Why the Mainline Becomes the Sidelined

It has often been said of the more liberal Christian denominations that in their attempt to become trendy and relevant – at the expense of biblical truth – they have ceased being mainline denominations and have in fact become sidelined. They have so compromised truth and the Gospel that they are no longer making any impact at all, and are slowly declining.

This has been true for some time now in places such as the US. The major Protestant mainline denominations have been deteriorating big time, with declining memberships and decreasing impact. Ironically, as they seek to become more and more relevant, they in fact become more and more irrelevant.

A recent article in First Things has highlighted this fact. Joseph Bottum had a piece entitled “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline”. In it he documents the decline of liberal Protestant churches. Of course he is not the first to do this. Many in the past have noted the growth of conservative churches and the decline of liberal churches.

Way back in 1972 Dean Kelley wrote a book called Why Conservative Churches are Growing. In 1996 Thomas Reeves wrote The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity. And in 2006 Dave Shiflett penned Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity.

Bottum says the decline in the mainline church took off in the 60s and things began to get pretty bad in the 70s. Of course this does not mean there are no more liberal churches around:

“In truth, there are still plenty of Methodists around. Baptists and Presbyterians, too—Lutherans, Episcopalians, and all the rest; millions of believing Christians who remain serious and devout. For that matter, you can still find, soldiering on, some of the institutions they established in their Mainline glory days: the National Council of Churches, for instance, in its God Box up on New York City’s Riverside Drive, with the cornerstone laid, in a grand ceremony, by President Eisenhower in 1958. But those institutions are corpses, even if they don’t quite realize that they’re dead. The great confluence of Protestantism has dwindled to a trickle over the past thirty years, and the Great Church of America has come to an end.”

“And that leaves us in an odd situation, unlike any before. The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: The Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.”

Albert Mohler recently wrote an article commenting on the Bottum piece. Says Mohler: “The collapse of the Protestant mainline has been swift, steady, and self-inflicted. These denominations embraced theological liberalism and adopted accommodationism as a cultural posture.  Bottum estimates that less than 8 percent of Americans are now members of ‘the central churches of the Protestant Mainline’.”

Mohler concludes, “The primary injury caused by mainline Protestant decline is not social but spiritual. These denominations once fuelled the great missionary movement that carried the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Now, liberal Protestantism sees conversionist missions as an embarrassment. Committed to a radical doctrinal relativism, these denominations have served as poster children for virtually every theological fad and liberal proposal imaginable. Now, many of these denominations are involved in court fights to keep churches from leaving. The stream has indeed run dry. The ‘Death of Protestant America’ Joseph Bottum describes must serve as a warning to Evangelicals.  There can be no doubt where theological revisionism and accommodationism will lead.  Why, then, would some argue that Evangelicalism should follow essentially the same path? Can they not see that the liberal Protestant river has run dry?”

Let me provide one illustration of all this. Bottum mentioned the National Council of Churches. The NCC is indeed a perfect example of liberal churchianity that has more or less lost the plot. Consider just one very recent example. Within minutes of Barack Hussein Obama being declared the new US President-elect, the NCC sent out a letter congratulating him and promising to work with him.

The letter closed with this remark: “In doing so [working with Obama], we are guided by several basic principles: That those living in poverty are deeply loved of God; that all God’s people are entitled to equal opportunities for justice, shelter, education, and health care; And that war, even when it is necessary to defend ourselves or the weak or the oppressed, is never the will of God.”

It is a curious – and typical – mash of theological and political liberalism, offering little more than sentimental platitudes and contradictory advice. And it is of course relatively free of any biblical instruction.

It is nice, for example, to learn that God loves the poor. But what about the non-poor? Does God love them as well? We have here the typical Christian left’s position, known as “the preferential option for the poor,” a concept much loved in liberation theology circles. The idea is that God seems to love more, or more greatly prefer, the poor to all others.

While God of course is greatly concerned about the poor, the truth is, he is greatly concerned about everyone. Indeed, Scripture commands us not to show a preferential option for the poor, at least when it comes to issues of law and justice: “’Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:13).

And the principles about justice read pretty much like the Democratic platform. If fleshed out a bit, they would translate into various socialistic policies, with concerns about health care presumably meaning a mandatory national health care scheme, and so on. Of course the NCC has been pushing a leftist political line for decades, so they will be most pleased with an Obama Presidency.

The NCC principle about war is another interesting one. Sure, it’s a good principle of leftist politics, but not much of a biblical one. Is the NCC really suggesting that when Yahweh commanded Israel to go to war on numerous occasions that he was wrong? Was God really acting out of the will of God?

It is nice to see the NCC speak about “even when it is necessary to defend ourselves or the weak or the oppressed”. So maybe there are times when war may be necessary. Indeed, given that the NCC letter had just spoken about justice one sentence earlier, one would have thought that there is no better definition of justice – even biblical justice – than to defend “the weak or the oppressed”. Surely the inhabitants of Auschwitz would qualify here?

And I can think of no greater candidate of the “weak and the oppressed” than the unborn. Yet Obama is the most ruthless pro-abortion President-elect that America has ever had. Will the NCC be writing to Obama, urging him to drop his pro-abortion policies? I won’t hold my breath.

Bottum and Mohler are right to suggest that the well has run dry with the theological liberals. And as Mohler remarks, it is hoped that evangelical Christianity will not go down the same path. We must certainly all pray that it doesn’t.


