End of the mainline?
Ed Vitagliano
Ed Vitagliano
AFA Journal news editor

January 2003 – They are called oldline or mainline Protestant denominations, and they represent some of the oldest ­ and some of the most troubled ­churches in America. Outside their walls, evangelical Christians often question the commitment of some mainline denominations to Biblical truth; inside their walls, proponents of liberal theology and homosexual rights demand acquiescence.

Meanwhile, millions of evangelical Christians who still exist in the mainlines have chafed for decades under what many see as a bloodless coup in progress. These faithful believers have been trying to guide their church back to the straight and narrow.

Hemorrhaging members
They'd better hurry. Large mainline denominations like the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) have been losing members steadily since the mid-1960s. 

A study released in September, 2002, indicates that the membership loss may be tied to dissatisfaction with the mainline's drift into religious liberalism. Entitled "Religious Congregations and Membership 2000," the study of 149 denominations was sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The research showed that conservative denominations which held to traditional, orthodox doctrine, and which expected a high level of commitment from members, grew at a faster rate than liberal, mainline churches.

Ken Sanchagrin, sociology professor at Mars Hill (North Carolina) College and director of the Glenmary Research Center, which published the study, told Baptist Press, "I was astounded to see that by and large the growing churches are those that we ordinarily call conservative. And when I looked at those that were declining, most were moderate or liberal churches. And the more liberal the denomination, by most people's definition, the more they were losing."

For example, denominations like Southern Baptist, the Presbyterian Church in America, and Assemblies of God had grown during the 1990s by 5%, 42.4%, and 18.5% respectively. On the other hand, there was a decline in membership in mainline denominations like the PCUSA (11.6%), UMC (6.7%), Episcopal Church (5.3%), and the United Churches of Christ (14.8%).

Mark Tooley, who directs the United Methodist Action committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), said, "Churches that allow themselves to be defined by the secular culture's definition of 'inclusivity' and 'tolerance' really have little to offer that will change hearts or inspire great loyalty, much less create membership growth."

He added, "Liberal theology, with its de-emphasis on traditional Christian belief in favor of social activism, is committing demographic suicide. The future of Christianity belongs to robust orthodoxy, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox."

Part of the problem may be that liberal denominations have a difficult time distinguishing themselves in the grey twilight that exists between the clear-cut choice of either orthodox Christianity or New Age beliefs.

David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, agrees, according to Baptist Press. "[Liberal denominations] are never going to out-conservative the conservatives. But if they start emphasizing 'religion is your own choice ­ feel it if you feel it,' then people start asking why they need church at all."

Liberals run amok
The litany of liberal offenses within mainline churches has begun to sound like the well-worn horror stories told around a campfire: bishops who deny the orthodox doctrine of the Christian faith; the abandonment of the true gospel for a politically correct "social gospel;" and the embracing of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.

The problem with these horror stories, however, is that they're true. For example, what did UMC bishops discuss with President Bush, who is a Methodist, when they met with him for the first time in May, 2001? According to IRD, they focused on social issues that could only be characterized as having an obscure Biblical connection: they criticized the president's initiative to develop an anti-missile defense system; insisted that the U.S. Navy abandon its munitions testing program in Puerto Rico; and demanded the U.S. military stop holding "war games" in Korea.

Even worse for mainline churches are leaders who appear to reject the very foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. Bible-believing Christians within the Episcopal Church must have rolled their eyes and sighed every time Bishop John Spong wrote another book which touted his heretical views ­ for Spong adamantly rejects as invalid the Christian beliefs in Christ's divinity, His work on the cross, and the resurrection.

The UMC faithful have their own heretic ­ Bishop Joseph Sprague. President of the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, Sprague made statements in early 2002 that had many Methodists in the pew hopping mad. Sprague said he considered the Virgin Birth a "theological myth," and argued that the Resurrection of Christ, rather than being an actual event, was a mere metaphor. Sprague also said Jesus Christ was not the only way to heaven.

No issue may be more disturbing for evangelicals within the more liberal mainline churches than the subject of homosexuality. In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, for example, a growing number of Anglican ministers (the Anglican Church in the U.S. is called the Episcopal Church) have rejected the Biblical view of homosexuality, formally blessing same-sex relationships and even ordaining homosexuals to the ministry.

