October 25, 2020

iMonk Classic: Three Days among the Mainlines

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted Feb 21, 2008

Unless you’ve been brought up in the insular confines of fundamentalism, it’s going to be hard to understand what it’s been like for me spending three days with “the other kind” of Christians this week. “The other kind” in this instance are mainline protestants, almost entirely Presbyterian Church USA, ELCA Lutherans, ECUSA Episcopalians and a few United Church of Christ. Out of about 70 ministers, mine was the only Baptist name tag I saw. There was a United Methodist, a Vineyard pastor, a Plymouth Brethren, an AME and a few others I don’t recall, but most of the ministers that surrounded me were what the conservative evangelicals I know call “liberals.”

I’ve been to a lot of meetings of Southern Baptists and various other kinds of conservative evangelicals. The last couple of decades I’ve spent considerable time with Calvinists of various persuasions. I’ve logged many hours in those circles and very few among “the other kind” of Christians. Even though I’ve done a lot of supply preaching among Presbyterians here in Appalachia, that’s been a tiny slice of my experience of Christian fellowship compared to my days surrounded by Southern Baptists and various other kinds of well-to-the-right-of-center Christians.

My crowd is made up of creationists, hardcore Republican culture warriors, pro-lifers, complementarians, Biblical literalists, polemicists, internet theologians, evangelists, Charismatics and people who enjoy TBN and K-Love. What you should have noticed down through the years on this web site is that even though I’m not “one of them,” they are the crowd I live with, work with and understand. Whenever mainliners come up. it’s usually when someone has heard something in the news about gay marriage/ordination or someone wants to denigrate a church as dead or apostate.

Mainline Christians? I’ve always known they were out there, but I was warned to avoid those “liberals.” I graduated from a United Methodist college. I attended seminary when my school was still left of center. I’ve been a supply in PCUSA churches for many years. I read mainliners like Will Willimon and Robert Capon. When I get the chance, I enjoy a good liturgy at an ECUSA church.

But these past three days were some of my closest times actually meeting and talking with my mainline brothers and sisters. Maybe it’s where I am on my own pilgrimage right now or maybe it’s the fact that I’m the recipient of real generosity from mainline friends, but I was more open to the mainline ethos than I’ve ever been before and I thoroughly enjoyed my experience. It was a wonderful time in the fellowship of those whose lives are seeking to know and serve God through Jesus.

Just to scare the fundamentalists keeping an eye on me, let me give a bit of a report.

A third–at least–of the ministers and pastors present were women. That’s ordained women, pastoring churches. From what I could see, they were doing great jobs in tough places. They were intense, devoted, strongly called and gifted, and deeply committed to their ministries.

They were also comfortable and confident. I’ve always been told that women in ministry had attitude and “issues.” I missed that. These were….normal people. Young mothers. Experienced older pastors. Campus ministers. They were eloquent, intelligent and busy doing the work of pastors. They were comfortable with what God had called them to do. They were prepared, experienced and positive. One young ECUSA pastor was a mother of four and had just been given pastoral oversight of 15 other pastors in her large diocese. Another woman was the minister of pastoral care at a large church in Kentucky. Many of these women were pastoring the kinds of little churches men leave quickly. They seem to have stayed. Hmmmm.

Not even once did we pause to discuss “women in ministry.” That issue was a done deal, and even when it became known that a Southern Baptist was in the room, no one stopped to start “the discussion.” We were pastors and ministers. We were there to listen to Eugene Peterson, to get to know one another and to be better shepherds.

No one seemed to know or care what Mark Driscoll or the SBC thought. We just talked about our churches, our dreams and our journeys so far. I treated them with dignity and respect and they did the same to me.

I liked that experience of fellowship a lot. Can I get away with saying that turning the “ministry” into a boys’ club–no matter what you believe about ordination–produces an atmosphere that I don’t really like? I don’t think I’m alone in that, and I assure you I’m not a mama’s boy. I’m just suspecting a lot of the grunting and chest hair in recent discussions of the “ministry” isn’t really necessary. God calls and gifts women. Even if you don’t ordain them, you believe that.

I also noticed that there was far more mature reflection on the experience and identity of the pastor in this group than in the other gatherings of ministers I’ve been a part of. Instead of being a driven kind of atmosphere, there was generosity, encouragement and thoughtful insight. I was really surprised that out of the whole group, over three days of discussion, I never spotted an ass……..well….a jerk. Or whatever term works. Not even one. In a room full of ministers listening to one another for three days, that seemed almost eerie to me. I’m used to gatherings of ministers being overt competitions of alpha males bragging, jousting for attention, bullying one another, playing games. My experience this week was absent all of that, and it had something to do with the fact that the role and person of the minister was taken more seriously than in my other experiences.

