This week the Free Methodist Church celebrates its 158th birthday. That we are still alive prompts us to celebrate. That we remain on mission with Jesus does as well. And that our mission with Jesus still bears fruit around the world, through an extended family in nearly 200 world areas strikes me as miraculous. Of course, it is not our doing, but our walking and working together in the ongoing company of the Living Lord Jesus who loves all peoples and places.
I am often asked what the difference is between Free Methodists and other Methodists. I have a speech prepared for such occasions, but it rarely seems appropriate or even possible to make the full presentation in most situations. But there are certain things I cannot help but mention. Like, what’s the Free all about? Here is the way I would articulate the answer in full.
You will notice that “freedom” always manifests negatively and positively. Freedom is both from something and to or for something. Also note that it is not hard to distinguish between expressions of freedom and the underlying principle of freedom. Which brings us to note that true freedom must be embodied—that is, it is not really a freedom if it only refers to masters and slaves that no longer threaten or dominate, or that no longer find contemporary expression. Here, then, are five freedoms at ground zero of the movement that calls itself: Free Methodist. They continue to provide a basis for assessment as to our faithfulness to our roots and the missional trajectories that flow from them. I think we will also find that these freedoms have no less relevance today than 158 years ago, and that they still call us from some things and to other things in our current setting.
First, at their beginning Free Methodists championed freedom of access to the worshiping people of God in Jesus Christ. This manifested against arrangements and strategies used in the church’s worship gatherings that excluded people on the basis of socio-economic status. At the time, renting pews to encourage “good stewardship” was a common practice. So, among Free Methodists the pews were free. Indeed, from the beginning no Free Methodist building was to be constructed with anything other than free seats. The point was that all gatherings should welcome whoever might come.
To many today this seems oh so quaint, almost cute. But we must push beneath the expression to the principle. Does God love all persons? Should all have opportunity to learn about and feel God’s love? Are some people at special disadvantage from such learning, because they are habitually excluded, because the culture around then, and even the church, excludes them either by design or unintended consequence? And, if some are at a special disadvantage, does the gathered people of God have special responsibility toward them? If the church organizes to be free from any such “disadvantage” and to be free for those often or always excluded and neglected, then the church will truly express God’s love for all.
As we celebrate our birthday, we could give both ourselves and the world a gift, by identifying who today are at special disadvantage and how we can make sure that nothing about the way we are church or we “do church” participates in such disadvantage.
Second, at their beginning, Free Methodists championed the Freedom and dignity of the human person. This stance was against the enslaving of persons in any form and for embracing persons of all colors, ethnicities, and backgrounds. At the time, our nation’s economic engines were driven by or dependent upon slave labor. Persons of color, stolen mostly from their families of origin in Africa, were shipped, prepared and sold like cargo in our country. These human beings were reduced to the status of merchandise and “manufactured” or multiplied for maximum utility and profit. Free Methodists said, “No way!”
To most people today, this still impresses and compels, especially since the world has hardly rid itself of slavery. Sadly, there are more slaves today, not less, than ever in human history. Yet, most people who cannot help but feel the weight of a moral imperative that human beings be free, still do not champion freedom in any active way. They do not act for the enslaved by finding how to oppose those who hold mastery over others. Nor do they insist on being free from all practices and attitudes that draw from the same well as the slave masters, at least not when it demands rejecting popular or relatively cheap brand names, and chocolate.
Of course, to be against slavery and for the full liberty of all people, expresses the conviction that God loves all people, values all people, and seeks the well-being of all people, especially the vulnerable whatever their ethnicity. God cherishes all and grieves the slandering of God’s image embedded in every human being. Ultimately, God will not tolerate this slander nor its practitioners.
So, in our world today, there are obvious and critical ways this kind of freedom should compel a people celebrating their birthday as Free Methodists. For example, when there is a “Freedom Sunday” that raises awareness and focuses on strategies to be on the side of freedom—to be against predators and for the preyed upon, why wouldn’t we join in?
For another, and likely controversial example in our current social and political climate, when people are objectified, profiled, dismissed or abused on the basis of ethnicity in any way, Free Methodists should not let it pass, but shine a light on such expressions of darkness, and seek to end it. Free Methodists should, no matter who does the speaking or acting, on principle. Free Methodists will not always agree on the particulars, and must themselves also be free from the merely human and carnal ways disagreement usually manifests. But Free Methodists will not debate the propriety of slavery itself or the diminishment of the human person on the basis of ethnicity that has always stood behind it, or the preferences and self-centeredness that supports it. Free Methodists will act both against and for according their best sense of the Scripture’s and Spirit’s guidance. As they are truly free, they will act.
