By Brandon Lemons
We are in a series of articles on Friedens’ tagline, which is “Deep roots. Authentic relationships.” Thus far, I have written about Friedens’ rich 167-year history, along with our deep theological rootedness in the Gospel and the Bible. This article wraps up our study of Friedens’ “deep roots” by looking at Friedens’ denominational heritage through the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA).
Friedens officially joined the EFCA in 2008, although this transition was long in the making. In 1991, Friedens intentionally left the United Church of Christ (UCC) because of “concerns about our church’s integrity and identity, in relationship with the liberal positions and theology of the United Church of Christ” (quoted from a letter Friedens’ Church Council sent to congregation in August 1990). In the following years, Friedens was a non-denominational church as it focused on a “back to basics” approach, especially re-focusing the church on the Gospel and the Bible.
Around the year 2000, the church’s leadership began conversations with the EFCA, but the church was cautious about committing to another denomination. By the mid-2000s, the frequency of conversations with the EFCA increased, and Friedens’ statement of faith became nearly identical to the EFCA’s statement of faith. In 2008, the affiliation became official.
Like Friedens, the EFCA points to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s as a major aspect of its spiritual heritage. Both Friedens and the EFCA value the Reformation’s focus on the Bible being the ultimate source of spiritual authority and salvation coming by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
More directly, the EFCA’s roots are in Europe, especially Scandinavia. In the mid-1800s, a “free church movement” was sweeping across the continent as many Christians pulled away from the established, state-controlled churches. These state-run churches functioned as arms of the government and were, in general, spiritually empty. Several principles that were foundational to the free churches in Europe continue shaping the EFCA today.
· Church membership, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are for “believers only, but all believers.” This was a major change from the state churches, where national citizenship was frequently tied to church membership, and people could become church members simply by living in a certain geographical area. The free church movement emphasized that to be a member of the church or to participate in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, a person must be able to profess their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
· An emphasis on the Bible as the source of spiritual authority. The question “Where stands it written?” became a key in free churches when discerning topics of theological belief and Christian lifestyle.
· Local church autonomy – the right to self-governance rather than being controlled by the state or another outside authority – was a cornerstone of the free church movement. This continues to characterize the EFCA, as the “free” part of the Evangelical Free Church of America refers to the fact that each EFCA church is free to govern its own affairs.
· Active involvement of laypeople in a church’s ministry was also emphasized in the free church movement rather than reserving ministry only for professionally trained pastors.
· Missionary activity grew as the free churches sent people to other parts of the world to share the Gospel.
In the late 1800s, Scandinavian immigrants brought this free church mentality to America. In 1884, two groups in America started independently of one another: the Swedish Free Church and the Norwegian-Danish Free Church. While each local church within these movements maintained its freedom from outside authority, the churches within these groups tended to partner together for support and mutual edification. However, partnership between the groups didn’t start until later due to language barriers and each group’s strong allegiance to their national heritage in Europe.
The Swedish and Norwegian-Danish Free Churches continued along parallel paths in the early 1900s. They both stood strong in their focus on the Bible and Jesus, even amid challenges from the broader culture. Their structure of church governance and their doctrine were very similar. In the 1940s, both groups had transitioned their ministry to English and saw benefit in partnering together, while still allowing each individual congregation to maintain autonomy. In 1950, the two groups merged to form the Evangelical Free Church of America.
Personally, I am deeply thankful that Friedens is part of the EFCA. The support, training, and networking provided by the EFCA has been invaluable for me and for Friedens, while still allowing Friedens to govern its own affairs. The ethos of the EFCA resonates deeply with how we do things at Friedens: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, charity. In all things, Jesus Christ.”
Friedens enjoys exceptionally “deep roots” – both historically and theologically. Our roots nourish our understanding of who we are today, and they give us stability as we look to the future.
Beginning next week, we will delve into the second half of Friedens’ tagline, which is “authentic relationships.”