This article was commissioned by Die Religionin Geschichte und Gegenwart vierte Auflage, 4th edition, and is used here with their permission.

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The free church impulse, in its most absolute form, is often fuelled by the idea of a gathered church. According to this view, the church should comprise only those who have freely responded to the gospel and voluntarily accepted the responsibilities of membership. The church must maintain its own purity by ensuring that no one is considered a member who does not have a living faith and an upright character. A territorial view of the church, by contrast, is rejected. This latter view is typified by the situation in Sweden where, until recently, every citizen was automatically considered to be a member of the state church.

The gathered church concept is embedded in the history and self-identity of the Congregational and Baptist churches. It is underlined in the Baptist community by the fact that infants are not baptized, so it is less likely that membership might be construed as a birthright. Instead, believer's baptism is performed, a practice which emphasizes individual volition. Moreover, believer's baptism has also been adopted by numerous other denominations, notably the Pentecostals.

From the early Anabaptists to contemporary fundamentalists, the idea of a gathered church has commended itself to groups which believe that the faithful are a small company surrounded by a hostile, unreformable world. Nevertheless, this attitude is not an inevitable consequence of the doctrine. Many free church people have aspired to see their Christian values set the tone for the whole of society. This quest can be seen in such politically diverse projects as the social gospel of the Baptist W. 'Rauschenbusch in early twentieth-century America, and the Moral Majority platform of his co-religionist and compatriot, Jerry Falwell, in the latter half of the century. The Nonconformist conscience in late Victorian Britain is an example of a formidable effort to infuse free church values into the laws of a nation. Free church people have often embraced the goal of creating a Christian country. Even though they might reject church establishments in principle, they nevertheless often actively endeavour to see the influence of Christianity improve government, laws, state schools, and other public institutions. The free churches have strengthened (and been strengthened by) the modern democratic movement. Free church traits such as voluntaryism, an active laity, populist forms of church government, individualism, and suspicion of authority have nurtured the growth of democracy.

The Congregational theory of church government (which is embraced by numerous denominations) objects to any outside control of local congregations and is therefore particularly compatible with the notion that church establishments are wrong in principle. Moreover, many varieties of churchmanship share an anti-Erastianism which considers it degrading, if not tainting, for the church to be governed by secular authorities. Another free church line of reasoning is the idea that coercive means are incompatible with spiritual ends. 'For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal' (II Cor. x.4) is a phrase which free church people believe encapsulates this conviction. Accordingly, any use of the arm of the state to bolster Christianity is viewed as unspiritual and therefore harmful. Naturally, this view is particularly persuasive to pacifists such as the Mennonites and the Quakers. Nevertheless, most free churches believe that the gospel must conquer minds and hearts through truth and love, and that therefore any outward conformity gained through temporal disincentives is, at best, a Pyrrhic victory.

In England, the Nonconformists have campaigned against legalized religious inequalities over the centuries until all the personal ones have been removed, although the Church of England has managed to retain some of her corporate privileges. In America, free church values were an important factor in the decision to enshrine the separation of church and state in the United States constitution. Traditionally, Americans from the free churches have viewed this arrangement as a triumph of their principles but, in recent decades, some have begun to resent the way it is being interpreted, arguing that religion is being banished to the private sphere. Nevertheless, the American model has been influential in numerous other nations. Today countries which have Protestant state churches also grant Dissenters religious freedom. Moreover, one could argue that just as secularization has been forcing erstwhile established churches to become begrudgingly 'free', it is also making more and more congregations into de facto gathered ones. Free churches have been most persecuted in recent decades in places where all forms of Christianity have been made unwelcome, as in some Muslim countries, or religion generally, as in China.

References

Larsen, Timothy. Friends of Religious Equality. Nonconformist Politics in Mid-Victorian England. Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk: 1999. ISBN 0 85115 726 2.

Townsend, Henry. The Claims of the Free Churches. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1949.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. Trans. Olive Wyon. 2 vols. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931.


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Added 14 October 2000