Brian Stiller

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Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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An Evangelical View of Mainline Protestantism

April 20, 1992 Articles

One word characterizes evangelical feeling about the mainline Protestant church in Canada: disinterest. Evangelicals–outside of the mainline churches–have come to assume that Protestant mainliners have watered down the Gospel, fallen prey to modern secularism and failed to maintain a vibrant biblical presence, within the public domain.

Before I attempt to construct reasons for this disinterest there are two factors essential in this discussion. First, evangelical Protestants are not homogeneous. What confuses many is that those who align themselves with (or define themselves as) evangelicals, represent a wide variety of views, doctrines, biblical perspectives, social\cultural styles, ethnic colours and public mandates.

Second, a classifying of the two groups may save me from having to write letters of clarification later. Mainliners are often referred to as PLURA: Presbyterian, Lutherans, United Church, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

Evangelicals or “sideliners” are more difficult to describe. Generally, in this article, the term refers to the first two of the following three groups. First are those (sometimes referred to as fundamentalists or revivalists) who emerged in the twentieth century. These include “free church” groups such as the Evangelical Free, a variety of Baptist groups (including the North American Baptist, General Conference Baptist, Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists, etc.), Pentecostal churches, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methodist Church and some of the Mennonite groups such as the Mennonite Brethren.

The second are those who have a longer history than 20th Century groups and at times have been considered mainline. These include “reformed” churches such as The Christian Reformed Church).

The third component to modern evangelicalism is that which continues to flourish in the mainline churches. For example, Wycliffe College has the reputation of an Anglican scholl, flavoured by evangelical theology. The Reverend Desmond Hunt was one of the first leaders in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s development. Other mainline churches have within their structures and community, similar evangelical traditions and leaders.

Why the disinterest?
Now to the task at hand. Why do evangelicals seem to have little interest in relating to mainline Protestantism?

I clearly admit that often evangelical analysis of the issues are too often highly biased and judgemental. My purpose in setting forth this analysis is not to lay blame. (The front pages of newspapers clearly reveal many of our failings!) Instead I hope we will find common ground and Christ centred fellowship. May this be a starting point. Or at least a clearing of the air so that those out of the mainline tradition will take a moment to listen and feel our concerns and counter our critique so that we too may better understand.

Basic to the dissonance and lack of real fellowship is that evangelicals often judge mainliners to have fumbled in holding to biblical tradition. It appears as if their denominations are layered with language which may say the right thing but whose heart does not believe the Bible is indeed God’s Word; His special revelation.

This is more than echoes of the early 20th century fundamentalist/modernist debate. Surrounding us today are the reminders that church leaders, pastors, communiques and public stances from the mainline church reflect more of a secular than biblical view.

For example, the United Church of Canada’s decision on the ordination of homosexuals, was for evangelicals in Canada, not just an issue of sexual orientation. What appalled us was the cavalier attitude taken by the those writing the studies and making the pronouncements. It was clear they had determined the rule of faith would rise, not from the Scriptures but their collective wisdom.

A Social agenda
As well, evangelicals assess the focus of mainline church life to have been blurred by an over emphasis on social agendas. While Jesus Christ appears to be honoured, the message of personal transformation and walking the Spirit filled life seems to be missing. It appears as if a left leaning social\economic\political agenda so dominates that one wonders where the church ends and the New Democratic Party (Canada’s socialist party) begins.

The issue is not whether we should be concerned about social issues. It’s that too often the church’s agenda seems to be that and that alone.

Liberalism
Linked to that concern is an uneasy feeling that many mainliners are still ruled by theological liberalism. Liberalism, which earlier this century was considered by theologians as the state-of-the-art theology, is frankly viewed by many evangelicals as not only faulty but irrelevant. And yet we understand that leading minds within mainline Protestantism hold on to it as if it is still representative of the Gospel.
This early and continuing accommodation to modernity and the assimilation of early 20th century ideas of science, psychology and theology in turn helped discredit the legitimacy and trustworthiness of historic biblical faith.
As the world changes, the culture reacts to the sterility of secularism. Yet some parts of the mainline church seems oblivious to its own entrapment in a worn out theology. Its flirtation with existential theology, process theology, along with riding the bandwagon of demythologization, has left it struggling to meet the desperate needs of individuals seduced by a world of relativism, secular materialism and mystical nonsense.
Thomas C. Oden, Methodist minister and professor of theology and ethics from Drew University, gives this analysis:
“Twentieth-century theology has too cheaply and prematurely sided with this oversimplified Marxian-Nietzschean-Freudian polemic against social and psychological repression. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. The deeper lust of twentieth-century theology, following well-established trends of the nineteenth-century religious accommodationism, has been directed toward finding some convenient means of getting itself legitimated in the eyes of modernity.”
(After Modernity…What?, Zondervan, 1990, page 41.)

