May 20, 2018

Three Days Among the Mainlines

ginnyellisportraitfulllength.jpgUnless you’ve been brought up in the insular confines of fundamentalism, it’s going to be hard to understand what it’s been like for me spending three days with “the other kind” of Christians this week. “The other kind” in this instance are mainline protestants, almost entirely Presbyterian Church USA, ELCA Lutherans, ECUSA Episcopalians and a few United Church of Christ. Out of about 70 ministers, mine was the only Baptist name tag I saw. There was a United Methodist, a Vineyard pastor, a Plymouth Brethren, an AME and a few others I don’t recall, but most of the ministers that surrounded me were what the conservative evangelicals I know call “liberals.”

I’ve been to a lot of meetings of Southern Baptists and various other kinds of conservative evangelicals. The last couple of decades I’ve spent considerable time with Calvinists of various persuasions. I’ve logged many hours in those circles and very few among “the other kind” of Christians. Even though I’ve done a lot of supply preaching among Presbyterians here in Appalachia, that’s been a tiny slice of my experience of Christian fellowship compared to my days surrounded by Southern Baptists and various other kinds of well-to-the-right-of-center Christians.

My crowd is made up of creationists, hardcore Republican culture warriors, pro-lifers, complementarians, Biblical literalists, polemicists, internet theologians, evangelists, Charismatics and people who enjoy TBN and K-Love. What you should have noticed down through the years on this web site is that even though I’m not “one of them,” they are the crowd I live with, work with and understand. Whenever mainliners come up. it’s usually when someone has heard something in the news about gay marriage/ordination or someone wants to denigrate a church as dead or apostate.

Mainline Christians? I’ve always known they were out there, but I was warned to avoid those “liberals.” I graduated from a United Methodist college. I attended seminary when my school was still left of center. I’ve been a supply in PCUSA churches for many years. I read mainliners like Will Willimon and Robert Capon. When I get the chance, I enjoy a good liturgy at an ECUSA church.

But these past three days were some of my closest times actually meeting and talking with my mainline brothers and sisters. Maybe it’s where I am on my own pilgrimage right now or maybe it’s the fact that I’m the recipient of real generosity from mainline friends, but I was more open to the mainline ethos than I’ve ever been before and I thoroughly enjoyed my experience. It was a wonderful time in the fellowship of those whose lives are seeking to know and serve God through Jesus.

Just to scare the fundamentalists keeping an eye on me, let me give a bit of a report.

A third–at least–of the ministers and pastors present were women. That’s ordained women, pastoring churches. From what I could see, they were doing great jobs in tough places. They were intense, devoted, strongly called and gifted, and deeply committed to their ministries.

They were also comfortable and confident. I’ve always been told that women in ministry had attitude and “issues.” I missed that. These were….normal people. Young mothers. Experienced older pastors. Campus ministers. They were eloquent, intelligent and busy doing the work of pastors. They were comfortable with what God had called them to do. They were prepared, experienced and positive. One young ECUSA pastor was a mother of four and had just been given pastoral oversight of 15 other pastors in her large diocese. Another woman was the minister of pastoral care at a large church in Kentucky. Many of these women were pastoring the kinds of little churches men leave quickly. They seem to have stayed. Hmmmm.

Not even once did we pause to discuss “women in ministry.” That issue was a done deal, and even when it became known that a Southern Baptist was in the room, no one stopped to start “the discussion.” We were pastors and ministers. We were there to listen to Eugene Peterson, to get to know one another and to be better shepherds.

No one seemed to know or care what Mark Driscoll or the SBC thought. We just talked about our churches, our dreams and our journeys so far. I treated them with dignity and respect and they did the same to me.

I liked that experience of fellowship a lot. Can I get away with saying that turning the “ministry” into a boys’ club–no matter what you believe about ordination–produces an atmosphere that I don’t really like? I don’t think I’m alone in that, and I assure you I’m not a mama’s boy. I’m just suspecting a lot of the grunting and chest hair in recent discussions of the “ministry” isn’t really necessary. God calls and gifts women. Even if you don’t ordain them, you believe that.

I also noticed that there was far more mature reflection on the experience and identity of the pastor in this group than in the other gatherings of ministers I’ve been a part of. Instead of being a driven kind of atmosphere, there was generosity, encouragement and thoughtful insight. I was really surprised that out of the whole group, over three days of discussion, I never spotted an ass……..well….a jerk. Or whatever term works. Not even one. In a room full of ministers listening to one another for three days, that seemed almost eerie to me. I’m used to gatherings of ministers being overt competitions of alpha males bragging, jousting for attention, bullying one another, playing games. My experience this week was absent all of that, and it had something to do with the fact that the role and person of the minister was taken more seriously than in my other experiences.

There was also an obvious gentleness in the leadership. No one seemed to have the need to vent their spleen and call it “leadership” or preaching. In the times of preaching, egos were set aside. Lots of scripture read, simple liturgies followed by 25-minute homilies. Where was the 1 hour 15 minute exposition telling us all what to do? Where was the parading of “names” to imitate? Not there…and I liked it.

