Do Mainlines Renew?

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedThere several ways to classify American denominations. We could distinguish between “liberal” (those who no longer believe Scripture to be God’s inerrant Word or the historic Christian faith) and “conservative” (those who affirm inerrancy and historic Christianity). As Darryl Hart argues in his very important book, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, there are some difficulties with these categories, however. There are ways in which the lines between liberal and conservative is fuzzy or dotted rather than bright and clear. Both liberals and conservative supported prohibition but some of the conservatives (then known as “fundamentalists”—note that the usage of the word has changed since then) defended the historic doctrine of Christian liberty.

Another way to analyze American denominations is to distinguish, as I did in RRC, is to distinguish between mainline denominations and sideline denominations. The adjective mainline refers to an affluent area in Philadelphia. The mainline denominations are intentionally theologically broad or inclusive. William Hutchinson’s “seven sisters of the mainline” (PCUSA, UMC, UCC, ECUSA, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and ELCA) made conscious decisions to set aside the historic Christian faith, their distinctive traditions, in the interests of remaining influential in American society. The sideline groups are those, in the Presbyterian/Reformed world, in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council, denominations that rejected the decision made by the PCUSA in the 1920s and 30s to marginalize historic Reformed Christianity in favor of liberalism.

This gets to another issue: the role of the confession, which brings us back to the weakness of the liberal/conservative analysis. Most denominations have abandoned the historic Protestant confessions. In this they are like the mainstream evangelical denominations who replaced confession with experience. Here, the mainline and mainstream evangelicalism converge.

All this is prelude to call attention to one of my favorite new blogs, This Day In American Presbyterianism, hosted by my friend Wayne Sparkman. Today’s post discusses “The League of Faith.” What’s that you ask? Good question! The LoF was an early “renewal” group in what we know as the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), the mainline/liberal Presbyterian denomination. Wayne explains that the LoF was organized in 1931 and it featured some of the leading conservative lights in the PCUSA including J. Gresham Machen, Samuel Craig (whose family still operates P&R Publishing, Paul Wooley, Clarence Macartney, and J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. This is a veritable who’s who of conservative Presbyterianism. The organization was re-formed in 1936 (after Machen’s death?). At that meeting 1,000 people attended. That’s amazing. Most conferences today would be thrilled to see 1,000 people gather for a common purpose. How could such an organization fail to bring about real change in direction in the PCUSA?

Sadly, the LoF achieved one victory and then more or less disappeared. All that momentum of 1936, all the prominent, leading conservative ministers weren’t able to turn back the tide of “the broadening church.”

Since that time there have been lots of renewal organizations in the mainline. Seven years ago Tom Oden, whose work I quite appreciate and from whom I stole “the chart“) argues that the renewal organizations are having a good effect but I wonder how that effect is being measured. They are not becoming more confessional. Where the ordination of females was the rallying cry 25 years ago, today it’s the ordination of homosexuals. One shudders to think what the rallying cry will be 25 years hence.

Those congregations that still believe something like historic Christianity (even if they don’t sleep with the Westminster Confession under their pillows) are leaving in droves. Even a borderline denomination such as the CRCNA has suffered such severe loss of membership that a leveling off of the decline was cause for celebration. Pastors planting new NAPARC congregations in urban areas know that it’s easy to find giant, largely abandoned mainline church buildings. Ironically, the sorts of folk who were expelled from their churches in the 1920s through the 40s simply because they still believed what the church had confessed, are now returning to reclaim the buildings they gave up nearly a century ago.

Have mainline denominations been renewed? Evidently not. Will they? Probably At this point, nearly a century after the great decline began, the goal shouldn’t be renewal but repentance and faith. Those who find themselves in the mainline (or even a mainstream evangelical congregation), who know intuitively that something is wrong, need to think seriously about their future in the mainline (or mainstream). Renewal organizations come and go and the mainline continues to slide into oblivion.

There are alternatives to the mainline. There are sideline congregations being planted across North America. They don’t always have buildings, bodies, and budgets but they do have one very important quantity: God’s Word and the Christian faith as confessed by the churches. Perhaps they should also have your support too?

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  1. It is a shame to see para-church ministries grow but see churches struggle. This is yet another way in which the Reformed have influenced me; starve the para-church and support your local church. Sounds somewhat harsh, but my main point is that an individual’s supportive income should mainly and overwhelmingly go to the church and not some independent or charismatic preacher or group.

    The only exception to this may be when a denomination is heading the wrong way. I then say to starve the people or churches doing this.

    I prefer theology being done in the church rather than some apologetics organization or other group. Perhaps it is better to say “theology being clarified and developed” over “being done.”

  2. Dr. Clark,

    It seems to me that renewal movements are only effective if they happen quickly enough in the life of a denomination. The Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Southern Baptists have both had some struggles in the 20th century where the more conservative elements have prevailed.

    On the other hand, it is very difficult to look at the denominations which we normally refer to as mainline with anything like hope (Thankfully the King of Kings can turn dead bones into a mighty army). They are already corrupt in so many ways that faithful Christians will find it very difficult to keep their families in such an environment or to continue investing financially in the work that these denominations are doing. Furthermore, young Biblically orthodox men pursuing ministry will naturally seek ordination in churches like the URC and OPC. Those who try to go into denominations like the PCUSA will often be screened out.

    While I’m sure that many people involved in the “renewal movements” are doing so with good motives, I also suspect that many of those involved in such movements are simply unwilling to cut the cord and move to a more faithful church.


    • David,

      It’s hard to tell where the SBC is going. I’m not sure there is “an SBC.” There are lots of groups within, some orthodox and one prominent SBC writer I. read recently was baldly Pelagian.

      The LCMS is also quite diverse. They are success stories but qualifiedly so.

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