"No church holds the keys to the kingdom."
If you haven't yet heard of 9Marks, chances are you will (and probably sooner rather than later). Mark Dever, Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, came up with what he describes as "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church" during the 1990s.
In the late 1990s Dever made his 'marks' available in a self-published pamphlet. Actually, it was published by his ministry which at the time was called Center for Church Reform. Several years later, the name of this ministry was changed to 9Marks. "Church reform" was obviously problematic. 😉 The photo at the left is the 4th printing (2001) of Dever's pamphlet, which is still available at Amazon. I have this edition, along with three expanded editions that were published by Crossway. How in the world did churches ever function without these Nine Marks?
Mark Dever and his colleagues have been working tirelessly to train others regarding these 9Marks.
– There are several Weekenders held each year at Capitol Hill Baptist Church that church leaders can attend.
– 9Marks training conferences are being held annually at various seminaries around the country.
– 9Marks at 9 is a regular gathering when messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention convene for the annual meeting.
– The 9Marks website is a repository of information for those wanting to learn how to establish a 'healthy 🙁 church'.
Then there's Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition as well as Ligonier Ministries (and others) that promote Dever's 9Marks. Not only that, Christianity Today has recommended Dever's 9Marks several times in recent articles. With all this promotion, it's incredible to be reminded that the 9Marks have only been around for about 20 years.
Now that Mark Dever's 9Marks have been embraced by more and more pastors/churches, there is a growing number of Christians who can bear witness to their implementation.
Dale is one such person, and he shared his testimony in a post we featured entitled ‘Church Membership’ – Dale Shares His Testimony Regarding Membership in Churches Affiliated With 9Marks.
He followed up with a second installment entitled What Makes 9Marks Churches So Unhealthy?
Dale has written a third installment – What Should We Do About 9Marks and Other Abusive Churches – which we are featuring in this post.
We are grateful to Dale for taking the time to put together this important information, and we pray that our readers will take to heart what he is revealing about his experience and knowledge from having been a member of a church that embraces these 9Marks.
What Should We Do About 9Marks and Other Abusive Churches?
"I'm a friendly stranger in the black sedan
Won't you hop inside my car.
I got pictures, got candy
I'm a lovable man
And I can take you to the nearest star.
I'm your vehicle baby
I'll take you anywhere you want to go.
I'm your vehicle woman
By now I'm sure you know
That I love ya (love ya)
I need ya (need ya)
I want ya,
Got to have you child…"
From the song "Vehicle" written by Jim Peterik of The Ides of March (1970)
This is my third article concerning 9Marks. The first article detailed experiences of abuse at 9Marks churches. The second article explored "Why are 9Marks churches so unhealthy?" In that article, I listed nine problems with 9 Marks that result from Mark Dever's puritanical paradigm. In this article, I explore the question, "How should we respond to 9Marks and other improper religious structures?"
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 16:17:
"I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them."
First, we need to SPOTLIGHT these dangerous "church vehicles." Second, if you are already in the "black sedan", you need to LEAVE immediately for your own safety. Third, the children of God need to AVOID hopping into such dangerous "vehicles" in the first place. Fourth, the church at large is to WARN these divisive "drivers of the sheep". After a second warning, we are to have nothing to do with them (Titus 3:10).
Are 9Marks churches divisive? I say "YES!" Here is my "Top Ten List" of their "Dividic Kingdom".
Number 10: They Divide Christians From Their Assurance
Mark Dever and 9Marks recommend that pastors constantly warn the sheep that they may not belong to Christ. He even tells us to question one another's relationship with Jesus! This promotes an inward focus upon one's obedience instead of an outward focus as to what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross. Constant puritanical instruction causes the sheep to question their conversion. They divide Christians from their assurance. [We need to tell these “back seat drivers” to shut up and stop critiquing the way we drive!]
Number 9: They Divide Christians From Their Freedom
Mark Dever and 9Marks require one to sign a binding "church covenant". This is a legal document that must be agreed to in order to become a card-carrying member of the "church". By swearing an oath, the consciences of believers are bound where they should be free. They are pointed away from the New Covenant and its freedom and are directed back to the bondage of the Law. Christians are divided from their freedom in Christ.