There was a generosity toward other traditions that amazes me. All of these denominations together and I never heard ONE denominational or doctrinal discussion of any kind. Not one. Not even close. This was not the world I know, a world where anxieties about doctrine and theology seem to be, frankly, driving more than a few people to the point of distraction, illusion and obsession.

Yes, to be honest, there were some liberal stereotypes. Fever for Obama was high. If I had said I voted for Bush twice I would have quieted the crowd and guaranteed that seats next to me at meals would be open. Dinner was preceded by an open bar…..and it was roundly enjoyed by all. Definitely not something you see at the SBC Annual Meeting. And there were probably some gays and lesbians present. No one brought it up and it wasn’t my business. No one decided we needed to talk about it. Good.

One thing for sure. I was among people who knew and loved God and his Son; people who loved, read and preached the Bible in large doses; people who take the Gospel seriously; people very much desirous of the power of the Holy Spirit and genuine prayer. Certainly, they were people for whom the word ecumenical meant something important.

I learned to love these brothers and sisters. I’m sure we would disagree on some things–perhaps many things–but I was encouraged by their faith and confirmed in my call by their joy in theirs. We all faced many of the same issues, from empty nests to angry board members to family and financial stress. When we prayed and worshiped, we were one in Christ, and I enjoyed the feeling.

These are our brothers and sisters. We have a lot to say to one another, much to share and very much to offer one another. We can learn from each other and love one another. But will we? Will we?

In fact, I’m missing those good people and the fellowship of Jesus I felt with them. Maybe someday I’ll find it again. It was a good, healthy, positive experience of the Spirit.


  1. Praise God!

  2. Welcome to the Dark Side, Michael! [cue Palpatine voice/] “Everything is going according to plan.” [/end Palpatine voice]

    Just because we pioneered sticking the Gospel in a safe, secure, lockbox and obsessing on church and churchly-ness and churchmanship, that’s not a reason to resent the Mainline/Oldline denominations. Y’all are getting really good at it, maybe good enough for some of us to pioneer figuring out how to stop it.

    Paging Marva Dawn, Marva Dawn to the courtesy desk. . .

  3. Sound likes an interesting time. Let me be a voice of dissent for just a moment. But, by your assessment if you had mentioned that you had voted for Bush twice you would have been shunned (my word not yours). That attitude isn’t much different than conservative evangelicals shunning someone who voted for Kerry or Gore. Just an observation.

  4. That’s an interesting post, Michael.

    Should it have matters if any homosexual in ministry were present? Why or why not?

  5. Let me know if you’re ever going to be in the Nashville area and this mainliner will buy you coffee. Enjoyed the post.

  6. So glad you had a wonderful experience with the mainliners.

    I’m a mainliner that has had quite another experience at eccumenical gatherings of mainliners.

    Not that they weren’t all those things you mentioned, because for the most part they were,(for good or for ill).

    Nice people all, I’m sure. They all have nice families, and are decent, sincere people.

    But, when mainliners gather for worship in my neck of the woods, something is obviously missing. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins.

    Not completely. It does show up in the scripture readings. And it does show up in the liturgy. And it does show up in the sacraments.

    But in the preaching, Jesus does not show up. Not the Jesus that died for our sins, anyway. Because to (most) mainliners sin is an antiquated notion that maybe applied to those folks way back there in another, less enlightened era.

    The Jesus that does show up is the good example Jesus. The great teacher Jesus. The tolerant Jesus who acceps everyone and everything…including sin.

    Lots of tolerence and inclusivity words in a mainline sermon. Jesus is just one more bowl on the religious salad bar. I happen to like tomatoes and you happen to like cucumbers. All roads lead to a tolerant and accepting god.

    At one of these eccumenical worship services (Good Friday) a few years ago, my pastor preached a hard hitting law and gospel sermon that laid the sinner bare. He told them (us) how each of us
    were responsible for that bloody death on the cross, and we prove it everyday of the week by our blatant and willful disregard for God and our neighbor. He then went on, after everyone had been fully unmasked, to hand over Jesus, and the forgiveness of sins, totally and completely with no strings attached. No list of now “go and do”. Just “your sins are forgiven for Jesus sake”. That was the last word. No one was left standing, but Jesus Christ.

    Well… the other pastor’s present were so angered at my pastor that many of them wouldn’t even speak to him or acknowledge him immediately after the service. How’s that for tolerence? He did the one thing that is really necessary that the Chruch be doing and he got the cold shoulder from his fellow clergy persons.

    I went to the same Good Friday service last year
    with a different pastor preaching, and Jesus didn’t show up at all in the sermon! Not even the cross was mentioned…on Good Friday! What was preached was how we must all do our part to make the world better. Sure.But that’s not the ultimate concern of the Church. That’s penultimate! There are people that are hurting, reeling as a result of their own sin or the sins of others, sitting in the pews, dying, and in need of the one thing that can give them life, and they hear,”now go and fix the world.”
    What a load of horse dung.

    This is the state of most of the mainline churches. There’s no death of the old sinner (there’s no sinner!). There’s no forgiveness of sins (there are no sins). There is no Gospel.
    Aside from the liturgy and the sacraments (and those days are numbered as well as soon as someone in the pews says that they are offended by them), it is basically law peaching. You should, ought and must be doing X,Y,and Z, Go out and bring in the kingdom….now, on this earth, because this is basically everything anyway.

