Why are 9Marks Churches So Unhealthy?

By | December 29, 2016

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”:
  1. Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
  2. Mandatory confession of sins to a priest at least once per year.
  3. Receive the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
  4. Observe the days of fasting and abstinence.
  5. Provide for the needs of the Church.


For Muslims, they are called the “Five Pillars”:
  1. Mandatory worship 5 times per day.
  2. Mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca at least once per lifetime (Hajj).
  3. Testimony of faith – “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the Messenger of God” (Shahadah).
  4. Fasting in the month of Ramadan (Sawm).
  5. Mandatory giving (Zakat).

In Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever lists what he calls the “Five Special Responsibilities”:

  1. Attend services regularly.
  2. Attend Communion particularly.
  3. Attend Members’ meetings consistently.
  4. Pray regularly.
  5. 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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9 Marks is a slicker reworking of the shepherding movement of the 1970’s. I vividly remember the shipwrecked faith of so many of the folks and families who were involved in that perversion. 9 Marks is a cult that has more in common with Scientology than Christianity.

Dale Rudiger

I updated my article that Todd referenced earlier concerning “What should we do about 9Marks?” Here is the link to where it was published at The Wartburg Watch:


Dale Rudiger

For those interested, here are the page numbers to the quotes I referenced in my article:

Page 37: “we stand in the place of God”

Page 60: “it is appropriate for us to gather together and listen to one who is standing in the place of God…”

Page 221: “God’s plan for the local church does not encourage us to leave weeds unchecked.”

Page 265: “How to Shepherd Your Church toward Discipline… Help people to see that they may be mistaken about their own spiritual state.”

Page 265: “Paul charges us to examine ourselves to see if we’re in the faith. Do your church members recognize that they are to help one another do that?”

Page 240 – “the kind of trust that we are called to give…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.”

Page 163 – “It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re Christians…”

Page 10 – “As we draw people into the church, we end up polluting the very church we are drawing them into.”

Page 175 – “Membership is the church’s corporate endorsement of a person’s salvation.”

Page 172 – “We teach the following five responsibilities of membership…”

Page 15 – “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.”


Hi there! 9Marks has some pretty off base ideas. Would you please provide the page numbers of where you got these quotes from? Particularly, the one about a pastor standing in the place of God. I have no doubt these quotes are as written but I want to read them for myself in the book. Thanks! Awaiting your reply…

Thanks, I’m not sure which quotes you’re referring to and can’t read this article in great depth right now.

9Marks/Mark Dever have removed a lot of material from the 9Marks website, so, unfortunately, certain sources are now hard to find.

However, please tell me exactly what quotes you’re looking for and I’ll see what I can do.

Thanks. Janna L. Chan (blog team member)

[…] And just as the Big Names from James MacDonald’s conservative evangelical world have not decried his actions and called for him to be accountable, but are instead staying silent and “neutral,” they have done the same thing with the epidemic of excommunications of “insubordinates”—the easily dismissable subordinates—that they themselves have taught their followers how to undertake. […]

I attended a 9marks church this morning in Cedar Park Texas.

It’s amazing how much the Bible and the gospel makes since and become practical and life giving once you have the right interpretation.

God the Father = Nature
God’s Law = Nature’s laws
Man = a part of nature
Man’s sin = errors in thinking – misunderstanding of nature’s laws
God’s judgment = punishment for not obeying laws of nature
Jesus = from nature – the rational capacity developed in the minds of some to properly know Nature and it’s laws
The Gospel = All men have made terrible mistakes in their thoughts and actions as they have lived on this earth but nature has endowed people with the capacity to know truth and live in harmony with the world. All those who discipline their minds to be more relational and logical will live.
God’s Holy Spirit – the feeling of pride and happiness that comes from being rational and achieving values

It’s incredible and i am a little sad when pastors preach the gospel and retell the story in terms of God, Man, Sin, Christ, Faith, Salvation but don’t translate the story into plain terms. We no longer need to preach these things “through a glass darkly”.

Thanks, Zach. In my humble opinion, your perspective is much more aligned with Unitarian Universalism than it is with 9Marks-ism or atheism. Have you discussed your thoughts with Mark Dever, out of curiosity?

Janna L. Chan (blog team member)


It has been a pleasure conversing with you. I sense your earnestness and honor that. I believe this is what you’ve been looking for

The Poetic Truth of God: Integrating Objectivism and Christianity

Thanks, Zach. I will watch the video. As it mentions objectivism, my I ask if you are a fan of Ayn Rand?

