The main argument of this site is that house church networks and multi-site churches have produced innovations that have effectively moved them out of the realm of the free-church ecclesiology that birthed them. Additionally, their innovations challenge the very idea of traditional free-church understandings of a “local” church. In order to follow this argument, it is important to understand what exactly is “free-church ecclesiology.”
Originally, the term was used in connection with churches in Europe that departed from the established state church. These churches (Baptist, Anabaptist, Congregational, etc.) were “free” in the sense that they no longer received funds or official influence from the state. In the United States, this understand of “free churches” lost its importance as Christianity went through successive waves of disestablishment and lost its official support and influence from the secular State.
Thus, the “free-church” term is used on this site to denote churches that have retained aspects of the earlier free-churches, but without referring at all to those that are free from State influence (all U.S. congregations are “free” in this sense).
Free-church ecclesiology has also been strongly linked in the past with churches that embrace a congregational polity (as opposed to episcopal, presbyterian, or a multitude of other choices and combinations). However, I think many congregations in that tradition are exploring other models outside of congregational polity, so “free church” and “congregational” are not linked as strongly as they have been.
So what does it mean? Basically, churches that come from a free-church tradition are those that embrace the idea of local congregational autonomy. This is in the DNA of many Baptist, Pentecostal, and nondemoninational churches, as well as many others. This autonomy means that the congregation is self-governing, and that no authority from outside the congregation can determine the affairs of the congregation. I believe that the congregational autonomy that is at the heart of free-church ecclesiology has been left behind by many multi-site churches and house church networks, but that’s a matter for further posts.