that portions of the historical narrative are mythical, and that the spiritual application of the Bible is what matters, but the literal meaning isn’t true. Because of their unacceptance of biblical literalism, they will nearly always side with contemporary scientific and archeological evidence over the literal meaning of scripture. They aren’t afraid to declare the creation account as mythical, and allegorize many or all of the miracles recorded in scripture. They also aren’t afraid to condemn Biblical characters for their actions which the Bible seems to condone, and may even say that if you take the Bible literally, then they don’t very much like the God of the Old Testament. Satan is often not accepted as a literally existing being, but rather a literary figure that represents the concept of evil. In 2014, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 40% of Mainline Protestants don’t believe in the existence of hell.
Mainline denominations, among all Christians, are the most likely to say that Christianity does not have an exclusive claim to the truth. Those that do believe in hell are hesitant to pronounce that a Muslim, or Hindu, or even an Atheist is certainly headed there. Instead, they would say that only God knows who is going to heaven or hell. The same Pew Research Center survey showed that only 25 percent of mainline Protestants said Christianity was the only religion that leads to eternal life, and only 32 percent of mainline Protestants believe in absolute standards of morality.
One final aspect of Mainline churches, that may seem less important in view of the other observations, is that historically they have tended to be more liturgical than evangelical churches. The ministers, and the choir are more likely to be wearing robes, and they may still have an organ. The music will be more toned down than an Evangelical church. This isn’t always the case however.
There are actually groups that are typically put at the very liberal edge of evangelical that are behaving a lot more like Mainline churches now. They are the “emergent” churches. Their focus is very much on social justice and the now.
So who are these mainline churches? Here are some of the main ones: The United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, The Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Churches in America, American Baptist Churches, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Moravian Church, and the Disciples of Christ.
In practice, mainline churches are more similar to each other due to them being mainline, than they are to other churches in the same denominational category that are evangelical or fundamentalist.
For example, a person who is in a Presbyterian Church USA church would find things more similar in a United Church of Christ, than if they went to a fundamentalist or evangelical Presbyterian church, and an Independent Fundamental Baptist would be very uncomfortable in a mainline American Baptist Church.
Mainline churches in the United States are typically part of the National Council of Churches, where they have ecumenical fellowship with Orthodox Churches and Historically black churches. Evangelical Churches, in contrast, are often part of the National Association of Evangelicals.
To give you a final taste of what Mainline churches are like, consider the Mainline seminaries. There’s , Duke Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, University of Chicago Divinity School, and Yale Divinity School, among others. They are certainly not the same as evangelical universities, like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Liberty University.