Free Churches

   The term free church was initially used to refer to those Protestant Christian churches that separated themselves from the state governments of Europe. Free Churches originally emerged in strength at the time of the Protestant Reformation when leaders of the Swiss Brethren called for a more Radical Reformation of the church than that being asked for by Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and later John Calvin. They wanted a pure church consisting of adults who had been converted to Christianity and who made a conscious decision to affiliate with it. By definition, such a church could not align with the state nor include all of the nation's citizens. In the Free Churches, ecclesiastical discipline operated only among church members, the most extreme discipline being the expulsion of a member from the church's fellowship.
   Free Churches practiced adult baptism. State churches (including the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican) baptized the children of members soon after their birth. The Free Churches waited to baptize persons only after they had reached an age at which they could make a personal confession of faith. Free Church members previously baptized in one of the state churches as an infant were as a matter of course rebaptized. Concern for the true exercise of baptism led to a secondary concern about the proper mode of baptism, with many following the lead of the Baptists in opting for immersion. A few, including the Church of the Brethren, advocated triune immersion. Free Churches also divided over the necessity of the act of baptism for individual salvation, a concept called baptismal regeneration.
   Today, Free Churches include in Europe the Mennonites, Baptists, Quakers, the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church of Norway, and the Free Church of Scotland. In North America, the churches of the Restoration movement (i.e., the Churches of Christ, the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) are among the most prominent of Free Church groups.
   The idea of a Free Church also came to mean being free of creeds (other than the Bible) or lacking various forms of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Most Free Churches have adopted a modified congregational polity. Groups such as the Churches of Christ and the Primitive Baptists have adopted an ultracongregational polity that limits any governance functions by structures above the local congregations. Other Free Churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), grant denominational structures considerable power to build and control programs operated for the denomination as a whole.
   Further reading:
   ■ Horton Davies, The English Free Churches, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963)
   ■ Paul M. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959)
   ■ Franklin H. Littell, The Free Church (Boston: Starr King Press, 1957)
   ■ Earnest A. Payne, The Free Church Tradition in the Life of England (London: SCM Press, 1951)
   ■ Gunnar Westin, The Free Church through the Ages (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1958).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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