We had been invited to spend the weekend with Stan and Mavis Firth and as always enjoyed the wonderful fellowship and fun of being together. I had felt that it would be good to interview Stan and we decided that there were three key areas that could be developed in this format. Here we have an interview with Stan Firth.
Q1. Why the title “Custom & Command?”
I wrote the little book of that name in order to explain – in the first instance to family and friends – why my wife and I, after so many years of faithful support for the local church, wherever we were living, had given up being “churchgoers” (We hadn’t given up on Jesus, about whom we remained as enthusiastic as ever. But we no longer saw the Organised Church as the channel through which we could best do His bidding.)
I won’t attempt to repeat my explanations in this short interview. It originally took me 71 pages, so there is no way I could condense the material satisfactorily here! However, what I can say is that the whole issue hinged on the fact that, while some of the things which believers do are based on direct commands from God, others are merely customs which have grown up for one reason or another.
Let me give you an example: Jesus went regularly to the synagogue – but the New Testament describes this practice as a “custom” (Luke 4:16). It doesn’t surprise me that the word “custom” is used. He certainly wasn’t obeying a written command from His heavenly Father. There is nowhere in the Scriptures where God commanded synagogues to be set up, or commanded Jewish believers to attend them every Sabbath!
For all kinds of reasons (explained in my book), Mavis and I were finding that church life was hindering our Christian service, rather than helping it. When it became abundantly clear to us, from a great many indications in the Bible, that “church-going” was exactly in the same category as “synagogue-going” – a custom, but not a command – we left our local fellowship, and began following Jesus “outside the camp.” (As well as showing why we needed this new freedom, the booklet “Custom & Command” shows how hugely supportive the Scriptures are to those who believe themselves called to living out the Christian life in this way. In the long run, what I had written got a wider readership than our own immediate circle, because an ever-increasing number of deeply committed Christians have been finding themselves propelled in this direction!)
Q2. Are these Christians who are leaving the “Organised Church” not in danger of backsliding?
There is always a danger – for believers inside the Organised Church, as well as for believers on the outside – of losing one’s “first love” for Christ. However, God has commanded certain attitudes which are designed to avoid that.
One of these is fellowship – “maintaining contact with other Christians, for mutual encouragement.” So far as I can observe, these “church-leaving” committed -Christians realise how essential that is. There are plenty of ways of fellowshipping besides church attendance. Even if there are no other believers in your own locality with whom you can maintain contact, it is amazing what can be done nowadays by telephone, or post, email, or occasional visits. Even more amazing, perhaps, is the way God “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6) – bringing together (sometimes in a seemingly miraculous way) those who rightly crave fellowship, but don’t have it.
Another attitude which God commands is to “desire the sincere milk of the Word.” The Christians I know, who are “outside the camp,” continue to draw personal inspiration from the Bible. It is perfectly true, of course, that this should not only be a DIY job. It’s good to hear Bible teaching from someone else, especially from someone who has an aptitude for putting it across. But that doesn’t have to be in the form of a Sunday sermon, or a mid-week address! Christian books have been on the go for a while; tapes came into vogue several decades ago; and recently the Internet has given further access, at least to some believers. My observation is that “the sincere milk of the Word” is just as honoured among committed Christians outside the Organised Church, as it is among those inside.
Lastly, there is what has been called “Christian Service” – being available to others, for Jesus’ sake, and with Jesus’ resources, at various levels – spiritually, socially, practically and perhaps even financially. Church programmes are not the only channel for doing all that! In New Testament times, there weren’t any church programmes. There was only everyday life! That was the medium through which almost all Christians served others – the medium through which they witnessed; through which they loved their neighbours. The feedback I get suggests to me that earnest followers of the Lord, outside the official churches, are doing just that – and it spurs them on to look constantly to the Lord for His guidance and His provision. All in all, they seem in no more danger of backsliding than any other Christians.
Q3. In Hebrews 10:25, we are exhorted “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.” Are those Christians who leave the Organised Church not going against this – to their detriment?
Strangely enough, my own view is that the Organised Church greatly neglects the thrust of this verse, whereas those Christians who are now outside making some sort of reasonable effort to observe it!
You have to look at the immediate context to find out what the writer to the Hebrews wants us to assemble – together for. Verse 24 of chapter 10 says; ” Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds” (NIV) Verse 25 itself concludes; “Let us encourage one another.” The purpose of the ‘assembling together’ mentioned in Hebrews 10 is for mutual encouragement, and spurring on to love and good works. It seems to me that churches will assemble together for every purpose except the one actually mentioned! They will assemble for worship; they will assemble for teaching; they will assemble for prayer – none of which are actually linked with this phrase ‘assembling – together.’ They will even assemble for encouragement and spurring – on from the pastor. But very rarely will they assemble for encouragement and spurring – on from one another! (In many churches it is difficult to get genuine “one – anothering” even at mid-week house group.)
By contrast, I notice that Christians who have cut loose from ‘normal’ churches make a big effort to meet with other believers, however informally, for this kind of mutual encouragement of which Hebrews 10 speaks! I do not think the assembling-together verse is being disregarded by them. Quite the reverse.