[Editor's Note: The following article is abridged excerpts from the introduction to Nine Marks of a Healthy Church ]
Author and theologian David Wells reported in his 1994 book God in the Wasteland that “[Seminary] students are dissatisfied with the current status of the church. They believe it has lost its vision, and they want more from it than it is giving them.” But dissatisfaction is not enough, as Wells himself agreed. We need something more. We need positively to recover what the church is to be. What is the church in her nature and essence? What is to distinguish and mark the church?
Christians have long talked of the “marks of the church.” The topic of the church did not become a center of widespread formal theological debate until the Reformation. Before the sixteenth century, the church was more assumed than discussed. It was thought of as the means of grace, a reality that existed as the presupposition of the rest of theology. With the advent of the radical criticisms of Martin Luther and others in the sixteenth century, however, discussion of the nature of the church itself became inevitable. As one scholar explains, “the Reformation made the gospel, not ecclesiastical organization, the test of the true church (Edmund Clowney, The Church [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995], 101).
In 1530 Melanchthon drew up the Augsburg Confession, which in Article VII stated that “this Church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered. And for that true unity of the Church it is enough to have unity of belief concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. In 1553 Thomas Cranmer produced the Forty-two Articles of the church of England in which he wrote that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly administered.” John Calvin writes in his Institutes that “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”
The Belgic Confession (1561), Article 29, said, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”
We can see in these two marks – gospel proclamation and observance of the sacraments – both the creation and the preservation of the church – the fountain of God’s truth and the lovely vessel to contain and display it. The church is generated by the right preaching of the Word; the church is contained and distinguished by the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Presumed in this latter mark is that church discipline is being practiced).
Certainly no church is perfect. But, thank God, many imperfect churches are healthy. Nevertheless, I fear that many more are not – even among those that would affirm the full deity of Christ and the full authority of Scripture. The nine marks, then, constitute a plan for recovering biblical preaching and church leadership at a time when too many congregations are languishing in a merely notional and nominal Christianity, with all the resulting pragmatism and pettiness. The purpose of too many churches has fallen from one of glorifying God simply to growing larger, assuming that that goal, however achieved, must glorify God.
In a society where Christianity is being widely and rapidly disowned, where evangelism is often considered inherently intolerant or even officially classified as a hate crime, we find our world changed. The culture to which we would conform in order to be relevant becomes so inextricably entwined with antagonism to the Gospel that to conform to it must mean a loss of the Gospel itself. In such a day, we must re-hear the Bible and re-imagine the concept of successful ministry not as necessarily immediately fruitful but as demonstrably faithful to God’s Word.
We need a new model for the church. Actually, the model we need is an old one. We need churches in which the key indicator of success is not evident results but persevering biblical faithfulness. This new (old) model of the church focuses on two basic needs in our churches: the preaching of the message and the leading of disciples. The first five “marks of a healthy church” (expositional preaching, biblical theology, a biblical understanding of the Gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, and a biblical understanding of evangelism) all reflect the concern to preach rightly the Word of God. The last four marks (church membership, church discipline, a concern for discipleship and growth, and church leadership) address the problem of how to rightly administer the borders and markers of Christian identity, i.e., how to lead disciples.
The end and purpose of all this is the glory of God as we make Him known. Throughout history, God has desired to make Himself known (e.g., Ex 7:5; Deut 4:34-35; Ps 22:21-22; Isa 49:22-23; Ezek 20:34-38; John 17:26). He has created the world and has done all that He has done for His own praise. And it is right and good that He should do so. Mark Ross has put it this way:
“We are one of God’s chief pieces of evidence…. Paul’s great concern [in Eph 4:1-16] for the church is that the church manifest and display the glory of God, thus vindicating God’s character against all the slander of demonic realms, the slander that God is not worth living for…. God has entrusted to His church the glory of His own name.”
All who read these words – those who are church leaders and those who are not – are made in the image of God. We are to be walking pictures of the moral nature and righteous character of God, reflecting it around the universe for all to see – especially in our union with God through Christ. This, therefore, is what God calls us to and why He calls us to it. He calls us to join together with Him, and together in our congregations, not for our glory but for His own.
Mark Dever serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. A Duke graduate, Dr. Dever holds a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a Th.M. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from Cambridge University. He is the president of 9Marks and has taught at a number of seminaries. Dr. Dever has also authored several books and articles. He and his wife Connie live and minister on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
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