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9 Marks of a Healthy Church

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Last week I mentioned that I had discovered 9 Marks Ministries and that I was thrilled to find an organization that is dedicated to recovering many of the traditional marks of a Biblical church. While they mention that the nine marks they outline are not the only important marks of a healthy church, they do believe they are the most neglected. I am going to briefly outline each of the nine. And just to increase your value, I will weave in a bit of commentary!

1. Expositional Preaching

Expositional preaching (otherwise known as expository preaching) is the investigation of a particular passage of Scripture whereby the pastor carefully explains the meaning of a passage and then applies it to the members of the congregation. The point of a sermon, then, takes the point of a particular passage. This is in opposition to the topical preaching showcased in the majority of evangelical churches, where Bible passages are woven together to support a pre-existing point.

2. Biblical Theology

This emphasizes not only how we are taught but also what we are taught. In a sense this should follow naturally from expository preaching because the careful exposition of a passage should lead to sound theology. The majority of poor theology arises from a lack of careful Biblical exposition. Where there is poor exposition, we should expect to eventually find poor theology.

3. Biblical Understanding of the Good News

There needs to be a proper understanding and necessary emphasis on the full gospel. Where many contemporary churches teach that Jesus wants to meet our felt needs and give us a healthier self-image, that is not the gospel. The gospel message is that we are sinners who have rebelled against our Creator. But Jesus took the curse that was rightfully ours and all that remains is for us to have faith in Him so God may credit Christ’s righteousness to our account. When we de-emphasize sin and damnation to make the presentation more friendly and less offensive we cease declaring the full gospel.

4. Biblical Understanding of Conversion

When we have a Biblical understanding of the gospel, we must then also have a proper understanding of conversion. Conversion is a new birth from death to life and is a work of God. It is not merely a change of attitude or a change of affection, but a change of nature. Conversion does not need to be an exciting, emotional experience, but does need to produce fruit to be judged a true conversion.

5. Biblical Understanding of Evangelism

The way we evangelize speaks volumes about how we understand conversion (and further, what we understand about the good news). If we believe that people are essentially good and are seeking Jesus, we evangelize using half truths and tend to elicit false conversions. When we present a watered-down gospel, we end up with a watered-down church. We need to be faithful to present the full gospel, the good news with the bad, and leave the results to God.

6. Biblical Understanding of Membership

Church membership is a privilege and a responsibility and needs to be regarded as such. People should only be members if they are dedicated to the church – in attendance, prayer, service and giving. To allow people to become and remain members for sentimental or other unbiblical reasons makes light of membership and may even be dangerous.

7. Biblical Church Discipline

Discipline guides church membership. The church has the responsibility to judge the life and teaching of the membership since they can negatively impact the church’s witness of the gospel. Leadership need to be firm in discipline as this is an expression of love to the congregation.

8. Promotion of Church Discipleship And Growth

We need to recover true discipleship – discipleship that causes Christians to live lives of increasing holiness. The emphasis on growth needs to be directed at holiness rather than membership. True discipleship producing strong, committed Christians will present a clear witness to the world.

9. Biblical Understand of Leadership

Until recent times, almost all Protestants agreed that in church government there should be a plurality of elders (which means that there should be an office of elder and not merely one or more pastors in positions of leadership). This is a Biblical and practical model that has fallen out of favor in modern times.

On the whole I think these marks are, indeed, the essentials for healthy churches and certainly have not received due attention in the contemporary evangelical churches. Traditionally Reformed doctrine has spoken of three marks of a true church – preaching of the Word, Biblical church discipline and proper administration of the sacraments. These nine marks fit quite closely with the traditional three: Marks one through five parallel the first traditional mark; Marks six and seven parallel the second traditional mark; Marks eight and nine stand alone, though eight could probably fit into the first traditional mark. Glaringly absent, then, is the emphasis on the proper administration of the sacraments. Mark Dever of 9 Marks Ministries explains this by saying that most churches still place sufficient emphasis on the sacraments. Therefore that is not a “lost” mark that needs to be rediscovered.

I would suggest that while churches still emphasize the sacraments (or ordinances if you believe “sacrament” is too strong a term for Lord’s Supper and Baptism), many of them have either de-emphasized the sacraments, thus making light of them, or perform them improperly. This is part-and-parcel with the loss of the marks that have been emphasized above. In many churches the sacraments (Lord’s Supper especially) have been removed from the worship services lest they serve as a stumbling block to “seekers.” Instead they are celebrated in groups which do not have proper oversight to ensure that they are being governed in a Biblical way. Baptism is often opened up to people who live in open rebellion to God which should call their conversion into question. So I think it may have been wise for the gentlemen of 9 Marks to include the sacraments in their marks.

Despite that small quibble, I think the 9 marks are all important marks that have been lost to many evangelical churches. I continue to spend lots of time on 9 Marks’ site reading, listening and learning.

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