I was reading an article today from the magazine The Christian Century. It’s one of those editorial comments that are the opinion “of the magazine”, but is unsigned by a specific author. It’s a discussion about church growth in the “Mainline” church in the modern world, contrasted with other current strains of Christianity, specifically what the author calls the “evangelical” or “conservative” churches. And it got me to thinking.
For some context, let me define a few things: By this author’s lights, “mainline” churches are denominations such as the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans and us, the United Methodists. The term “mainline” comes from the 1950’s era designation of these churches, dominant in that time, as the main lines.
“Conservative” or “Evangelical” churches, by the author’s contrast, would be churches that are not aligned or members of a specific denomination, or are conservative wings of mainline churches.
Among many differences between what I believe are now two distinct Christian traditions, the one that sticks out for the authors is the matter of Biblical interpretation. Generally, the “mainline” churches take a much less literal interpretation of the Bible. Said another way, Mainline churches (The United Methodist Church included) have the freedom to interpret the Bible much more broadly.
Rather than a failing, I see this as an advantage, and evidence of our good character. It is not better or worse overall, but it is different and special. When Mainline churches are at our best, we (quoting the article) “exhibit a magnanimous spirit. We accept doubts and differences of opinion.. . .” When “confronted by the hard knocks of life,” such as divorce, death and children making choices they shouldn’t, we are the church “that is not afraid to ask tough questions”, the church “where doubts can be aired.” And this is often evidenced in how we read the Bible. We do not have one opinion on divorce, or death, or any of the other issues of our lives. There is right and wrong, to be sure, but when we are at our best, we have enough humility to realize that we do not have the right to judge what is right or wrong. We seek to judge only our own lives in light of God’s teachings, as best as we understand them, and if we err, we err on the side of grace.
All in all, mainline churches are places where “grace is not only preached, but embodies in hospitable relationships.”
Life is messy, and sometimes our lives do not turn out to be what we would have chosen. When we are at our best, we can be vulnerable with each other, and receive help from each other in a place that worries less about who are sinners and who is “right with God”, and worry more about “how is God working in this person’s life, and how can I help?”, because, after all, we are all sinners.
Certainty about faith and Scripture does make for an easier life, but it can also alienate those whose lives fall outside that certainty. Let us be our best, and lead with grace to all who are before us, even those with different opinions who are fellow members of the church. Magnanimity is one of our best graces, after all.
If you would like to read the article that got me to thinking, you can find it online at http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=2775.