Social\economic position
There is a social\economic shift within evangelicalism which is impossible to overlook. While I don’t wish to characterize all evangelicals under my experience, it illustrates the shift. My father was a Pentecostal minister in Saskatchewan. Our church was “fundamentalist” (a word of dignity to me until I learned mainliners were holding their noses as they said it). We had very few professionals in our church and certainly no one with much money or significant social standing. We were, indeed, “on the other side of the tracks.”

Today that world has changed. Evangelicals are no longer on the other side. Their buildings are some of the finest and best equipped. Their agencies are reasonably well financed. Evangelical Bible colleges and seminaries are filled. There is an evident optimism. Attend an evangelical church and compare the enthusiasm and age of attendees to most mainline churches and you’ll be surprised. No longer do we feel like the poor country cousin.

Reflect on that dynamic. I was called a “holy roller” by my friends from the mainline churches. In my early days at the universities of Saskatchewan and Toronto I wanted others to see the integrity and logic of my faith and experience. Back then when we needed understanding and acceptance it was denied. Today we no longer need social acceptance from mainliners. The religious order is being turned on its head. It is reported that there are more Pentecostals than Anglicans in church on a Sunday morning in Canada. There are more evangelical than mainline Protestant churches in British Columbia. I admit that to evaluate a church on the basis of apparent success is as un Christ-like as to reject others because they lack intellectual, social or economic status. However my task in this article is to try and explain the way and reasons we feel the way we do.

Given that memory, when mainline groups now want our cooperation we ask ourselves, back then we were an oddity; a group you could ridicule. Now that we have our own critical mass from which we can build our ministries and possess a sense of social and theological legitimacy, why should we coopertate?

Religious social contract
For me, the great source of disappointment is the mainline churches failure to maintain what I call the “religious social contract.” The Christian mainstream provided leadership for Canadian culture through much of this century. Evangelicals (or fundamentalists) were sectarian, removed from the mainstream. The “contract” was that the Judeo-Christian or Biblical moral assumptions would be the ruling framework for our society. As evangelicals, we were content to let mainliners rule, for they did so on a basis which we affirmed.

But once we moved through the 1960s, it became apparent that the old “contract” no longer existed. Ruling and managing our country within the framework of Judeo-Christian world-view was lost. No longer did it seem the interest or concern of the mainline church to provide for our nation a biblical vision for life.

So where are we today? The evangelical community has assumed that mainliners are solely concerned with their old agenda. Issues such as personal salvation and evangelism seem to cause discomfort. Too often the only way mainline churches will work with evangelical churches is if we accept their agenda. Our agenda seldom seems to be accepted as a legitimate basis for cooperative efforts.

“Why even try to work together?” is often asked. The growth of many evangelical churches has only intensified the sectarianism with which we grew up. But there is a difference. The old sectarianism was a response to a sense of being odd or not socially legitimate. Today’s sectarianism rises from a sense of confidence that implies: “Since we are doing so well, and since you didn’t want to have much to do with us in the past, why bother. We’ll continue on our own.”

Where do we go? Today, there are a number of attempts to work together. Strangely, many evangelicals find it easier to work with the Roman Catholic community than with mainline Protestants. For one reason: There is no explicit debate with regards to our Christology. That common assumption allows work to proceed without nagging concerns that our activities will reach an impasse.

It is tragic that there seems to be little interest among evangelicals for dialogue with mainline communities. For many evangelicals, “dialogue” is laden with a suspicion of much talk and no action or that in finding a basis for dialogue, too much has to be given up.

But it also must be said that neither do I see much interest expressed by the mainline church for dialogue, unless the dialogue or action begins with their concerns and assumptions. Occasionally we are invited. But even then we aren’t sure if we have a legitimate place at the table of Christian discussion or are seen as a curious religious artifact.

The above impression is not objective. It rises out of my experience and observations. But we are confused over what is the agenda of mainline churches. We would benefit from mainline leaders telling us what they see and hear. The communication gap is too wide. We do disservice to our Lord by making judgements without giving opportunity for a response. Indeed my prayer is that this article will be part of a growing exchange, helping us to build on each other’s strengths, for the honour and praise of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Church leaders, of both sides, are often so driven by their own narrow vision that working with others who confess Jesus as Lord, is sometimes ignored. May The Spirit of God open our eyes to see that there are others who also have not bowed their knees to Baal.

Brian C. Stiller
April 14, 1992