Number 8: They Divide Christians from One Another
Mark Dever and 9Marks require the signing of a fallible statement of faith in order to become a member of the "church". This eventually leads to divisions among the body. Step one: They pressure us toward membership. Step two: They make us sit through a one-hour crash course in the pastor's systematic theology. Step three: I later discover that I disagree with some secondary or tertiary doctrine. Step four: I can no longer in good conscience remain a member of the church. This promotes church hopping and unnecessary division.
Number 7: They Divide Christians During the New Covenant Meal
Mark Dever and 9Marks require evangelical "membership" in order for a Christian to participate in the Lord's Supper. Dever goes even further and has all the "church" members stand up and recite the church's covenant before partaking. Christians are questioned as to their worthiness to share in the meal. This divides Christians from the wonderful grace of remembering Jesus and the blood he shed for us at the cross.
Number 6: They Divide Christian Men and Women and Husbands and Wives
Mark Dever and 9Marks have a very strange understanding of submission. They demand it! This is so detrimental to the healthy functioning of a body of believers and to the health of a marriage. When a pastor teaches that a husband should expect submission from his wife based upon his office as head, he is causing division. In marriage, the husband is called to submit to the wife, just as the wife is to submit to her husband. He is to love her. Love is sacrificial and submissive. The beauty of a loving marriage is mutual submission. The husband is built up by the respect, nurture, and empathy given by the wife. The wife is built up by the respect, nurture and empathy given by the husband. They are together in Christ.
When women are treated as second class citizens at a church, or are kept separate from the men folk, problems arise in the body. I have witnessed an unloving spirit at the 9Marks churches I have attended. They lacked empathy. I think it was a direct result of the authoritarian teaching requiring submission to an office, whether to pastor/elder or husband. They improperly enforce gender roles.
Number 5: They Divide Christians from the Holy Spirit
Mark Dever and 9Marks promote legalism. They demand improper oaths. They mandate adherence to a fallible statement of faith. They preach uncertainty and question one's salvation. In a word, they point people back to Mt. Sinai and the Law. Such practices quench the Holy Spirit. When submission to an office is required, the pastor or elder usurps the authority of the Holy Spirit. This causes Christians to lose touch with the Comforter. Christians are divided from the Holy Spirit. This results in a very unhealthy church.
Number 4: They Divide Christians from the Body of Christ
Mark Dever and 9Marks promote excommunications. Cut 'em off from the Lord's Supper! Cut 'em off if they don't "belong" to a "church!" Cut 'em off if they break their vow of attendance! Cut 'em off if they question our authority! Cut 'em off if they want to leave! Instead of excommunication being a rare occurrence based upon a serious and public sin, just about any act of "rebellion" is grounds for removal. Karen Hinkley is threatened with excommunication for annulling her marriage to her unrepentant pedophile husband! These divisive men abuse their presumed authority and do the unthinkable – they divide Christians from the Body of Christ.
Number 3: They Divide Themselves from their Fellow Christians
Mark Dever and 9Marks declare unashamedly "In our preaching, we stand in the place of God." Are they claiming to be a mediator between God and man? Mark Dever also asserts that trust cannot be earned, it must be "given as a gift" to church leaders. We trust God by trusting our leaders. By demanding submission based on their office, the 9Marks pastors and elders divide themselves from the "common" Christian. In practice, they deny the priesthood of the believer. They are the priests. You are not a priest, and neither am I.
Number 2: They Divide Their Minds; They Lack Integrity
A symptom that goes along with an inflated sense of themselves and a low view of the sheep is double-mindedness. They lack integrity. They don't hold themselves to the same standards. They are hypocrites. So, Mark Dever has no problem letting C.J. Mahaney flee church discipline and hide out at "his" church. These men do not accept reproof. They only interact with those who agree with them. On their blogs and websites they shut off comments. They hide out, and divide their minds from the reality of what they are doing. They preach to others, but don't preach to themselves. They are Pharisaical.
And Number 1: They Divide Christians from Christ!
