Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

In The Free Methodist Way, the Free Methodist Church – USA bishops have articulated denominational distinctives through the core values of Live-Giving Holiness, Love-Driven Justice, Christ-Compelled Multiplication, Cross-Cultural Collaboration and God-Given Revelation. But these values only matter if Free Methodists demonstrate them in their lives.

“The ultimate question is: Will these values actually define who we are, or are they just statements that will look good on paper? We certainly want the former. We want to encourage them to be lived out,” Bishop Keith Cowart said in an interview with the Light & Life Podcast.

Why did the bishops decide to define The Free Methodist Way? Cowart explained that as the bishops traveled around the United States, “we began to discern a common theme, and that was that a lot of Free Methodists don’t really know what it means to be Free Methodist.” He said one reason for the uncertainty may be that “the Free Methodist Church has become a more kingdom-oriented denomination, and that’s a good thing.”

While Free Methodists increasingly focus on God’s overall kingdom instead of their denominational identity, a need still exists for Free Methodists to understand who we are within the greater body of Christ even as we collaborate with other groups of Christians.

“There’s a reason God raised up the Free Methodist movement,” Cowart said. “It’s great to be kingdom-hearted and to be kingdom-focused, but we should have what we’re calling ‘gracious confidence’ in what it means to be Free Methodist.”

In developing The Free Methodist Way, the bishops considered: “What do we bring uniquely to the body of Christ as a whole?”

A Comprehensive Understanding

Some Free Methodists have embraced specific aspects of our denomination’s identity, but they may not be aware of other aspects. Through The Free Methodist Way, Cowart said, the bishops seek to provide a “comprehensive understanding of the Free Methodist Church and our identity as Free Methodists.” He said the bishops looked at our denomination’s history and how it has shaped who we are while trying to “capture the essence of what was going on when God first raised up this movement,” and they determined our historical values “need to be rearticulated in a way that speaks to today but also by where God is leading us now as Free Methodists to meet the needs of our world.”

For example, Life-Giving Holiness reflects the original holiness emphasis of Methodism while avoiding legalism that has plagued Free Methodism at times in the denomination’s history.

“We’re not going to drop this just because we have struggled with it. We want to lean into a holy and biblical understanding of what holiness is really all about,” Cowart said. “It looks back to our history, but it also looks forward to how we’re living that out now.”

He said Love-Driven Justice “is at the very heart of the birth of the Free Methodist Church. We were born around issues of racial injustice and slavery — around the oppression of the poor. Then, over the years, our movement toward embracing women in ministry has been such a huge part of our story.” The bishops “wanted to be sure that we were leaning into a justice that is biblically defined and driven by love and not merely a social agenda, and so that’s part of what makes our commitment to justice distinct.”

One key value especially reflects both the denomination’s initial history and what the bishops hope will be the Free Methodist Church’s future. “Of all the values, Christ-Compelled Multiplication is probably the most aspirational. It was true to our history early on,” Cowart said. “For the last 120 years, quite frankly it hasn’t been as much of a part of our story, and so we’re trying to recover and rearticulate a value that we’re not living out very well right now but one that we know we must [live out] because it’s so critical to what we must be as a faithful body of Christ.”

Cowart said Cross-Cultural Collaboration also is aspirational while giving “a strong look back to the fact that, over the years, the Free Methodist Church has not simply been a U.S. movement.” A strong missionary effort contributed to the current reality that 93 percent of Free Methodists reside outside the United States. While celebrating our diversity around the world, Cowart recognized that “even though we began as a denomination that was deeply concerned about racial injustice, we are still not a very diverse church racially.” He encouraged us to learn from one another through relationships and conversations.

The final value, God-Given Revelation, informs all of the other values and serves as the foundation of The Free Methodist Way.

“From the very beginning, Free Methodists have always claimed the authority of Scripture over every part of our lives. We have never compromised Scripture. We’ve always held a very high view of Scripture, and, particularly in this day and age, we felt that value had to be stated unequivocally,” Cowart said. “We are a people who value God’s Word and who view it as our authority.”

Some people may be tempted to highlight one or two of the values while ignoring the rest, but the bishops want Free Methodists to live out all of the values.

“We are committed to all five of them, and they really have to be held together because they inform each other, and they balance each other,” Cowart said. “The very purpose of The Free Methodist Way is to say, ‘We’re not just one of those values. We’re all five of them at once.”

