Free Churches

The Reformation attempted to purify the church from corruptions. Luther’s and Calvin’s reforms were aimed at a better theology, a better worship, and a better society. The Roman Catholic Church, the then dominant form of the church, was intertwined with the state – with governing the whole of society. The Protestant Reformers experienced the authority and the power of the Catholic Church because the latter was fused with the State. (Image credit.)

How can John Howard Yoder’s view of the church and its mission help us today? 

The Reformers took one step but did not take the second step, the second step being a radical disconnection of the church from the state. Those churches that did take that second step, and they did so under the belief that they were being even more biblical than the Lutheran and Swiss reformers, were the anabaptists. They sought to free the church from the state and are often called “free” churches. It is not unreasonable to see all American churches as “free” (hence, anabaptist) churches. The churches of the USA are not officially fused to the state. There is another debate — not for today — about churches seeking to influence the state, and this last weekend we witnessed the attempt by many pastors to preach politics in order to warn the state about constraining the voice of the churches.

But today we want to look at one anabaptist vision for a free church, and we are looking at this through the presentation by Graham Hill in his excellent book, Salt, Light, and a City (Amazon link). I am glad to announce a special opportunity for purchasing Grahams’ book: If you want to purchase this book at 40% discount, go here and in the Coupon Code type in SALT.

Hill naturally focuses on John Howard Yoder. But before I proceed it needs to be said that neither Yoder nor Stanley Hauerwas are official voices of the anabaptist movement, that anabaptists vary from both of their views, that anabaptist theology and ecclesiology needs a historical survey to appreciate both its essence and its many varieties, and in particular I would emphasize that historic anabaptists — Hubmaier to Menno or so — were soteriologically Protestants and have traditionally emphasized a soteriology that must lead to discipleship. But progressive politics has not been the traditional way of the anabaptists. In fact, for many today “anabaptist” means “political activism” and this turns much of anabaptism on its head. It has traditionally not been politically active but ecclesially active. Now on to Yoder.

1. Yoder’s complaint is Constantine and Constinianism, the fusing of church and state, leading to the deconstruction of the church’s life and its voice. The church is the meaning of history. The world is “structured unbelief.” The Christ/culture polarities of Niebuhr are “unbiblical and unhelpful for ethics” and the church needs to abandon striving for power, privilege and effectiveness and follow the foolishness and weakness of the cross. The church then is an alternative, minority, missionary society.

2. The foundation of the church is christology; first christology, second ecclesiology. The church, then, is the “aftertaste of God’s loving triumph on the cross and the foretaste of his ultimate loving triumph in his kingdom” (112).

3. The church is a social ethic and its social ethic is gospel. He sees five themes in this social ethic: egalitarianism flowing from baptism into one  body, socialism at work in eucharist, forgiveness, the open meeting, and the universality of giftedness. The church is public witness in the order of providence vs. the order of redemption. The church has a modeling mission.

4. As an alternative society, the church has five practices: binding and loosing, fullness of Christ, the “rule of Paul” (decentralizing power into the gifts, open meetings), disciples breaking bread together (more than eucharist), and baptism and the new humanity. Galatians 3:28 alive and embodied.

Yoder’s focus is the sociality of the church, the church over against, the cross not so much the resurrection, and his emphasis is not so much the church’s spirituality or worship or prayer or soteriology.


About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I wonder if the focus should be on “free churches” or “radical obedience” churches. The thing that has captivated me about the Anabaptists is their focus on this radical lifestyle for Jesus. So maybe its better to say “free to obey” when compared to most churches in America where it is simply “free to decide to do whatever one wants.” There seems to be a huge difference between discipleship community lifestyle of the early Anabaptists and what I see today as consumer volunteerism of people can “take it or leave it” when it comes to the church.

  • scotmcknight

    Free is Graham Hill’s category for the non-State and non-mainline churches. They are “free” from state connection.

  • jon

    If you want to save even more money, the book is 9.99 on the Amazon Kindle store.

  • Luke Moon

    Yoder and the neo-anabaptists are always dreaming of the church as an “alternative, minority, missionary society.” But what happens when the missionary aspect is effective and the church begins to grow and is no longer the minority, but the majority. Eventually, non-ivory tower church leaders have to wrestle with a church as majority. It also means someone has to engage in and with government.
    Also, you might want to check with people from places where the church IS actually the minority and ask how that is working out. God spend a bit of time with the Copts or the Christian minorities of Pakistan. Longing for minority status is to long for oppression and violence that accompanies the rejection of God.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Luke, I feel ya (that’s an Americanism for “I think I understand where you are coming from”). I was a Xian pacifist before I realized there were such things; then met J H Yoder doing a 3 day series at Fuller Seminary. I was soon an anabaptist because Yoder seemed to be the only one around that was positively reflecting the teaching of Jesus. We still don’t much hear the teaching of, and discipling in, the way of Jesus among evangelicals or mainline churches (do we, really?).

    No reason to stop teaching and disciplining in way of the cross of Jesus just because Xians becomes a “majority,” but that is what seems to happen when people who are not fully following Jesus can seize the opportunity to take charge and impose their desires on others. As this may suggest, I don’t think it is the case that a majority has become Xian in other than name; I doubt that true Xians have ever been in the majority anywhere; think about it. I’m not sure who is actually in the ivory tower on this one.

    As for Xians being persecuted minorities in the countries you mention (and others), it was certainly that way with the Apostles and the early church, so there is nothing new under this contemporary sun. One need not long for minority status, it just happens; no one longs to be violently oppressed, I can assure you. Still, as I do actually feel the violence and oppression that the church is experiencing in many places in the world today, I also feel the all too natural
    inclination to use whatever means I can to protect my brothers and sisters around the world, and I admit it, a desire to do violent vengeance against the perpetrators of the oppression. Nevertheless, we have both the Word of God that speaks against that response and the Spirit of Christ that enables resistance to that natural inclination.
    All the best to you and all in Christ.

  • aaron

    Oh man! I already paid $35 for it on Amazon when you first recommended it – I’d have loved to get this $21 price… :)

  • Glenn

    Scot, In another sense many churches in America go against the spirit of the “free” churches. So I wouldn’t consider all churches in America “free” in the anabaptist sense. Having belong to a church that was very involved in the religious right, I know the power of the state and church firsthand. Our church had voter information and registration drives that had a clear slant toward the GOP, helped register people for the GOP, and saw individuals give generous donations to groups like the Christian Coalition so “Christians” could use the power of the state thru elected officials to enforce “Christian Standards.” Many groups like Lou Engle’s The Call have clear intentions to see the state develop and enforce some version of biblical law.