Do you attend an Evangelical Free church? If so, how much do you know about your denomination – its history, theology, polity, and values? If you’re interested, and you should be, I don’t know of another book that does a better job succinctly covering these topics than this 219-page book by Dr. Calvin B. Hanson (1925-2013), who was a pastor, missionary, and seminary professor in the EFCA, as well as the founding president of Trinity Western University in British Columbia. Not only was Hanson a man who personally lived the Free church for over 80 years, he was a careful historian who combed many resources to put together this fascinating book.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE! A History of the Evangelical Free Church of America consists of 36 short, readable chapters grouped under the following headings:
- To Be Free Is To Own Our Roots
- To Be Free Is To Acknowledge Our Heritage
- To Be Free Is To Appreciate Our Development
- To Be Free Is To Plan For The Future
- To Be Free Is To Value Our Distinctives
- To Be Free Means Making the Right Decisions
As some of you know, the term “free,” in its European state-church context, originally meant free from state control. In its North American context today, “free” means that each local church is autonomous yet has willingly joined a movement of other like-minded churches for Kingdom purposes.
Most know that the term “evangelical” in our name comes from the word evangel or gospel. The Good News of Jesus is central to all we hold dear in the EFCA. Being “evangelical” means that we believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. From our past, we often hear the byword “Where stands it written?” Free Church people have always desired to base all that they believe on the Bible.
Because evangelicals have disagreed over the years on certain minor points of Bible doctrine, an interesting distinctive of the EFCA is that quite a bit of latitude is allowed in these areas. Nevertheless, every Evangelical Free church member should believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God and should be gospel-focused, that is, someone who personally knows Jesus as his or her Lord and Savior and desires to make the Good News known to others.
Using another slogan from our past, Hanson writes in his opening paragraph:
“BELIEVERS ONLY BUT ALL BELIEVERS” very succinctly captures one of the over-riding distinctives of the Evangelical Free Church of America: the conviction that the church is to be composed of individuals who freely and sincerely confess faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and that none who meets this basic criteria be excluded.”
I recommend WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE! because it is informative – you will learn about the origins and beliefs of the EFCA – and it is inspirational – you will be touched by the zeal, as well as the hardships of our Scandinavian forebearers.
The author’s honest portrayal of our past reminds us that our forefathers were as flawed as we are. To whet your appetite to read this book, I close with an anecdote from the very early 1900s:
One phenomenon of the early EFCA was the mission meeting. For many communities the highlight of the year, the annual mission meeting, provided an opportunity to mingle with others from neighboring communities and to enjoy a table generously laden with home-cooked Scandinavian food.
Normally starting midweek and continuing through Sunday with services morning, afternoon, and evening, these meetings as a rule had no pre-planned schedule of speakers. Invitations in the religious periodicals and local newspapers announced “All witnesses for Jesus are welcome.” In one locale as many as 40 preachers responded to such an invitation!
No matter how sanctified and spiritual these preachers may have been, each coming to the meeting convinced that he was sent there by the Holy Spirit with a message the people needed to hear, deciding who would preach, and when, must have presented problems. One principle that was generally recognized was that the younger men give preference to the older and more experienced.
The only consolation for the beginner in those days was that he too, would someday become old and honored. … Times have changed!
The rule of thumb was that the younger men would read the Scripture and lead in prayer, give a brief testimony, and when so favored give the shorter and earlier of the sermons. The REAL sermon would then be given by one of the senior men. Listen to one preacher’s account of his experience:
“It was my fortune or misfortune to share the platform and time with Mr. Davis. I gave a short message on the words of Jesus when He said, ‘Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I had the feeling that the message was blessed by God and kindly received by the people. Davis began his sermon by saying, ‘You have heard now some pretty words about rest in the Lord. You lazy worms, what else have you ever done but rest? If this young preacher had been filled by the Spirit he would have sensed your lazy, selfish condition and given you something to do.’
“I took this gentle hint in all humbleness. I realized he was the older and more experienced servant, and I had erred in the choice of text and message. However, the following day we were coupled up again. Having, as I thought, benefited by the previous day’s experience, I chose a different kind of text. ‘Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you’ was chosen for the occasion. This sermon met with as little favor as the former. ‘You have been admonished to labor in the vineyard.’ He said, ‘but you weary, restless souls, what you need is that Jesus should take you in His arms as a mother does her child that is tired and bruised.’ I accepted that with considerable less humbleness. The bitterness in the situation was not in the unfriendly attitude of the preacher so much as in the fact that the listeners as a rule were blessed thereby.”
The young preacher who suffered this humbling was E. A. Halleen who was to become the president of the Evangelical Free Church of America!
My only suggestion after reading WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE! is that someone should pick up Hanson’s mantle and write the history of our movement over the past 27 years since his work appeared.
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