Mark Dever’s Original Letter to a Church Plant on ‘The 9 Marks of a Healthy Church’

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In 1998, two 30-something Southern Baptist church elders—Mark Dever (b. 1960) and Matt Schmucker (b. 1962) of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.—founded the Center for Church Reform, later renamed 9 Marks in the early 2000s.

Their purpose is “to equip church leaders with a biblical vision and practical resources for displaying God’s glory to the nations through healthy churches.”

They do so through emphasizing nine different marks of a healthy church:

  1. Preaching
  2. Biblical Theology
  3. The Gospel
  4. Conversion
  5. Evangelism
  6. Membership
  7. Discipline
  8. Discipleship
  9. Leadership

Beginning in 2000, Dever expounded each of these traits in his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which is now in its third edition and has sold more than 100,000 copies.

I would be hard-pressed to think of any other ministry that has been more intentional in helping Southern Baptists and evangelicals recover a healthy understanding of polity and ecclesiology, especially at a practical level.

If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the “nine marks of a healthy church,” it goes back to a letter that 31-year-old Mark Dever wrote on Sunday, October 30 (the day before Reformation Day), of 1991. At the time, Dever was working on his PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge. This was three years before he would be called to be the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist.

Years earlier, he had helped to plant New Meadows Baptist Church in Topsfield,  Massachusetts, and they had asked him what they should look for as they searched for a pastor. In this letter he lays out, for the first time, what he regarded as the “nine marks of a healthy church.” (After reading this letter, the church ended up hiring Andy Davis as their pastor.)


30 October 1991

Dear brothers and sisters,

I have for some time been thinking and praying about writing a letter to you. I will address this letter to the elders, since Biblically you are the ones who are responsible for the spiritual well-being of the flock; but I have no qualms about it being shared more generally.

I am delighted at the stability and growth God has graciously given you as a church over the last five years. That has in no small part, I feel, been given through a faithful and committed eldership, and particularly through Zane’s commitment to sound, Biblical preaching. As you approach this difficult time of transition, I have a few thoughts about what you should look for in a pastor. Note, adherence to the nine items I intend to outline here below will not insure that the person is a good pastor, but I feel that the lack of any of them would be an inadequacy which would slowly, but cumulatively, affect the church in a negative way. So, I would take all of these to be essential, but not in and of themselves sufficient. For instance, you could have someone who held to all of these inter-related points below, and yet was simply not gifted or called to be a pastor. Indeed, I trust such is the case with the vast majority of members at New Meadows currently. On the other hand, let a man be never so gifted in personal relationships and communications, even a strong adherent to the authority of Scripture and to the practice of personal prayer, and yet miss any one or two of the matters below, and, given time, I’m convinced that New Meadows would become the leaking bucket that too many churches are today—holding no more living water than the world around them. I point these out after much thought and prayer, because, unfortunately, they are rarely prized among those who profess themselves called to be pastors and shepherds today. So, to summarize, I am not here giving you an exhaustive check list of what I think you should look for in a pastor. There are many more issues which will play into that choice. I am, however, giving you a list of qualifications which are both needed and, sadly rare, which I pray God you will trust Him to have for you in the pastor He intends.

[1. A Commitment to Expositional Preaching]

The first quality I would tell you to make sure is present in anyone you would ever consider calling to the eldership, but particularly to the pastorate, is a commitment to expositional preaching. This presumes a belief in the authority of Scripture, but it says something more. I’m convinced that a commitment to expositional preaching is a commitment to hear God’s Word. If you have someone who happily accepts the authority of God’s Word, yet who in practice (whether intending to or not) does not preach expositionally, he will never preach more than he already knows. When one takes a piece of Scripture, and simply exhorts the congregation on a topic which is important, but doesn’t really preach the point of that passage, one is limited to only hearing in Scripture what one already knew upon coming to the text. It is in being committed to preach Scripture in context, expositionally, having as the point of the message the point of the passage, that we hear from God those things which we do not already intend to hear when we set out. And, from the initial call to repentance to the latest thing the Spirit has convicted you about, our whole salvation consists in hearing God in ways which we, before we heard Him, would never have guessed. To charge someone with the responsibility of the spiritual oversight of the flock who does not in practice show a commitment to hear and to teach God’s Word, is to at least put a drag on, and at most put a cap on the growth of the church at the level of the pastor. The church will slowly be conformed to his mind, rather than God’s mind.

