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EDITOR OF REDSTATE

A Mainline Primer (Explainer?) for the Media: Not All Presbyterians Are in the PCUSA

With the Presbyterian Church USA fully embracing its heretical temptations and rejecting Israel, I have read a number of articles that seem pretty ignorant of various denominations in the United States.

Most national reporters tend to not be religious and when having to write about Christian denominations in America they screw it up badly. I posted this below after opposition research against Rick Santorum in 2012 revealed he’d given a speech in 2008 in which he suggested Satan was waging war against the United States.

His statement was actually an orthodox tenet of the Christian faith, but most reporters and pundits who commented on the statement clearly had no idea. Given the latest bad batch of reporting about the heretics in the PCUSA, it is worth reposting this explanation of what a “Mainline” denomination is.

Santorum, in his 2008 speech, said, “We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.” Reporters clearly misunderstood what he was talking about when he referenced “mainline Protestantism.”

For the record, mainline Protestantism is one of the most rapidly declining faiths in America.1

When mainline Protestant denominations are in the news these days, it is more likely to be over their debates on the ordination of gays than on anything they have done to actually advance Christ’s kingdom. The problem is that a lot of reporters and even a lot of conservatives do not understand what “mainline Protestants” are.

It is not hard.

A mainline protestant is not a “mainstream” protestant. The two are not interchangeable. The former is more of an academic term.

The base way to understand what a mainline protestant is would be to understand that the term largely means those protestant denominations that existed during the colonial era of the American colonies and as they have evolved from that point.

Many suggest the term comes from the Pennsylvania Main Line railroad that ran through Philadelphia neighborhoods at the turn of the twentieth century, which were organized around communities of interest making up those original colonial faithes.

Specifically, Mainline Protestant denominations are Episcopalians, the United Methodists, the Presbyterians (USA), the American and Northern Baptists, the United Church of Christ, the Congregationalists, the Disciples of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.2

While evangelical churches are more mainstream in America, they are not considered main line. Many evangelical churches branched off from the main line. The Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest protestant denomination, branched off from the Northern and American Baptist Churches. The Presbyterian Church in America, Evangelical Presbyterians, and Reformed Presbyterians broke away from the main Presbyterian Church, which is today the PCUSA. Anglicans have come back into the country in response to the ordination of gays within the Episcopalian Church.

I await the United Methodist Church splintering over that issue and the social gospel too. The Methodists are one of the last major mainline denominations not to have a serious split. But it is on the verge of happening.

There is a long history here and I am no religion scholar, but there are a couple of points to understand.

The mainline churches are more concerned these days with the social gospel, the role of gays in the church, etc. These churches are in decline. Their numbers are falling as they have replaced the actual Gospel with a modern sense of spiritualism that ultimately does not feed the flock.

Evangelical churches over all are growing. The charismatic churches are really seeing strong growth. These churches are much more concerned with fundamentalism, which is, like “mainline”, a specific term. Fundamentalist churches believe in the fundamentals of the faith, which were toward the turn of the twentieth century narrowed to five points including the inerrancy of the Bible, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the need for salvation. When people talk about “fundamentalists” these days, they usually mean hard line Christians who are no fun. Actually, a “fundamentalist” is someone who subscribes to five specific points within Protestantism: (1) the inerrancy of the Bible; (2) the virgin birth of Christ; (3) the atonement of sins through Christ’s death; (4) the bodily resurrection of Christ; and (5) the reality of Christ’s miracles.

Mainline Protestant churches are on decline. In several surveys over the past year, one of the main reasons for that decline is that congregants want to go to a church where the preacher seems to actually believe what he is preaching. In mainline churches that is less and less common. The Gospel gives on assurance when even the preacher is not sure of it.

These churches have less and less to do with orthodox Christianity and it is no surprise that it is from the ranks of these churches that the media typically draws on ministers to rebut long held orthodox Christian views and the mainstream churches of America, which are more and more evangelical.

Please consider yourself explained and educated now.


  1. Consider these statistics from the Association of Religious Data Archives on congregational growth from 2000 to 2010:

    Evangelical:

    • Assemblies of God +14.9%
    • Evangelical Presbyterian Church +61.6%
    • Pentacostal Church +22.7
    • Seventh-Day Adventist Church +29.5%
    • Southern Baptist Convention +0.1%
    • Presbyterian Church in America +8.3%

    Mainline:

    • American Baptists -11.7%
    • Congregationalists -52.8%
    • Disciples of Christ -22.8%
    • Evangelical Lutheran Church -18.2%
    • Episcopal Church -15.7%
    • Metropolitan Community Churches -24.9%
    • Presbyterian Church USA -22.0%
    • United Church of Christ -24.4%
    • United Methodist Church -4.7%

  2. The United Church of Christ vs. Church of Christ issue is complicated. I learned the list as UCC being mainline and Church of Christ not. Checking Wikipedia, it too has UCC listed. But some Church of Christ members contend they are mainline, not UCC. The general rule of thumb, however, can be that congregationalists are generally considered mainline and those congregationalist churches that prioritize the social gospel are more in keeping with the mainline trends in the country than those that do not.

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