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Free Churches of Protestant origin

Ecumenical dialogue has facilitated a greater understanding in recent times of the differences between the Free Churches of Protestant origin and other new religious movements.

Pablo Blanco Sarto-April 27, 2021-Reading time: 9 minutes
Dalton methodist church

Photo: © The Methodist Church in Hackney and Stoke Newington 2021

The difference between the Free Churches and other new religious movements of Protestant origin is now better understood. Ecumenical dialogue has facilitated this. It is not easy to define a common identity for these ecclesial communities, since there is no exact definition. The expression itself is of late appearance, in the 19th century.

They are Christian communities that respond to some general characteristics, but with great diversity among them. They constitute a special type of ecclesial community, founded on baptism (often of adults), and they feel that they are heirs of the principles of the Reformation, especially that of sola ScripturaBut each of them has arisen because of a specific historical situation - a founder - or, often, a separation or expulsion.

1. Methodism

The Methodism is the movement initiated by John Wesley (1703-1791), Anglican parish priest, university professor and one of the most famous preachers of his time: "His way of preaching," writes Algermissen, "was simple and popular, but penetrating. He carried out a great missionary work, also helped by lay people; his objective was not to found a new Church, but the renewal of religious life and above all of the student environment in which he carried out his activity. For the regularity of their meetings, works of charity and practices of piety, they received in Oxford the ironic name of "Methodists". In the years 1735-1737 Wesley worked in America as an Anglican parish priest. There he met German colonists trained in Pietism: from them he took the principle of "sola fide" and the need for penance. After his return to London in 1738, Wesley experienced a new awareness of faith.

The notions of "enthusiasm" and personal conversion occupy a central place in his praxis. The doctrine varies slightly with respect to its origins. In the Bible, Methodists do not recognize the deuterocanonical books but only those originally used in the liturgy (protocanonical), and preach the universality of sin and the corruption of human nature. There is a certain primacy of the word of God over the sacraments of baptism and the supper. Unlike Pietism, Methodism aimed at the conversion of the masses: the care of souls and an intense community life were at the center of its evangelizing activity. The women and men who participated in them, usually of modest and working class backgrounds, prayed freely during the meetings, confessed their sins to each other, and offered mutual support to lead a holy life.

Within the Church of England there was an "evangelical awakening" that met the needs of a neglected people: a certain number of clergy had experienced conversion first hand and were burning with zeal to awaken the people spiritually. The typically Protestant emphases of salvation by faith, the centrality of the Bible and its preaching, came to the fore. This was a typical current of the Low ChurchIt was endowed with a clear social vocation and blessed with a special diffusion among the working masses. This movement has a predominantly practical-pastoral character: with a fundamentally biblical preaching, they proclaim conversion and salvation. The first evangelical missionaries traveled the country as itinerant preachers, but they saw the danger of damaging the parish system and the ecclesiastical order, so they were marginalized and expelled from the Anglican institutions. 

2. Amish, Baptists and Quakers

The Mennonites or amish take their name from a Dutch Catholic priest, Menno Simons (ca. 1496-1561). They are pacifists and sometimes opposed to technical progress. They differed from other Protestants in their baptismal practice: they only baptized adults between 14 and 17 years of age who, after adequate preparation, made a profession of faith and expressed their willingness to convert to follow Christ. It is administered with water in the name of the Trinity, and considered valid by the Catholic Church, by immersion or infusion. They recognize the baptism of a baptized child when he/she converts later with a free and conscious decision, so that there is no second Baptism in the community (with some exceptions).

The Baptist current emerged with the radicalization of Zwingli's Reformation in the 17th century, although at the same time in contrast with him. There is also a Calvinist background in its doctrine and a strong emphasis on freedom of conscience, rejecting the concepts of church, dogma, liturgy and priesthood. In ecclesiological matters, the most absolute ecclesiastical democracy reigns. Each community is autonomous and can make its decisions independently; its relationship with others is in terms of a "covenant", to which they freely associate themselves. An experience of salvation is necessary before receiving baptism. Evangelizing activity is an inalienable feature of these communities, which seek to bring those who are far from the Gospel closer: their aim is to awaken in people the following of Christ and communion with God. 

