Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The Mainline We Need

September 22nd, 2023 | 16 min read

By Jake Meador

Aaron Renn has kindly linked to a number of our recent pieces here at Mere O, including some of my work on a hypothetical new mainline as well as Tim Suffield's reflection on counter-institutions.

In his response to my Mainline post, he noted that what I'm describing as a desirable goal is not really Mainline Protestantism.

While I probably would not describe things the same as he does, I would argue that evangelicalism does need to make a shift in emphasis away from transformation and relevance, and toward being a counterculture in the negative world. (Let me stress, however, that this is a shift in emphasis rather than a pursuit of a pure counterculture). So in that respect, I fully endorse Meador’s idea. I think he’s getting at a very important type of thinking about the way we should live now. (Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option was another, different way of exploring the same territory).

However, this is not mainline Protestantism. Keller classifies mainline churches as part of the relevance approach, probably mapping to Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” model. The one thing mainline Protestantism most surely was not was countercultural. It practically defined the cultural mainstream.

This is one conundrum facing those of us who would like to find a way to retain and rebuild some of the best of mainline Protestantism. The negative world is almost defined by institutional incompatibility or hostility to historical Protestantism. This necessitates a countercultural approach and bars the door to a mainline relationship of the church to culture. I think there are some ways to try to square this circle that I may write about in a future newsletter, but for now let’s just note that this is a serious problem.

As it happens, we attended a mainline PCUSA church for about 18 months after we moved back to Indiana from New York City. It was truly an eye opening experience, one that I found both informative and valuable. I have a long list of positive things to say about that church. It also prompted me to watch a number of mainline services online. And I try to visit mainline churches when I can (although that’s not often).

I noted a large number of attributes of mainline churches as I both studied and experienced them. One of those is a strong institutionalism, for example. Based on my experience, the elements of Meador’s proposal are not themes that I see in mainline Protestantism either. The distinctives of his new mainline are not the ones of the old mainline. “Re-parenting the lost” is not something you associate with Episcopalianism, for example.

In reply, there are three things I want to note.

Lind-Inflected Localism / Bucerian Protestanism

First, Aaron argues that my project is a kind of neo-Tocquevillian, small-is-beautiful sort of thing. That's mostly correct, but there are a couple caveats I'd want to attach.

One of them is that spending time reading Michael Lind has balanced out some of my Berry-inspired localism and preference for small enterprise. While I'll never be disdainful of what Lind calls "producerism" in the way that Lind himself is, I'm also more willing to grant now that some parts of the economy and national life genuinely do benefit from industrial scale.

Also, I'm actually still very much a magisterial Protestant, grounded in the Reformation and the historic ecclesial traditions of the Reformed faith. The Anabaptist sympathies I have are broadly identical to those that Martin Bucer, a hero of mine, also had and have been a part of my thinking for as long as I have been writing. Bucer is by far the most friendly to the radicals of any mainstream reformer I know of and those influences have shaped my own approach to many of these questions.

If you're personally curious about how all this works, then I'd encourage you to read Martin Greschat's biography of Bucer or, if you can find a copy, my former professor Amy Nelson Burnett's study on him, The Yoke of Christ. (Both books are quite hard to find now, so you might need to ILL them.)

Not coincidentally, it was through doing an independent study on Bucer with Professor Burnett that I ended up making the same move that Brad Littlejohn recently described himself making, moving away from a Hauerwasian Anabaptist approach and toward historic Protestantism. This was always my path toward historic Protestantism and has always been how I've thought about politics and life together, at least since doing that independent study in, if I recall correctly, 2008.

For me, the linchpin was Bucer's idea that one way we actually fulfill the law of love is through the establishment and preservation of a Christian society. And much of what Bucer has in view when he thinks of a Christian society, simply on a day to day level, will look very like the Anabaptists. So the project, in my view, can be both historically Reformed and have elements of the Radical Reformation within it, modified by historic Protestant ecclesiology and political theology.

What is a mainline Protestant anyway?

One of the points Aaron makes is that my proposal doesn't really sound like the Mainline because my proposal has an implicit counter-culture emphasis whereas the Mainline was always more "Christ of culture" (if you follow the classic Niebuhrian categories).

The challenge here is that I think we need to be more tailored or contextual in how we read our moment and define some of our terms. The third republic mainline certainly had a Christ of Culture sensibility about it. But when I talk about a new mainline, I'm not really thinking about "recreating the 1950s Protestant Mainline." I'm speaking, rather, about creating a movement that does for the fourth republic what the old mainline did for the third republic, as Renn rightly intuited.

