In the introduction to Elesha J. Coffman’s The Christian Century And The Rise of The Protestant Mainline the author proposes that “the mainline”–that cluster of protestant denominations that includes Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, and the United Church of Christ–be understood as a tradition in the Alisdair MacIntyre sense of that word.
According to MacIntryre’s signature work After Virtue, a tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument.” Coffman extemporizes on that definition for the mainline:
“the mainline has an extended history–it originated somewhere and developed over time. It was, and is, embodied by individuals whose social locations predisposed them to see some things and miss others. And it is definitely an argument–a normative argument about the mission of the church, the nature of humanity, the ordering of society, and the measuring of life. A study of the mainline as a tradition reveals the ways in which personal and organizational history, social location, and the interplay of ideas created not just a network of linked institutions but also the presumption that they were central and powerful. More practically, the focus on argument also helps explain why the mainline has experiences so much conflict, despite its aspirations of building consensus.
Coffman’s book chronicles how a magazine, The Christian Century, profoundly shaped the mainline tradition for the first half of the 2oth century. The book ends at the dawn of the evangelical movement in America, embodied most completely by Billy Graham, a figure, Coffman explains, whose ideas and methods the Century fought vehemently.
Is it helpful for digesting the flight of congregations from the PC(USA) to ECO to view it as a conflict of traditions? Not a conflict of a tradition; not a conflict within a tradition. But a conflict between two different traditions.
Mainline Christianity and evangelical Christianity are two different traditions within American Christianity. Their histories overlap but feature strikingly divergent heroes. They pay homage to separate institutions, from Princeton to Fuller. Their postures toward American culture are almost irreconcilable.
Forgive these broad strokes, but while the mainline tradition celebrates an institutionally unified expression of the church, a graduate level-educated class of clergy who employ modern scholarship in their preaching, and constant engagement with the world’s political struggles, the evangelical tradition prizes the congregation reaching the lost of the world, led by preaching that is less lecture than revival, and an engagement with the political realm that is heavily conservative.
Take John Ortberg’s address to the congregation of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church informing it of an upcoming vote to switch denominational affiliation. After laying out that congregation’s ambitious desires to reach out to the Bay Area and launch new church sites over the next five years, Ortberg explained,
“To do that we believe we gotta be in a denominational setting that will help us attract great young Christ-following leaders. We gotta have a governance structure that will allow us to launch and create new sites. We believe it will be really helpful to have clear possession of this campus . . . to not have a shadow hanging over our heads about trust clauses or property ownership or a common understanding of the gospel.”
What Ortberg and fellow evangelicals in the PC(USA) have been fighting these past several years is the evangelical tradition’s battle against the core assumptions of the mainline tradition. Because the mainline tradition doesn’t serve their sense of call to ministry well anymore. And given a conflict between the unity of the institutional church and the flexibility of a congregation to call the leaders it wants to [trained in decidedly non-mainline seminaries] and to do with its property what it wants to, the evangelical tradition cares less about the former than the latter.
For those of us who identify with the mainline tradition, then, what is the inheritance we most value for the future mission of the church? Is it still the unified institutional church? Is it still standards of education for clergy? Or is it something else, something that has emerged on its own since the era of American mainline hegemony ended?