[2. A Sound Theological System]

The second quality I would hope you to require in anyone whom you would call to the eldership would be that he be sound in his full theological system—and that means being what has come to be called “reformed.” To misunderstand doctrines as fundamental as election (does our salvation issue ultimately from God or us?), human nature (are people basically bad or good? do they merely need encouragement and enhanced self-esteem, or do they need forgiveness and new life?), the nature of Christ’s work on the cross (did he make possible an option for us? or was He our substitute?), the nature of conversion (more on that particularly below) and the certainly we can have of God’s continuing care based fundamentally on His character rather than ours, is no simple matter of lunch-room humor at the seminary, but rather is of real importance for faithfulness to Scripture and for real pastoral issues which constantly arise. For any Christian, but particularly for an elder, to resist the fundamental idea of God’s sovereignty over all of life while practicing Christianity is really to play with pious paganism. It is to baptize a heart which is in some ways still unbelieving, and to set up as an example a person who may well be deeply unwilling to trust God. In a day when our culture demands us to turn evangelism into advertising and explains the Spirit’s work as marketing, in which God in churches is so often made over in the image of man, I would be especially careful to find a man who had a biblical and experiential grasp of the sovereignty of God.

[3. A Biblical Understanding of the Gospel]

The third quality which any elder should have who is to be active in leading the church is a biblical understanding of the gospel. J. I. Packer lays out beautifully the relation of the last point to this one in his introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. If you haven’t read that recently, re-read it now while you’re in the process of praying and looking for a new pastor. A heart for the gospel means having a heart for the truth—God’s presentation of Himself, of our need, of Christ’s provision, and of our responsibility. To present the gospel as simply an additive to give the non-Christian something they naturally want anyway (joy, peace, happiness, fulfillment, self-esteem, love) is partially true, but only partially true. And, as Packer says, “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth makes it a complete untruth.” Fundamentally we need forgiveness, we need spiritual life. To present the gospel less radically than this is to ask for false conversions and increasingly meaningless church membership, both of which will make the evangelization of the world around us all the more difficult.

[4. A Biblical Understanding of Conversion]

The fourth quality which any elder should be required to have is a biblical understanding of conversion. If conversion is basically presented as something we do, rather than something God does, then we misunderstand it. Although conversion certainly includes our making a sincere commitment, a self-conscious decision, it is more than that. Scripture is clear in teaching that we are not all journeying to God, some having found the way, others still looking. Instead, it presents us as in needing to having our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life. None of this we can do. We can make a commitment, but we must be saved. The change each human needs, regardless of how we appear externally, is so radical, so near the root of us, that only God can do it. We need God to convert us. I’m reminded of Spurgeon’s story of how as he was walking in London a drunk came up to him, leaned on the lamp-post near him and said, “Hey, Mr. Spurgeon, I’m one of your converts.” Spurgeon’s response was, “Well, you must be one of mine – you’re certainly not one of the Lord’s!” American churches, Southern Baptist churches, are full of people who have made sincere commitments at one point in their lives, but who evidently have not experienced the radical change which the Bible presents as conversion. The result, according to one recent study, is a divorce rate which is 50% above the national average. The cause, at least in part, must be the unbiblical preaching about conversion of thousands of Southern Baptists pastors. Again, if you’ve not held to the first three things mentioned above, it’s hardly surprising that this one would go wrong as well. [Note, here please don’t mis-understand me as insisting on an emotionally heated conversion experience at a particular point. I’m insisting on the theological truth underlying conversion, not a particular experience of it. You know the tree by its fruit.]

[5. A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism]

The fifth quality which anyone you ever entrust with the spiritual responsibility of teaching (of which all elders are to be capable, II Tim. 2.2) is the closely related idea of a Biblical understanding of evangelism. If your mind has been shaped by the Bible on God and the gospel, on human need and conversion, then a right understanding of evangelism will naturally follow. Biblically, evangelism is presenting the good news freely, and trusting God to bring conversions. Any way in which we try to force births will be as effective as Ezekiel trying to stitch the dry bones together. And the result will be similar. Again, if conversion is understood as merely a sincere commitment at any given point, then we simply need to get everyone to that point any way possible. Biblically though, while we’re to care, to plead, to persuade, our first duty is to be faithful to the obligation we have from God, which is to present the Good News He’s given us. He will bring conversion from that. If there is a sizable discrepancy between the membership of a pastor’s church, and the attendance, I would naturally wonder about what they understood conversion to be, and what kind of evangelism they had practised in order to create such a large number of people, uninvolved in the life of the church, yet certain of their own salvation, with the blessing of the church. I could give you bibliographies on each of these points, but I won’t, assuming you would already know the books I would suggest. In a series of evangelistic addresses I did this past February in the university here, I concluded that the three things which I must convey to people about the decision they must make about the Gospel (God, Man, Christ, Response), is that they decision is costly (and therefore must be carefully considered), AND urgent (and therefore must be made), AND worth it (and therefore should be made). That’s the balance I should strive for in my evangelism.