Janna L. Chan (blog team member)

I am not only a fan. I believe the reason the gospels resonate with us is because they are a poetic expression of the philosophical truths laid out clearly in Objectivism – as you’ll see in the video.

I will be producing a more polished version of this video today by the way so please excuse the rough edges and typos and mispronunciations!

What an interesting perspective. Please don’t worry about any perceived flaws in the presentation. Speaking your truth is the important thing.

I believe that there is a God, and he doesn’t care about typos. If he does, I’m in trouble!

Thanks. Janna L. Chan (blog team member)

I’m watching it a little at a time. It’s very interesting, Zach, and you have a good speaking voice. Best, Janna L. Chan (blog team member)



I am not a fan of Ayn Rand. But then I am not a fan of anyone except my family. The irony of the underlying philosophy of objectivism is it disdains political group think or collectivism. It’s all about self-government. That is why it never gains momentum as a voting block. The closest thing we find is libertarian and for years they were the long-haired old hippies at the DMV collecting signatures to make marijuana legal. That is changing but not by much. Yaron Brook give good examples why self-interest actually makes us more prosperous and safe in the long run. It most definitely does not mean there is never a safety net for those who cannot help themselves. They just do not believe government does a good job with that.

The above video outlines objectivist thinking quite well in an interview with Dave Rubin. (My fav interviewer!)

I will watch it, Lydia. Keeping up with all your good content suggestions is tough!

I am not a fan of Ayn Rand. But then I am not a fan of anyone except my family.

LOL! As I get older I remember what a beloved high school teacher once told me: “respect is the basis of like, the rest is just emotional.” I may not “like” someone per se, and was very focused on my emotional reactions to others, as a teenager and young adult. However, in early middle age, I can now fundamentally respect almost anyone if his/her stated beliefs are reflected in the way he/she lives his/her life. We all have issues with hypocrisy, but basis integrity pertains to usually walking your talk, in my opinion. Problems arise for me when a person’s life philosophy is, “does as I say, not as I do.”

In my view, Al Mohler is the king of the, “do as I say, not as I do,” club. By contrast, many people don’t like what Pope Francis stands for on an institutional level. However, few claim that there is a disjoint between his stated faith-based beliefs and the courage he exhibits in real life when he defends them under difficult circumstances. For example, Francis practically shut-down the Vatican bank very shortly after becoming Pope. The last Pope who messed with that mafia-affiliated Vatican bank was almost certainly assassinated in the 1970s.

Thanks again for coming by so often, Lydia.

Best, Janna L. Chan (blog team member)

Ethan in DC

I am writing, not for the sake of the authors or supporters of this article, who should be ashamed of the shallow and harsh treatment Mark Dever receives in this article. Rather, I am writing so that anyone who knows little and is tempted to take this article on its face will, instead, research more deeply and suspend judgement until they have heard from wiser voices.

There are probably only a couple of dozen people still alive who had the opportunity to vote to call Mark Dever to come to be the pastor of Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church back in 1993. Of those, fewer than ten are still members of the church. I am extremely grateful to God that I am one of those people. Mark has been my pastor for almost 25 years. The attitudes I hear Mark and my elders being accused of in this article bear no resemblance to my experience over those 25 years.

These accusations don’t merit a point-by-point response, but let me say a few things. I am not an elder -– a shepherd of the flock –- but a sheep. That is not a description given to be by Mark Dever, but given by God through his prophets, his Son, and his Son’s disciples. All of those people, repeatedly in the Bible, made it clear that God’s people were sheep who needed shepherds who would be to sacrificially care for their sheep. Of course Christ is The Good Shepherd, but still he calls under-shepherds to care for the flock. This is a biblical idea, not one that popped into Mark Dever’s head from nowhere.

Do these shepherds have an authority over the flock? Yes, absolutely. Again, this is just biblical. You can see it throughout the epistles of the New Testament. We should especially honor and respect those who serve us as shepherds. And yet, one thing that Mark Dever makes clear is that the elders do not have final authority in the church. Final earthly authority in the church rests with the sheep, not the shepherds. He has stated over and over that we, the members of the church, should quickly remove him from the eldership if he ever begins teaching anything that goes clearly against the teaching of scripture. And even more, by having regular members meetings our elders make sure that there is a forum in which we could choose to make that happen, if we felt we needed to.

