Review of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

The church that I am a member of, Westerly Road Church, considers itself to be a 9Marks church. 9Marks Ministries is not a denomination—Westerly Road Church is non-denominational—but is a loose affiliation of churches that affirm the principles articulated in Mark Dever’s book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.

The public, it seems, loves lists of tips for self-improvement. Appendix Two of Nine Marks lists a whole slew of sound-alike titles, from Ken Hemphill’s The Antioch Effect: Eight Characteristics of Highly Effective Churches to Bill Hull’s Seven Steps to Transform Your Church to Waldo Werning’s Twelve Pillars of a Healthy Church. Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of this genre of literature, and really the only reason that I decided to read Nine Marks was that I was curious about what our church was affirming by associating itself with 9Marks Ministries.

The limitations of Nine Marks are readily apparent. By the author’s own admission, it is not a comprehensive text on ecclesiology. This by itself is not a shortcoming, but at times, Dever seems not to be fully aware of his own presuppositions, or of the influence that those presuppositions have on his thinking. For example, Dever has been strongly influenced by Baptist and Congregationalist thought, and for the most part takes for granted that a “church” is simply “the collection of people committed to Christ in a local area” (page 149 in the 2004 new expanded edition). So for example, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic views that there is really just one Church, and that they are that Church, are of little or no concern to him. Dever’s Mark #6 emphasizes the importance of church membership, but by that he is referring to becoming an official member of your local congregation. Similarly, Mark #9, church leadership, concerns the proper qualifications for the leaders of a local church. This local, rather than global, view of the nature of the church has a profound influence on Dever’s theology.

Early in the book, Dever briefly describes a revealing exchange that once he had with a Roman Catholic friend, who, according to Dever, complained about “that old Protestant error that the Bible created the church, when we all know that the church created the Bible” (page 42). Dever vehemently disagrees, but in expressing his disagreement he uses the terms “God’s Word” and “the Bible” interchangeably, whereas presumably what his Roman Catholic friend was asserting was that historically, it was not always clear that the particular collection of books that we currently call “the Bible” was exactly equal to “God’s Word,” no more and no less. Only after the church gave a specific collection of books its imprimatur could the two terms be used interchangeably (and even today, disputes remain about the status of the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books, and controversial passages such as John 8:1–11). Dever’s failure to grasp his friend’s point demonstrates to me a certain narrowness of thought.

However, despite these shortcomings, I believe that Nine Marks does perform a valuable service for its intended audience. In the introduction (page 28), Dever says, “What follows is not intended so much as a full portrait of this new (old) model of the church but as a timely prescription.” A prescription for what disease? Writing about Mark #8 (a concern for discipleship and growth), Dever says (page 216):

Of all the “nine marks” covered in this book, this is the one I first became concerned about. How many of us have seen large churches with thousands of members who never come, and hundreds of those who do attend seeming not really to care much about God? In any church there will be many very nice people who have lived moral lives; but then there will be some who seem especially to love the Lord, and they will usually “stick out” from all the rest—they will seem different from the rest of the church. For probably twenty years or more I have been wondering why churches are like this. What has gone on in our churches, when people who really live like Christians seem unusual, even compared to other church members? In this book, I have been tracing back those things that I have noticed in this regard, finally getting back to the found of God’s activity among us—His Word.

If we are to grow as individual believers and as churches, we must sit under the Word. We must pray for the Holy Spirit to plant and to weed the gardens of our hearts. This spiritual growth is not optional; it is vital, because spiritual growth indicates life. Things that are truly alive, grow. That’s just the way it is.

Dever’s emphasis on God’s Word would lead us to expect him to emphasize sound doctrine. Indeed, Marks #2 through #5—biblical theology, the gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, and a biblical understanding of evangelism—are all concerned with articulating the fundamentals of evangelical theology. Dever patiently walks through all the key tenets, pointing out the various ways that they have been subtly ignored or distorted, even by churches that profess to be Bible-believing.

But Dever has a more specific prescription than “merely” emphasizing theological correctness. Discussing Mark #1, Dever writes (page 39):

The first mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow. This is the crucial mark. If you want to read only one chapter of this book, you’ve picked the right one. This is the one you should read first, before all of the others.

It is important to note that by “expositional preaching,” Dever means more than simply the proclamation of the gospel (or kerygma as a theologian might say). He means specifically the practice of starting with a passage of the Bible and preaching a sermon whose point is the point that the biblical passage is making. Expositional preaching is to be contrasted with topical preaching, which “takes a subject and talks about it, rather than taking a particular text of the Bible as its subject” (page 39). A crucial point for Dever is that topical preaching runs the risk of focusing only on what the preacher already believes and wants to say, whereas expositional preaching submits oneself to the Bible and allows it to challenge and instruct us.

One of the most interesting, and potentially controversial, sections of the book is Mark #7: church discipline. Earlier this year (2012), there was a rather public controversy concerning church discipline at the well-known Mars Hill church, pastored by Mark Driscoll. Mars Hill seems to have handled that particular case rather poorly, giving church discipline a bad name. However, Dever points out that church discipline has historically been a standard practice in the vast majority of churches, and cites the book Democratic Religion by Greg Wills for a host of examples from Baptist churches in the nineteenth century. Dever’s own church practiced church discipline from the beginning, and even excluded two of its own founding members in 1880!

In a world where the church too often seems to have lost its way, seeking remedies in business management techniques and seeking success in numbers, Mark Dever is to be commended for fearlessly swimming against the tide and pointing the church back to the fundamental beliefs and practices that set it apart from all others. Despite its limitations, the book’s potent prescriptions are just what many churches in America need today.

Posted June 2012

Back to Christian Stuff