The Free-Church Tradition and Social Ministry

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article is adapted from his Horace Bushnell lecture delivered for the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches in July in Durham, Maine. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 6, 1985, pp. 995-997. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Today the free-church tradition is called to reclaim and recast its heritage. By engaging itself in the world it helps prepare the world for Christ. And in Christ we not only enhance human rights; we find, finally and fully, what is truly human and what is most right.

Such a dynamic interaction of doctrine and life is one of the chief contributions Christianity has made to civilization wherever free churches have been faithful and active. Indeed, the free-church tradition has, over the centuries, created the social space in which it is possible to be faithful while retaining intellectual integrity and socially engaged without being subservient to secular ideologies. The efforts of the free church are always criticized by the left as too moderate and by the right as too radical; nevertheless, they have been of immeasurable importance for faith, civilization and human rights.

Bushnell and Gladden articulated for their day what are still some of the most critical theological foundations of a pluralistic, democratic society which respects human rights. They drew upon the Old Testament notion of a covenant that binds pluralistic communities together in a common moral vision, opposes the absolutism of any single tribe and the monarchic tendencies of the state, and guards against the exploitation of the poor and the weak. The covenant tradition is one upon which the prophets drew, and, through the figure of John the Baptist, it connects the prophets with the New Testament message of the incarnation.

Today the covenantal-prophetic tradition is threatened from the left and right, much as it was in the days of Bushnell and Gladden. Secular humanism on the left and fundamentalism on the right have both shown renewed vigor. The one seems fixated on programmatic socialism, often ignoring or actively subverting any sense of a normative pattern for human sexuality and family life, while the other has attached itself to family issues in a patriarchal form and seems oblivious of issues of political and economic justice.

We may be in a time when it is necessary once again to be concerned with the praeparatio evangelicum, with laying the groundwork for the gospel, providing the concrete hints of compassion and fidelity that will bring people eventually to the deeper meanings of faith. Indeed, Gustavo Gutiérrez has recently suggested that the message of liberation theology is now being interpreted by some in just these terms: not as the whole gospel, but -- in some situations -- as the necessary preparation for it.

The need for a praeparatio evangelicum is especially evident in parts of Asia and South America, where the growth of heavy industries has created conditions not unlike those which Gladden confronted in the late 19th century -- economic exploitation, hostility between workers and owners, and slums of gigantic proportion. Most of the popular movements that have arisen in response to these crises suffer from the absence of a public theology that can guide their actions and provide a clear vision of human rights. Two notable exceptions to this situation are the "basic Christian communities" within the folk-Catholicism of Latin America and the Philippines, and the evangelical, sometimes pentecostal, churches of tribal and dispossessed peoples in the Third World. These groups have sparked efforts at self-help, democratic participation and engagement in both local community life and international ecumenical developments that resemble aspects of the free-church tradition.

The question that haunts us, as we ponder the problems of our own land and those of other countries, is the same one posed to John the Baptist by the multitudes, the tax collectors and the military: What then shall we do (Luke 3:10-14)? And the answer for us is much like the one given by John the Baptist. He tries to prepare the people for Christ by calling on them to do what they already know is right. To the multitudes he says: share food, clothing and other necessities with those who do not have them. Charity is not enough, but without it we have only meanness. To tax collectors, who stand for all agents of vast bureaucracies, who have status and authority, he says: do not cheat, exploit and bleed the people: you are, above all, to serve, not to dominate. To those charged with enforcing the law he says: let violence be minimized, let truth-telling before the bars of justice be the mark of duty, and let contentment with small rewards be the mark of vocational responsibility.

It cannot be said that these commandments represent a democratic capitalist or a democratic socialist program unambiguously; but they are certainly democratic in their implications and opposed to exploitation. These principles are not the whole of the Christian gospel; but they may be indispensable to it. For it is in the context of this biblically based ethical reorganization of common practice that Jesus comes to be baptized by John, is recognized as the Messiah -- as the one with whom God is well pleased -- and begins his public ministry.

God was wiser than most Christians: God put the covenantal-prophetic tradition prior to the presence of Jesus, so that Christ could be recognized in the proper context. The praeparatio evangelicum is perennially necessary, as Bushnell recognized in regard to nurture and piety and as Gladden recognized in regard to character and society. Pastors, congregations and communions who forget this fact wither and shrink.

