During the Reformation in the 16th century, the word "evangelical" was synonymous with Protestant. Today, much like Protestantism set itself apart from Roman Catholicism, contemporary evangelicalism is a movement with its own distinct beliefs and institutions. While today's mainline Protestantism has chosen to embrace historical development and new scientific theories, evangelicalism tends to view itself as the defender of unchanging traditional ideals, even as it adopts new technologies and adapts to social change.
The basic structure of mainline Protestantism is the denomination, a group of churches with a shared set of beliefs and practices. In contrast, notes church historian George Marsden, evangelicalism is trans-denominational. Some evangelicals have chosen to remain in mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal Church or United Methodist Church. Others have formed their own denominational or expressly non-denominational churches. Linking various evangelical believers and churches together are shared beliefs and a network of interdenominational evangelical organizations.
Authority of Scripture
The nature of the Bible is another key area of difference. Mainline Protestantism sees the Bible as an important, even central, book of faith, but it is not necessarily infallible. From this perspective, the books of the Bible are products of their times, with errors and inspirational stories that may not be historically factual. In contrast, evangelicals believe that the Bible is God's infallible word, written by human authors under the unerring guidance of the Holy Spirit. The popular evangelical term for this is inerrancy.
Mainline Protestantism tends to see truth in terms of a liberal theology of growth and development. This doctrine expresses itself in the defining values of tolerance and acceptance, even recognizing the possibility of salvation in non-Christian religions. The evangelical perspective sees belief in Jesus as essential to salvation. There is consensus among scholars that one essential evangelical doctrine is atonement through Christ's sacrifice on the cross, in which Jesus suffers punishment on behalf of sinners who deserve to be condemned.
Mainline Protestantism has a strong liberal social justice component. In recent years, this impulse has expressed itself in advocating for such issues as feminism, environmentalism and gay marriage. Conversely, evangelicals tend to be socially conservative. Issues commonly associated with evangelicals include abstinence from pre-marital sex, opposition to same-sex relationships and advocacy for legislation to ban abortion.
For evangelicals, being converted, or born again, is an identifiable moment in time when someone starts a new life in Christ. Evangelical conversion has its own distinct vocabulary, such as "accepting Jesus" as one's "personal savior." Mainline Protestants also speak of being born again. However, as John Green noted in an essay for PBS Frontline, they tend to focus instead on gradual spiritual transformation.
The differences between evangelicals and mainline Protestants are not set in stone. For example, writers such as Diana Butler Bass are calling upon mainline Protestantism to reclaim the evangelical name for itself, in part by blending social justice with a deeper personal experience of faith. At the same time, a growing trend among evangelicals is going beyond a focus on conversion to promote helping the poor. If anything connects these traditions besides their historical roots, it might be their tendency to change.
- Fundamentalism and American Culture; George M. Marsden
- Frontline: The Jesus Factor: Evangelicals v. Mainline Protestants
- Liberalism versus Evangelicalism; James K. Wellman
- Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism: Defining Evangelicalism - Defining the Term in Modern Times
- National Association of Evangelicals: What is an Evangelical?
- Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism; Randall Balmer, ed.
- A People's History of Christianity; Diana Butler Bass
- Encyclopedia of Religion in America; Charles H. Lippy and
- New York Times: The Decline of Evangelical America
- Encyclopedia of Protestantism; J. Gordon Melton, ed.
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