Book Review: Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church

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I have not had many books recommended to me more frequently than Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. As I read it, I could easily see that many of my friends and colleagues have read it. They echo it continuously. Apparently, it bests states the driving philosophy of many pastors today.

Anytime I began to read a book which comes even remotely close to instruction on how a church should operate, I have to ask two questions: Is it biblically and doctrinally sound? Will it work in my church? Granted, if the answer to the first is no, then there is no need to ask the second. Most books of this category end up that way. They are written more towards how to grow a fortune 500 company than they are a church. I’m not sure their authors would argue that point. They may argue that it’s the method to examine; a method that can be applied regardless of doctrine. Thankfully, 9 Marks is not that book.

9 Marks is loaded with scripture references that back up every point. Mark Dever displays his amazing ability to draw a solid point from passages throughout the entire Bible. He does not ever simply pull a verse out of thin air, but rather exegetes scripture to his points. The book is well founded in scripture and teaches doctrine as much as anything. Is it sound? Absolutely! Will it work?

Thankfully, this is not a method book. Dever is simply presenting 9 characteristics of a healthy church. They are:

Expository Preaching
Biblical Theology
A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel
A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
Biblical Church Membership
Biblical Church Discipline
Biblical Discipleship
Biblical Church Leadership

The temptation is to treat this as a method book. As I read, I began making mental notes of things I needed to begin, end, change, etc. in my ministry. Of course, quick and drastic change is rarely lasting and almost always results in more damage than it set out to resolve, so this temptation is to be avoided. Rather than a method to be followed, consider these principles to be a guideline for evaluating a church. The chapter on discipleship excellently discusses this, as does the first appendix.

Once a church leader understands the shortcomings of a church in these nine areas, they work to improve. Each “mark” is based on another, so the pieces will fall into place. This is a great book for better understanding a biblical ecclesiology. I strongly recommend it not only for pastors, but anyone in church leadership.

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Some thoughts on church membership and church discipline

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Most agree that a church should reflect the nature and character of God. Someone should be able to see the goings on of a church and its members and understand something of God. The problem is, that they seldom see truth about God. Christians become torn between trying to display the love of God or the holiness of God. This is problematic. The church that focuses on the love of God will drift towards an “anything goes” doctrine. The church that focuses on the holiness of God will drift towards a harsh legalism, not unlike the Pharisees of the New Testament. The challenge for a church is to reflect both the love and the holiness of God in order to show truth about God.

To better understand how this can be done, consider Matthew 16. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter provides the correct answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus says a peculiar thing.

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19, NKJV).

It is necessary to carefully consider a few of the words in this passage. First, consider “rock.” Jesus claims that upon the rock of Peter’s confession (the Greek words for “rock” and “Peter differ), He will build His church. The church is based on profession that Jesus is the Christ; the Son of God.

Next, consider “church.” The ekklesia was a list of citizens in a community that were called out for important decisions, trials, or defense. Jesus, claims that He will build just this sort of group, on the foundation of this profession of faith. This is the beginning of our understanding of a church. It is a group (and I would argue a specific group, though I do not exclude the notion that there is a universal body of all believers) of people that believe that Jesus is the Christ, which has been called out for a specific purpose. By definition alone, it is apparent that membership has its place.

After this, Jesus says something that has puzzled many for years. He tells the disciples that they are given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Some implications here (particularly that the disciples, and by extension the church, determine salvation) seem to contradict other teachings of scripture, so it is important to find clarification here.

A good means of clarifying a passage is to look for parallel passages. In other words, look for the same thing said elsewhere in scripture and then look for the context there to find a better understanding of the teaching. A parallel passage is found just two chapters over in Matthew 18.

15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:15-20, NKJV).

This time, the teachings (found here in vs 18) are in the context of church discipline. Where before they were in the context of what composes a church, now they speak to what does not compose a church.

It is important to note that as Jesus says “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector,” Jesus loved heathen and tax collectors. Love is not absent from this process. The goal of the process is to bring someone to repentance; to encourage faith and growth. The purpose of removing a person from the church is not to shun, but to attend to salvation. How often do we simply try to assume the salvation of someone who strays? That may bring comfort to church members, but which is better: to assume someone is lost only to find in eternity they are not, or to assume someone is saved only to find in eternity that they are not? Love is the means and purpose of this process.

So what of the difficult reaching of verse 18? The church roll is a testimony to the coming judgment. Both by membership and by discipline, the church testifies to the judgment of a just, righteous, holy, and loving God. By profession of faith there is inclusion. By lack of repentance there is exclusion. Faith and repentance are inseparable, thus they both speak here to the nature of God.

Consider the testimony of the church. Be careful here. Many times, a Christian simply considers what the world thinks. There is a desire to gain a hearing; to show love, so that which is offended is avoided. Motives are good here, but the method of considering what the world thinks is questionable. Instead, consider the testimony that the Lord calls a church to show.

Consider three applications here: 1) With no regard to membership or discipline, we lack a good testimony. 2) If we do not show holiness (that is, have no discipline), we testify that God is not good. 3) If we so not show love, we testify that God is not love.

Having considered these things, let me challenge you to do the following:

1) Honor scripture. No matter how difficult, seek to apply these important doctrines.
2) In every aspect of your church, ask, “What does this say about God?”
3) Shore up membership. Seek to display an honest testimony and seek to call brothers and sisters in Christ to commitment.
4) Lovingly hold each other accountable, strengthening each in their walk with Christ.

For further reading, I recommend this book.