Is There An Evangelical Mainstream?

Cedarville University

My post on the changes taking place at Cedarville University got a lot of attention yesterday.

Here is how I concluded the post:

I had actually thought that Cedarville was moving closer to the evangelical mainstream, but it now looks like the school is returning to its fundamentalist Baptist roots.

I wrote this because Cedarville has recently tightened its doctrinal statement, required faculty to endorse a complementarian position as it relates to the role of men and women in society, and stopped male students from taking courses with female Bible professors. When I was in college in the 1980s, Cedarville was a member of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), a fundamentalist Baptist denomination that was the product of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920 and 1930s.  How do I know this?  I wrote my M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on separatist fundamentalists in America.  I had a chapter on Ralph Ketcham, one of the founders of the GARBC.  More recently the GARBC kicked Cedarville out of the denomination because of the university’s growing ties with the Southern Baptist Church.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey has done a nice job of explaining this history here.

When I arrived in central Pennsylvania I met a lot of conservative evangelicals who were sending their kids to Cedarville. Many of these families attended my local evangelical church.  I thus got the impression that the university had moved closer to the evangelical mainstream.  (Of course I was assuming that my Evangelical Free Church was part of that mainstream).  In other words Cedarville seemed to be leaving its fundamentalist Baptist background behind and becoming more like Wheaton College or Gordon College or Westmont College.  (Bailey’s piece also mentions Taylor University in Indiana).

But  in the last few years a new administration has taken the helm at Cedarville.  Influenced by the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, this administration votes Republican, upholds a strict view of Biblical inerrancy, does not permit women to teach the Bible, and suppresses all student dissent.  Faculty have either been ousted or left voluntarily.  The entire philosophy department was eliminated.  Conservative Southern Baptists have assumed most of the leadership roles on the campus.

When I asked if these moves placed Cedarville outside of the “evangelical mainstream,” my friend Kurt Peterson, who has taught history at two different evangelical colleges and is a former George Marsden student at Notre Dame,  wondered if it was actually Cedarville’s president and board that now represented the so-called “evangelical mainstream.” Peterson concluded: “Perhaps Cedarville’s future enrollment will serve as one piece of evidence in this discussion.”

This is a great observation.  Perhaps Wheaton, Westmont, Gordon, Messiah, Bethel, Eastern, Seattle Pacific, and Taylor no longer represent the evangelical mainstream.  Perhaps the evangelical mainstream today is best represented by Cedarville or Liberty University or Bob Jones or Moody Bible Institute.  Or can we even think about the evangelical mainstream in terms of Christian colleges when most evangelicals don’t attend school affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities?

After I wrote this post and some good discussion got underway on my Facebook page, I was talking to a colleague who wondered if it is still possible to talk about an “evangelical mainstream” in the first place.  Is “evangelicalism” even a useful umbrella term today?  Is the movement so fragmented that evangelical unity is impossible.  He mentioned that in the 1950s there was an evangelical consensus (or neo-evangelical consensus) built around Billy Graham and Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicalism, but we no longer live in an American culture characterized by consensus.  The godless communists are gone, or at least they no longer pose a threat to the American way of life.

So what do you think?

Does Cedarville University and the decisions they have made on the theological, political and gender fronts make them part of the evangelical mainstream?  Have they come to define this mainstream?

Is there an American evangelical mainstream today?

To prime the pump a bit, let me throw out a possible definition of the evangelical mainstream. Please do not hold me to this, I am just brainstorming for the purpose of discussion.

The members of today’s evangelical mainstream:

  • Believe in the saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and can testify to a born-again experience.
  • Believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible and maybe even the inerrancy of the Bible (although they are not hard core about the inerrancy issue like they were in during the “Battle for the Bible” years of the 1970s and 1980s)
  • Are split generationally over gay marriage.  Baby boomers and older Gen Xers oppose gay marriage.  Younger evangelicals are more in favor of it.
  • Are divided over whether or not women can serve as pastors or teach men.
  • Are anti-abortion
  • Attend a megachurch where the preaching is contemporary and praise songs are sung with a worship band.
  • Are concerned about big government unless, of course, government actions support their agenda
  • Are tolerant of those who believe in the saving power of the gospel but have different political, social and theological views from what I have described above. But their tolerance only goes so far.
  • Are increasingly more interested in issues related to social justice and the environment, but believe these issues are subordinate to the proclamation of the good news of the Gospel as the primary means of changing the world.
I am sure I could add other things to this list.

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Is There An Evangelical Mainstream?

  1. In the 1960s when I was an undergraduate researching the topic of glossolalia for a paper in a religion course, I gathered official documents from Southern Baptists, from Cedarville College (as it was called then), from Christian groups on college campuses (like IVCF at Yale University), and from James Pike, then Episcopal Bp. of California. (Don’t ask for a copy of the paper: Huston Smith’s TA lost the whole batch of them before the days that we kept electronic back-ups. I might have kept the primary sources, however. I’ll check my shed. You historians like those kinds of things.)