Here it might be worth noting that there isn't really a mainline in the same way in the first or second republic either. The first republic overlaps with the Second Great Awakening and the highly entrepreneurial religious environment fostered by revivalism, particularly in upstate New York, sometimes referred to as the Burned Over District because of how hard that region was hit by revivalism. Not coincidentally, the Burned Over District gave us many of the more ahistorical or even heretical expressions of Christian community that still exist in America today—most notably Mormonism, of course, but also the Seventh Day Adventists. The Campbellites also start around this time, although they are slightly to the south in western Pennsylvania.

So given the ubiquity of revivalism as well as the realities of the frontier, the Mainline was not as dominant or influential in American religious life during this era. Additionally, because of intellectual trends amongst American elites, many of America's early leaders were not terribly orthodox or established in what eventually became Mainline denominations. Thomas Jefferson's views are well known, of course. But John Adams was a staunch unitarian who detested the doctrine of the Trinity, and George Washington was a non-communing Anglican, if also generally orthodox in his theology. So the entire relationship between what became the Mainline churches and American public life looked very different in the antebellum era.

Likewise, during the second republic frontier realities continued to militate against a strong and pervasive mainline presence in America. What's more, many of the thriving, growing movements of the era continued to be more revivalistic or evangelical in character—think of figures like Billy Sunday or D. L. Moody. The Mainline simply didn't have the same kind of heft and energy it would in later years. Indeed, when I looked through seminary records, it appears that Princeton Seminary only had seven faculty in 1875, ostensibly the early years of the golden era of "Old Princeton."

It took the consolidation of American life brought about by FDR and World War II to really create the Mainline as we know it today. Or we might put it this way: What most of us think of when we think of "the Protestant Mainline" is the kind of creature that can only exist in a highly centralized society, which post-war America mostly was. It can't operate in the same way in a more decentralized society such as we now have today. So if the point of saying "we need a new mainline" is to say "we need to recreate Niebuhr's Mainline," well... I don't think that's possible. The circumstances of the fourth republic are radically different from those of the third.

A fourth republic Mainline is going to be something different, something that can thrive in an era of low institutional and relational trust, social isolation, and distractibility, which are the driving factors shaping our current moment.

Mainline Postures

The Australian pastor Mark Sayers often uses the concept of "postures" to talk about needed qualities in Christian movements, which is a helpful concept because it manages to both have real positive moral content behind it while also being somewhat breathable in terms of how it gets worked out in local contexts. So let's talk about some of the postures that a fourth republic Mainline Protestant would need to have.


One of the defining tools for encouraging or discouraging certain ideas and behaviors in our era is shame, which has greater power now thanks to social media. Embarrassing gaffes that once might have occurred in front of a room of people can now happen in front of thousands or even millions. The implied threat of such shaming is a powerful incentive toward some behaviors and beliefs and against others.

In such a context, one way of responding is to simply be shame-less. But there are two problems here.

For the right, shamelessness means never having to say you're sorry. No matter what you do, when someone criticizes you, you come back with a meme, with mockery, with some form of doubling down. You do this because you rightly intuit that shame is a powerful coercive tactic in our age and so you think that any attempt at shaming is bad and must be rejected, no matter what the behavior in question is.

For the left, shamelessness means rejecting any positive idea of "shame." (There is a certain irony in this, of course, given the ubiquity of progressive Twitter swarms.) To be shameless amongst progressives is to embrace your full authentic self, reject all attempts to judge or shame you, and carry that self boldly into the world, no matter what—thus the ubiquity of the "unashamed" meme, even in Christian publishing. Here "shame" is basically "judgment" and any judgment that inhibits a person's authentic expression of their true self is wrong, ergo shame is wrong.

Against shamelessness, faithful Christians need to adopt a posture of resolution. By "resolution" I mean a quiet, sturdy commitment to the truth that renders one immune to the cultural or political winds of the moment. The resolute Christian is someone anchored in the truths of Scripture, both those personal truths about themselves as beloved children of God whose worth is secured through something outside themselves, and the broader cosmic truths about God as creator and the created order.

What this means is that the resolute person is able to withstand cultural pressures to abandon truth, but is also able to respond rightly to legitimate forms of judgment and shame. The person who is resolute, anchored in the truths of Scripture can respond with penitence when they are called to account for unfaithful behavior, for example. And they can do this with a sense of security and peace because they know who they are.

Both the capitulations of some evangelical leaders and the shamelessness of the new Christian right are failures of resolution. The former breaks in the face of pressure. The latter abdicates from the tasks of judgment inherently required by resolution. Rather than asking if a criticism is legitimate in as much as it aligns with the moral law it categorically rejects all criticism as being a political or rhetorical tactic rather than having any real moral content.

