Many of us who serve our Lord in Evangelical Free churches run into the inevitable question “What on earth is evangelical free”? In a world that talks about caffeine– or sugar-free, “evangelical free” sounds like we are free of evangelicals – that all the evangelicals have been purged, thrown out of our churches! In times past, the original terms “evangelical” and “free” were considered relevant and powerful. However, times change and words can either change meaning or switch from connoting a positive message to a negative one.
The Evangelical Free Church movement is an international movement with a history that makes the two terms meaningful, once properly understood. Let’s consider the two terms in order.
The word “evangelical” refers to the gospel or “good news” of Jesus Christ. Our spiritual ancestors in the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark were dismayed at the moralistic, social religion of the state churches into which they were born. Rather than religion based on following social norms, they sought salvation in Christ and to follow Him as Lord. They found the need for this salvation and sanctification in Jesus in their reading of the Scriptures. They formed “believers churches” where individuals made a decision to accept and follow Jesus.
They served the Lord’s Supper and studied the Bible in their homes. Their first question for others was not “Which church do you attend” or “What do you believe about ___?”, but rather, “Do you know Jesus?” Like them, we are people who see the gospel of Jesus as our prime concern. We wish to know Him, share Him, and follow Him. In this sense, the Bible becomes our authority for what we know about Jesus, His good news, and what He calls us to follow.
As I mentioned before, our Scandinavian forbears grew up in the state church. The government and the church were inextricably linked. This meant that the church influenced the political realm and that the political realm influenced the church – for good and ill. All citizens were members of the church, regardless of whether they believed and followed Jesus or not. “Free” churches formed as believers’ churches – free from state control. They wanted to be “believers only”, but open to “all believers.” This won them persecution from the state in a time where the state could not imagine that religious pluralism could work without mass chaos and religious wars ensuing.
Our Free Church ancestors believed that freedom to live out their faith could only be limited by the Bible itself. Their cry – “Where Stands it Written?” – was a declaration that individuals and believers churches should be free to practice their faith from government and religious control; only the Bible had the authority to limit that freedom.
So, in the end “Evangelical Free” means that we are people of the good news and the Word. We are focused on Jesus, His salvation, and his Lordship in our lives. We assemble as families of believers in churches that are free from state control. Today, we assume that separation of church and state is a good thing. Our spiritual forbears thought so too – but they were censored and persecuted for that belief.
Hence, we trust that “Evangelical Free”, rather than suggesting that our churches are free of evangelicals, instead indicates that they are full of people who are saved by the grace of God and who are a loving and gracious community of faith, following Jesus as Lord!