Editor’s Note: This is a guest post authored by Dale Rudiger. Dale’s blog is titled “The Ex-Catholic Journal”and may be found here. I encourage you to check it out!
Why are 9Marks Churches So Unhealthy?
NOVEMBER 20, 2016
[This is the eighth in a series on improper submission: The first article (link) covered the similarities between Roman Catholicism and Islam, and mandatory submission. The second article (link) introduced improper submission that often occurs in evangelical churches. The third article (link) discussed the role of integrity (or lack thereof) in submitting to fallible creeds. The fourth article (link) warned about making rash oaths in submitting to church membership. The fifth article (link) described the problem of elders acting as overlords rather than as loving teachers. The sixth article (link) was a case study involving spiritual abuse related to a signed church covenant. The seventh article (link) discussed spiritual abuse at 9Marks churches.
What Makes 9Marks Churches So Unhealthy?
Apparently, I am the kind of person who has to learn by making mistakes. I became a Christian at a relatively late age (34). The only religious system that I had ever known was Roman Catholicism. So, I had no idea what to look for in a church. One of my first forays away from Rome occurred on January 12th, 1992. I attended The Church of Christ (Scientist). I thought it was cool that they had reading rooms. After the service, I picked up a book by the church’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures) and went on vacation for a week in Florida. As I read about how sickness was not real, guess what? I got sick. The more I read, the sicker I became. By the end of the week’s vacation, I had developed Bell’s Palsy. One side of my face was paralyzed. Lesson learned, Lord. I returned the book to the church when I got back and never returned.
It is now almost 25 years later. Looking back I see that God has taken me on another “long vacation.” He seems to have made me an expert in 9Marks churches. I find it amazing that it has taken so long for me to learn the lessons that I needed. “Brothers and sisters, think what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards…”
I have read and reread the book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. Finally I have figured out the problem with 9Marks. If you read the list of the marks, none of them seem out of place. Good preaching, sound doctrine, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, belonging, church discipline, discipleship, and godly leadership are all important. Where Mark Dever goes astray is that he pollutes each of the nine marks with his faulty paradigm. In the introduction to the book, Dever reveals his hand:
“In God’s providence, I had done a doctorate focusing on a Puritan (Richard Sibbes) whose writings about the individual Christian I loved, but whose concessions on the church came to seem increasingly unwise to me.”
This is what Dever means. The early Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote a book entitled The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax. The book exalts the gentleness and patience of Jesus Christ in the salvation of sinners. Where Dever believes Sibbes erred is in extending this kindness and patience to the church. In a word, Dever has a Puritanical understanding of the local church. He is convinced that there are way too many false converts in the church and insists on changing that. And he is up to the job! This viewpoint pollutes his application of each of the nine marks. Dever has a very high view of the skill set of a pastor, and a very low view of the abilities of the sheep:
1) I hold the office of anointed one.
Comments from the book: “In our preaching, we stand in the place of God”“It is appropriate for us to gather together and listen to one who is standing in the place of God…”
2) It is my job to purify the church. We must weed out the non-anointed.
Comments from the book: “It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re Christians”
“As we [use wrong methods] to draw people into the church, we end up polluting the very church we are drawing them into.”“Membership is the church’s corporate endorsement of a person’s salvation”“God’s plan for the local church does not encourage us to leave weeds unchecked.”“How to Shepherd : help people to see that they may be mistaken about their own spiritual state”“Do your church members recognize that they are to examine one another to see if they are in the faith?”
3) Since I stand in God’s place, submit to me!
Comment from the book: “The kind of trust that we are called to give to our…leaders in a church, can never finally be earned. It must be given as a gift–a gift in faith, in trust more of the God who gives than of the leaders he has given.”
Keep in mind Dever’s Puritanical paradigm as I share the lessons that I learned attending 9Marks churches, and expose its problems.
Problem #1 – A Lack of Love
It is my humble opinion that the most damning issue at the 9Marks churches that I have encountered is a lack of love. Here is what I wrote to the pastor at my first 9Marks church that led to my excommunication:
Pastor, I urge you to consider these things [issues related to his improper excommunication of my friend]. The church at Ephesus had it all. They had right doctrine. They did not tolerate evil men. They put to the test those who called themselves apostles, but were really false. They persevered; they endured for His name’s sake. They did not grow weary. AND YET, THEY WERE THE ONLY CHURCH OF THE SEVEN CHURCHES THAT WAS THREATENED WITH THE REMOVAL OF THEIR LAMPSTAND! They lacked love.