The Middle Way

The Free Methodist Way’s introduction includes “a radical commitment to what [John] Wesley called ‘the middle way.’ It is a path that takes the whole gospel seriously and continually calls us to ‘both/and’ convictions in an ‘either/or’ world.”

Why did the bishops include this commitment?

“We are living in an incredibly polarized time, and it’s so easy for Christians to get pulled to one extreme or the other,” Cowart explained. “I believe with all my heart that Scripture never contradicts itself. There are no contradictions in Scripture, but there are many, many tensions in Scripture — both/ands, things that are both true. Sometimes we have a hard time seeing how the two things can be true, but if we miss one, we miss half of the whole.”

One example is Scripture’s dual emphasis on God’s sovereignty and humanity’s freedom.

Calvin says it’s sovereignty, and Arminius says it’s freedom, and Wesley comes along and says, ‘No, it’s both. It’s sovereignty and freedom, and those two are in tension, but they are not contradictory,’” Cowart said. “If you only go sovereignty and throw out freedom, then you miss half of the message around who God is and who we are in relationship to Him. On the other hand, if we lose our understanding of the sovereignty of God, then we miss so much of what defines who He really is.”

Modern Christianity includes a tension between people who emphasize individual salvation and those who emphasize justice, and Free Methodism isn’t immune to the tension.

Cowart said that among some people “if you say anything about justice or social sin, it’s immediately viewed as liberal or something that’s outside of who we are as Free Methodists. On the other hand, we absolutely must hold to the idea that we live this justice out as a reflection of God’s character but very much with the aim and the hope that individuals will be drawn to God because of that justice and will come into relationship with God, and that ultimately society will be changed by the redemption and transformation of individuals. … We are concerned with personal holiness, and we are concerned with social holiness.”

The middle way may be incorrectly confused with compromise and an attempt to please everyone.

“I want to strongly emphasize that’s absolutely not what we’re after. We’re not after trying to please all sides. We’re saying this extreme and that extreme both miss part of the story,” Cowart said. “We want to get both parts of the story, and that is a higher truth than merely one side of it, and so we call ourselves to a higher standard of saying we will not be forced into ‘either/or’ stands when both are true. We’re going to find a way to bring those two together in a way that’s biblically sound and faithful to God’s character.”

Living Our Values

While serving as the founding lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Columbus, Georgia, Cowart would ask incoming members to identify the church’s values based on their experiences. The question came before he shared the church’s stated core values.

“Ultimately, what we truly value is what we live. If you want to know what your values are, look at the way you live,” Cowart said. “If we’re not hearing from people who come into our community that they see the values that we say, then there’s a disconnect. We have to recognize that a value is something we live out.”

Our world promotes the idea that truth is relative, but we are called to live out God’s truth.

“When we lean into God’s design for the way we were created to live, we’re going to live most fully. We’re going to be most alive,” Cowart said.

He pointed to Newnan City Church in Newnan, Georgia, that was initially founded as a missional community and is now a church led by Pastor Jimmy Ellison. He credited the church with living out its values by serving in the community and, as a result, growing in difficult times.

“During COVID and during all of everything of 2020–2021, Newnan City Church multiplied,” said Cowart, who reported that the church doubled from approximately 100 to 200 people in the midst of the pandemic. “They did it by following the mandates. They found creative ways to get into the community. … A couple of months ago, a tornado came through, hit Newnan and did severe damage — even did damage to their church, but that church was recognized as just being an exemplary church in terms of reaching out to the community in the midst of that crisis.”

Cowart credited an entire conference, the Acts 12:24 Churches, with living out Christ-Compelled Multiplication through its commitment to “be radically focused on discipleship” and “to make disciples and plant churches that are focused on disciple making.”

Defining Our Identity

Our culture encourages people to define themselves by political views or cultural factors, but The Free Methodist Way offers a different approach.

“I want to challenge all of us as Free Methodists. It is so important that we make sure that our identity is defined in ways that are biblical and consistent with who we are as Free Methodists,” said Cowart, who encouraged people “to pull together around these core principles of what it means to be Free Methodists. One of the things I would just plead for is that we take the time to slow down, to stop and have real conversations around these values.”

Cowart believes the Free Methodist message is “so right for the present moment precisely because it does speak to the polarization. It does speak to the extremes, and it brings balance that can really help us to move forward as a people and as a denomination.”


Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.