More than 10 years have passed since Duke-educated Baptist clergyman and Reformed theologian Mark Dever first asked evangelical leaders to examine their congregations in light of what constitutes a biblically-healthy church. Dever’s book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, has been widely read among pastors and elders in the PCA in recent years. In the 2004 reprint, Dever agrees that his “Nine Marks” are not exhaustive, but says that “these particular nine matters are responsible for so much that goes wrong in our churches.” He agrees that such topics as prayer, missions, and worship might be included in such a list (and has received many other suggestions over the years), but argues that health in his nine marks will lead local churches to honor God in all other appropriate ways too. He says, “The purpose of the book is to ask and answer the question, What distinctively marks a really good church?”
This article is an introduction to a four-part series that investigates how the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) measures up to Dever’s list of nine. We have informally interviewed PCA pastors and leaders young and old, attempting to take the pulse, blood pressure, and temperature of our denomination. Even as we use, say, a metric stick, we are welcoming input from readers using a yardstick. Are we a healthy denomination? In what ways, and in what categories could our health improve? Is there any area of church ministry that is sorely lacking? In which of Dever’s categories are we most healthy? At the presbytery and denominational levels, how can the local churches best be served to assure their good health? What most threatens the strength, peace, and purity of the church? Are Dever’s “nine marks” really fundamental to a healthy church? Are the nine in the right order?
What exactly are these “nine marks?”
The first of Dever’s marks is expositional preaching. He ranks it first in that “the Word is so central and instrumental because the Word of the Lord holds out the object of our faith to us.” The Lord Jesus Christ is the central focus of the entire Scripture, and therefore preaching focused upon the Christ of the Bible has to be by far the number one mark of a healthy church. Dever says, “If you miss this one and get all the other eight marks right, in a sense these others would be just so many accidents … . They may be discarded or distorted, because they didn’t spring from the Word and they’re not continually being reshaped and refreshed by it.” But just what is expositional preaching? Dever says that it “is that preaching that takes for the point of the sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture. That’s it.” God’s Word brings life out of death. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Word is foundational to our salvation and to our growing in the likeness of our Savior.
Number two on Dever’s list of nine marks is biblical theology. Biblical theology provides an overarching framework for us to understand God and His work in the world. Dever says, “Long-held Christian beliefs about everything from the nature of God to morality have been reshaped and have become unimportant to many people. They have been jettisoned in the name of making Christianity more relevant, more palatable, more acceptable to today’s hearer.” PCA pastor Robert Drake agrees, but says “A big question we’re facing is, what is theology? Is it clear what we’re talking about? Our lack of clarity about the nature of theology has led to some of these real hard tensions we’ve experienced recently.” This much we know: It is important for us to know God as Creator, holy, loving, and faithful to His promises. To know these things about God and to know that He is all-powerful and sovereign over His creation is to rest in Him, to believe in Him, to trust completely in Him. It is also important that we look only to the Bible as our source for all things theological, rejecting any notions that come from human tradition and philosophical speculation. Therefore, our theology—our understanding of who God is and what He has done and is doing—is crucial to our health as a church.
The gospel is Dever’s third mark of a healthy church. Dever reminds us that the good news needs to start with the bad news, and that many in Christendom are preaching a gospel that is not the gospel. They claim that God is a God of love and not of justice. Recent polls of evangelical Christians report that a substantial majority of those interviewed believe, contrary to biblical teaching, that mankind is basically “good.” Dever writes in a sub-chapter heading, “The good news is not simply that Jesus wants to be our friend.” Neither, he says, does the gospel teach that we should simply live right (p. 90). The gospel is at the very heart of the message to the Church: Christ came to live the life we should have lived and to die the death we should have died. God’s justice against sin must be satisfied. It was at the Cross where “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Getting the gospel right—that our salvation is by Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—is another decisive element in the health of a church. Are we getting the gospel right in the PCA?
The fourth of Dever’s marks of a healthy church is a biblical understanding of conversion. John Newton said [paraphrased], “I’m not the man I should be, and I’m not the man I will be, but neither am I the man I used to be.” True biblical conversion brings change. Dever says, “ … when God’s Spirit begins powerfully to call us to turn from our sins, there is a great sense of conviction. We begin to sense something of the seriousness of sin” (p. 100). At conversion, God gives us a powerful desire to repent of our sin and to seek His righteousness. “How does this great change happen?” Dever asks. Do we do anything? Do we do something? Do we do everything? The simple answer is that it is God who works this change in us. The Word works in us powerfully, and with God’s assistance through His Spirit, we are to be changed into the likeness of His Son. The formal word for this change is, of course, sanctification. Do we in any way confuse this with justification? That is a serious error and one made in unhealthy churches. Is the PCA guilty of this error on any level?
A biblical understanding of evangelism is Dever’s fifth mark of a healthy church. He asks and provides his answers to four elementary questions about evangelism: “1) Who should evangelize? 2) How should we evangelize? 3) What is evangelism? 4) Why should we evangelize?” In answering the first, he quotes Acts 11:19-21, where we find “ordinary” Christians going out to spread the good news. The “how” question is answered in six summary captions with following detail: “1) Tell people with honesty that if they repent and believe they will be saved—but it will be costly. 2) Tell people with urgency that if they repent and believe they will be saved—but they must decide now. 3) Tell people that if they repent and believe the good news they will be saved. However difficult it may be, it is all worth it!” 4) Use the Bible. 5) Realize that the lives of individual Christians and of the church as a whole are a central part of evangelism. 6) Remember to pray.”