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8 Replies to “Why the Mainline Becomes the Sidelined”

  1. Hi Bill, I wholeheartedly agree with the argument that the liberal branches of the church are shooting themselves in the foot.
    I am however curious to know why so many seem to disagree with national health care schemes. In principal it would seem to be a good thing would it not?…being assured of competent medical care regardless of income level or ability to pay.

    I know I’ve heard of horror stories where those without healthcare must forgo necessary medical treatment for the sole reason that they are unemployed and cannot afford medical insurance. (Some are unemployed purely because of their medical condition, a catch 22 if ever there was one)

    So I’m curious, is my perception correct? or are there other factors coming into play why some object to universal healthcare schemes. If so, what weighting should these factors be given when weighted against what should surely be the ideal situation of competent healthcare being available to every person.

    Paul Strecker

  2. Thanks Paul

    Hey, you are just trying to make me write another article! I am not saying that a Christian must be opposed to mandatory national health care schemes. But it does tend to be one of those issues where those on the left are in favour of it, and those on the right are against it.

    The short answer is one primarily of economic considerations and related issues. It is part of the broader discussion of how many services should be provided by governments, and how effective and cost-efficient such nationalised systems are. And one can look at some of the major problems where socialised medicine is in place, eg., Canada, etc. But as I say, now I have to add this to the list of articles to write! But thanks for your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Paul,

    as Bill said the question goes to the Biblical concept of limited authority being given by God to subordinate instruments administering the world in which we live.

    Family: the smallest unit, but the most numerous, responsible for raising and training children, primary health, education and welfare, economics and business, and inheritance; headed by father with mother as suitable helper working together

    Church: responsible for preaching and teaching the full gospel of the Way, the Truth and the Life in Jesus, and expressing the corporate nature of the Kingdom of God (lots more could be said); includes some education, health and welfare; headed by elders

    Civil Government: responsible for maintaining law and order (to uphold what is right and punish what is evil, but to define neither), civil and military defence; specifically NOT charged with any responsibility for health, education or welfare; headed by civic elders, usually meant to be drawn from the body of church elders.

    Sorry – written in a bit of haste given the hour, but I hope you get the gist. I am sure you will find scripture references to confirm these.

    John Angelico

  4. Bill, about 2000 – 2001, Harvest Bible College had Andrew Bolt (Herald-Sun columnist) speak from a non-Christian perspective about the view he had of ‘the church’.[You may have possibly been at the meeting.]

    His observations from working on several continents was that missionary-oriented, Bible believing churches, and churches (Catholic) which made a strong stand on family issues were the only ones growing in Australia and abroad.

    He noted the PC driven liberalist churches were tearing themselves apart with (leftist) political ideologies, and were almost satisfied with being Biblically illiterate and irrelevant.

    While studying at ACU (Australian Catholic Uni) the lecturers stated they were appalled at their own research which showed a paltry 2% church attendance rate of six year Catholic secondary school educated children one year after completing high school.

    This is not particulalry surprising when they teach the student RE teachers that the Genesis account of creation is ‘myth’. This undermines all biblical credibility when children are taught that God’s word is now seen as a fairy tale and a lie not to be believed.

    This is usually reinforced in science based classes where evolution has totally replaced God.

    Mantras, yoga, meditation and alternative spirituality have a stronghold in many Catholic schools as they are taught as equally credible ways to ‘God’ or heaven or salvation. Just don’t take the Bible seriously…

    Mike Evans

  5. To continue on Mike’s contribution, the Catholic Church in Australia recently commissioned (I think it was through the Australian Bishops Conference) an extensive survey to examine why its parishioner numbers had dropped since the 70’s. Interestingly it found that since the reforms stemming from Vatican II there has been much disillusionment at what was a watering down of the true faith. I can remember cringing at those masses with awful guitar bands playing “I wanna have a beer with Jesus” type songs.

    On the other hand the recent surge in youth groups based on sound biblical doctrine is evidence that to reach out to young people you need something for them to aspire to, not merely to reflect and reinforce values that they themselves are still only shaping and probing as they mature.

    An unfortunate aspect is that when the NCC and such like organisations do something such as the letter to Obama, they are only reinforcing the liberalist view of the the role of religion, hence the immediate coverage by the left controlled media. There of plenty of “religious” people out there who are only happy with the fluffy utopian view promoted by the NCC and rebel churches such as St Mary’s in South Brisbane. Any religious life that involves real struggles to live by God’s biblical laws has them running for the hills and bleating about intolerance. They fail to see that they are merely reflecting their own watered down and liberal stance on issues of morality.

    A church that waters down biblical truth to try and be everything to everyone, ends up being nothing to anyone.

    Frank Norros

  6. In a cultural environment that is rife with forces seeking to hammer down Biblical truth, this clarification is vital. Christianity is not charity. What a poor substitute. It’s true that the early church gave to the poor, but that money came out of personal generosity, it wasn’t extracted by the government and redistributed amongst those it sees fit to benefit, politicians included! A small government accountable to a voting democracy will always be, to some extent, kept in check. The bigger the beast of big, greedy government gets, the more totalitarian it becomes and the more it wants to stamp out true religion, its natural enemy, because Marxism is, in itself, a religion in which ‘dear leader’ becomes the (counterfeit) provider and salvation.
    The dying entropic entity that is the liberal church you describe is preparing itself to be subordinate to the overriding government head rather than to God; a perfect socialist substitute for dynamic Biblical Christianity.
    Dee Graf

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