    All respondents agreed enthusiastically that a genuine experience of Pentecost had hit their neck of the woods. Of those groups, probably only IVCF would welcome an evangelical charismatic Christian into leadership today. The other groups have moved away from an “embracing evangelicalism.” (Truth in advertising: I teach at John Fea’s college and worship at his church. That slogan is Messiah College’s.)

    By contrast, I was a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, whose doctrine about tongues is summarized in another slogan: “Seek not; forbid not.”

    Like the C&MA, the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) attempts to be embracingly evangelical by its moderate view—“majoring on the majors”—so characteristic of evangelicalism historically.

    By contrast the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) not longer represents modern evangelicalism. Graham's son Franklin has moved increasingly toward being outspokenly politically on the right.

    Yes there is an evangelical mainstream, and as a C&MA boy who grew to become an EFCA man at an Anabaptist college, I seem still to be in the evangelical mainstream along with IVCF. But Southern Baptist Convention, Cedarville, BGEA, and even some Episcopalians were in the mainstream 50 years ago, if we let their view of tongues be an example.

    There’ll be a middle way even when there are no institutional exemplars of it. And I’ll be there.


  2. On the subject of desirable places to teach, not sure if Cedarville still does this, but to apply there, you had to sign a statement that you believed, among other things, in a 6-day creation and pretrib. premillennialism. Of course, Liberty has that as well. Cedarville at least allows for applicants to submit dissents on particular doctrinal points. It'd be nice to know when Cedarville started those requirements–are they recent or longstanding?


  3. MSC: The comparison between Henry and Mohler is an interesting one. I think there may be some truth to it, but I wonder if Henry was more open to political or gender diversity than Mohler.

    There is some good evidence to suggest that Mohler's Calvinist wing of the SBC is now carrying the Henry torch or perhaps the old neo-evangelical torch that I experienced in the final years of the Ken Kantzer-led Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It is not coincidental that many TEDS Ph.Ds now teach in SBC institutions and several of my former profs at TEDS have moved to SBC schools. And now David Dockery, a Southern Baptist, is president of TEDS. The torch of the Kantzer-TEDS-Henry-Wilbur Smith–Harold Lindsell inerrancy evangelicals (contra Fuller Theological Seminary) of the 1960s is now being carried by the likes of Dockery, Mohler and even Greg Thornbury, the president of The Kings College in NYC. I wrote about this here:


  4. I think many if not the majority of self-proclaimed Evangelicals can loosely identify with most of the points you've made and yet that tells us nothing about what they really believe and how they really behave. People are so loose with language today that sometimes it is hard to tell if someone who identifies with Evangelicalism is no different than mainstream Protestant liberalism over the last 50 years. Gay marriage, women clergy, social action over gospel proclamation, etc. have been marks of Protestant liberalism historically not Evangelicalism. Whatever cohesion existed in the 50's through perhaps the mid 70's/ early 80's is lost. I think the likes of SBC conservatives like Al Mohler represent what Carl Henry and others sought to establish in the heyday of modern Evangelicalism. I doubt Henry could identify with the broad outlines of the movement today.


  5. As a political scientist that is nearing the end of my dissertation, what it tells me is that Cedarville is not a place I would want to teach. I am the son of a Taylor faculty member, and my sister was close to attending Cedarville. It was slightly more conservative than Taylor at the time, but now the differences would be stark.

    Interesting thoughts overall about the Evangelical mainstream, overall. An interesting book, from my own collection on this topic, is by a sociologist who is now at Notre Dame. Christian Smith wrote Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. In the book (2001 publish date) he interviews Evangelicals across the country and uses large-N data to argue that our “leaders” do not really speak for us. However, this shift and others I have seen by Evangelicals (especially a generation older than me) lately have me wondering if we would find different things today.

    I am especially interested in the question about generational differences. I was having this conversation with a colleague (also an Evangelical) just yesterday. I think the generation of people under 30 who take their faith seriously are seeking a different form of engagement than strictly political, which does represent a shift from one generation earlier. While many young Evangelicals are pro-life, they are also okay with same-sex marriage.


  6. Michael: Yes, I think you are right here. I spoke at an SBC church in Texas last summer and it was all hymns. Yet in my neck of the woods it is hard to find an evangelical church that still has hymn books. My church does not. If we sing a hymn it is led by the worship band and the words are on the screen.

    Thanks for the comment.


  7. I think I'd agree with your list of mainstream characteristics, except that I think worship styles in mainstream evangelical churches aren't as strictly limited to what you'd find in contemporary megachurch culture. I go to a small Southern Baptist-affiliated church in a small town, and the there is somewhere on a spectrum between “contemporary” and “traditional.”

    But I don't think separatist fundamentalism is becoming the evangelical mainstream. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals share many core beliefs, but I think real fundamentalist churches have a lot more cultural and doctrinal baggage that makes them a well-defined group, whereas there's more variety in evangelical churches.


  8. Alot to chew on here, John–thanks! I think the college evangelical “mainstream” today, or maybe future evangelical mainstream, is better represented by schools like Messiah, Hope, Huntington, and Spring Arbor University than by Cedarville, and I think your general description of the mainstream holds for those schools. My colleague, John Hawthorne, has just published a book about where young evangelicals are at and heading, A First Step into a Much Larger World.


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