Posted: 02/26/2012 at 11:18am
A Review of Stan Firth’s Custom and Command
by Steve Eastman
Have you ever heard someone say,” Jesus — yes, but church — no.” That kind of statement is appearing more frequently in Christian media, usually in summing up results from a new opinion survey, and expressed with alarm. The phrase is often attributed to college students who were raised in church but who no longer “darken the door” of a traditional fellowship.
Stan Firth does not fit this stereotype. Neither does he fit the other profile commonly linked to this statement — a secular person who’s never been a member of a church. Firth is a former Scottish pastor who’s in his 80s. His goal in writing the book is not to proselytize for a less formal expression of Christianity. He just wants to persuade members of structured churches to respect the choice of their less structured brothers and sisters, and he hopes to confirm the decision of those who follow the Lord outside the system.
Firth maintains that some elements of church practice are merely customs — humanly devised strategies that are not necessarily good or bad in themselves. He says they should not be confused with commands of the Lord, which are non-negotiable. The former pastor analyzes Biblical passages to sort between the two and provides modern day illustrations that in earlier times might have been called parables. First he takes a look at “assembling ourselves.”
There is a widespread, often unspoken assumption, that the Jews gathered at the Temple every Sabbath. In fact, this was only possible for those who lived near the Temple. Jews in more distant parts of Israel only made the journey several times a year at the time of the appointed feasts. It is true that synagogues were later established in the scattered communities, but this appears to be a human invention, not a command of God. While Jesus did not fight this custom, He performed most of his ministry “in the field.” We only see occasional references to large groups of Christians assembling together.
Firth’s take on worship is even more startling. The majority of references to worship occurred “outside the building” and did not necessarily involve music. It was often spontaneous, as when the Israelites thanked God for bringing them safely across the Red Sea.
Firth discovers two kinds of teaching in the Bible. The most common is an informal sharing with one another in the course of life, as when a parent answers a child’s spiritual questions. In the same way, more seasoned believers could impart truths to new converts, but not as a lecture. The less frequent form of teaching is a lecture and seems to be limited to when a great number of people needs to hear something crucial at one time, such as Peter’s evangelistic sermon on Pentecost or the truth that circumcision is not a requirement to be a Christian.
Firth advises against leaving the traditional system without getting a clear word from the Lord. To be a successful Christian, he says you must have a deep desire to be a disciple of Jesus. That is important in both the structured and unstructured environments. If you don’t have that desire, structured church may carry you along like a piece of driftwood in flowing water, but in doing so makes you dependent on itself and not so much on the Lord. Firth says if you are a committed disciple, you may be ready to serve God outside the building.
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Edited by Ron McGatlin on 02/26/2012 at 6:37pm