We should note that neither John nor Jesus advises withdrawing from public life for the sake of the gospel. To be sure, both had their days in the wilderness: but when asked what to do by ordinary people they commend no enclave of monastic disengagement from social and political life. They suggest no utopian community which would remain unsullied by the requirements of the common life -- economic responsibility and even taxes, coercion and soldiers.

Neither do they claim that seizing power by mobilizing the masses is the route to salvation, as the Muslims and Marxists, in different ways, have asserted. Of course, every profound theology has a political component, but politics, in the biblical tradition, is not allowed to swallow theology and society. A monolithic reign over instruments of government in the name of an absolute revelation, or a transfer of all means of production to those who also have control over military power in the name of some ‘‘dialectic,’’ may bring temporary relief from old tyrannies; but it also establishes structures of domination which portend new tyrannies.

Nor does Scripture demand that those engaged in economic, political, military or legal affairs abandon their vocations. It does not insist chat all social institutions be dismantled, as do romantic protesters against the structures of complex civilizations. Instead, it calls for a fundamental spiritual and ethical transformation of attitude and action in the midst of life, and the formation of free communities of fidelity and ethical witness wherein people can catch the vision of something even greater. On that basis, many can come to the recognition of Christ and heed the call to discipleship. Then the foundation is at hand for a public theology and the formation of a responsible mission to the world, one that can shape persons, human relations and the structures of civilization.

The free-church traditions must also bear a special witness in deed. The free church is not only a gathered community, it is a constantly gathering community. It organizes people who have little voice and less power; it forms networks of support, mission and witness to confront oppression, corruption and pretense; and it provides a vision of faith that can stand the tests of intellectual integrity, for God does not require the distortion of the mind for the sake of belief. And in all this it stands firm for those first principles of moral life in society which, in modern vocabulary, are called human rights. By ethical action, guided by moral law, hopeful vision and human compassion, it develops, as did John the Baptist, a readiness among people to enter into the struggles of history expectantly, lovingly, discerningly. Thereby the praeparatio evangelicum is established in and for each generation, in and for each context of life.

And what are the specific issues which need attention in our context? They are legion. Racism persists: the nuclear threat continues; hunger has not yet abated. The systematic violations of human rights by regimes of the extreme left and the extreme right are a scandal before God. The distance of these issues from our little congregations is no reason to allow our people to ignore them, and thereby to enjoy passive complicity in them. Whether we want it to be true or not, our nation is militarily, politically and economically involved in situations in South Africa, Latin America and the Philippines which are unconscionable. People may justly differ on the best way to approach these complex problems, but to remain disengaged and unconcerned is not a Christian possibility.

Nor is it possible to justify our own travesties because other powers in the world and their terrorist agents are more vicious. We may, at times, in a world broken in sin, have to meet force with force; but we had better be sure that the violence we, our allies and our agents employ is governed by compassion for the people of the world and not guided by the interests of a tiny minority. Force, when it is employed, must be directed toward establishing structures of relative justice and peace in which human rights can be more actualized.

Still another critical need is to provide ethical guidance for people in their worlds of work. Extensive bureaucracy, professional privilege, dull drudgery or dependence on government contracts have too often displaced a sense of vocation. The rapid inclusion of women in the work force demands fresh attention to women’s rights, to new patterns of shared responsibility in family life, and especially to those values which can guide women’s newly discovered sense of extra-familial vocation.

We must also stress stewardship that not only involves regular support of the church, but also means care for the ecological order and the massive structures of modern political economies. One might include here the problems of unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, wife beating and child neglect. The list could go on.

Addressing each of these issues requires us to touch people’s souls, their conceptions of morality, their sense of what faith is all about, their lifestyles and their habits. It requires the deepest recovery and recasting of the core doctrines of Christianity in terms appropriate for our day. It requires transforming the social fabric in which we live. Few of us are gifted to deal with all these issues but every minister, every baptized believer, every congregation must surely be involved in at least one of them.

Today the free-church tradition is called to reclaim and recast its heritage. In its earthen vessel, it carries a great treasure, one that will grow only by renewed commitment. By its engagements in the world, it helps prepare the world for Christ. And in Christ we not only enhance human rights; we find, finally and fully, what is truly human and what is most right. Christ has come, and we thus have, in principle, access to the vision so long anticipated. But for many it is not yet so. And even we who already believe also pray that Christ will come again. We know that our world still must live, in this in-between time, both with memory and in preparation.