Third, at their beginning, Free Methodists championed freedom in worship, against cold, formulaic patterns and ritual, and for participatory, Spirit-filled encounter and response to God in worship. In the day, it had become common to hire professional choirs who could perform with the best of that day, to “lead” the church in its worship. In the day, the worshiping followers of Jesus themselves sang less and less, and simply listened more and more to those who could. In the day, all things were done “decently and in order” according the standards all respectable and reasonable society-people accepted. In the day, worship was sometimes as much about establishing social respectability and decency. One’s standing and success often depended upon it.
Free Methodists said, “No!” God had called a people to belong to him. God called them to be a holy people, filled with the Holy Spirit. In their gatherings they expected that God would be present and active. They anticipated God speaking through song and word, through visible and public responses to the preaching of the word, and through both rejoicing with those who rejoice and grieving with those who grieve. They gathered to find God at the center of their assemblies and their lives. They worshiped in Spirit and truth, or at least that was their heart’s desire.
The first Free Methodists were not perfect in their thinking and were, like all of us, limited in their perception and sometime bound by small horizons, but they should not be faulted but lauded and followed for the earnest desire to be in the Presence of the Holy, and to organize their gatherings, their ministries, and their interactions with one another and the world accordingly.
Free Methodists, in their initial years, actually expected that occasionally God would work among them in the way the Apostle Paul describes:
… “unbelievers or people who don’t understand … (will) come into your meeting, and they will be convicted of sin and judged by what you say. As they listen, their secret thoughts will be exposed, and they will fall to their knees and worship God, declaring, “God is truly here among you.” (1 Cor. 14:24-25 NLT)
Today, it has become common place to worry about worship being relevant, such that the church attracts and draws outsiders. It is common to argue or insist that worship must be this way or that to engage the mission well. I am not disagreeing with this per se. But I am suggesting that in the absence of freedom in the Spirit, we have a lot to worry about. Behind the expression of freedom is the reality that the Holy Spirit must be welcomed and followers of Jesus in their gatherings must seek and expect the living God to show up. If such freedom were common, the blessing of God would rest upon us like never before in our personal or congregational experience.
Fourth, at their beginning, Free Methodists championed the freedom and empowering of the whole church in ministry and leadership, against clergy and male dominated leadership, and for full lay participation in leadership, including affirming and empowering women in their gifting and calling. The principle behind this freedom is that God calls all the people to belong to him and draws all to participate in his mission. That there are leaders attests to God’s grace in providing the right people to help all the people become what God desires all the people to be and to do. Leaders serve the Body in preparing all the people for the works God has always had in mind for them (see Eph. 2:8-10; 4:11-16; Titus 2:11-14). Thus, all the people are drawn into the ministry of the church. And since the ministry requires discernment and decision-making, these critical leadership functions also rightly require the participation of all the people.
On the surface, this freedom was against clergy domination and for lay participation. Thus, from the beginning lay people voted and shared in the life of the church equally with the clergy. B.T. Roberts, however, also understood that lay participation applied to all lay people, women as much as men. Sadly, the church did not follow Roberts fully on this point, until much later.
Free Methodists today, celebrating 158 years together, take for granted the contributions of lay people in the life of the church. But many continue to be hesitant about or resistant to full inclusion of women. Consequently, the church has missed the blessing that comes from women stepping into their Spirit-called and equipped leadership. Our birthday provides opportunity to make good on our resolves to enter fully into all of the freedom Jesus offers.
Fifth, at their beginning, Free Methodists championed freedom from conformity to the world, freedom from sinful practices, attitudes, and tendencies that prevail in the systems of the world, and freedom for living in the way of Jesus consistently and confidently. They expected this freedom as a result of God’s Spirit filling their lives with God’s love such that love becomes full and expressive in all their relationships. And they expected to live together in a fellowship with one another that beautifully and powerfully countered the ways of the unbelieving world. They committed their full allegiance to Jesus as the defining feature of their identity, their lifestyle and their ministries in the world. This freedom from and for was the holiness they would spread across the land.
Of course, early Free Methodists embodied such holiness in ways different than would seem appropriate or even possible today. But on our birthday, we should push behind the expression to the principle and its application to our 21st century world.
Do Free Methodists today share their conviction that the love of God, embodied in Jesus our Lord, filling the human heart in ways that heal, cleanse, and correct, can transform us into the likeness of Jesus and equip us to be agents of his love in the world? That this “perfecting” or “completing” love makes possible a manifesting of God’s presence and power in the world that can come in no other way? And, that through such “perfecting” of love within our lives and churches, the God whom no one can see becomes beautifully and compellingly evident to the world?
Another way to put the question might be: will Free Methodists stake a claim to the freedom that gave us a name, characterized a mighty movement of God in our past, and calls us toward a future most of the world has despaired of ever seeing?
Happy birthday, Church!