    If you listen for it, that is what you will hear…basically nothing that is really needful.

    Anyway, that has been my experience with mainliners…and I am one!

    – Steve

  7. Thank you for your reflection. As someone who was thoroughly engrossed in evangelicalism as a United Methodists and who has come to embrace the mainline part of my heritage, I enjoy reading about experiences like this. I’m glad you had felt the depth of fellowship you did.

  8. Frank: I’m simply saying that the issue was never brought up. Not in small group when we were encouraged to tell our stories, not in questions, not at dinner conversations, etc. I’m fairly sure there were some gays present, but no one insisted on bringing the issue up to test the “acceptance” of anyone else.

    Sometimes evangelicals do forget that while the gay lobbies in various mainline groups have been loud, they haven’t been successful, as the recent judicial decision in the PCUSA illustrates.

    My own views are simple:

    1) I don’t recognize categories of sexual preference. They are nonsensical.
    2) I recognize Hebrews 13:4 and all the normal definitions.
    3) An intentionally celibate person self identified as gay is no different to me than a heterosexual who is intentionally celibate.
    4) I wouldn’t ordain anyone who wasn’t attempting to obey Hebrews 13:4.

    Steve: The Gospel of forgiveness was abundantly present, in preaching, prayer, conversation and liturgy. Your Christless preaching experience is my experience of evangelicals.

    : Any retreat centers, monasteries, etc in the area?

  9. Steve: I’m extremely inexperienced and naive, but from my limited experience I’ve found that your statement:

    If you listen for it, that is what you will hear…basically nothing that is really needful.

    Will always be true for any denomination. If you’re looking to see something a certain way, it’s always possible to paint it so.

  10. Michael,

    This has been my experience as well. Thank you for your post. I have been a charismatic, evangelical with a good deal of pride concerning the fact that I knew the Lord. It was a real shock for me to find such love for God, his word and his people among the mainliners, of which I now am one. There are a couple of blogs that may interest you in this respect, one by a female Presbyterian minister with an evangelical upbringing, and the other by a Lutheran intern, soon to be pastor, God’s family is bigger than we thought, isn’t it?


  11. Michael,

    I am certainly very encouraged that the mainliners in your gathering were Christ centered.

    As I noted earlier, the majority of the main line churches where I am from preach a gospel of affirmatiom. With the woman caught in adultery story, there is no more…”go and sin no more.”
    These churches, and the synod to which our congregation is a member, are ‘creature centered’ and not ‘Creator centered’. It is reflected in their preaching, their literatrure, their attitudes.

    I happen to agree with you 100% with respect to evangelical churches. Christ hardly shows up there either, and when he does, they usually have him dressed up like Moses (thanks for that one Eric S.). Those churches are basically mired in law as well…ladder theology. Bigger, better, higher, more spiritual,…it never ends…you never quite “arrive”. In many mainline churches, you certainly “do arrive”, but your sin never got on the bus.
    I see the American church landscape as litterd with ‘theologies of self’. Whether you slice it from the left, or the right, putting the ourselves back at the center of the religious project seems to be the norm.

    I pray that there is a change starting to take place. That our Lord has decided to bring His Word to bear upon these churches and place Himself back at the center.

    It sounds like this is happening in some corners where you are, and my heart is gladdened for it.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us Michael!

    – Steve

  12. David Babikow says:

    “Your Christless preaching experience is my experience of evangelicals.”

    Mine too. And I live in the Bible Belt. It makes you want to cry.

  13. Thanks for this. It doesn’t quite match with my own interactions with mainliners in the Inland Northwest region but it is nice to be among people for whom the questions of how God is to be worshipped and who does the worshipping have already been answered.

    There is something to be said about including all God’s children in church leadership, as it does seem to decrease the power struggles that result when some are left out.

  14. Michael: Welcome to my world (ECUSA). It’s where I’ve found my spiritual home, and I’m amazed (amused?) that you’re just now encountering it. I’m glad we behaved ourselves! I think you’re mistaken about the Bush-hate. In my prayer group we have three Dems and two Reps. We all love each other, and we don’t mix politics with prayer.

    Steve: Steve, Steve, Steve. “Jesus is just one more bowl on the religious salad bar.” How tiring it must be to be you, trying to straighten all of us godless, brainless, latte-sipping, salad-munching, bunny-hugging, wishy-washy libruls out! The only right-thinking person you seem to have found in this sinful world is “my pastor,” who, not surprisingly, “preached a hard hitting law and gospel sermon that laid the sinner bare.” Keep on truckin’, man; I’ll catch you on the flip side and we’ll do this face to face. If there’s latte in heaven you can have some, and I’ll down a cup of your strongest black coffee, boiled an extra two hours for flavor.

  15. H. Lee: I have been around the ECUSA for years through friends who were members and occasional visits. And I’ve kept up with things as my daughter and son-in-law are AMiA, likely to be ECUSA in the future.

  16. Lovely. Thanks for sharing this…

  17. Perhaps your experience among mainline Christians was one of those “cracks that let the light get in?”

  18. Stefan,

    What I was referring to when I said “if you listen for it”, was Jesus and His work for us, without strings attached (that’s the gospel).

