“Biblically,” Mark Dever writes, “we must realize that the size of what our eyes see is rarely a good way to estimate the greatness of something in the eyes of God”. He makes this comment in response to how many American churches measure success in term of only quantitative assessment. Dever writes, “Depending on the type of church, success may mean so many fed (social gospel), so many involved (seekers’ sensitive), or so many saved (saving souls), but the assumption three kinds of churches share is that the fruit of a successful church is readily apparent”. By apparent, it means observable, measurable and quantifiable. Such an assessment while may be pleasing to human eyes but may not win approval in the eyes of God.
In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus observed the rich putting their money into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow putting in only two copper coins. By any measurable or quantifiable standard, the poor widow gave very little when her amount is compared with the rich. Despite of this fact, Jesus considered her giving as more than all the rich people because she “out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (21:4). Thus “the size of what our eyes see is rarely a good way to estimate the greatness of something in the eyes of God.”
In Revelation 3:1-6, the church in Sardis has the reputation of being alive. NKJ translates it as “you have a name that you are alive” (3:1). Outwardly, the church must have impressed human eyes with something that they did. Based on such observation, the human minds came to the conclusion that this church was alive. This reputation did not win approval from Jesus. Instead, this church was considered spiritually dead in the eyes of Jesus. Although there were a few in the church “who have not soiled their garment,” the rest was either dead or dying (3:2,4). Thus, this community did not win approval in the eyes of God despite being impressive outwardly.
Mark Dever wrote Nine Marks of a Healthy Church in 2000 to challenge the assumption “that numerical growth, however achieved, must glorify God” (29). He argued that a numerically growing church is not necessarily glorifying to God because “many churches misunderstand the priority that they are to give to God’s revelation and to the nature of the regeneration he offers therein” (30). He challenges churches to “rehear the Bible and reimagine the concept of successful ministry not as necessarily immediately fruitful but as demonstrably faithful to God’s Word” (32).
Dever acknowledges that all churches are imperfect. He is not pushing for a perfect church but he is challenging imperfect churches to be faithful to God’s revelation and the message of the Gospel (28). He explains, “We need churches in which the key indicator of success is not evident results but persevering biblical faithfulness” (32). He describes such imperfect churches as healthy churches (28), which exhibit nine marks of being healthy (42).
In this week article and subsequent five weeks, we will explore Dever’s nine marks of a healthy church. I have categorized them into five themes. The first theme is the priority of Scripture. This will cover the first two marks, the primacy of expositional preaching and biblical theology. The second is the priority of the Gospel, which consists of three marks, a biblical understanding of the gospel, conversion and evangelism (33-34).
The third theme is the priority of the Christian local community. This explicates the sixth and seventh mark, a biblical understanding of church membership and church discipline. The fourth is the priority of Christian discipleship. This involves a biblical understanding of Christian growth. The fifth is the priority of Church leadership. The ninth mark explores the need to recover a biblical understanding of the role of church leadership (34-35).
Scripture is God’s Revelation Written Down
God reveals himself when he acts and speaks. Dever explains, “In the Bible, we see that God acts, but he doesn’t stop there. After he acts, God speaks. He interprets what he has done so that we can understand it” (52). Starting from Genesis 1, God spoke and acted to bring the whole creation came into being. After the Fall, God continues to act and speak to Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel and to many others. Then he reveals himself through Jesus, the Word of God, who came teaching and doing to the reveal the Father (Heb 1:1-4). After the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to reveal the Father through
the message and deeds of the Apostles (2Pe 1:20-2; 3:2). We know all these revelations of God because it is written down for us as Scripture to instruct us (2Ti 3:16-17; 2Pe 3:15-16).
The Spirit shapes us with the Scripture
Since Scripture is God’s revelation in written form, it must “be central to our lives as individuals and as a church because God’s Spirit uses the Word to create faith in us and to make us grow” (Rom 10:17) (57). Dever explains, “For our own health, individually as Christians and corporately as a church, we must continue to be shaped in new and deeper ways by God’s agenda in our lives, rather than by our own agendas. God makes us more like himself through his Word, washing over us, refreshing us, reshaping us” (58). Thus, if we desire the Spirit to shape us with Scripture, we need to hear the Word of God and continue to hear the Word of God (58).
By hearing, it does not mean merely having head knowledge. It is through obeying the Scripture that individually and corporately we will be blessed. In James 1:22-25, the author exhorts the readers to be doers of the word, and not hearers. They are deceiving themselves if they hear without obeying (1:22-23a). On the other hand, they will be blessed when they are doers, who act on the teaching of Scripture (1:25).
Corporate Learning from Scripture
Since we are to be doers of Scripture, we need to understand it. This is not merely an individual effort but a corporate effort to understand the Scripture together. At the pulpit, preaching must be centered on Scripture although the method of preaching does not need to be restricted to expository. In 1st Timothy 4:12, Paul urges Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. This instruction is not merely for Timothy. It is a reminder that he should publicly engage the congregation to corporately read and learn from Scripture.
In engaging the Scripture, the focus is on meeting the God who revealed himself in the Scripture. It is not about gathering head knowledge but it is about praying for the Spirit to set up a continuous encounter between us and God through our continuous reading of Scripture. Through such engagement, we pray that we may develop “a biblical understanding of God in his characters and his ways with us” (68).
Through the continuous reading of Scripture by the Church through the centuries, there are core truths about God that have discovered by the disciples through ages. Dever summing up these core truths writes, “Five words summarize what the Bible teaches us about God: he is creating; he is holy; he is faithful; he is loving; and he is sovereign” (68). These core truths provide a starting point for us to deepen our understanding of the God of the Scripture, preparing us for a continuous encounter with him. This God calls out “for us to respond to him by trusting in him and his Word” (82).
Rightly Handling the Scripture
Since we are to be doers of Scripture, we need to rightly handle the Scripture. First, all our pre-understanding or past studies must be subjected to the critique of Scripture. Every view forms from our past studies of Scripture must not be given equal status as Scripture but must be subjected to re-examination by Scripture. This is to avoid reading our own conclusion back into the Scripture. Thus, the first thing of rightly handling the Scripture is to subject your conclusion to the critique of other readers of Scripture. Reading the Scripture to encounter God is not a private endeavor but a corporate yet personal endeavor.
The second thing of rightly handling the Scripture is to examine your life with Scripture. While we need to analyse the Scripture to understand what it said, this must be balanced by analysing our attitude and behaviour with our understanding of Scripture. Are we loving God more by our learning from Scripture? Are we confessing and repenting from our sins exposed by Scripture? This is the right way to handle Scripture.
The third thing is to pray for the Spirit to create an encounter with God each time we read the Scripture individually or corporately. The first two steps above are what we can do when we read the Scripture. An encounter with God through Scripture is more than just mental reflection. It is the Spirit working with our human spirit to arrange for a meeting with God. It is not necessarily ecstatic because it could be mundane like a word from Scripture that speaks to our heart. We cannot engineer it but we can ask for such encounter.
In summary, if we upheld the priority of Scripture in our congregation, then we have “in place the single most important aspect of the church’s life, and growing health is virtually assured, because God has decided to act by his Spirit through his Word” (43).