Dr. George Carey, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, England, which is the formal position of leadership for the Anglican Church, said he feared the Anglican community worldwide ­ 70 million members strong ­ might be torn apart over the issue of homosexuality.

"My concern is that our communion is being steadily undermined by the decisions of national bishops taking unilateral action in matters to do with sexuality," he said. "And, as a result, steadily driving us toward serious fragmentation and the real possibility of two, or more likely many more, distinct Anglican bodies emerging."

Carey's concerns appear to be valid. According to World magazine, one survey of 500 Anglican clergymen found that 25% had seriously considered leaving the church ­ the ordination of homosexuals being a major reason.

Nevertheless, homosexuals' hopes continued to soar this past summer, when Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, was selected to replace Carey. Williams has publicly stated that he is accepting of homosexual sex when it is within "committed relationships."

The same debate is ongoing within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). There is a move within the denomination to change church policies to allow homosexuals to be ordained to the ministry and allow ELCA ministers to "bless" same-sex unions.

The denomination has established a task force to study the issue, and to consider whether or not ELCA should change to reflect liberal views about homosexuality. The task force will report its findings and its recommendations to the 2005 Churchwide Assembly.

Repairing the damage
Within these mainline denominations, Bible-believing Christians ­ both clergy and laypersons ­ are fighting desperately to get their churches back on the right track.

They are not a small number, either, according to James V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News, a 35-year-old renewal ministry within the UMC. Heidinger estimates that there are more than four million evangelicals within the mainline churches, and they are determined to take a stand.

The Confessing Movement, for example, was formed in 1994 by a group of 92 clergy, bishops, professors and laypersons who were alarmed at what they considered "the crisis of faith within The United Methodist Church," according to the group's Web site. Determined to challenge the unorthodox beliefs of liberals in leadership within the UMC, the organization has grown to 650,000 UMC ministers and laity.

Similar groups exist in other mainline churches. For example, The Presbyterian Lay Committee, which works for renewal within the PCUSA, says the leadership of 1,284 congregations throughout the country and Puerto Rico, representing more than 425,000 members, has approved resolutions endorsing the Confessing Church Movement ­ a group similar to its UMC counterpart.

Nearly 700 representatives of renewal groups from 12 different mainline denominations met for the first time in October, at the "Confessing the Faith Conference" in Indianapolis. Sponsored by the Association for Church Renewal (ACR), the conference encouraged mainline evangelicals to continue their struggle to uphold the historic faith of their churches.

Liberals are being forced to take evangelical concerns seriously. Archbishop Williams found that his liberal position on homosexuality would not be accepted by conservative Anglican groups. For example, Reform and The Church Society both promised Williams that he'd have a fight on his hands if he moved the church toward an acceptance of homosexuality.

In response, Williams promised to uphold the traditional Anglican view on the homosexual lifestyle, and not allow his personal views to be reflected in the fulfillment of his duties.

In light of their expectation that the ELCA task force would recommend revising policies in order to embrace homosexuality, Bible-believing ministers in that denomination are also gearing up for a fight. At the 2002 Southeastern Minnesota Synod Assembly, for example, the group passed a resolution asking the national ELCA Church Council to allow each congregation to vote on the recommendations of the task force.

In the PCUSA, a majority of local PCUSA presbyteries in February, 2002, rejected a resolution which would have embraced homosexuality by overturning the denomination's requirements for "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness" for its ministers.

The issue had been in some doubt since 1997, when the denomination had formally written the requirement for its ministers in response to pressure from homosexual advocates within PCUSA. According to IRD, only 97 of 171 presbyteries (57%) had OK'd the resolution; a year later another 17 presbyteries upheld the standard (67%), jumping to 125 presbyteries (73%) in 2002.

Alan Wisdom, Director of IRD's Presbyterian Action committee, said the PCUSA appears to have stepped back from the brink. "This is a sign that [PCUSA] Presbyterians are growing firmer in the conviction that this Biblically-based standard must be upheld," he said. "In the face of an intense three-decade-plus lobbying effort by pro-homosexual groups, the church has not been persuaded and it has not been intimidated."

For countless other evangelicals within the mainline churches, that last phrase may well be the seminal statement that defines their generation's stand against liberalism.  undefined