    If you listen for it, you will either hear it, given over to you freely, or you’ll hear it given to you with one hand and then removed with the other hand (stings attached), or you won’t hear it at all.

    These things are true of every denomination and in every church.

    H. Lee,

    I think I know what it is that bothers you so about my desire to keep Jesus and His work for us, central. I believe it is the desire to not be judgementle. To make peace. To be be tolerant.
    Those can be good things. But not when it comes to proclaiming Christ,and Christ alone.
    Jesus said Himself, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
    Unity at the expense of the gospel is a lousy tradeoff. There is really something at stake here. It is a matter of life and death.
    So, if you’re looking for a guy who’ll go along, for going along’s sake… fahghettaboutit. Not from this guy who believes that some things are correct and some things are wrong. I guess I’m just old fashioned that way.
    I would love to have a coffee with you someday. I’ll buy. When we get to Heaven they are on the house!

  19. Michael:

    From your post it seems that you experienced people that actually take the role of pastor far more seriously than most evangelicals. I went to an SBC seminary post-conservative takeover. I gladly associated myself with the new fundamentalist emphasis. But in hindsight it seems to me that in their paradigm of pastoral ministry the pastorate has been primarily boiled down to preaching and evangelism. Although not the stated goal, it was obvious through the chapel services that they wanted all of us to become superstar preachers in mega-churches.

    There is certainly nothing wrong with either of these necessary activities, but this is not the end all and be all of the pastorate. If you check out some of the videos on the Resurgence blog promoting their upcoming conference, you will find this same understanding.

    But in my experience as an average, no-name pastor in an average church, this paradigm just doesn’t work. The pastor as superstar preacher model is not, in my opinion, where it is at.

    I like what James W. Thompson in his book “Pastoral Ministry According to Paul”: “Ministry is participation in God’s work of transforming the community of faith until it is ‘blameless’ at the coming of Christ.” This will take more than just ministry in the pulpit. Maybe that’s why so many of those women pastors stay put in the small church. They get it.

    Sorry for the length of this comment. But your post struck a cord with me. Even in the church I pastor I sometimes feel like the people do not want a pastor. They want to be a mega-church and they want a pastor who is a superstar preacher. The emphasis is all upon church growth and not transformation as the community of faith. We’re working on it, but it’s slow.

    Hopefully, through the work and ministry of people like Eugene Peterson, evangelicals can begin to recover the work of the pastoral ministry.

    By the way, this is one evangelical that really can’t stand K-Love. 🙂

  20. Speaking as recovering Pentecostal and current mainliner — member of The Episcopal Church [TEC] which is the current moniker for what y’all are calling ECUSA (which encompasses more that the USA) — I’m thrilled you think we’re actually serious Christians.

    But mostly, I just thank Beelzebub you didn’t inadvertently stumble into the secret One World Church black mass we run in the basement of all these mainline gatherings at midnight.

    And on the hospitality hour arrangements at the conference, I offer this slightly modified version of an old favorite:

    Q. Why should you always invite at least two Southern Baptists to your mainline conference?

    A. Because if you only invite one, he’ll drink up all your liquor at the happy hour, but if you invite two, neither of ’em will touch a drop.

  21. My pastor sent me the link to this entry, commenting that it was nice. And, I agree with him that your post and most of the responses are hopeful indeed. But the conflict voiced by Steve really does point out clearly that we may never have a rapport develop between these fundamentally different views of the Gospel.

    The true value and beauty of the Bible is its adaptability to fit the times, not in its ability to state unchanging laws. Many of us remaining in mainline denominations are there because the leadership focuses on the positive message of the Gospel and the need for all of us to be as Christ in the world. Whether “sin” is a valid concept really is not the center of our discussion. We know that God forgives sin, so our focus is on learning how to love others during our brief span on earth. It is extremely difficult to believe that God wants us to dwell on the sin of the world that predates the message of forgiveness brought by Christ. That tolerant and forgiving God is the cornerstone of the liberal church. It is not a bowl on the bar, but because we don’t stand around and suggest that those that disagree with us are “bad” in some way, we are viewed and not having an identity for God. But the more I think about it, the more I think that Atonement theology is applied in a sinful way when it becomes almost idolatry in the unshakable belief that the most important facet of Christ’s life was his death on the cross. Perhaps if we mainliner’s took this position overtly, we would be perceived as standing for something.

    I suspect that we will never agree on this subject until and unless Jesus returns to clarify it for all of us. And, I suspect that part of God’s plan is for us to figure it out without that visit. But sermons that condemn the sinner, reminding humans how base they are really do nothing to further the message that leads us forward into the sunshine of Grace. They force people into the shadows thrown by a never ending sense of shame and unworthyness.

