PROBLEMS IN THE CHURCH? Firth Points Back to Early Church Structural Simplicity

Thin Volume Very Sincere But Missing the Mark

(A book review of 'Custom and Command,' by Stan Firth, originally published 1996. Reprinted in paperback format by J.S. Firth, 2007; no ISBN found. 88 pages. Available from

Sincere it undoubtedly is, but can an 88-page somewhat thinly-argued book be enough to overturn hundreds of years of denominational assumptions? More 'meat' is needed!

T his humble little book (less than 100 pages) has, by various accounts, made something of an impact on evangelical, biblical Christians in this early 21st century. I therefore thought it time that UK Apologetics looked at it. It is an unprepossessing little volume, save for the bright orange and yellow cover.

The book's teaching, which is in no way new of course, is that a way out of the numerous problems now encountered within modern Protestantism (although Firth actually says very little of those problems), is to get back to small, unaffiliated (Firth appears to prefer the word 'unstructured') churches - which, of course, is exactly how the first Christians operated for the first three hundred years of church history. In short, it is a plea for house churches, although the writer does not much use this expression. Again, this is not new, my own article The Crisis in the Church, originally written in 1998, with just a few changes made circa 2006, is strongly critical of the modern Protestant church and suggests that a return to 'housechurches' could be (at least part) of the answer to the problems.

The difference between my 1998 article and Firth's book is that I argue in some depth, quoting reasons and examples, whereas this book seems to intentionally keep things clean, simple and devoid of theological argument; a good idea or a mistake? I would only say this: Surely if one seeks to overthrow such well-established traditions, will one ever succeed without using strong arguments and throwing just the odd 'firecracker' into the arena? Here the relevant Scriptures are simply quoted by the writer, yet without going into any depth, and without facing some of the obvious problems which could arise along the advocated path (about which more later). In short, I thoroughly approve of the author's conclusions but not necessarily the way he sets out his stall.

In referring to the growing band of Christians who now worship at home, various writers have used various terms, 'unchurched' is one (which I think especially inaccurate since, according to the New Testament, all believers are 'church'), Firth seems to like 'unstructured,' again, I think that an unfortunate term, suggesting disorganisation. My own preference is 'unaffiliated Christians,' which seems to just about sum up the position of most of us (loosely Protestant but not affiliated to any denomination, nor to any larger church grouping).

In building up his case, Firth is quick to point out that he did not always approve of 'unstructured' churches but that - at length - he became convinced that such worship is often closer to the New Testament examples which we are given. He points out:

Another early Christian leader who does not seem to have had much enthusiasm for "meeting houses," or for the organising of worship, was the writer to the Hebrews. He points out (Hebrews 9:1): "Now the first covenant had regulations for worship, and also an earthly sanctuary." I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that he is implying that the New Covenant, under which we live, does not have either! (p18).

This is a fair point from Firth and he makes a few more. He is correct, of course, to point out that the words, "thou shalt worship on a Sunday" have no place whatsoever in the New Testament (although a 'First Day of the week' precedent seems to be set by the first disciples). Also, it is perfectly correct to point out that the same New Testament sets no formula nor pattern for corporate worship at all. Indeed, the majority of admonition for sound moral behaviour in the New Testament simply refers either to normal everyday life, or to Gospel-spreading activity, with just a very small part clearly referring to what may occur during/within Christian assemblies. Such points are well-made by the author. All very good; but then he slips into error! He sees Christian communion as purely a shared meal among Christians. The problem is: in his zeal to take formality, religion and tradition out of Christian behaviour, he throws the baby out with the bathwater! Communion is a most serious Christian remembrance and activity, going above and beyond any concept of simply a shared meal. Any careful consideration of the relevant New Testament Scriptures (mainly 1 Corinthians 11), should leave one in no doubt on that score. Indeed, through verses 20-23 of that chapter Paul the Apostle scolds the Corinthians for eating the meal part of communion in an inconsiderate manner. Communion has been separate from the taking of a meal pretty much ever since!

Unaffiliated: not officially connected with, nor associated with any organization. This seems to be a better term than either 'unstructured,' or 'unchurched.'

Other Problems With the Book...

1. I was interested to observe that, in going through the Scriptures in order to back up his points, the author seems to place equal emphasis on both the Old and New Testaments. That surprised me, causing me to wonder about the writer's theological background. He does state he has previously been a church pastor, this caused me to wonder if this background was possibly reformed (Calvinist)? I state that because that particular theological strain does not see law as overturned and set aside by Christ (having been superceded by something far better), but as a continuing duty (that is, refusing to separate old and New Covenants as, for example, Paul the Apostle clearly does). Obviously Mr Firth has now moved away from that position (if indeed that is his background, and of course I could be wrong on that). Most Christians will now understand, of course, that 'the church in the wilderness' was only a forerunner, or a pale shadow of the Church of God as established with the full revelation of Christ on that first Christian Pentecost. But the point is that, in seeking to establish New Testament Christian worship patterns, it is obvious that the New Testament itself is sufficient - no need to look beyond it; the good news for people like Mr Firth and myself is that the Christian worship practice which we now encourage is closer to the New Testament examples than the patterns and traditions which have substantially emerged from denominationalism.

2. I must go back to the writer's lack of the deeper theological argument surely required to back up his case. It is a fine case but not well-argued. Obviously Mr Firth would agree with me about some of the horrendous problems now present in modern-day Protestant evangelicalism but surely at least some outlining of such problems, and how smaller 'housechurch' congregations would prove to be helpful is needed here. I found it surprising that an 88-page book as (apparently) written in 1996 remains an 88-page book on a 2007 printing, with all the logical questions which the small volume very clearly quickly prompts remaining unaddressed. That I find disappointing.

By all means obtain and read this little book, it has a very low price, but don't expect all the most obvious questions which the book quickly throws up to be addressed in an 88-page book. They never are. The need, surely, is for something like 250 pages or even more. Nevertheless, congratulations to Stan Firth for sticking his head above the parapet!

Robin A. Brace. September 3rd, 2013.