The “what” of evangelism for Dever is based in the facts of the Christian gospel, and in the all-powerful Word of God. We cannot argue an unbeliever to faith. The Holy Spirit must open hearts. He discounts personal testimony as a method of evangelism and dismisses other things like social action or political involvement as evangelical tools. Dever calls into question the use of apologetics as a means of evangelism. Apologetics should be used in responding to the questions of unbelievers. “Evangelism, however, is following Christ’s agenda giving out the good news about Him,” he says. Finally, Dever thinks that “one of the most common and dangerous mistakes is to confuse the results of evangelism with evangelism itself.” In other words, seeing mere decisions for Christ as having waged effective evangelism. A results-oriented evangelism could be nothing more than manipulation.
“Who should we evangelize?” Dever deals in this last section with our motives for evangelism. Do we evangelize the lost because we love God? Do we have a sincere love for the lost? Do we really want to obey Jesus’ Great Commission? Or do we do it for personal applause? For other reasons? In all of our evangelization, we need to remember the words of Paul in Romans 1:16: “ I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”
Dever’s sixth mark of a healthy church is a biblical understanding of church membership. Dever believes that we live in an age of commitment-phobia. Many are afraid to commit to a particular church wanting to keep their options open. When this is conjoined with an ever-deepening moral relativism and a time of extreme American individualism, it creates a culture “that is fairly hostile to New Testament Christianity.” Our church’s rolls may expand while attendance declines. In answer to this modern day phenomenon, Dever asks three questions: “1) What is a church?; 2) Why join a church?; and 3) What is entailed in church membership?” After a lengthy discussion, he summarizes his answers in this way: “… joining a particular local church is an outward reflection of an inward love—for Christ and for His people … . If we are Christ’s followers, we too will love the church that He gave Himself for.”
Number seven in Dever’s nine marks is biblical church discipline. “When we hear the term church discipline,” Dever writes, “we tend to think only of the negative aspects of discipline, such as correction.” But church discipline must be primarily a matter of reconciliation to Christ and to one another. He goes on to argue that one of the problems we face in today’s churches is that our front doors are wide open and our back doors are closed. “What we actually need to do is close the front door and open the back door!” he says. “If we really want to see our churches grow, we need to make it harder to join and we need to be better about excluding people.” Dever calls for a greater distinction between the world and the church. If we are to live as Christians, we need to live in such a way as to be the distinctive people of God. So why practice church discipline? Dever goes on to discuss five reasons for it: “1) For the good of the person disciplined; 2) For the good of other Christians as they see the dangers of sin; 3) For the health of the church as a whole; 4) For the corporate witness of the church; and 5) For the glory of God, as we reflect His holiness.”
Dever lists his eighth distinctive characteristic of the healthy church as a concern for discipleship and growth. At the end of his second epistle, Peter exhorts his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18a). Is this command something we take seriously in our churches today? Or are we content to listen to short 20-minute sermons full of humorous anecdotes and clever stories? “Is spiritual growth really so important?” Dever asks. “What would happen if we didn’t grow?” These questions tie back into all of the other eight marks of a healthy church. Each plays its own role in helping Christians grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. Dever concludes that it is important for us to grow as Christians. He argues, “This is how we give testimony to God. When we see a church composed of members growing in Christlikeness, who gets the credit?” We see the answer in many places in Scripture, such as 1 Peter 2:12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Dever continues, “God causes our growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). So, what if we don’t grow spiritually as members of Christ’s church? We rob God of the glory due His name.”
Finally, Dever tells us that biblical church leadership is his ninth mark of a healthy church. Americans in particular have a latent suspicion of authority. But, he argues, “Christianity has always recognized the need for authority in society, in the home, and also in the church … .” The problem is that we often see poor models of what true biblical authority should be. He says that authority in the church should always operate in a congregational context. While we don’t find in the New Testament a handy guide or manual of church polity, it does have plenty to say about our church government. Our leadership should therefore be chosen on “biblical qualifications” or principles. Another principle is that church government should be “charismatic” in nature. He’s not speaking of supernatural speaking gifts, but of God’s grace in gifting His church with healthy leadership that will benefit the congregation. Next, Dever suggests that church leadership be modeled after the example of Christ. Leadership, like Christ, is to model godly authority, take the initiative, and set the example, supplying the church family with what it needs, and being a servant. Church leadership is finally to echo God’s nature and character, he says.
Does this list look at all like the PCA you know? Here, yes, and there, no. Local churches who read Dever’s list may already feel like the overweight middle-aged patient who’s just been told by his doctor to forswear hamburgers and milkshakes for life. It’s a tall, hard, and maybe discouraging order. The writers, however, who have been visiting with and interviewing PCA pastors, elders, congregants, and professors nationwide, have a different perspective. To us it feels more like being invited to a marvelous steak dinner with your best friends, where the check has just been picked up by an unseen guest. We need not be discouraged, as our heavenly Father will supply all of our healthy church needs through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Beasley and Belz are ruling elders at Trinity PCA in Asheville, NC. Beasley is the author of five Christian books, including the recent 101 Portraits of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures. Belz, Associate Editor of ByFaith, is the editor of three books and the former publisher of Explore! magazine for children.