Our elders gladly hear criticism and admonishment given in love. Years ago I had some concern that particular phrasing that Mark was reading during the Lord’s Supper (I think from an old Book of Common Prayer) was unbiblical and unhelpful. I was concerned that I was hearing it used by others in situations I thought were inappropriate. So I set a meeting to sit down with Mark and talk about it. We talked over it. I explained my reservations. In the end he agreed that I had a point so he opened up the document he kept that text in and we rewrote it on the spot. That is only one example of the sort of humility he regularly exhibits.

I am also appalled to hear my elders described as impatient and quick to judgment. I have had intimate knowledge of quite a few situations where our elders have worked through difficult personal situations for years – situations where men and women have struggled against sin – and year after year our elders and other church members stand beside them to offer encouragement or admonishment, as the situation demanded. Discipline, in the form of removal from the church, is rare, and is almost never speedy. Just last night I was in a small group with one of our elders talking about why we need to be patient with those who have struggles and why we should be careful to avoid causing harm rather than being helpful.

I could go on, but I’ve spent more time than I should already. So finally, we are far from legalistic. I grew up in a legalistic Wesleyan denomination. I know what legalism is. Feel free to have a sound, thoughtful, theological debate about the wisdom of Church covenants, but our church covenant is far from being legalistic, unless statements like this are legalistic: “We will endeavor to bring up such as may, at any time, be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example, to seek the salvation of our family and friends,” or this: “We will rejoice at each other’s happiness, and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy, to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows.” That’s what our Church Covenant says. And, by the way, though this document and the Statement of Faith had fallen out of use, they had been adopted by the church since its inception. We did change the Covenant a bit to remove some legalistic language about alcohol and tobacco that had been added in the 70’s, but other than that these documents (and the practice of reading the covenant before the Lord’s Supper) preceded Mark Dever by decades.

Oh, how I want to go on to tell the truth about this wonderful body that my family has woven our lives around, but I must stop. Please don’t believe the unfounded accusations here. They in no way resemble the loving, caring, body of Christ I have known intimately for a quarter century. I won’t be pulled into a fruitless debate here, but I couldn’t let this utterly inaccurate picture stand.

Ethan, you seem to be implying that this blog is unfair to people who don’t share your views about Mark Dever. However, Todd published your comment even though it arguably violated this blog’s comment policy by engaging in personal attacks rather than utilizing logical arguments.

As I recall, 9Marks, the organization Mark Dever co-founded, recently erased every single comment people had taken the time to write on its website over the course of several years.

Thousands of comments were just deleted overnight without notice or explanation. Many of them were even friendly toward Dever and 9Marks.

I agree that there’s no point in having a fruitless debate. We can simply let the world decide who is acting more like a Christian man of integrity, Mark Dever or Todd Wilhelm.

Have a nice day, sir.

Janna L. Chan (blog team member)

John Hulstine

I ran into a 9Marks Church in August of this past year. I was very depressed as a result of being assaulted some years before. I went to Anderson Indiana and had decided to try moving forward with my life. A person I’ll call X, befriended me and told me about the church they went to. It was a Cavalry Baptist, and because I am an introvert and hate going to unfamiliar places I asked if I could go to their church with them. When I asked this they admitted that their church wasn’t really a Cavalry Baptist church, but an affiliate of 9 Marks and The Gospel Coalition. I had never heard of these. The first red flag came when I learned the pastor played a role in arranging marriages for his followers. X told me they would marry someone at their pastors command, and without knowing them or anything. I didn’t want to believe these people were all that crazy, but I continued to learn about their practices. At this church male and female members could not be in platonic relationships because it would only lead to sin. Women were objectified and expected to obey their husbands. And there was a student from the college I go to (who was a harasser of female students) and he was warmly accepted and his actions largely ignored and laughed off as boys being boys business. Another strange moment came when I made the terrible mistake of giving some hand soap and lotion to a female member as a Christmas gift also as a sign of thanks for their friendship. In summary she blew her lid and proceeded to demean my intelligence, sanity and question my salvation. There was one last event, and that was in the following week when I hesitantly attended a bible study. One member had the good sense to get out and had started missing meetings. Although I was never a member the pastor announced to the members at the study they were to harass their absent member until he responded. He also talked to one of the elders that they would need to put this individual under discipline.