George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Quakers, contemplated the turbulent time of power struggles in England between Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. In his personal search for God and true religion none of them succeeded in showing him the way. In 1647, between the "tremors" (English: to quake), he came to the conviction that everyone carries within himself the answer to the question of God: there is something divine in everyone and it is found in silence. God speaks there. It is therefore a matter of reaching an "inner light" that takes away sins and unites each one with Christ. In this we are all equal, and this feeling of equality was fundamental to the Quakers. With his followers, Fox led an ascetic, neighbor-oriented life. He refused to take oaths and pay ecclesiastical taxes; he decided in favor of non-violence, and preached his message throughout England, where he was persecuted.

Still during the time of hardship the Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) obtained the grant to found an English colony in New Jersey, where he founded the State of Pennsylvania in 1681, as a political realization of the Quaker religiosity, which fought tirelessly against slavery. The Quakers understand themselves as part of the Church of Jesus Christ, although they are a "religion without dogma". The revelation of God is not a closed event in the past, but can happen at any time in the heart of those who sincerely seek God. The liturgy is above all meetings for "silent prayer", in simple places without crosses or particular objects; they do not admit sacraments (neither baptism nor supper), nor feast days, nor solemn actions. This very minimal doctrinal and celebratory body contrasts with the ethical demands, based on the discovery of God's message in each person. 

3. Evangelical communities

Sometimes they have been qualified as "Churches of the laity", because in them there is no difference between the ordained and the non-ordained, or it is less than in other communities. In them the Spirit calls every Christian to the priesthood; there are no essential differences in the community, but simply a diversity of charismatic functions: they do not want to be "Churches of pastors", even if there is the office of preacher or pastor. They practice baptism by immersion. From the 16th and 17th centuries, on the occasion of the English religious controversies against the Anglican Church, "independent" communities emerged: the current "free evangelical communities" proper to "Congregationalism" feel themselves heirs of the "awakening" movement of the 19th century. They gave rise to pietist communities, with faithful who separated themselves from everything that contrasted with the divine: the secular" and, therefore, also from the historical or institutional Church, which they considered "dead" and "secularized".

They started from the principle that the Christian community is born where the disciples of Jesus are united in obedience to his Word under the guidance of the Spirit. These communities have their own powers and total autonomy, independent of secular power, but also of bishops and synods. They are grouped worldwide in the International Alliance of Free Evangelical Communities. The structure is congregationalist, and the Alliance is understood as a "spiritual communion of life and service among the independent Communities". In terms of doctrine, they are close to the postulates of the Calvinist Reformation, with Pietist and Baptist influences. 

In these evangelical communities, the concept of sacrament does not exist, although they celebrate baptism and the Lord's Supper. They reject infant baptism, because according to Scripture, it must be preceded by conversion. Adults, and only adults, are baptized in the name of the Trinity by immersion; they leave it to the conscience of each one whether or not, when they wish to enter the community, they should be re-baptized. The Lord's Supper is usually celebrated once a month, independently or integrated into the usual liturgy, also celebrated by a lay person. It is understood as a "banquet of communion" that unites the faithful with Christ and with each other, as a "banquet of hope" in the expectation of the return of the Lord who ascended to the Father.

4. Adventists

Seventh-day Adventist Christian churches They arose in the 19th century, in a climate of lively awareness of the return of Christ in glory, which had spread in numerous free Churches. The very name "Adventists" underlines the expectation of the advent of Christ, and the sanctification of the Sabbath - the seventh day - and not of Sunday. It was founded by William Miller (1742-1849), who established exclusively personal eschatological theories on the second coming of Christ. Its origin goes back to the preacher Ellen G. White (1827-1915) and other visionaries, who are considered prophets of the end of the world, and who possessed the gift of prediction (concretely, he thought a date of 1844). When this prediction of the end of the world was not fulfilled, he came to the conclusion that the whole Church should be always vigilant waiting for the return of the Lord, as the center of the Bible, which relativizes all historical ecclesiastical tradition.

