One of my favorite scholars is Everett Ferguson, author of the justly used Backgrounds of Early Christianity, a rich and useful resource for all things historical. He’s a part of the Churches of Christ, a lively part of the American church even if often ignored by those who study evangelicalism. I’m for bringing them to the table.
Anyways, as a friend of mine used to say to consume a pause, Ferguson’s got a new book called The Early Church and Today. Ferguson is one of the most knowledgeable (of the texts) in early Christianity that I know. This book sorts through a bundle of interesting topics and functions as a collection of his more accessible studies. His first study on the “Four Freedoms of the Church,” and here he’s talking about historic free churches, sometimes called Believers churches. He sees four marks of the free churches:
What do you think of the “free” church option? What are its challenges?
Freedom of Conscience: the state is the concern. Freedom of conscience, inscribed into the fabric of American history, is about an individual person having the freedom to believe or not believe, the freedom to participate in a church or not. But it also is a freedom that prevents the state from deciding what an individual is to believe. Roger Williams won this battle; the Puritans lost. We are all now — in the USA — free churches at some level. “The church is healthier and does its work better when it does not depend on the state for financial and other supports and when it influences society, not by its privileged position, but only by the moral persuasion of its arguments and lifestyle” (17).
Freedom from Coercion: the concern is congregational independence. This is a major mark of the free churches; they don’t want denominational controls even if there is voluntary cooperation; they don’t want churches prying into the private lives of Christians; they don’t want cultural conformity.
Freedom of Confession: the concern here is church membership. The issue is infant baptism or state-sponsored church affiliations. A person for the free church tradition becomes a member on the basis of personal faith and by free uncoerced choice.
Freedom of Commitment: a disciplined lifestyle is required for genuine Christianity, and it does not contradict freedom. But the disciple lives (1) under the Lord and (2) under the brotherly and sisterly admonition of fellow-believers — without coercion.