There was also an obvious gentleness in the leadership. No one seemed to have the need to vent their spleen and call it “leadership” or preaching. In the times of preaching, egos were set aside. Lots of scripture read, simple liturgies followed by 25-minute homilies. Where was the 1 hour 15 minute exposition telling us all what to do? Where was the parading of “names” to imitate? Not there…and I liked it.

There was a generosity toward other traditions that amazes me. All of these denominations together and I never heard ONE denominational or doctrinal discussion of any kind. Not one. Not even close. This was not the world I know, a world where anxieties about doctrine and theology seem to be, frankly, driving more than a few people to the point of distraction, illusion and obsession.

Yes, to be honest, there were some liberal stereotypes. Fever for Obama was high. If I had said I voted for Bush twice I would have quieted the crowd and guaranteed that seats next to me at meals would be open. Dinner was preceded by an open bar…..and it was roundly enjoyed by all. Definitely not something you see at the SBC Annual Meeting. And there were probably some gays and lesbians present. No one brought it up and it wasn’t my business. No one decided we needed to talk about it. Good.

One thing for sure. I was among people who knew and loved God and his Son; people who loved, read and preached the Bible in large doses; people who take the Gospel seriously; people very much desirous of the power of the Holy Spirit and genuine prayer. Certainly, they were people for whom the word ecumenical meant something important.

I learned to love these brothers and sisters. I’m sure we would disagree on some things–perhaps many things–but I was encouraged by their faith and confirmed in my call by their joy in theirs. We all faced many of the same issues, from empty nests to angry board members to family and financial stress. When we prayed and worshiped, we were one in Christ, and I enjoyed the feeling.

These are our brothers and sisters. We have a lot to say to one another, much to share and very much to offer one another. We can learn from each other and love one another. But will we? Will we?

In fact, I’m missing those good people and the fellowship of Jesus I felt with them. Maybe someday I’ll find it again. It was a good, healthy, positive experience of the Spirit.


  1. This is the kind of fellowship I love. There was another Michael who has influenced me. Michael Yaconelli, 1942-2003. He wrote, “Messy Spirituality” which is a book I would reccomend. Both Michaels grew much earlier than I. I am 74 and still growing sometimes kicking and screaming against Jesus.

  2. Great timing and I enjoyed your article. Literally this week, after a very long process, I am leaving a fundamentalist church for a mainline (Presbyterian USA). As much as I wanted the transition to be smooth and respectful, unfortunately it is evolving into the perception (by my dear old friends at the fundamentalist church) as me leaving God for the devil.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Yeah. Check his blog for details. This is the latest step in JMJ’s journey into the Post-Evangelical Wilderness, and I get the distinct vibes there will be Reprisals against him from his old church.

  3. I’ve noticed, over my short time, that I would MUCH rather spend time with mainline clergy than with Evangelical clergy. I’ve found that with Evangelicals, programs and numbers have to be compared, theology has to be argued about, numbers have to be bragged about, other churches “sins” have to be judged.

    Maybe this is “the grass is greener” syndrome, but it just seems so much better over there.

  4. There are only a handful of mainline Christians, clergy, and theologians I respect and take seriously(e.g., Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, Donald Bloesch, and even N. T. Wright). I think the rest just produce theological slop not even worthy to be taught at seminary except to be criticized.

    • Mark, you may need to get out more.

      • I do. You’ll be surprised how much I have learned about mainliners (especially the more liberal-leaning kinds) when it comes to these theological issues. Sadly, what I have gathered from them is less than impressive – biblically, morally, and spiritually.

        • David Morris says

          Mark, I kind of agree with you. Some of the mainline theologians I have read have been either too hard to understand or too wishy-washy. But there are some great ones out there. John Stott, Wright, Lewis, Packer etc are/were Anglicans. James Richardson’s blog (Ugley Vicar) is cool too. Since Fuller is now a “cesspool”, does Richard Mouw count? He is awesome 🙂

    • If you’d direct your gaze to evangelical side of the aisle with the same degree of discernment, I’m sure you’d find a similar ratio of material only fit for the trash heap–and generally speaking, much of the bad conservative theology scars people at a much more practical and deeper level.

