Custom and Command, by Stan Firth. London: self-published, 1996, 88pp., $3.05. Reviewed by Julian Kennedy, member of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.
This review is about a booklet expressing a false ecclesiology—or view of the church. This little booklet has had its influence, and its thesis is accepted by many in the “house church movement” in the UK and farther afield. But it is spiritually anarchic. Firth’s thesis undermines the necessity of regular corporate worship and the preaching and offices in the church.
Firth believes that there is need of a “new breed of Christians,” functioning in an unstructured church lifestyle. He believes that Scripture supports his view and particularly that in the end times such unstructured groups will be the only ‘church’ able to function.
He may have a point, particularly as mainstream denominations depart from the truth, and as the coming of various antichrists and the ultimate Antichrist put pressure on or prohibit established churches. In China the unregistered house churches doubtless are among true churches, though they have never been a part of the registered, state-controlled “Three Self” church. Yet even these house churches do federate and have structures and recognized leaders and pastor-teachers.
Firth rightly states that, in the Old Testament, corporate worship was demanded only at the three annual pilgrimage feasts at the temple in Jerusalem and that only in the last few centuries BC did local synagogues meet every Sabbath. In Acts, however, we see that the Jerusalem Jews had set times of prayer in the temple daily, and the disciples took part in these and indeed met in the temple courts daily. So Firth is mistaken when he says the New Testament church had few set times and places of worship. Paul and his entourage regularly attended the synagogue services, and we know that in Troas they met on the first day of the week to break bread.
He rightly calls churches houses of living stones, and he believes that Christians need to meet together regularly in obedience to Hebrews 13:34, 35. He believes that I Corinthians 14:23 means that the whole local body did not meet together regularly for corporate worship. He ignores such clear passages of Scripture as Colossians 4:15, 16 and Acts 14:27, where churches evidently met to hear read to them Paul’s whole epistle or his missionary report. When, if not on a set day, and that day being the first day of the week, would believers meet as in Acts 20:7 and I Corinthians 16:2?
He is correct in saying that worship is an attitude and lifestyle, not just something “done on Sundays.” Nevertheless, God is a God of order, and His people need to be spiritually fed, to hear the voice of the Chief Shepherd through the preaching, and to participate in the sacraments at set times (Rom. 10:14; I Cor. 12). Since one day in seven, the Sabbath, is to be kept holy, and since after the resurrection this one day is the first day of the week, we are to rest from our labor and use the day for public and private worship and duties of mercy or necessity. The centrality of preaching in the fellowship and worship of the church is totally set aside by Firth, in spite of the fact that it is God’s express method of instructing, admonishing, and feeding His people. He believes that the New Testament emphasis is on informal ad hoc teaching in small groups and house to house. As Reformed believers we know that these have their place alongside the regular weekly meetings for worship, with the preaching, but we would never say they can replace them.
His view of church leadership is very weak. He speaks of people “subconsciously” recognizing elders unofficially, whereas Paul in his epistles speaks of the office of elder and the public ordination thereto (Acts 14:28, Tit. 1:5) these men being publicly recognized, as in the election of the first deacons in Acts 6. The apostle clearly states that these men have authority vested in them by the Holy Ghost Himself (Acts 20:8, Heb. 13:17). They are undershepherds and overseers, watching over the flock. To them have been given the keys of the kingdom, which in practical terms means they decide who are admitted to membership, who are baptized, and who take the Lord’s Supper. He also neglects to mention the office of pastor-teacher or teaching elder—someone who is trained, called and sent out to preach. Would you not expect to be treated in a hospital by a properly trained doctor, who had been licensed to practice and approved for the post?
Firth overemphasizes the leading of the Spirit in individuals apart from the means by which He works through the preaching, sacraments, church oversight and the creeds (the great basis of church unity). Never does he mention the local church as a flock with undershepherds under the Chief Shepherd. If we followed Firth’s ideas, the sheep of God’s flock, in their disparate groups, with no creedal cohesion and no called officebearers who preach and pastor, trying to fend for themselves, would, in their rank individualism, inevitably stray into dangerous byways and become fodder for wolves. In contrast to this, I would draw your attention to the Belgic Confession, Articles 28-35, which outline the marks, government, and sacraments of true, instituted churches and the necessity of being a member of one.