  22. Thank you for this WONDERFUL post! It gives me hopw.

  23. Michael:

    Another mainliner here (ELCA), and I have sat through plenty of sermons in the Lutheran heartland of Fargo, ND, and haven’t even heard the name Jesus mentioned. In one notable (un-notable??) sermon, the word “God” was mentioned a total of two times (I was counting), but it was used in the sense of “higher power” spiritual master-type of thing. It was sad, but the place was packed to the gills, and everyone was saying “Great sermon, Pastor” in the hand-shaking line on the way out of church. I wanted to kick the guy in the family jewels for wasting 20 minutes of my life on that lukewarm drivel. If it weren’t for the liturgy (hymns, readings, and prayers), I would’ve thought that I stumbled into a universal metaphysical conference or some secular charity event about feeding the homeless.

    So, it’s really hit or miss in the mainline churches, but I agree with Steve that after fighting the all the battles during the week, I need my battery recharged on Sunday morning, so to speak: I need to hear that crisp, clean, clear, powerful, saving Word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not some tepid, watered-down, make-me-feel-good, Jesus-is-your-friend message. Life’s too short, and there’s too much as stake. I don’t need a friend—I need a savior! I don’t need to feel good—I need to hear yet again that my sins are forgiven! But the true Gospel doesn’t pack ‘em in like the warm-and-fuzzy, Jesus-is-my-role model, what’s-in-it-for-me message, so it’s heard less and less these days. Gotta pay the bills somehow…

    In closing, our itching ears lead us to the church proclaiming the message we—the old Adams—want to hear, and so we plant our behinds in the pews of the church of our choice every Sunday. It’s noteworthy that the message that Jesus was preaching at the end of his ministry resulted in about three people sitting in the pew—everyone else had been turned off by that downer situation, and had been led off by their ears to other teachers with more favorable messages. Now during Lent is a good time to be thinking about this.

    In His grip,
    Eric S.

  24. Bill Thomas says:

    thank you, Michael. As a non denominational Stephen Leader who has served in evangelical and mainline churches my experience has been as yours.
    If those assesmbled give space to the Holy Spirit they will be led and loved simply by the presence of God…

  25. Rich,

    You said, “But the more I think about it, the more I think that Atonement theology is applied in a sinful way when it becomes almost idolatry in the unshakable belief that the most important facet of Christ’s life was his death on the cross.”

    1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (ESV)

    3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.


  26. Rich,

    “But sermons that condemn the sinner, reminding humans how base they are really do nothing to further the message that leads us forward into the sunshine of Grace. They force people into the shadows thrown by a never ending sense of shame and unworthyness.”

    I could not disagree with you more, Rich.

    The purpose of stating the demand of God’s law(not our’s!) is not done in order to force people into the shadows. They are already there! Sinner’s live in the darkness that their sin creates.

    The purpose of exposing what what we really are is to kill us off to the self. That we might be raised anew, from the dead, to live in the light of the gospel.

    In order to be born again,(as confessional Lutherans we believe that happens daily; not a one time event)… you need to die. That is the job that the law does. It kills off the sinner. So now God has a blank slate in which to create the new man or woman. Dying and rising…the shape of the Christian life. Baptism!

    When the law is preached, not in a general manner, but done in such a way as to speak to each of us, as if we were the only one in the pew,it has a chance to humble us. To knock us off the ladder of idolatry that we set up and climb for ourselves all week long.

    Then the preacher follows up by handing over Christ. By proclaiming that Jesus loves sinners! That’s who He came for. “The healthy don’t need a physician.”

    All this is done in love.

    To brush sin off as, yeah, we know were sinners, but we are way beyond that, and now we’re on to bigger and better things, is to, I believe, turn the Christian faith into just another religion of doer’s. No different in substance than all other religions where we are finally judged, in the end, by what we do.

    If that’s all God is after, then why the heck did He die on the cross? Why doesn’t He just line us all up and check off our efforts and our seriousness against the next guy’s?

    There are two basic theologies in Christianity. The theology of ‘glory’. We are getting better and moving forward all the time. And the theology of the ‘cross’. We are crucified with Christ, and raised with Him, and progress no further (as Christians). All the glory, therefore goes to Christ. He has done all that is necessary, and anything that flows from that realization is a result of the inspiration of the Spirit of God.

    This theology of the cross is not popular now, and it never has been (for the reasons that Eric S. spoke of).

    A good article has been written by the late Gerhard Forde, contrasting these two theologies in a much better way than I ever could. (It’s not very long and it’s easy to find on the net)

    The theology that I’m espousing runs against the grain of human nature and human reason.

    That is one of the reasons that makes me believe that it is true. We would never have thought it up ourselves!

    Thanks Rich,

    – Steve

  27. Eric S.,

    It’s “hit and miss” among evangelicals too. Many evangelical sermons today could easily be preached by a Jew, Mormon, or even at a Toastmasters club meeting. Alot of self-help tips for a successful (you fill in the blank) passing off as sermons. But you won’t hear alot about Jesus. And if you do, it’ll be more about what you do for him than what he did for you.

    Evangelicals are just better at finding those principles in the Bible while some mainliners look for them in the self-help section at the local Barnes & Noble.

    I don’t care if you are mainline, liberal, conservative, fundamental, evangelical or something combination of the above. If you aren’t preaching Christ and him crucified and risen for sinners you aren’t being faithful as a preacher. For this reason I know some “liberals” that are more faithful than some “conservatives.”

    Frankly labels matter little to me anymore. What are you doing with Jesus? That’s what counts.