They confess the primacy of the Bible and the doctrine of the sola fidesThe Adventists were born as a community in 1863, while rejecting the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. The Adventists emerged as a community in 1863. They do not constitute an extra-biblical doctrine, nor do they contradict the trinitarian faith of the New Testament; neither do they have a pretension of exclusivism, and they have even entered into dialogue with other churches. They insist on the Ten Commandments, the sanctification of the Sabbath, the importance of tithes, and the expectation of the imminent coming of Christ. They do not admit the baptism of children and it is celebrated by immersion; they receive the communion in the supper four times a year. They pay special attention to a healthy physical life through an orderly discipline of life. They defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

5. Pentecostals

The insistence on spiritual "awakening" and conversion, and the aspiration for a higher Christian life in sanctification gave rise to the Pentecostals in Los Angeles in 1910, who sought a full experience of the Gospel. Christians are led to a holy life in witness and service moved by the Spirit. This outpouring, as at Pentecost in Jerusalem, becomes the so-called "baptism of the Spirit," with gifts such as glossolalia and physical and mental "healing." The first Pentecostal experiences took place mainly in African-American communities, where a "movement of those who speak in tongues" arose, which spread to Europe and all over the world. There are international relations among them, although they reject a world structure, although the World Pentecostal Conference exists. 

The doctrine they usually hold is that the process of salvation happens in three steps: conversion, sanctification and baptism in the Spirit. Scripture is the basis of faith, which is open to interpretation by the Spirit. Christ has worked justification and forgiveness, but redeems and sanctifies through the Spirit. Everything is the work of the Spirit: conversion, rebirth and growth in the Christian life. Baptism is practiced only on adults by immersion and in the name of the Trinity. On the necessity of a second baptism, it is decided by the person who aspires to enter the community and was previously baptized in another. In some communities, however, it is usually rebaptized.

They see in the Bible a sacred book, whose writers were inspired by the Spirit, which contains the word of God and, therefore, his unconditional rule of faith and conduct. Like other Protestant communities, they believe in original sin, and in particular in the figures of Satan, Adam and Eve; as well as in the possibility of human sanctification through religious practice and faith. The Pentecostals consider themselves part of the "Church of Christ", without having great disagreements with historical Churches such as Presbyterian or Baptist; some Pentecostals, however, are against ecumenism. The Pentecostal liturgy varies in each Pentecostal Community, organization or current; but its main activity consists of the reading of both the Old and New Testament. During the ceremonies hymns and other songs of praise of varied styles are usually interpreted, accompanied by music, applause, choruses, dances and exclamations of jubilation.

In addition to promoting a certain ethical perfectionism, supernatural experiences take precedence over the everyday, ecstasy over daily asceticism. It is a Christianity that lacks dogmas and structures: each of the faithful, as a member of Christ, receives directly the inspirations of the Spirit and can have a series of mystical experiences, which were previously reserved for only a few. The Communities and their pastors are usually organized according to the congregationalist style and, at present, it constitutes numerically the third largest group of Christians - after the Catholic and Orthodox Churches - with 300 million faithful.

6. Conclusion

"In reality," Algermissen concludes, "the history of Protestantism has so far been the history of a progressive split, which even the intense and delicate work of ecumenism in the coming years has not put an end to. Beginning with the divisions that occurred already in Luther's time (Zwingli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Karlstadt, Müntzer and the Anabaptists...), up to the doctrinal developments of Melanchthon after the death of the German Reformer, Protestantism has been led by theologians and personalities of genius, who have left their profound mark in their own continuing developments over time. The Reformation has thus been continually reformed and refounded, and has been marked from the beginning by continuous theological disputes. The successive divisions and reunifications (first in the historic or national Churches, and later in the free Churches or evangelical communities) have left a picture of the situation that is difficult to follow. The final result could be the one that can be seen in the following genealogical tree of the different Protestant denominations:

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