  5. Maybe I have misread some specific scripture and unfortunately I don’t have a bible in front of me, but are there not references to women not being “over” men as in a pastoral manner??
    I’m not saying women are not to be involved in ministry, but by condoning it aren’t we blatantly defying scripture.
    I’ve been reading your site for some time and love the challanges it brings.

    • James, Here’s how I see the issue. (Chaplain Mike and others may have other takes.) In Paul’s day, the new Christians were surrounded by a culture of pagans, including goddess-worshippers. When Paul writes to these new churches, he wants to make sure that nothing in the church smacks of paganism or goddess-worship. Remember, Paul’s letters were written to specific churches in a specific time and place. We receive them only second-hand. Paul is being sensitive to the culture he lived in. But he also wrote that in Christ there is “no male or female.” When Paul writes that “I do not allow” a woman to teach or have authority, he doesn’t write that God does not allow it. If Paul had meant that, he would have said it. In terms of dealing with our own time and culture, churches that do not allow females in leadership roles — including senior pastor positions — simply come off as a bunch of bigots. I do not see how any church or denomination can deal honestly or squarely with matters like domestic abuse or abortion if women in those churches are banned from leadership roles. In today’s world, our leadership needs to be an expression of who we are — and half of us are women.

      • It depends on your view of leadership. If church leadership is comparable to CEO or Senator (a granting of power in recognition of loyal party support), then yes, women should be included.

        However, if the position elder is a reflection of the headship of Christ – then placing women as visible heads says something very different about God. It inverts the bride/groom relationship.

        • SearchingAnglican says

          Isn’t the bride/groom relationship like any metaphor that tries to describe God or his relationship to his people? Incomplete at best. To me, the bride/groom description is more about the nature of the relationship than anything about gender roles and who does what.

          Says the former Catholic girl who felt a profound – and nearly audible – call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church and has fighting God about it ever since. I went to two close, seemingly conservative priest/pastor friends who told me they would be glad to be present at my ordination. Hmmmph. So much for trying to find the excuse I was looking for through the advice of others.

        • Buford Hollis says

          Wait a minute–which is higher, bride or groom?

          : D

          We might just as easily say that only women can properly symbolically God, since men can’t get pregnant.

          The marriage analogy doesn’t work very well, IMHO. Our relationship with God is asymmetrical. If any human husband (or wife, for that matter) was as distant and unresponsive as God, we would be justified not only in dumping them, but in wondering whether they ever existed at all, or were just a figment of our imagination.

          • Neither, that’s the point I was trying to make. The point is they are _different_. To say they are the same erases the intrinsic value of each.

            In fact, to say that women should be in the roles of men (rarely does anyone suggest men should take women’s roles), is a declaration that the men’s roles are better.

        • Since I’m an advocate for gay marriage, that really isn’t an issue for me.

    • If God didn’t intend women to have pastoral authority, He wouldn’t keep calling them.

      As iMonk alludes to, the most powerful argument for women in pastoral leadership is to see them at work.

      And as Genesis tells us, male domination of society is a result of the fall, of our sin. In Christ there is neither man nor woman. In man, on the other hand, there is dominance of women and it is inherently sinful.

      • “the most powerful argument for women in pastoral leadership is to see them at work”

        That’s pragmatism. We cannot use results (ends) to justify the means.

        The male was created first, as the head. The command was given to Adam only. When sin came, God went to Adam first.

  6. Interesting post Mike!
    Over here in the Netherlands, the biggest mainline church (the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, PKN) has a fast growing evangelical movement.
    This movement has even asked for an evangelical professor at their seminary because of the growing percentage of evangelical theology students…
    As a whole the PKN is losing members every year, but the mainline in Holland is getting more evangelical.

    • David Morris says

      Yay! That’s excellent. I wish all in the PKN the best. I imagine they are still trying to get their heads around the mergers 🙂

  7. So are we to conclude that everything is subject to “past cultures” giving us the green light on anything that might need “change” due to our current society??
    I’m not trying to be “evangelical” here, I just feel we need to call a spade a spade.
    I myself am tired of cookie cutter churches and parking lot transformations.

  8. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    Follow me here… this is a bit convoluted. For my theology class (at a Baptist university, FWIW), I just did a little research paper on the theory of Apostolic Succession. As an Anglican, I can’t say that I came to the table without some bias. In the course of my research, however, I became persuaded that the case for direct succession from the Apostles to the bishops is weak. However, it was a necessary concept for the preservation of the faith. Come Reformation, Reformers were insisting on a succession of authoritative teaching rather than an authoritative office. OK, I can dig that. But how do you ensure that the teaching is authentically apostolic? You have to have roots in the historic teachings. Otherwise, everyone is just ordaining their own individual opinions with “apostolic” authority.