  28. Great post.

    Are you advocating tolerance or acceptance of “mainline” Christians?

  29. Steve,

    I respect your approach, but to my mind, there is a logical fallacy in it that I cannot overcome. If the theology is true to you because it runs against human reason, it fundamentally devalues the gift of mindfulness that we have been given. There is a compartmentalism in that approach that loses me. I believe that an exemplary theology does not rule out the value of the cross – it simply places it in the context of the humanity of Christ. You’ll get no argument from me that suggests that it is unimportant. But the whole of the revealed life of Christ is material to Christianity.

    I also believe that God gave us this gift of awareness and the ability to learn and build on our knowledge not so that we could be tested on our faith, but so that we can grow our faith. The old saw that God never gives us more than we can handle cuts both ways. It is reasonable to assume that that Christ came when he did and died the way that he did because God knew that this story was the one that would stand the test of time and create dialogues like this. But it was all we could handle as humans. This is not to suggest that there was an impaired ability to think – just a dearth of facts to provide context.

    One can have a theology that is based on Grace and Love and not be a narcissist or a worshipper of the self. And if that begins to bring Christianity on a par with other faiths that concentrate on actions that improve the human condition in the same way that Christ exemplified, isn’t it possible that that kind of ecumenism is exactly where God wants us to go with our faith? I think it is more important to believe that there is one God who appears in many forms to bring about peace than to believe that there is one true Way that everyone needs to find for salvation. And frankly, I’m not much of a believer in final judgment either, but I have yet to find an alternative theory that makes any sense either. Having been raised Catholic and now being an American Baptist, I actually do think that faith without works is dead and that the only way God has to measure faith is whether one has lived it, not just declared it.

    But I could be wrong about my vision of a loving God that seeks us more than demands things of us. And if so, I guess I will be dead in every sense and not just physically. But I think my soul would not take well to a Kingdom anyhow.

    Finally, we will have to agree to disagree about the purpose of coming at sin from the dark side. To me, it is like beating a dead horse. Once I have learned that my condition is poor, I don’t need to be told multiple times. I am much more likely to change my ways if I know how much better things can be than by trying to alienate me from myself. The metaphor of dying to ourselves is just that – a metaphor. We need to be selfless, not dead.


    I can’t quote chapter and verse of Scripture, but I don’t view Paul as the be all of faith decisions. Having said that, Pauline views color much of my thinking. But, I believe that statements like this are human opinions at best, or maybe even human interpretations of Divine revelation. There are tracts for every occasion. I imagine that if I took the time to dig, I could marshall statements from the Gospels that imply that something else was as important. But my reality points to Christ coming to bring new light and life and that seems out of sync with centralizing the death.

    At the end of the day, we are all making choices with the brains we were given. I can only hope that we are using them the way God intends.

  30. Steve,

    Just a suggestion…try to keep your comments more concise. Most people don’t have the time or desire to read more than a couple of paragraphs in the meta. Any good things that you have to say get lost due to time constraints/attention spans.


  31. Ken:

    I’m not sure I understand your distinction. Tolerance is a good thing, but it can imply that I think I’m doing you a favor. Acceptance can imply that I accept all you might say as right. Neither woudl be true.

    So both in the best sense; neither in any sense that has an agenda.

  32. I grew up in a US denomination where there are high anxieties about theology and doctrine.

    In mainstream Christianity I too have found people who love, read and preach the Bible in large doses, who take the Gospel seriously and who desire the power of the Holy Spirit.

    I thank you for your testimony although I know enough to suspect that it may fall on deaf ears in a number of circles.

  33. Rich,

    That fact that the gospel is so different than what we would do, is not the only reason I believe it. Another great reason is that God has willed that I believe it. Faith is a gift of God.

    You seem to be at odds with many things that are certainly scriptural and within Christian orthodoxy. That God revealed Himself in Jesus (alone), that there will be a new Kingdom that Christ will usher in, that there will be a last judgement.

    The reason that we need to come at sin again and again and again is that we….keep sinning! And we need to repent of that sin. How are you gonna repent if you’re not called on it?

    You mentioned the dark side of sin. It’s probably a lot darker than any of us can imagine. But there is a bright side! The Lord loves those who realize what sinners they are (the publican and the Pharisee)and He forgives them, with no questions asked. “Go and sin no more.”


    How’d I do? I tried a little harder, just for you.

    Thanks you guys ( & gals)…I’m assuming Grub is a guy, but I’ve never known a Grub before, so forgive me Grub if I’ve erred.

    Yours truly,


  34. Ahh…Now I can get through the discussion without eye strain….THanks for your consideration Steve. YOu have good points, and I didn’t want them to get lost in the ‘words’.

  35. In the spirit of Grub’s request: Yes, I am unorthodox and at odds with the authenticity of Scripture and of the historical narrative that has formed the traditional way of looking at it.


  36. David Babikow says:

    I think your assessment is quite accurate,”hit or miss”.
    I can say that too many sermons that are preached here in our conservative southern town by “evangelicals” could be tacked to the wall of a Buddhist Monastery and they
    would say,Yes that’s what we try to do”.
    Too many sermons long on duty and short on Christ.

