The category of book I’ve been reading the last two weeks is: A book about theology. The book I chose for this category was 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. Below you’ll find some information about the book, a summary, and some closing thoughts. **note: this book was assigned for a class so the review is longer than usual** If you’d like to skip straight to my ratings, click here.
Bibliographic Information: Dever, Mark. 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. Wheaton: Crossway. 2013 (Kindle Edition).
Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church is an in depth—though not exhaustive—explanation of a biblical foundation for the church. He concedes that there are likely other marks of a church but these are the least of which a church ought to exhibit. The marks he describes are: expositional preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of church membership, biblical church discipline, a concern for disciple making, and biblical church leadership. These nine marks each receive their own chapter of explanation, biblical support, and, in pastoral fashion, illustrations. He writes the marks so that each mark builds upon the mark before it. When all of these things are present, according to Nine Marks, the church has a healthy foundation.
Chapter one, the first mark, is about expositional preaching. Dever claims that this is the most important mark. If the church gets only this mark correct, it will eventually lead to the other marks. He later argues that none of the other marks are even possible aside from accident without expositional preaching. He defines expositional preaching as “preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture.” This mark leads directly to the second mark: biblical theology.
The second mark of a healthy church is biblical theology. He argues that though “people believe to be true simply what they desire to be true” that the Bible has absolute truth that can only be learned by studying the Bible. This goes back, in part, to the first mark of expositional preaching. He writes that if a pastor only preaches topics about which he is interested or thinks needs to be preached, he will eventually preach the same sermons over and over, and “will hamper the growth of the church, in essence allowing it to grow only to the level of the pastor.” Instead, the pastor ought to preach through the Bible expositionally even if “the doctrines that may be difficult or potentially divisive.” The most important of these doctrines is the next mark of the church: the gospel.
Dever continues to build one theme upon the next with the third mark. This mark is a narrowed in of the biblical theology found in mark two—a specific doctrine: the gospel. This chapter consists of a brief but complete explanation of what the gospel is and what it isn’t. He points out that “Israel was taught from the very beginning that regardless of how good or how bad their circumstances, they must annually make this sacrifice—as if to remind them that they were continuously in a state of sin, that sin separates people from God, that they could never offer a perfect sacrifice, and that it is God himself who provides the way of access to him as he forgives sins.”
This gospel mark gives the proper understanding of how one can be converted. This is the fourth mark. According to Nine Marks, conversion happens when “as God’s Spirit begins to convict us, he brings a particular sin to our attention, and that particular sin seems more serious than it did before. We begin to realize the seriousness of sin, particularly the seriousness of its deadly character as an act of revolt against God himself.” In other words, as we understand what the gospel means, and the Holy Spirit moves within us, we will repent and believe in Jesus and his work on the cross as the only means for salvation. This only happens, however, through the fifth mark.
For whatever reason, God has chosen evangelism, or the sharing of the good news of Jesus’ saving work on the cross, as the means by which God saves people. As the church must have heard the gospel in order to be converted, they will then go out and themselves share the gospel with others to add to the numbers of the church. Dever warns that we not mistake what isn’t evangelism—personal testimony, living a good life, or the results of evangelism—for evangelism. He also warns that we do not confuse evangelism with, “crusades for public virtues or for programs of compassion or for other social changes.” Evangelism is the proclaim of the entire good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the effect it has on our sinful rebellion against God.
Once someone is converted through evangelism, the next mark of a healthy church is to join the church through membership. We do not “join a church because you’re perfect and you’re only going to bring benefits to the church. Whenever you join a church, you will bring problems into that church!” Part of joining the church is being baptized and partaking in communion. Since the church is full of people who are imperfect, there will naturally be conflict. When this conflict arises, there must be discipline.
The seventh mark of a healthy church is discipline. While some people may turn their nose up at discipline it is a necessary means of rooting out those who are not really believers and keeping the church holy. Dever mentions two types of discipline. The first type is corrective. This type of discipline is what most people think of when they hear church discipline. Here the congregation holds one another accountable for living in the Spirit. The other type of church discipline is formative and is what happens when there is proper teaching and encouraging of the members of the church by the elders and mature believers to prevent corrective discipline from needing to be carried out. When it is necessary to discipline a member, Dever reminds the church that, “Nor should corrective church discipline ever take place out of the mistaken notion that we have the final word from God on a person’s eternal fate.”
Part of that formative discipline comes in the form of disciple making. The process of disciple making can begin as early as entrance into church membership. For example, Dever says that “[he] or one of the other elders personally interview all potential new members about their understanding of the gospel and about their own testimony of becoming and being a Christian.” After that, expositional preaching, biblical theology, and church discipline will help prevent the need for corrective church discipline on the new church members. This process is done not by the elders/pastors but by the church as they are gifted by the Spirit.
The final mark of a healthy church is biblical church leadership. Dever argues from the Bible for a congregational church polity with elder oversight. He says the way this plays out depends on the gifting of the Holy Spirit. For example: “It is a grace gift (a charisma) for some to get up and lead worship. It is a grace gift for others to read Scripture to those in the hospital. It is a grace gift to take minutes at church meetings. It is a grace gift to teach Greek. It is a grace gift to phone your pastor and tell him that you’re praying for him.” Built on top of everything else, the congregation who serves as the Spirit gifts will grow to be a healthy, self-reproducing, Christ honoring body.
8/10 Nine Marks is thorough but not bogged down in technical jargon. It is intended to serve as a measuring tool of the health of a church according to the bible. It is not intended to be used as an ecclesiology—though it does speak to ecclesiology some. In these regards, Dever is successful. The amount of research done is evident not only in the biblical text cited, but also the variety of resources documented. While it is evident that he tried not to let his reformed persuasion dominate the book there were a few points when a brief moment of reformed elitism slipped in. This book is a must read for pastors, especially those who desire to do revitalization work. The distribution of this book to mature lay people in the church would also be helpful for pastors who desire to restore their church to what the bible says a healthy church looks like.
A few quotes I enjoyed (there were plenty):
To charge someone with the spiritual oversight of a church who doesn’t in practice show a commitment to hear and to teach God’s Word is to hamper the growth of the church, in essence allowing it to grow only to the level of the pastor.
For us to think that we can disregard him sometimes, set him and his ways aside when it suits us, is to show that we have not fully understood the nature of our relationship with God.
What situations are you in right now that you won’t always be in? How are you using those situations in obedience to God? Trust the Lord to use you in those situations instead of always seeking for new situations.
God is not only concerned about the length and regularity of your quiet time each morning; he is also concerned about how you treat others—and that includes how you treat others with whom you have nothing in common except for Jesus Christ