I have experienced some good preaching at 9Marks churches. I have seen a passion for truth and protection from false teaching. I have witnessed tireless effort, discipline and zeal. But 9Marks churches appear to have the “Ephesian love problem.” In 1 Cor. 13, Paul speaks of the preeminence of love. A pastor may have prophecy and great insight, but without love he is nothing. The Father seeks true worshipers that will worship in spirit and truth. Love and integrity are two marks of a healthy congregation. If the pastor and elders are impatient, immature, unkind, aloof, worldly, or double-minded, you can be certain you are in an unhealthy church.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love thinks no evil.
Mark Dever’s paradigm is “Do not assume that the sheep are believers.” This exposes a lack of lovethat leads to flattened reeds and quenched flax.
Problem # 2 – An Inward Focus
It has been over 37 years since my last “date.” One of my problems in dating was that I was too self-focused. It caused me to try too hard. I longed to be like one of those extroverts who could easily interact with their date. [Thank God there was one woman who overcame my shyness and eventually became my wife!] An unhealthy self-focus is the second problem that I see in 9Marks churches.
When your paradigm is that it is your job to purify the church, the focus turns inward. The preaching centers around exposing false converts. The theology concentrates on the sheep’s faults. The pastor spends his time convincing you that you may not have received the correct gospel. In place of true discipleship, the law is used as a mirror to expose false professions. Examine yourselves! Are you in the faith? Are we doing membership correctly? Are we staying pure enough by kicking out enough sinners? I hope you get my drift. Self-focus exacerbates the lack of love problem discussed above.
Problem #3 – They Have Taken Their Eyes Off of Jesus
I turn 60 in a few days. I started running races when I was 14, and by God’s grace I still am able to compete in local 5k’s. The good news is that I will soon be entering a new age bracket! One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Hebrews 12:1-2. “…Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.”
I believe that the flip side of the self-focus mentioned above is that 9Marks churches have turned their focus away from Jesus. They desire to be seen as healthy and holy churches. But they seek holiness in all the wrong places. They have become “nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.” 2 Peter 1:9. Their constant refrain is “examine yourself to see if you are in the faith.” They may deny this, but they have turned their focus away from Jesus, our Source of holiness.
Problem #4 – They Have Succumbed to Legalism
When a church becomes self-focused and has turned their eyes from the Savior, the inevitable result is legalism. Last fall I wrote an article comparing two legalistic religions that demand improper submission: Roman Catholicism and Islam. I found it interesting that both had a set of five legalistic demands.
For Roman Catholics, they are called the “Five Precepts”:
- Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
- Mandatory confession of sins to a priest at least once per year.
- Receive the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
- Observe the days of fasting and abstinence.
- Provide for the needs of the Church.
For Muslims, they are called the “Five Pillars”:
- Mandatory worship 5 times per day.
- Mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca at least once per lifetime (Hajj).
- Testimony of faith – “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the Messenger of God” (Shahadah).
- Fasting in the month of Ramadan (Sawm).
- Mandatory giving (Zakat).
In Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever lists what he calls the “Five Special Responsibilities”:
- Attend services regularly.
- Attend Communion particularly.
- Attend Members’ meetings consistently.
- Pray regularly.
- Give regularly.
The Pharisees were excellent rule followers. They tithed to the very last herb. But they did not learn the most critical lesson. Twice Jesus warned them:”It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire compassion, not sacrifice, for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mt. 9:13, 12:7.
9Marks churches tend toward a stifling form of self-righteous legalism. One “fruit” of this is the creation of mandatory church covenants. Here is their reasoning. They focus on the law to purify the church.
Problem #5 – They Bind Consciences with Improper Oaths
The Pharisees were notorious for their oath taking. This is another characteristic they share with 9Marks. In Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Dever writes:
“…many Baptist and other evangelical churches express a commitment to God and to each other in writing by signing a “church covenant.” This is an agreement members make with each other and with God to live out the Christian life together in a local church.”
