Free Church of Tampere, Finland

A free church is any Christian denomination that is intrinsically separate from government (as opposed to a state church).[1] A free church neither defines government policy, nor accept church theology or policy definitions from the government. A free church also does not seek or receive government endorsements or funding to carry out its work. The term is only relevant in countries with established state churches. Notwithstanding that the description "free" has no inherent doctrinal or polity overtones. An individual belonging to a free church is known as a free churchperson or, historically, free churchman.[2]

In Scandinavia, free churchpersons would include Protestant Christians who are not communicants of the majority national church, such as the Lutheran Church of Sweden.[3]

In England, where the Church of England was the established church, other Protestant denominations such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, the Plymouth Brethren, Methodists and Quakers are, accordingly, free churches.[1] In Scotland it might be used regarding any Protestant denomination, including the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland etc, in distinction to the established Church of Scotland.


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In the Middle Ages, groups like the Waldensians were in practice free churches. In 16th century Europe, within the radical movements such as the Anabaptists were free churches with small exceptions like the Münster Rebellion. Mennonites, the Amish, the Quakers and other churches maintain free church polities into the present date both in Europe and in North America.[citation needed]

Free churches also evolved in the US supported by the official separation of church and state, while much of Europe maintains some government involvement in religion and churches via taxation to support them and by appointing ministers and bishops etc., although free churches have been founded in Europe outside of the state system.[4][5]

By denomination


One church in England in the Anglican tradition, has used the name 'Free Church', known as the Free Church of England. John Gifford had founded a free church in Bedford, England in 1650.[6]


Some churches in Scotland and Northern Ireland, mainly of the splinter off Presbyterian tradition, have used the name 'Free Church'. The most important of these to persist at the present time is the Free Church of Scotland.The mainline Church of Scotland is the national church which is Presbyterian and the mother kirk for Presbyterianism all over the world, and is not part of the "Free Church".

English dissenters and nonconformists

In England and Wales in the late 19th century the new terms "free churchman" and "Free Church" started to replace "dissenter" or Nonconformist.[7]

Free Methodist Church

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Among the Methodist Churches, calling a church "free" does not indicate any particular relation to a government. Rather the Free Methodist Church is so called because of three, possibly four, reasons, depending on the source referenced. The word "Free" was suggested and adopted because the new church was to be an anti-slavery church (slavery was an issue in those days), because pews in the churches were to be free to all rather than sold or rented (as was common), and because the new church hoped for the freedom of the Holy Spirit in the services rather than a stifling formality. However, according to World Book Encyclopedia, the third principle was "freedom" from secret and oathbound societies (in particular the Freemasons).

Radical Pietism

Denominations belonging to the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches trace their roots to the Radical Pietist movement.[8] Radical Pietists separated from the Lutheran Churches, which held the status of state churches in Europe.[8]

By country

United States

In the United States, because of the First Amendment forbidding the government establishment of religion, all churches are by definition free churches. However, many churches in the United States have requested tax-exempt status under section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code. This subjects the churches to certain additional regulations to maintain the tax exemption. Churches that are structured under 501(c)(3) face restrictions in the area of political speech: no substantial part of the church's activities may consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation. A 501(c)(3) organization is also restricted from participating or intervening in any political campaign for or against any political candidate.[9]


In Germany, Protestant churches outside the Evangelical Church in Germany are put under a common label of, and collectively referred to, as "free churches" (Freikirchen) or "Protestant free churches" (Evangelische Freikirchen). This includes relatively new denominations like Baptists, Methodists, etc., as well as older ones like the Mennonites and Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (Germany).


Pew Research Center estimated in early 2010s that China has 35 million independent Protestants (mainly in house churches) and 3.3 million underground Catholics.[10]


In Sweden, the term free church (Swedish: frikyrka) often means any Christian Protestant denomination that is not part of the Church of Sweden, which was the Swedish state church up to 1 January 2000. This includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc.[11]

List of denominations bearing the name "Free Church"





Hong Kong / China




Northern Ireland




South Africa



United States

See also


  1. ^ a b Armentrout, Don S. (1 January 2000). An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User-Friendly Reference for Episcopalians. Church Publishing. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-89869-701-8. In England, the term has been applied to Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Quakers, and Baptists. There has also been a Free church tradition in Scotland relative to the established Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian; and in Sweden, Norway and Denmark relative to the established Lutheran churches in those countries.
  2. ^ The Swedish-American Historical Quarterly. The Society. 1986. p. 104. Waldenström was also impressed by the size and vitality of the city, but his eyes, as a temperance and free-churchman, were drawn even more to "the unbelievably large number of taverns..."
  3. ^ The Diamond Jubilee Story of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Free Church Publications. 1959. p. 46. The Swedish Methodist church began at this time and is also classified as a "free church."
  4. ^ Project Canterbury: The Free Church Movement
  5. ^ What "Free Church" means and Why Churches should be Free, 1857
  6. ^ The Pilgrim"s Progress by John Bunyan- HarperCollins
  7. ^ Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, Part One: 1829–1859 (1966) p 370
  8. ^ a b Melton, J. Gordon; Baumann, Martin (2010). Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, 2nd Edition [6 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598842043.
  9. ^ De Sanctis, Fausto Martin (28 March 2015). Churches, Temples, and Financial Crimes. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-3-319-15680-4.
  10. ^ Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population, Appendix C: Methodology for China Archived 5 February 2018 at the Wayback Machine, p98, Pew Research Center
  11. ^ "frikyrka – Uppslagsverk –". (in Swedish). Retrieved 16 January 2022.