Significantly, the shameless person is often the most fragile. They default to shamelessness because they lack the internal clarity required to hold within their mind the possibility that they are at fault and might need to repent. But because all of us are sinful, all of us sometimes error, we have to be capable of entertaining the idea that we could be wrong and that our most hated enemy could be right. Otherwise, what we are ultimately building our lives and our movements on is not God's truth, but our own vanity. Resolution allows us to be reflective and able to admit fault without being spineless. Shamelessness does not.

The resolute person knows who they are. They behave according to principle, no matter what. They accept whatever the consequences of that might be. They know that they can't control what others say or think about them. All they can do is behave with integrity, which they strive to do at all times.


In addition to resolution, a posture of generosity is needed. By "generosity" I don't simply mean being relatively free with one's resources, although that is part of it. But the greater idea is something like what Berry means when he writes this about Mattie Chatham in Jayber Crow. In the scene, Mattie has taken some children outside the church to play games outside during Vacation Bible School.

To be plain about it, I didn't think much of Vacation Bible School. As a product of (a Christian orphanage), I didn't think much of confinement. If I had ever gone to Vacation Bible School, I thought, I would not have liked it; I would have been too much aware of the invitation of the free and open summer day. It was nevertheless a great pleasure to me to watch Mattie and the children. She was guiding their play and playing with them, not being very insistent about anything, and they all were having a good time.

I knew well the work and worry she had pending at home, and yet in that moment she was as free with the children as if she had been a child herself—as free as a child, but with a generosity and watchfulness that were anything but childish. She was just perfectly there with them in her pleasure.

What I mean by "generosity" is then a kind of attentiveness that has to precede the act of, say, giving some money to a person going through a rough patch.  I was struck by something in Bucer recently along these lines.

In his discussion of the diaconal office, Bucer is remarkably practical and attentive. He simply expects that deacons will know their place and people well enough to know who needs aid and what kind of aid they need. Part of this attentiveness, of course, is about making sure that the lazy who are asking for money are instead directed toward lines of work that will allow them to support themselves in time. But he also notes that:

For just as the wicked are never satisfied and beggary knows neither moderation nor limit, so also reputable and prudent men dissimulate and conceal their need and judge whatever is provided for them by the churches to be too much. But the Holy Spirit has prescribed both how and to what extent to distribute the assets of the churches, so that absolutely no one may be in need, and that to each may be given what he has need of in order to live piously and well.

In other words: Bucer is telling the deacons that their job is not simply "see to the physical needs of the church." Because if they are going to do that, they need to do a great many other things. Their job in reality is something more like "know the people in your church so well that you know who needs to be directed to work to better care for their own needs and know who has genuine financial needs and know the true extent of the need." There is a universe of interactions and questions and time and quiet presence assumed in Bucer's vision of the diaconate. This can only be done through a spirit of generosity, by which a person can be so free with their time and attention that they can acquire the sort of knowledge they need to carry out their calling.

This sort of spirit is never not needed in human community. But in a time of such remarkable distraction, when people can't even be bothered to look at a person sitting across a table from them in a lunch room or next to them on a bus or plane, someone who is generous in the way I am describing here will be something of a revelation to the people around them. And I mean "revelation" not merely in the colloquial sense of the term but the technical as well: A person turned outward to their neighbor so completely that they can offer their presence to them in this way is giving that neighbor a taste of the care and attentiveness God has for them.

I'll never forget the conversion story I heard from a man in his mid 80s during my time at the Rochester L'Abri. He had spent time at the Swiss L'Abri in the 70s. On his arrival he was a jaded, disillusioned ex-journalist backpacking his way through Europe in search of something real. (This was in the years after Altamont and the collapse of the hippie culture of the 60s.) On arrival at L'Abri his wife asked him what he thought. He sighed and said "another commune, another guru," expecting to be disappointed. An hour or so later they were walking up to Chalet Les Melezes to meet Francis Schaeffer. But as they walked up they saw him coming toward them—an odd looking man wearing knickers and with long hair and a thick gotee. When they got close enough to speak, Schaeffer greeted them enthusiastically and by name. He welcomed them, said he was excited to speak later, but he was actually needed at one of the other chalets and would talk with them later. As he rounded the path, my friend said he actually sat down on a rock for a moment and looked at the ground. "What's wrong?" his wife asked. He told her that no one had ever greeted him with such genuine warmth and interest as Schaeffer just had. That wasn't when Dean became a Christian. That came later. But that was the beginning.

In a time as plastic and distracted as ours, genuine attentiveness to another person can be a more potent witness to the Gospel than almost anything else.

