Biblical Theology

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

Expository preaching is important for the health of a church. Yet every method, however good, is open to abuse, and therefore must be open to being tested. In our churches, our concern should be not only with how we are taught, but with what we are taught. We should cherish soundness, particularly in our understanding of the God of the Bible and His ways with us.

Sound Doctrine

“Soundness” is an old-fashioned word. In Paul’s pastoral writings to Timothy and Titus, “sound” means reliable, accurate or faithful. At root, it is an image from the medical world meaning whole or healthy. We read in I Timothy 1 that sound doctrine is shaped by the gospel and that it is opposed to ungodliness and sin. Even more clearly, in I Timothy 6:3, Paul contrasts “false doctrines” with “the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and . . . godly teaching.” So in his second letter to Timothy, Paul exhorts Timothy to “keep what you heard from me as the pattern of sound teaching” (II Timothy 1:13). Paul warns Timothy that “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (II Timothy 4:3).

When Paul wrote to another young pastor, Titus, he had similar concerns. Anyone whom Titus would appoint as an elder, says Paul, “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). Paul urges Titus to rebuke false teachers “so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Paul charges Titus saying, “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).

Unity, Diversity, and Clarity

If we were to lay out everything that constitutes sound teaching, we would reproduce the whole Bible. But in practice, every church decides the matters in which there needs to be complete agreement, can be limited disagreement, and can be complete liberty.

In the church I serve in Washington, DC, we require each person who would be a member to believe in salvation through the work of Jesus Christ alone. We also confess the same (or very similar) understandings of believer’s baptism and of church polity. Uniformity on these second two points is not essential for salvation, but agreement on them is both helpful practically and healthy for the life of the church.

We can allow some disagreement over matters that seem necessary neither for salvation, nor for the practical life of the church. So, for instance, though we all agree that Christ will return, we are not surprised that there is disagreement among us about the timing of His return. We can enjoy entire liberty on matters still less central or clear, such as the rightness of armed resistance, or the authorship of Hebrews.

In all of this, the principle should be plain: the closer we get to the heart of our faith, the more we expect to see our unity expressed in a shared understanding of the faith. The early church put it this way: in essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.

Dealing with Complex or Controversial Doctrines

Sound teaching includes a clear commitment to doctrines often neglected yet clearly biblical. If we are to learn the sound doctrine of the Bible, we must come to terms with doctrines that may be difficult, or even potentially divisive, but that are foundational for understanding God’s work among us. For example, the biblical doctrine of election is often avoided as too complex, or too confusing. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that this doctrine is biblical, and that it is important. While it may have implications we do not fully understand, it is no small matter that our salvation ultimately issues from God rather than from ourselves. Other important questions which the Bible answers have also been neglected:

  • Are people basically bad or good? Do they merely need encouragement and enhanced self-esteem, or do they need forgiveness and new life?
  • What did Jesus Christ do by dying on the cross? Did He make possible an option, or was He our substitute?
  • What happens when someone becomes a Christian?
  • If we are Christians, can we be sure that God will continue to care for us? If so, is His continuing care based on our faithfulness, or on His?

All of these questions are not simply matters for bookish theologians or young seminary students. They are important to every Christian. Those of us who are pastors know how differently we would shepherd our people if our answer to any one of these questions changed. Faithfulness to Scripture demands that we speak about these issues, with clarity and authority.

Resistance to God’s Sovereignty

Our understanding of what the Bible teaches about God is crucial. The Biblical God is Creator and Lord; and yet His sovereignty is sometimes denied, even within the church. For confessing Christians to resist the idea of God’s sovereignty in creation or salvation is really to play with pious paganism. Many Christians will have honest questions about God’s sovereignty, but a sustained, tenacious denial of God’s sovereignty should concern us. To baptize such a person may be to baptize a heart that is in some ways still unbelieving. To admit such a person into membership may be to treat them as if they were trusting God, when in fact they are not.

Leaders Should Embrace God’s Sovereignty

As dangerous as such resistance is in any Christian, it is more dangerous in the leader of a congregation. To appoint a person as a leader who doubts God’s sovereignty or who seriously misunderstands biblical teaching on these matters is to set up as an example a person who may be deeply unwilling to trust God. Such an appointment is bound to hinder the church.

Too often today our culture encourages us to turn evangelism into advertising and explains the Spirit’s work in terms of marketing. God Himself is sometimes made over in the image of man. In such times, a healthy church must be especially careful to pray for leaders who have a biblical and an experiential grasp of the sovereignty of God and a commitment to sound doctrine, in its full, biblical glory. A healthy church is marked by expository preaching and by a biblical theology.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Read I Timothy 6:3-5. How does Paul describe a person who teaches “false doctrine?” Why do you think it was so important to Paul that Timothy give his people “sound instruction” and “godly teaching?”
  2. The author mentions several doctrines that a person must believe in order to become a member of the church where he serves. He also lists several issues in which the members enjoy considerable liberty of belief. What does a person need to believe in order to become a member of your church? How do those beliefs distinguish your church from others in your area? On what issues does your church allow a measure of liberty?
  3. Some doctrines that are unmistakably present in Scripture are often ignored or neglected because they have proven to be difficult, controversial, or even divisive. Is potential controversy a good reason for us to avoid conversation and instruction about these doctrines in our churches? Why or why not?
  4. The author lists four questions on page 19 that have often not received the attention that they deserve. How do you think the Bible answers these questions? Give scriptural references for your answers.
  5. Paul writes in Titus 1:9 that the leader of a congregation”must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught.” Do you think that it is important for a pastor or elder to understand and embrace God’s sovereignty in salvation? What is the danger of a church leader who doubts God’s sovereignty in this area or who misunderstands biblical teaching on this matter?