Nine Marks of a Healthy Church
by Mark Dever
Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000. pp. 255.
Reviewed by Michael J. Vlach
In his book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., sets forth what he believes to be the marks of a healthy church. The book, itself, is based on a series of sermons that Dever, a Southern Baptist minister, preached to his church.
As the title of his book indicates, Dever's work is about the church. The book, however, "is not a full ecclesiology" (10). Dever does not intend to give a purely doctrinal explanation of the church. Instead, his stated purpose is to "speak to some marks that set off healthy churches from true but more sickly ones" (10). His work, then, is more prescriptive than descriptive in regard to the church.
According to Dever, many churches today are unhealthy. They are in a sickly state because they have been influenced by cultural factors such as neopaganism, secularization, and pragmatism (12). In addition, he believes that most Protestant churches, whether liberal, seeker-sensitive, or traditional, have accepted secular standards of success, including the exaltation of numbers and the emphasis on techniques (10).
In light of these dismal conditions that characterize many churches, Dever presents what he believes to be a biblical plan for establishing and sustaining healthy churches. Though lacking an exact title for his paradigm, Dever explains what he believes churches need to be:
Simply put, we need churches that are self-consciously distinct from the culture. We need churches in which the key indicator of success is not evident results but persevering faithfulness. We need churches that help us recover those aspects of Christianity that are distinct from the world, and that unite us (14).
What, then, are the characteristics that Dever believes are necessary for a healthy church? He gives nine marks. Mark one of a healthy church is expositional preaching. According to Dever, expositional preaching is "that preaching which takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture" (26). Dever believes that expositional preaching is "far and away the most important" of all the marks (25). In fact, he asserts that if churches would get this first mark right, all of the other marks he mentions would naturally follow.
According to Dever, the second mark of a healthy church is a commitment to a biblical theology that seeks to understand God's character and His ways (46). Dever says that the main story line of the Bible that must be taught in our churches includes five elements. They are: (1) God is creating; (2) God is holy; (3) God is faithful; (4) God is loving; and (5) God is sovereign.
The third mark is the Gospel, which is the message of salvation based on Jesus Christ. The Gospel message, according to Dever, must be understood in the contexts of man's sin, God's holiness, and the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Gospel message is not simply that we are all okay, nor is it only that God is love. To Dever, salvation occurs when a person realizes that his sin has offended a holy God and he casts himself upon the mercy of God and believes in Jesus Christ. This is no 'easy-believism' or mere 'mental assent.' Saving faith, according to Dever, consists of repentance and faith, which Dever considers to be two sides of the same coin (78).
With his fourth mark, Dever discusses the necessity of conversion. All men are totally lost in sin, he says, but true change is possible (88). True change is not found in secular methods or self-effort. True inner change takes place when a person places his faith in Jesus Christ and is born again. Jesus gives the person who believes in Him a new heart and He brings radical change to that person's life. This conversion, though, does not mean sinless perfection according to Dever. Though we are converted, we still struggle with sin. Nevertheless, a great change has taken place for the true believer.
Dever's fifth mark is evangelism. Here, he calls on all who rightly name the name of Christ to share the good news of salvation that is found in Christ. He states that evangelism is not the act of converting people but is simply telling them the saving message of Christ (123). Where there is a faithful and accurate presentation of the Gospel, evangelism has taken place. This obligation to evangelize is not optional but mandatory. Neither does it ultimately matter that our culture frowns on those who promote their views as superior to the views of others. According to Dever, evangelism is a charge that all Christians are commanded to keep no matter what the political or social climate may be.
The sixth mark of a healthy church is active membership in a local church. Dever asserts that church membership must be more than simply being on a church member list or just attending worship services. Dever believes that many professing Christians have adopted a lone-ranger, individualistic mindset that is resistant to serious commitment. He counters this trend toward individualism by calling on church members to sign a church covenant and to commit to regular church meetings and services along with regular giving and praying. He wants Christians to "join" and commit to a church, not just "attend" a church.
Biblical church discipline is Dever's seventh, and, perhaps, most controversial and least followed mark. Dever asserts, with strong scriptural support, that churches must enforce church discipline to keep the purity of the body and hopefully restore confessing Christians who are involved in unrepentant, sinful behavior. He believes that for the good of the churches, "we need to make it harder to join and we need to be better at excluding people" (156). In his section on church discipline, Dever, himself, appeals directly to Baptist churches of the past. He notes that, "disciplinary actions were a substantial part of the business at member's meetings of Baptist churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" (164). Dever also points to a statistic showing that Southern Baptist churches, in pre-Civil War days, excommunicated nearly two percent of their members every year (165).
Dever's eighth mark is a concern for discipleship and spiritual growth. Here, he refers to more than just numerical growth, but spiritual growth. Dever is convinced that if the previous seven marks are operating fully, a church will see spiritual growth in its congregation.
Biblical church leadership is Dever's ninth and final mark. He asserts that there are five aspects of church leadership: (1) its congregational context; (2) its biblical qualifications; (3) its charismatic nature (i.e. spiritual gifts); (4) its Christlikeness; and (5) its relationship to God's nature and character. One interesting part of Dever's chapter on church leadership is his discussion about elders. Though not espousing a formal "elder rule" form of government, Dever believes there are benefits of having recognized elders in the congregation and notes that, "there is a growing trend to go back to this biblical office" (215). He also notes that, "Elders could be found in the Baptist churches in America throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century" (214).
At the end of the book, Dever offers three appendices. In the first, he gives four characteristics that pastors should cultivate to help bring change to their churches. These four characteristics include being truthful, trustful, positive, and particular. Appendix two gives a list of what other Christian leaders have suggested as remedies to the problems of the local church. In appendix three, Dever gives a list of helpful books that complement the nine marks that he mentions in his book.
Dever's book is an excellent work that would benefit every Christian-pastor and layperson alike. He rightly points out that the church, as a whole, has capitulated to the culture in many areas. Dever's call for expository preaching, active church membership, and church discipline, is especially needed today.
Dever is thoroughly biblical in his assertions and practical in his examples. The fact that this book is based on sermons he preached at his church adds to the practical nature of the book. We highly recommend it.
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