Another aspect of generosity relates to forgiveness and reconciliation. We live in a time that is fairly merciless and quite cruel. It is not enough to be vindicated in a dispute. Often we desire to destroy the person we were feuding with. But if you live long enough, you will eventually experience two things: First, you will be confronted by the ways you have wronged a person and you will desire their forgiveness, which you may or may not receive. Second, you will be confronted by a person who has wronged you and now desires your forgiveness. If you are generous with your forgiveness and eager to be reconciled, you will not only be whole yourself in a way you would not be otherwise, but you will also give wrong and erring people ways to work backward from their sins and back toward wholeness as well. In an era like our own, these more generalized forms of generosity are essential.


There is a final posture we need to be the kind of Christian presence our current era needs. That last posture is "patience." To be patient is to endure in our calling even when that task seems thankless and without fruit. It is not a coincidence that the first virtue many church fathers wrote on was patience. For it was patience that allowed them to maintain their commitment to Christ, even amidst opposition, mockery, and pain. Put another way, what is it that allows the Christian to endure pain without losing heart?

It is not a bland stoicism. It is not indifference. It is patience, for patience steals our will against suffering, calling us to remember what we know, that good things are not lost, that our King still reigns, and that one day through Christ all will be well. Without patience, we cannot endure in the Christian life.

What makes patience uniquely valuable in our moment? The defining element of living under technopoly is that our technology no longer functions primarily as a tool allowing us to accomplish a task, but functions rather as an environment that fundamentally shapes all our actions as well as our underlying imagination. It is not simply that we use our tools now, but that our tools actually shape us by defining the parameters of what seems possible to us, what is desirable, and so on.

Part of that shaping targets patience directly by providing cheap, fast, and easy access to goods, services, and information—it is hard to acquire patience when your tools teach you that you should be able to know anything you want almost instantaneously and acquire any good you want within a day or two of your first desiring it. But can a good life be lived without patience? I think not.

Bracket the specific benefit patience has for Christians. Consider more banal forms of patience: You're in a graduate program pursuing further training in your field so that you can one day do a specific sort of work that you desire to do and which will provide all sorts of further benefits for you, your family, and your neighbors. When that training is hard, daunting, and exhausting, what allows you to endure? The answer is still the same: Patience.

Cultures that school their people in easy, instant gratification are not cultures that shape people equipped for virtuous citizenship and neighborly love because often the practices of virtuous citizenship and love of neighbor are practices that ask something of us, that challenge us, that create forms of pain for us. And if we lack the virtues required to be resilient, we will never develop those skills and habits. To live well we must learn patience. And yet there is virtually nothing in our cultural scripts and narratives that commends patience to us, let alone teaches us how to be patient.

A church in which patience is a ubiquitous practice that anchors our life together would look quite radical, not because it is seeking a hostile relationship to the culture, but simply because it is displaying the basic virtues required for being human in a world that has forgotten what humans are.

Finally, there is a sense in which I think patience also is a means of combatting the vice the catholic tradition has spoken of as "effeminacy." Classically understood, the vice of effeminacy is a kind of softness in the face of adversity, a shrinking back from responsibility because it doesn't deliver the satisfaction you expected it to. It betrays a lack of self-mastery and perseverance, both of which are necessary to pursue the good. So in some ways you can regard patience as the virtue that corresponds to the vice of effeminacy.  A movement that lacks patience will eventually collapse because it lacks the virtue needed to endure in the face of opposition and difficulty.


Years ago while I was in college an older Christian man who I met with regularly was sharing a story with me of a time he had needed to say some hard things to a friend of his from church. The conversation, though unpleasant, had gone well. I asked him if he knew why. He thought, then said, "I think there are things you have to earn the right to say. If a total stranger said to him what I said, he would have been offended. But because he knew me, he knew I cared about him, and that I wanted his good, I had earned the right to say some hard things to him."

We might say it this way: A successful fourth republic Mainline will be a church that is capable of offering fraternal correction to the nation and can reasonably expect some measure of success in doing so. At present, the Mainline we have has lost all interest in such correction and, in any case, no one cares all that much what they think anyway. Evangelicals, meanwhile, are too defensive, too entitled, or too indifferent to have the kind of relationship in which "fraternal correction" is even possible.

What is needed, I think, is a church that plainly criticizes the failures of our current system—call it post-war liberalism, the open society, the dead consensus, whatever—while also remaining conscious of the fact that it does not stand above it all, utterly removed from the problem, healthy and complete on its own without any reference to its place, churches offering angry denunciations from afar with no intention of offering counsel and aid to the subjects of her criticism.

There is a conflict that divides the cities of men from the City of God. And yet those Christians, those people called out of the world, still yet live in the world, in the cities of men. As we live with a foot in both cities, may we do so with courage, generosity, and patience.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).