New Resource Page: On Mainline (Liberal) Christianity In North America

The expression “mainline church” is drawn from an old-money neighborhood in Philadelphia known as “the main line.” The mainline churches were what are sometimes called the “tall steeple” church along the mainline. Scholars of American Christianity sometimes speak of the “Seven Sisters of the Mainline” referring to the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church (UMC), the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the American Baptist Churches (ABC), the Disciples of Christ (DoC), and the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA). Adjunct to the seven sisters would be the Reformed Church in America (RCA). There is another group that we might call the “borderline” churches, e.g., the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO). These denominations are populated largely by congregations that left the mainline PCUSA over issues such as same-sex marriage. We might add to the borderline group the Christian Reformed Church in North America, which seems to be gradually moving toward the RCA. The “sideline” Presbyterian and Reformed churches are mostly those found in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) including the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Korean Presbyterian Church in America (KPCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and Korean-American Presbyterian Church (KAPC), the United Reformed Churches in North America, and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), among others. See the NAPARC site for more information.

It is useful and even important to know something about the mainline denominations in North America for a couple of reasons. First, it is widely held among theologically and culturally conservative Reformed folk that one is either “conservative” or “liberal.” This is incorrect. This brings us to the second reason why it is important to understand something of this history. The history of the mainlines is not that they were conservative and then became liberal. It is that they were conservative, i.e., they held to some branch of historic Christianity but then became influenced by broad evangelicalism and then became theologically and practically liberal. Failure to grasp this point means that other conservative churches are bound to the follow the same path for failure to understand what actually happened.

Finally, our friends in the PCA and perhaps the EPC should pay special attention to this history since it is widely held in the PCA that it is an “evangelical mainline” denomination. It is also said that they are a “national” (as distinct from a regional) Presbyterian church. This history of these aspirations is not promising. The PCUSA was also a “national” (i.e., culturally influential) Presbyterian denomination and her desire to be influential, to be national cost her everything. On this analysis, to conceive of ones denomination as “evangelical mainline” church is to say that one is already in transition to the mainline. Read more»


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  1. “ but then became influenced by broad evangelicalism and then became theologically and practically liberal.”

    Thank you for pointing that out. It is a misconception that persists.
    Leaving the blessed boundaries of our confessions is akin to throwing away the ship’s anchor—there is nothing to hold it secure in the inevitable storms.

  2. Caution: It’s “United Church of Christ” (note singular) and American Baptist Churches USA (note plural). A check of the denominational websites a few minutes ago confirmed that.

    I can’t speak with certainty for the American Baptists, but in the case of the UCC, the use of the singular in the denominational name is significant and deliberate change from prior practice.

    Prior to the merger that formed the UCC, Congregationalists **ALWAYS** used the plural name for the denomination, and usually for its regional and state-level units as well, on the grounds that the term “church” means the local body of believers, not the denomination (or “federation,” to use Dutch Reformed parlance). Historically in Congregationalism, an “association” was the usual term for a regional unit comparable to a presbytery or classis, and a “conference” was the usual term for a state-level unit comparable to a regional synod, and a “council” was the usual term for the national denomination comparable to a general assembly or general synod. The current names of the three main groups that have left the UCC — the (mostly liberal) National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, and the Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Christian Churches — are all deviations from the historic nomenclature for a national body, but all three continue to use the plural term “churches,” not the singular term “church.”

    By contrast, the early UCC leaders, despite mostly being from a Congregational rather than German Reformed background, were increasingly distrustful of local church autonomy and supported centralization, and for that reason deliberately chose to use the singular term “church” for the denomination after merging with the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

    The two previous names for the national Congregational denomination were the “National Council of Congregational Churches of the United States,” until a 1931 merger with a small and predominantly Southern group of Campbellites similar to the Disciples of Christ, and subsequently the “General Council of Congregational Christian Churches” until the 1961 merger with the General Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church that created the UCC.

    This may seem like a technical or minor point. It is not. The plural/singular terms reflected significant differences in how the national denomination was viewed vis-a-vis the local church.

    There are reasons why the United Reformed Churches deliberately moved to use of the plural in the name for the national body, rather than the prior practice of “Christian Reformed Church,” and why the UCC deliberately moved to use of the singular in the name for the national body rather than the prior plural name.

    • Glad to help, Dr. Clark. None of us can be experts in all fields, and Congregational history is outside the area of study for most modern Reformed people.

      The simple reality is the theological collapse of Congregationalism in the late 1800s, earlier than most of the other mainline denominations, means most modern Reformed people are much less familiar with Congregational history, usage, and terminology than, for example, the modern level of Presbyterian familiarity with the Dutch Reformed and vice versa. There was an era in which there was a lot more interaction between theologically Reformed people with different views of church government than there is today — it’s no secret that the Westminster Assembly had Congregationalists in its membership as “Dissenting Brethren,” or that there were once soundly Reformed men in the episcopacy of the Church of England who thought Augustine was right not only on soteriology but also episcopacy — but that era is long past.

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