By Howard A. Snyder
The words are so simple we can miss their punch. These are the words of B.T. Roberts and the first Free Methodists as they founded the new denomination in 1860.
Free Methodists embrace “the Bible standard of Christianity.” We know God has once for all shown the way of salvation, revealed in Scripture. The gospel centers in Jesus Christ’s gift of abundant life (John 10:10) to all who believe and follow Him.
Free Methodists emphasize Jesus’ commission: “Preach the gospel to the poor.” Roberts said the church should do what Jesus did: Take the gospel to people who are hurting and oppressed; people with no hope. The gospel is for all, but like Jesus we focus our resources and compassion especially on the poor and oppressed.
Jesus Christ, our Savior and source of salvation, is also our example. His devout and holy life of worshiping the Father and serving those in need shows what it means to be a Christian, a “Christ-follower.”
Early Free Methodists called themselves Free to make a point. Jesus gives us freedom — freedom from sin and guilt, the freedom of the Spirit, freedom to live freely for Jesus in every area. At the time (late 1850s, early 1860s) many churches discriminated against the poor and black people by restricting them to the poorest seating in their sanctuaries. Free Methodists insisted on “free pews” for everyone — no restrictions. (Many larger churches raised funds by auctioning the best seats to the highest bidders.)
The Free Methodist Church was founded right before the Civil War. Millions of blacks were bound as slaves. Free Methodists insisted slavery was sin. All slaves should be free. Here was another important reason for being Free Methodists: No discrimination against blacks or the poor or the new immigrants then flooding the country. Jesus welcomed everyone; so should the church, His body.
The basic principle of freedom included rights for women and the Spirit’s freedom in all parts of life. Complete freedom for women to be pastors as well as leaders in society is one of the deepest principles of Free Methodism. Every Christian, male or female, receives the Holy Spirit and gifts to serve God and others however God directs. We are to worship God in the freedom of the Spirit and to serve others in freedom as Jesus did.
Our founders liked the word “Methodist.” Most had been members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, with roots in the great Evangelical Revival under John and Charles Wesley in England in the 1700s. Early Free Methodists loved the values and traditions of Methodism.
Methodist means salvation by grace through faith available to all, not just a “predestined” few. It means the new birth is only the beginning. We are called to holiness, to active love of God and neighbors. John Wesley called this “all inward and outward holiness.” How? By the Spirit’s cleansing and by lives of shared discipleship in responsible Christian community.
Free Methodists have always believed that the Christian faith is not just about Sunday worship.
Faithful discipleship requires the “one-another” life taught in the New Testament. Early Methodists met weekly in house groups to encourage each another. They found practical ways to serve the poor, sick and needy, and to share their faith.
Free Methodists believe that faithful Christian living requires seven-days-a-week discipleship, frequent contact with other Christian brothers and sisters, and widespread witness in the world.
Free Methodists are optimists about God’s power to save people, redeem society and renew the earth. They believe God’s Spirit is much more potent than Satan or the entrenched powers of evil.
Like the early Methodists, the Free Methodist Church is non-dispensational. We reject the new theology born in the late 1800s that society can only get worse, and that Jesus must return to “rapture” His people from earth to heaven. Instead, Free Methodists pray and believe that by His Spirit, God’s will shall indeed “be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 NRSV).
We affirm the great promise of the gospel: Through Jesus, God is reconciling “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20 NRSV). He gives the church this “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NRSV).
We are the Free Methodist Church, not a club or mere social group. We avoid two extremes. We are not just a group of individuals who get together for religious purposes the way people might gather to share hobbies. On the other hand, we don’t believe everyone must belong to our group, or that we are the only real Christians. Church means the body of Christ — all God’s people around the world and through time. We are part of the great tradition of the Christian faith, dating back to the first disciples of Jesus. We are no cult.
The church of Jesus Christ has many branches. Not all agree on everything. But we hold in common with most Christians the basics of the faith: Belief in God the Trinity, His creation of the world and of people in His image, the corruption of sin, and salvation through Jesus Christ by the Spirit. We affirm “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4 NRSV). We are sacramental, nourished by the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and we seek to live lives that are signs of God’s grace.
Free Methodists have a specific calling to uphold biblical Christianity and bring good news to the poor. This is lived-out holiness. In key ways, the Free Methodist Church is countercultural.
To be church means that we find the essential direction and meaning of our life in our fellowship with God and community with Christian sisters and brothers.
Jesus said He came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NRSV). We want to be like Jesus — lifting up the Savior, serving Him and serving others, for the sake of God’s kingdom and God’s mission. We believe in putting first Jesus and His kingdom, not putting first ourselves or our country.
All this is captured in those remarkable words, “To maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the Gospel to the poor.”