  37. Steve,

    Oh, and oddly enough, I believe that God has willed me to question this traditional belief system with the hope that when we are through, we will all be closer to his ideal for the world. So, I pray that God is with us both and that He will shed some new light on this old conflict.


  38. Don’t be so quick to form a conclusion… remember what C.S. Lewis said in his essay (not the book) about the Psalms. At first it seems the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations are closer to us because of their tolerant, easygoing attitude, as opposed to the harsh world depicted in the Psalms. But as you examine the morality of each culture, it becomes apparent the opposite is true.

    You may not have had as much fellowship as you think. Liberals tend to use familiar religious phrases and cliches, but redefine the underlying words. Did you check to see what they meant by ‘God’, ‘salvation’, ‘Christ’ (Bishop Schori of the Episcopal Church prays to Mother Jesus. Bishop Gene Robinson of NH dislikes the Nicene Creed, so he mouths the words when others recite it – he said so himself).

    You should perhaps spend more time amongst the mainliners – it would disabuse you of any misconceptions about them you may currently hold from such a short exposure.

    In your post, most of what they outperform the Fundamentalists on seems to be adiaphora.

  39. Rich,

    I appreciate your comments. Thanks very much.

    However, I believe everything that God wanted us to know (about Him), He revealed to us in His Holy Scriptures.

    The ideal for this world is this: Love God with everything you’ve got, every fiber of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself.
    His ideal for this world became flesh and lived the life that was demanded by God. A perfect sinless life.

    We might not agree all the time, but that’s alright. It’s clarity(for both our sakes) that I’m after, much more than agreement.

    St. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” Romans 1:16

    You are correct Rich. God will shed His light upon us, according to His good and gracious will.

    God bless you Brother Rich!

    – Steve

  40. Other than the fact that Mother Jesus is kindof a dumb way to pray, am I supposed to be deeply offended by goofiness? I mean, I’m pretty sure if we wanted to compare outrages story by story, item by item, we’d all be able to match stories regarding stupid ministry tricks, including dumb prayers. I had a woman pray- in my presence- that God would kill me if I didn’t stop using hymns in worship. I’ve heard a famous SBC evangelist pray for God to kill his kids if that’s what it takes for revival.

    So how worked up should I get? I agree its goofy, but I’d be glad to stop at goofy.

    I wouldn’t vote for Gene Robinson for anyone’s pastor, but I’m not bothered that he recites the Nicene Creed. Let’s hope he believes all of it.

    I may be a really stupid man, CANdiron, but I’m going to wager that what I’ve experienced with the vast majority of the mainliners I know was just what it seemed to be: real faith in the same Christ and the same Bible and the same God.

    We all can’t be reformed Baptists. I believe there are a lot of Christians out there, and when presented with the obvious, I for one have no plans to try and overturn rocks looking for the shocking truth that it’s all a ruse. Count me in as glad someone else part of the church catholic, and I’ll let God sort ’em out.

  41. I think you experienced a group of people who wanted to hear Peterson. Anyone looking to hear from him would probably be someone like you. Try going to a group of pastors to hear Spong.

  42. I was with 70 people selected all over the U.S. and Canada to receive Sabbatical grants.

    Nice try though.

    I just don’t get it. Is the stereotype that most everyone in a United Methodist Church, PCUSA, ECUSA, ELCA or other mainline congregation is a supporter of Spong’s version of Christianity just fun to perpetuate?

  43. Is the stereotype that most everyone in a United Methodist Church, PCUSA, ECUSA, ELCA or other mainline congregation is a supporter of Spong’s version of Christianity just fun to perpetuate?

    Actually the Bible has a phrase to describe it: “bearing false witness.”

  44. There’s a lot to recommend the mainline churches.

    But you do have to remember to ask whether all of the mainliners in the room were really comfortable with all the other mainliners in the room, even from their own denominations. I grew up in the PCUSA, and I remember visiting another PCUSA congregation in the same town for a school project, and having the associate minister respond, when he found out where I was from, “Oh, so you know what THAT kind of Presbyterian church is like.” Ha ha. We were in the same denomination. But our congregation was evangelical, and theirs was liberal.

    That said, it really is true that not every place has the same degree of infighting. And if you’ve been around too much of it, peace looks like a truly wonderful thing.

  45. Ron Jung said:
    “I think you experienced a group of people who wanted to hear Peterson. Anyone looking to hear from him would probably be someone like you. Try going to a group of pastors to hear Spong.”
    Your logic for the first point is just as applicable to your latter and as Michael points out, your first is flawed anyway.
    As a UK-based Christian, I find the US pre-occupation with labels and camps somewhat strange. It’s true here too, of course, but not to the same degree. But perhaps that’s not entirely a true picture either.
    What we hear from any given camp is the vocal minority. I would suggest that the vast majority of Christians (whether UK, US or anywhere else) who simply get on with life on a day-by-day basis would be loath to accept the ‘labels’ and characteristics thrown around. They follow a tradition primarily because that’s their local church or it’s where the family have gone or it’s where friends go. People ultimately put up with a lot of ‘differences of opinion’ and the majority see that, in the bigger picture, no-one can claim to have the absolutely correct answers.
    Let me also suggest that this is true also of the majority of minister/pastors. Again, the majority are simply trying to shepherd a flock of diverse people, to the best of their abilities with the best tools they have at their disposal. If this results in a bit of a pick-n-mix theology, then it’s an acknowledgement that everyone is different, has different needs and understands through different means.
    To tar all mainline churches and congregations with the same (extremist) brush is borderline offensive. I doubt that the same caricature applied to your chosen denomination would be acceptable to you. It’s also to limit the Grace of God to those who agree with a particular, human-created, theology.