I did fall out with that church I confronted X and told them that I felt unsafe and that their church wasn’t healthy. She tried to gaslight me and she demeaned my intelligence, sanity and tried to gaslight me. Ultimately I was called an abusive person and X threatened to report me to the college for harassment. I apologized that she felt that way and ceased communicating with her realizing she had never seen me as a friend only as a prospect for membership at her church. I ended up writing a review on google for this church and X went on to report me to the college for it. Luckily that went no where because I was within my rights to write a review. https://goo.gl/maps/G8bB1b6u6BjU8WR87
Articles like these helped me realize I was not insane or abusive I had just ran into a really unhealthy environment and had nearly become a part of it.

Have you ever met Mark or attended his church or attended a weekender? I think your article would be more nuanced if you did.

I was an intern at Mark’s church from 2009 – 2012. I left the church and Christianity for philosophical reasons (I am an atheists who understands the powerful role and importance of stories in society). What I miss the most about the church, however, was the community that was created through the meaningful church membership, the mechanisms to protect reputation, and the culture of care modeled by the leadership and practiced by the members. There was a tremendous concern for visitors and a clarity of beliefs and actions that is SOOOO rare in today’s culture that disregards cause and effect.

I would encourage you to get curious before you get personal. Go visit the church, attend a Weekender, and see if your characterization of him and the church stand up to reality.

I really wish that Mark Dever would comment on this blog himself instead of constantly hiding behind surrogates.

Janna L.Chan (blog team member)

Mark is busy I am sure. I am not a surrogate.

OH John

Hi Todd, I just read your article “Why are 9Marks Churches So Unhealthy?” and am more intrigued each week by what sounds very cultish. My church of 41 years, which my wife and I left 2 years ago over leadership change issues (was grace now authority centered) has very recently embraced the 9Marks government structure. It’s so new they have yet to sign the contracts though they have distributed copies for the remaining few families to read. I had never heard of 9Marks til 6 months ago and now here it is in full bloom less than a mile down the road from our home. I’m so glad to have stumbled upon your blog and plan to share it with some friends who are still at our old church to enable them a glimpse behind the curtain as to what to expect once 9Marks discipline starts to come into play. Keep up the good work and the Faith!

Mike the Professor

“Do not assume that the sheep are believers.”

Funny thing is, my paradigm has shifted to the point where I absolutely do not assume that people who think they have the right to assert their power over another like Mark Dever are believers, and I believe that they need to be weeded out.


Excellent article Todd. You articulated many of my thoughts on this, particularly on the legalism. These 9 marks are nothing more than the “commandments and doctrines of men” (see Colossians 2). Also, why is love not listed as a mark? That is how Jesus said that the world will know. The Lord Jesus said that the entire law hangs on this. The Apostle Paul said that love was the fulfilment of the law. James called this command “the Royal Law” and not to mention the prominence of love in John’s first epistle! The 9 Marks have missed the boat!


I remember when I was given a copy of 9 Marks. I read through it and thought it was the exact opposite of what I had been taught were certain Baptist distinctives. (There are a million varieties of Baptists so I should say SBC somewhere around pre 90’s in my city. I look back and am amazed at how loosy goosy and fiercely independent those adults were when it came to church)

One of those distinctives drilled in our mushy young brains was Soul Competency– which pretty much negates all the 9 Marks. So much for that! No king but Jesus.

At the time I thought it was a fringe sect within the SBC, which I was just starting to pay attention to after being in the seeker mega world for quite a while. Boy was I wrong. My parents generation would cut them off from every dime.

I gotta agree they are swimming the very Tiber they rail against. It is uncanny. It is basically “check the box and have your spiritual supervisor sign off on it” Christianity. No thinking needed. Check your brains at the door. The pastor/priest will tell you what to believe and do.


This article is very timely for me personally, as I have a daughter who is considering joining a 9marks church. Looking forward to the next article.


Hi Charlie:

If your daughter does join a 9Marks Church, please encourage her to cross out any membership contract clauses saying that she cannot leave the Church without the permission of her so-called elders. Many 9Marks Churches have a reputation for harassing people who leave without getting the Church leader’s official permission to do so. And since they want people’s tithe money, they’re often loath to grant that permission.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, so 9Marks’ Churches have no business telling people where they can go to Church in the U.S.A. However, Mark Dever and other 9Marks leaders don’t seem to understand that.

If your daughter tells you that she’s met many wonderful Christians at her 9Marks Church, please consider telling her that there are many wonderful people in almost any Church.

That doesn’t mean that they won’t turn on her if she attempts to leave the organization, in 9Marks case.

Thanks. Janna L. Chan (blog team member)

A lot of parallels to the Landmarkism I grew up in.