Mark Dever and 9Marks claims that the "church" holds the keys to the Kingdom. Thus, it is the God-given right for the "church" to decide who is or is not a Christian. They also hold the keys in the matter of excommunication. I spent 34 years of my life in a religion that claimed it held the keys to the Kingdom. In fact, the logo of the organization is two keys and a triple crown.
Brothers and sisters, I can say with assurance that YOU hold the keys to the kingdom. If you didn't, you wouldn't be a Christian. Let me explain. The keys represent the message of salvation. When we confess our need for a Savior and place our trust in Jesus, we enter the kingdom. NO CHURCH HOLDS THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM. Any church that claims to do so is usurping the authority of God and is placing Christians in bondage. I personally discovered this by studying the Book of Colossians. In Chapter 2 there are multiple warnings to beware of authoritarian leadership. "Let no one delude you with a persuasive argument…See to it that no one takes you captive…Therefore no one is to act as your judge…Let no one keep defrauding you…Why do you submit to decrees…" We are warned NOT to hand our keys to a fraudulent authority.
Jonathan Leeman, in his book "Don't Fire Your Church Members", performs a deceptive sleight of hand. He desires, on the one hand, to place authority in the congregation. Then on the other hand he places everyone in the congregation under the authority of the elders, demanding submission. Here is how Leeman steals our keys. Step one: He tells you that your keys belong to the church. [Thank you, Al Mohler, for adding an “s” to “the priesthood of the believer in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.] Step two: Every member of the church must submit to the elders. My keys are now the elder's keys. We are doubly deprived. We now are two steps removed from Jesus. The church is our first mediator, and the pastor/elder/priest is our second mediator. A typical excommunication proceeds based upon the recommendation of the elders. And these elders demand that every member of the congregation submit to their authority! In what courtroom does the prosecuting attorney (elder) demand that the judge (congregation) submit to him?
These authoritarian churches are dangerous S.U.V.s (Seductive, Unsafe Vehicles). 9Marks "popes" stand in the place of God and claim, "I'm your vehicle, baby!" In reality, they are "the stranger in the black sedan". Don't be tempted by their "pictures and candy" to get inside. You do not want to go where they are driving.
Our response to divisive leaders
So, having identified our divisive abusers, we should SHINE THE SPOTLIGHT on them, LEAVE them, AVOID them, and WARN them.
For you shredded cabbage lovers, S-L-A-W.
1. Shine the Spotlight on Them
I recently watched the movie "Spotlight". It is amazing that it took over forty years for the truth to come out. It took a "Spotlight" to reveal the extent of the abuse and cover-up. Abusive churches that replace Christ (e.g. the Pope or the 9 Marks pastor), hide Christ (behind mediators), add requirements or traditions to Christ, or subtract from Christ's sufficiency must be identified and investigated. God often raises up "watchdogs" (like Dee and Deb at the Wartburg Watch) to shine the spotlight of truth on abusive religious structures. Once the spotlight reveals the truth, many stories of abuse come to the surface. This brings comfort and closure to those who have previously been hurt and provides a warning to others.
2. Leave these churches
If you have been seduced into the "vehicle" of an authoritarian church, it is imperative that you get out immediately. These churches will keep you from a thriving relationship with Jesus. They will sap the spiritual life out of you. It takes courage to leave a church. You have developed friendships (tasted the candy), and you may experience rejection. Having been spiritually abused, you will need healing. Ask your friends to pray for you. Remember that you have Jesus interceding for you. You may feel alone, but you are not.
After you leave, realize that you are still in a very vulnerable position. Personally, I gravitated back to another abusive church. We do not always take responsibility for our own spiritual growth, and we hand the reins over to another improper spiritual "leader." We may be deceived because we are used to "milk and not solid food". We may have an unhealthy fear of man.
Another issue is "where do I go?" Some people who have been hurt or deceived are at risk for just calling it quits and giving up on "church". They become "dones". I think for people with this tendency (like myself!), one can start by "finding church" wherever one is able. Develop Christian friendships. Display hospitality. Find a Bible study. Realize that you are a member of the universal church whether or not you have been excommunicated from an abusive church. Do not let these abusers keep you from growing in Jesus Christ. In other words, never give up. Never. I experience church on the golf course with Christian brothers who love me. