Soundings, Think

Evangelical Free Church began in Scandinavia

THE EVANGELICAL FREE CHURCH is a Christian denomination that traces its roots to the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe. In its concrete historical form this denomination began in the Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark and later spread to America and Canada.

The Evangelical Free Church therefore is broadly located within the theological and spiritual tradition of the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. It describes itself as a “free church” in the sense that it maintains that there should be a clear separation of Church and State, and that the Church should not in any way come under State control. The Evangelical Free Church is therefore deeply influenced by the historical grassroots movement across 19th century Protestant Europe in which Christian sects broke away from state-controlled churches.

In 1884, the Evangelical Free Church was established on American soil when immigrants from the Scandinavian countries arrived in the United States. The first church was founded by the Swedish group in Boone, Iowa, while the Norwegian-Danish group started churches elsewhere in the US. In 1950, the two groups amalgamated to form the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). From a small denomination, EFCA soon grew in size and influence. It has reached beyond its original ethnic communities to embrace, as its members, people from all walks of life and ethnic groups.

With its strong emphasis on mission, EFCA boasts a missionary force of more than 500 missionaries. Within six decades of its establishment, EFCA has become one of the fastest growing small denominations in America. The Evangelical Free Churches in Singapore were the result of the missionary efforts of EFCA.

EFCA takes theological education seriously, and was responsible for establishing two universities: Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, and Trinity Western University in British Columbia. Trinity International University had a humble beginning in the form of a 10-week Bible course conducted in the basement of a Chicago church by the Swedish Evangelical Free Church in 1897.

At about the same time, the Swedish Evangelical Church also started a 10-week Bible course at Oak Street Hall in Chicago. The two schools merged in 1946 and the new school was given the name, Trinity Seminary and Bible College. In 1962, it was
renamed Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), and in 1995 it became part of Trinity International University.

EFCA has produced a number of important Christian scholars, theologians and pastors, among them D. A. Carson (New Testament), Walter Kaiser (Old Testament), Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology), and Chuck Swindoll (pastor and author).

In the tradition of Reformation theology, the Evangelical Free Church teaches that the Christian Holy Scriptures are the sole basis for faith, doctrine and conduct (sola Scriptura). Scripture is therefore the primary authority against which truth and error must be judged. The Evangelical Free Church therefore stresses the infallibility of Scripture, and that the original autographs, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, are without error. Also in line with the teachings of the Reformers, the Evangelical Free Church maintains that salvation is based upon the unmerited grace of God alone (sola gratia) and appropriated by faith alone (sola fides). Furthermore, it is faith in Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus) that saves.

Like the Baptist and the Brethren traditions, the Evangelical Free Church maintains that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not sacraments, but ordinances mandated by Jesus Christ. Yet when the Church celebrates these ordinances with genuine faith, they can serve as means of grace that bring spiritual nourishment to the believer. The eschatology of the Evangelical Free Church is premillennialist and chiliast. This means that it teaches that Christ will return and establish his millennial kingdom on earth where he will reign for 1,000 years.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Evangelical Free Church is its understanding of the Church, especially the latter’s relationship with the State. As has briefly been alluded to earlier, the Evangelical Free Church is part of the 19th century movement in Europe that called for the separation of Church and State.

The dominance of the State over the Church has, according to the leaders of this movement, distracted the Church from fulfilling its true mission. Even the being of the Church itself was compromised by this relationship as the State Church included all citizens as its members, regardless of whether they were believers or not. The separation of Church and State insists that the latter should not determine the mission and work of the former. It advocates the idea of a limited State. In addition, the separation of the Church and State maintains that the Church is a community of believers only.

The Evangelical Free Church insists that its understanding of the relationship between Church and State, which implies separation from the State Church, is not sectarian but evangelical. That is to say, by stressing that the Church should comprise only of true believers the Evangelical Free Church is attempting to be faithful to the Gospel. Furthermore, the separation of Church and State does not imply a separation of religion and politics. The Evangelical Free Church therefore encourages its members not only to participate actively in the ministry of the Church, but also in the affairs of the nation.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.