    So here’s the ironic rub: among American Protestants, it seems it’s really only the mainlines who seem to root themselves in the historic realities of the faith. While they admittedly often see some them as fluid and negotiable, they’re at least aware of them and engage with them. Much of generic big-box Evangelicalism acts as if there was no heritage or 2000 years of church teaching and history.

    So, how can those folks really honestly lay claim to true authentic biblical apostolic doctrine?

    That said, there seems to be a really neat surge of evangelicalism among the mainlines which often gets the best of mainline heritage and evangelical concern for doctrine, even if it still seems to sometimes have some annoying political and social blind spots.

    • David Morris says

      That’s what the ancient future thing is for 🙂 Otoh, if the mainlines were in better shape, they would be picking up lots of evangelicals dissatisfied with our historical amnesia…. I know a lot of people who are on the Canterbury road, but can’t join the Episcopals right now 🙁

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    That “Covington Methodist” in the picture looks like a cozy little church. Make a good prototype for one on a model railroad layout — HO or N, though it looks small enough to be doable in O.

  10. Mike, I’m glad that you had a nice 3 days.
    I wonder how all those nice folk would get along without those natty get togethers to shore up each other.
    I’ll cut this short, because anything that I could write from here on would be predicated on the idea that the office of ‘paid clergy’ is the biggest single impediment to church growth today.
    All of the lay ers that flog on, week to week, without the prospect of an annual gathering of type at which to reassure or reassess themselves, today stand gob smacked at your surfeit of choice in picking what kind of gathering you would attend.
    Why is it that only the paid guys are seen as ‘full-time’ for the kingdom?

  11. Women are a civilizing influence. I discovered that when I moved into a co-ed dormitory (men on the ground floor, women on the second and third floors) after living in a men’s dorm for a year. I had previously been heavily involved in Scouts (all boys, all rowdy all-the-time) and moved up to Explorers in HS (co-ed, much saner and more oriented on the job at hand. I thought that was a fluke until I changed dorms in college.

    Obviously, I’ve no idea what single-sex women’s groups are like; but single-sex men’s groups seem prone to turn into testosterone-fueled dominance festivals.

    • There are a lot of women who would disagree with this, and think there is something wrong with me, but I have to confess that I don’t enjoy women only groups as a general rule (unless they are hand picked friends of my choice) and I avoid women only conferences/events wherever possible. I think both sexes tend to behave themselves better when they are in mixed groups and the conversation is more interesting. Maybe God designed us to need each other!

  12. I wish I could have spent those three days with Michael Spencer and the folks he referred to in this article he wrote in 2008. It must have had a profound effect on Michael. I think we need to remember the words he writes near the end: “These are our brothers and sisters. We have a lot to say to one another, much to share and very much to offer one another. We can learn from each other and love one another. But will we? Will we?”

  13. Once upon a time I spent 3 days in a guided retreat on discernment at a Methodist center.

    It turned out that most all of the attendees were pastors and the retreat turned into practically group therapy as they shared all their struggles. I grew a new appreciation for how hard their jobs were.

    In the UM, pastors are assigned by the Bishop taking into account the wishes of the congregation, so you’ve got pastors who have been essentially fired by their churches, in addition to the continual daily struggles. Right now I’m keeping up on facebook with a woman pastor who was recently assigned to a tiny church in the middle of fundamentalist country where women pastors are seen as anti-Biblical. Probably good for the church but awful hard on her.

  14. warren merriman says

    Let’s all sit around the bar and sing Kum By Yah (Spelling?????).This is the first thing that comes to mind after reading this particular post (3 Days Among the Mainlines). Obviously the author enjoyed his 3 days, and he is not at all distresssed by women pastors, or by the acceptance of homosexuality as a valid lifestyle, etc. His comments seem to imply that the mere presence of women pastors (as well as the all of the other concerns expressed in the post) validates them (i.e.their mere presence means that God approves). What about the Jews dancing around the Golden Calf in the Old Testament. Did God approve of them??????????

    • If you know anything of Michael, you know without a doubt that your statement, “their mere presence means that God approves,” is the last thing he would say or think about any group of people.

    • Seriously, just because you disagree with these folks, you compare their faith with idiolatry.

      It’s so tired.

  15. Thanks for re-posting this Mike, it’s good for a conservative mainliner to be reminded what we have going for us, and just why some of us who count ourselves refugees from fundamentalism (mostly without the “fun” part) will take the flaws we see here rather than go back down that road.