He goes so far as to recommend that this written Church Covenant be recited during the Lord’s Supper. This is a serious issue. It is the natural consequence of the first four problems. Once the focus is off of Jesus and on to legalism, how does one control the flock? Answer: by requiring oath-taking.
I cannot stress how inappropriate it is to recite a Church Covenant during the New Covenant meal. The focus of the New Covenant is the forgiveness of sin through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. What is the focus of the Church Covenant? Is it not my obedience? Dever has committed a grave error. He has replaced the New Covenant with a covenant of his own making. By requiring adherence to this covenant of obedience, he improperly binds the consciences of the members. All in an effort to keep the church pure.
Problem #6 – They Do Not Properly Administer the Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper
Not only do many 9Marks churches improperly recite a legalistic covenant during the New Covenant meal, but they also divide Christ’s body. It has become customary for 9Marks churches to “fence the table.” During the New Covenant meal, the pastor stresses that the table is restricted to those who are currently members in good standing at an evangelical church. This is wrong at so many levels! It is a very serious error.
Paul warns the Corinthians not to fence the table. “For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” Paul goes on to rebuke this divisiveness: “For those [divisive ones] who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”
9 Marks churches do not discern the body of Christ. Think for a moment about the issue of the wounded Christian. Perhaps she has been abused at her former (9Marks?) church. She is looking for a loving congregation at which to heal. She looks forward to sharing the covenant meal at her new church. Suddenly she is told that she is not to participate in the Lord’s Supper. She is cut off. The body is divided into two groups: members-in-good-standing and non-members. This has happened often to me, and it is grievous. Those who improperly “fence the table” have committed spiritual abuse. They re-victimize the multitudes of wounded sheep, the bruised reeds and smoking flax, that are part of Christ’s Body. Why do they do this? To purify the Lord’s Table by keeping the disobedient “separated brethren” out. I guess they think these wayward souls have lost their spiritual “covering.” Never mind that they commune with their Christian friends and attend. They are loose cannons, severely at risk since they are not submitted to the “anointed one” who speaks for God.
Another manner of dividing the sheep is the “worthiness requirement.” Only Christians who are pure enough are to come to the Supper. Having excluded non-members, now “impure sinners” are also excluded. It seems to me that this turns the new covenant meal on its head. “Sorry, you are not worthy enough to come to the Supper.” “I thank you, Lord, that I am worthy to eat at your table. I’m not like that sinful tax preparer over there.”At the Lord’s Supper the focus should be on Jesus and his forgiveness, not on me and whether I am worthy to participate. Paul says “But let a man examine himself, and then eat.” Truthful self-examination should reveal unworthiness, not worthiness. I think Paul is telling the Corinthians to examine the way they are treating their brethren. Examine their attitude. This fits the context of the entire passage. But the 9Marks paradigm fences out the “impure” and allows only the “pure” to eat. They are deceived. They are divisive.
Problem #7 – The Leaders Tend to Have Control Issues
It is my experience that the leaders of 9Marks churches have control issues. This is the natural result of the Puritanical paradigm. They are like over-protective “helicopter mom’s” that hover over their children. In order to become a member, you must sign a confessional statement. Never mind that you don’t understand all that is in it. Never mind that you have not been adequately instructed. Never mind that the confessional statement may contain errors. If you want to join us, YOU WILL SIGN ON THE DOTTED LINE. Then, there is the restrictive Church Covenant, with all its unintended consequences. How many have been burned by swearing an oath that they eventually could not uphold? Or had their consciences seared? Or have been excommunicated based on a legalistic covenant?
Next, let’s ponder the issue of submission to elders. I swear, if mention is made of Hebrews 13:17 in a membership class you should immediately scream, get up and run out of the room! These 9Marks leaders misunderstand the issue of submission. Please listen to what I am about to say. IF SOMEONE DEMANDS SUBMISSION, THEY DO NOT DESERVE SUBMISSION. [This is an important lesson men need to learn in their marriages.] No one should ever submit to an unqualified, unloving pastor who questions their salvation, points them back to the law, mandates improper oaths, and improperly celebrates the Lord’s Supper.
But what about Hebrews 13:17? I doubt that these Hebrew leaders demanded submission based on their office. Instead, I believe they deserved voluntary obedience based on their character and teaching.
The effect of having pastors and elders with control issues is to quench the Holy Spirit. And this will inevitably lead to your church becoming a very unhealthy place, indeed!