  46. Well, i don’t know about *fun*, but gratifying to our self-identification, hmmm — could be!

    And as a frustrated mainline/oldliner myself, i’ve done it, because it makes me feel like i’m keeping the distinction clear between people-pleasing and honoring Christ. The problem is when i forget that slamming people-pleasing is not the same as honoring Christ.

    Doing that in front of and around my charismatic and/or SBC friends helps not only sustain their stereotypes about mainline/oldline clergy and churches, but it reinforces their own tendency to confuse negating silliness with affirming Jesus.

    Yet through it all, i’ve often thought, reading over your shoulder here over the last year, that it’s too bad there isn’t a Disciples congregation somewhere nearby. Communion every Sunday at minimum, the potential to take a constructive liturgy seriously (even if our history and current trends make us play with liturgy way too much), and baptism by immersion of believers (although it is officially for the remission of sin, not that many of our clergy know what we mean by that, and why we aren’t that near Baptist in how we approach them waters). But the Disciples of Christ would benefit greatly from a few more Michael Spencers, since most of our conservative congregations went independent in the late 1960’s and they’re now chasing Ken Ham lectures and putting on community revivals with weightlifters.

    Leaving me feeling like one of the last conservatives on a liferaft filled with Spongians. Which is neither fair nor quite true. Thanks for this as with so many posts, Monsieur I-monk.

  47. Let me clarify.
    1. My point isn’t that mainliners are all Spongites. Some are and if you went to a conference to hear him your experience would be with people who chose to hear him.
    2. There are great folks in all mainline denoms and fundy denoms. If I go to a conference to hear, say Hauweraus, I’ll be around a bunch of others who came to hear him. The forum will attract a certain kind of person that transcends “camps”.
    3. Comparing a group of Peterson fans to other settings may be unfair.

    To JohnO
    “Your logic for the first point is just as applicable to your latter” Duh- that was my point. I also assumed Michael is not a Spongite and would not have as good experience with them.

  48. Hold on!!!!
    You were selected!
    My bad. Please ignore my posts.
    On the side though. I am around both the fundies, evangelicals and the mainliners. I have more fun with the mainliners.

  49. I’d wager that the Spong audience isn’t made up of a majority of mainline folk. Some clergy and academics way out on the fringe, but you’d have to work pretty hard to get together a typical selection of mainliners who would rejoice in denying the resurrection, even among those defending Gene Robinson. Two very different crowds.

    Spong’s audience is people who hate the church. He’s the atheist/skeptics lap dog. Not the mainline. What mainline denom would invite Spong to speak at a National meeting?

  50. I must admit that I am somewhat perplexed by this post. I spent years in a liberal PCARP church. Altogether wonderful people. I spent years in a seeker-sensitive mega-church. I have visited charismatic churches. I rather recently discovered reformed theology and attend a PCA church. Yes, there are many, many egregious examples of mis-focus and wrong-headedness in conservative, evangelical, ‘fundi’ theological circles. Yes, there are many thoughtful people who love God and His word in liberal theological traditions.

    However, my experience has been that liberal, main-line churches often deny the basic truths required for authentic faith in Christ, and I do not think I am way off-base with this remark. I can understand difficulties over, for example, the inerrancy issue. We can have interesting and hopefully fruitful dialogs over the issue of women in positions of authority in the church. However, my experience and issue with liberal theology is with it’s ultimate human-centricity (obviously a problem on the right, also). Main-liners, though, seems to more often than not deny the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. It sees Christ as a teacher, a sage, a social reformer rather than a Savior. I could go on ad nausea, but I think (hope) my point is clear.

    Again, I like the theological liberals I know. Very erudite, very articulate, very tolerant people – often in many ways quite Christ-like, more-so than many nominal conservative Christians. However, when I look out at the ‘panoply’ of peculiarities of the our ‘conservative’ fellow travelers, perhaps we may see how God uses the foolish to confound the wise, the weak to confound the strong. Yea, we in the conservative, ‘non-mainline’ traditions got lots and lots and lots of problems. However, I hope, pray,and strive for ‘semper reformanda.’

    IMonk, I have read your blog for quite a while and often find you thinking my thoughts and stretching my mind, but articulating them much more clearly than I am able. However and again, you leave me a vaguely perplexed with this post.

    As an addendum, I do not want to paint with too broad a brush stroke. I know and do not intend to imply that all in the main-line churches are apostate. I know, with great sadness, that there are many nominal Christians – evangelicals – may find themselves on the broad way rather than the narrow.

    I think the bottom line is this: the left often follows the social reformer Jesus. The right often follows the life coach Jesus.

    Also, sorry if I rambled OT.

    In Christ,