Understanding the Difference Between Evangelical and Mainline Protestant Churches

Evangelical vs Mainline Protestants

You’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered about the distinction between evangelical and mainline Protestant churches. Despite being a lifelong member of an evangelical church, I have often found myself unsure of the precise differences between these two branches of Protestantism.

Spoiler Alert: I still need a comprehensive understanding, but let’s delve into what I’ve discovered thus far.

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One of the reasons for the confusion surrounding these terms is the decentralized nature of Protestantism. Unlike other religious traditions with central governing bodies, Protestantism lacks an official legislative body determining who is evangelical and who belongs to the mainline. Instead, these terms serve as descriptors rather than official titles. Therefore, before we delve into specific denominations, we must gain some insight into the evangelical and mainline Protestant distinctions.


Mainline Protestants

Let’s begin with mainline Protestants. What does mainline Protestantism mean? Unfortunately, this term has no universally agreed-upon definition or clear-cut examples. Some suggest that the name “mainline” originated from the Federal Council of Churches formation in 1908, allegedly located along the Philadelphia “Main Line.” However, the true origins of this name remain uncertain. Nevertheless, mainline Protestantism has been recognized since the 1920s.

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“The Seven Sisters of American Protestantism”

Scholar William Hutchison coined “the seven sisters of American Protestantism” to refer to seven denominations commonly regarded as mainline.

These denominations are as follows: the American Baptist Churches USA, the Christian Church or Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

Upon first glance, one particular name within the mainline denominations might raise confusion: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Remember, I mentioned these denominations as major mainline Protestant denominations, not evangelical. Yet, the word “evangelical” appears in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America title. To complicate matters further, we will discuss Lutheran churches that identify as evangelical but lack the term in their name. Do you need clarification? Well, join the club because I am too.

Rather than breaking down each denomination, I’ll reference some later when discussing their evangelical counterparts. This highlights the importance of understanding the specific church your client belongs to. You may hear “Evangelical Lutheran” or “Presbyterian Church” and develop vastly different notions of their beliefs. So, it’s essential to be able to grasp these distinctions.

Mainline Beliefs

So, what do mainline Protestants believe? It’s a bit complicated, much like everything else in this realm. Since these denominations are distinct entities, they hold individual beliefs and structures. However, as a general trend, mainline denominations tend to be more liberal and progressive than their evangelical counterparts. This is a broad generalization, and some individual mainline churches and denominations may still hold conservative views.

Now, Let’s Explore Some Common Debates between Mainline and Evangelical Beliefs.

1. Inerrancy of Scripture refers to believing that the Bible is authoritative and without error. While most mainline denominations uphold the importance and authority of Scripture, they view it as a guideline rather than absolute truth. For instance, some mainline denominations do not interpret the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis literally, while evangelicals generally do.

2. Women Pastors: This is a highly contentious issue. While mainline Protestant denominations may differ in their stance, evangelical churches, as a whole, typically do not support women serving as pastors. However, several mainline churches do ordain women as pastors.

3. LGBTQ Rights: Again, views on LGBTQ rights vary among mainline denominations, but overall, they tend to be more accepting of LGBTQ pastors and members. The social outlook of mainline denominations often leans towards greater liberalism. Conversely, most evangelical churches do not affirm LGBTQ individuals as clergy or members. They consider any LGBTQ lifestyle sinful, although they may welcome LGBTQ individuals to attend church services, differentiating between attendance and church membership.

4. Voting Patterns: Evangelical churches predominantly align with conservative political ideologies. They form a significant conservative voting bloc. On the other hand, mainline Protestants span the political spectrum, with some leaning towards conservatism but remaining more liberal than evangelicals. It’s important to note that these voting patterns may vary significantly among individual denominations within the mainline.

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Moving on to the evangelical side of Protestantism, evangelicals tend to embrace the term and exhibit a stronger sense of unity than mainline Protestants. While there are variations and differences among evangelicals, they generally adhere to stricter beliefs. It’s important to remember that evangelicalism isn’t a specific denomination, so complete uniformity cannot be assumed. Nonetheless, attending two random evangelical churches will likely yield more similarities than attending two random mainline churches.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is an organization that represents evangelicals, although not all evangelical denominations are associated with it. Notably, the Southern Baptist Convention is absent from the NAE. However, evangelicals broadly accept the NAE’s Statement of Faith as a reflection of their beliefs. Let’s examine this statement to gain an understanding of evangelical convictions.

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Evangelical Beliefs

According to the NAE’s Statement of Faith (source: nae.org), evangelicals believe:

1. The Bible is the inspired, infallible, and authoritative Word of God. This underscores the high regard evangelicals hold for Scripture, although individual churches and denominations may differ in the interpretation of specific passages.

2. There is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Evangelicals tend to interpret the doctrine of the Trinity literally and ascribe utmost importance to this belief.

3. Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, born of a virgin, leading a sinless life, performing miracles, dying vicariously and atoning for sins through His shed blood, rising bodily from the dead, ascending to the right hand of the Father, and promising His return in power and glory. These events are considered essential, historical, and literal by evangelicals.

4. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit is crucial for the salvation of lost and sinful individuals. This belief emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in indwelling believers upon their faith in Christ. It does not align explicitly with the Calvinist or Arminian debates but embraces a broad understanding.

5. The present ministry of the Holy Spirit enables Christians, through His indwelling, to live a godly life. While acknowledging that Christians may still sin, evangelicals believe that the Holy Spirit empowers believers to live in accordance with godly principles.

6. Both the saved and the lost will experience resurrection—those saved will rise to eternal life, while those lost will rise to eternal damnation. This reflects the belief in an afterlife with eternal consequences.

7. Believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation, are spiritually united. Despite theological differences, evangelicals believe that true faith in Christ unites all believers. This unity extends beyond the confines of evangelicalism, encompassing all those who genuinely place their faith in Christ, forming a universal (small ‘c’) church.

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In conclusion, the distinction between evangelical and mainline Protestant churches is complex and multifaceted. While the lack of a central governing body in Protestantism makes it challenging to define these terms definitively, general trends and characteristics are associated with each branch.

Mainline Protestant denominations tend to be more liberal and progressive in their beliefs, although individual churches and denominations within the mainline can still hold conservative views. On the other hand, Evangelical churches often adhere to a stricter set of beliefs and emphasize the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.

Debates between mainline and evangelical churches can arise on various issues, such as the interpretation of Scripture, the role of women in pastoral leadership, LGBTQ rights, and political affiliations. These differences highlight the diverse perspectives within Protestantism and the need for a nuanced understanding of individual denominations and their beliefs.

Ultimately, evangelical and mainline Protestants share a common faith in Jesus Christ and strive to live out their beliefs per their understanding of Scripture. Despite the variations and disagreements within these branches, the unity of believers in Christ transcends denominational boundaries.

Evangelical Course