Problem #8 – Immature Leadership
Okay, I admit that I am getting old. Thirty-five years ago I was sitting at a minor league baseball game with my wife when I noticed that every single player on the field was younger than me. Thirty-five years ago! But I have found that I am a much more mature person at age 60 than I was at age 25. A serious problem that I have encountered at 9Marks churches is immature leadership.
The New Calvinism that has swept into the church has been described as a movement of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” Paul warns about the danger of immature leadership. “An elder must not be a new believer, because he might become proud and the devil would cause him to fall.” 1 Tim. 3:6. There is also a warning in the Bible concerning treatment of older folk such as me: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.” I fear that by setting up a “system” of 9Marks, the immature pastor becomes prideful in the “healthy church” that he is leading. Young, prideful pastors do not accept correction well. They also tend to be impatient. They are overly sensitive. They don’t listen to the advice of more experienced, discerning Christians who just might be among the “lowly sheep.” If problems arise, the first reaction is to kick them out the door. To keep the church “pure.” I think this is why you see so many improper excommunications and other forms of church abuse at 9Marks churches.
These are a very unhealthy traits. God will resist the proud.
Problem #9 – 9Marks Leaders are Overly Scrupulous
I recently watched a sermon on Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. The pastor pointed out that there were birds that nested in the large mustard plant. He warned that the church must be careful not to “shoo these birds away.” Perhaps these are unbelievers who are just beginning to fall under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps they are new Christians that do not have a firm understanding of their new-found faith. His advice was to LET THEM NEST! But the paradigm of 9Marks is to purify the church. Better to kick out ten true Christians than let one false “Christian” slip into the church!
The stifling legalism of 9Marks leads to stagnant, unhealthy churches. These churches rarely witness the extraordinary grace of God in the salvation of sinners. I think much of the growth in 9Marks churches comes from lateral moves from other churches. If the Holy Spirit has been quenched, you will not see much “new blood” entering the church. The beauty of new believers is their unparalleled joy and zeal. If that is missing at a church, you may be participating in an unhealthy church.
Conclusion: Are the Nine Marks Biblical?
David Platt, in the Foreword of Dever’s book, writes this about the nine marks:
“You may think some of them are questionable and others of them are controversial. But brother or sister, these nine marks are biblical, and that is why they are so valuable.”
While the words and concepts may be biblical, the application of the concepts is unbiblical. The Roman Catholic hierarchy claims to faithfully teach the Word of God. They claim to be “biblical.” But they interpret and apply the Word improperly. So does Mark Dever and the 9Marks ministry.
If you think it proper to pursue a pure, regenerate, Puritanical church where a controlling, unloving, immature, unqualified pastor (who stands in the place of God) constantly preaches legalistic sermons that question your conversion, who assumes the worst about the sheep, who improperly administers the Lord’s Supper, who requires you to make improper oaths, that excommunicates your friends for not being pure enough, who point you away from Christ, who quenches the Holy Spirit, and who demands unquestioned submission, then a 9Marks churches may be for you.
But if you think that good preaching by a loving, qualified pastor based on sound doctrine that points the sheep to Christ and away from self, who reminds them of their former purification, who is inviting to strangers, who “holds the reins” loosely and lets the Holy Spirit lead the church, who assumes the best in the sheep, who gently woos people to submit based solely on their godly example and instruction, who encourages them to search the Scriptures for themselves, and who is patient when controversy or sin erupts, then 9Marks may not be a good place to congregate.
Mark Dever has made a grave error. He has an incredibly negative view of the sheep. This is what he writes about his ministry at Capitol Hill Baptist:
“It is in the nature of sheep to stray and of wolves to eat. I guess if I can’t deal with that, I should just get out of under-shepherding.” Mr. Dever, if that is your experience with God’s people, maybe you are doing something wrong. Maybe you should consider leaving the ministry.
It is my opinion that Mark Dever is a hypocrite who thinks the best of himself (he is a bruised reed) and the worst of others (they are false professors). He has devised a puritanical system that has caused much harm to the Body of Christ. He claims to stand in the place of Christ, and then tramples the bruised reed and extinguishes the smoking flax.
In the next part, I will discuss what I feel must be done to address the 9Marks movement.
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