[6. A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership]

Sixth, and following on from what I just said, I would require a biblical understanding of church membership. Sadly, if it were the case, my guess is that most Southern Baptist pastors would be more proud of the 6,000 members their church had, than they would be ashamed that only 800 attend. Written numbers can be idols as easily—perhaps more easily—than carved figures. But it is God who will assess our work, and He will weigh it, I think, rather than count. If the church is a building, then we must be bricks in it; if the church is a body, then we are its members, if we are the household of faith, it presumes we are part of that household. Sheep are in a flock, and branches on a vine. Forget the particular cultural ephemera for a moment—white cards with names on them, lists on a computer—Biblically, if we are Christians we must be members of a church. We must not forsake the assembling together of ourselves (Heb. 10:25). It is not simply a record of a statement we must made; it is a reflection of a living, vital commitment.

[7. A Plurality of Elders]

Seventh, and perhaps most initially difficult in your situation, I would require that the person understand, and be convinced of the New Testament practice of having a plurality of elders (see Acts 14:23; the regular practice of Paul of referring to a number of elders in any one local church). I am completely convinced of this as the New Testament practice, and as particularly needful in churches then and now without an apostolic presence. That does not mean that the pastor has no distinct role (look up in a concordance references to preaching and preachers), but that he is also and fundamentally part of the eldership. This means that decisions involving the church, yet which do not come to the attention of the whole church, should not so much fall to the pastor alone, as to the elders as a whole. While this is cumbersome at points (as I’m sure you know only too well) it has immense benefits in rounding out the pastor’s gifts, and in giving him good support in the church, and in too many other ways to mention now. Anyway, this would have to be made quite clear when calling a pastor. If he is a typical Southern Baptist he will assume that the elders are either deacons, or there simply to help him do what he wants to do. He may well not have a good appreciation for the fact that you are inviting him fundamentally to be one of the elders, and, among you, the pastor, the primary teaching elder. I’m convinced that if most pastors understood this idea, they would leap at the idea, given the weight it removes from their shoulders. And, I’m also worried that many of those who wouldn’t, wouldn’t do so because of unbiblical understandings of their own role, or, worse, unsanctified self-centeredness.

[8. Biblical Church Discipline]

The eighth issue I would want to have clearly understood and affirmed by any new elder in the church is the issue of church discipline. This is one of the things which gives meaning to being a member of the church, which has been universally practiced by the church, and yet which has almost entirely faded out of Southern Baptist church life in the last three generations. Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, Paul’s in I Cor. 5:4-13 (along with other passages) clearly show that the church is to exercise judgment within itself, and that this is for redemptive, not revengeful purposes. If we cannot say what a Christian does not live like, we cannot very well say what she or he does live like. One of my concerns with church’s discipleship programs is that they are, again, like pouring water into a leaking bucket. While this issue is fraught with problems in pastoral application, the whole Christian life is, and that should never be used as an excuse to leave either unpracticed. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride’s sake, but for God’s name’s sake.

[9. Promotion of Christian Discipleship and Growth]

Finally, the ninth issue which I would require an elder to understand is the role of the church in promoting Christian discipleship and growth. As I mentioned above, when the church does not exercise discipline, I think one of the unintended consequences is the increased difficulty in that church growing disciples. Examples are unclear, models are confused. The church has an obligation to be a means of God’s growing people in grace. Yet if they are places which are taught only the pastor’s thoughts, in which God is more questioned than worshipped, in which the gospel is diluted and evangelism perverted, in which church membership is made meaningless, and a worldly cult of personality is allowed to grow up around the pastor, then one can hardly expect to find such a group being either cohesive or edifying to each other, let alone glorifying to God. When we can honestly assume that those within the church are regenerated, and that those who are regenerated are committed to the church, then the corporate New Testament images of the church can become not merely good sermons, but thrilling lives together. Relationships imply commitment in the world; surely we wouldn’t think it would be any less the case in the church?

Well, friends, I could go on for much longer. You’ve been patient to read this far. I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t already know all of the above, and are not committed to it yourself, but I do care deeply for New Meadows, feel some sense of obligation in my heart and in prayer. I thought it right to express that on paper. I do not have a vote in the eldership or in the church (nor should I!) but I wanted to write this with the hopes that it might be helpful in some of your discussions, prayers and evaluations. Know that more importantly than sending this letter, I’ll be daily joining with you in prayer for the church, especially during this crucial time.

as your brother in Christ,

Mark.

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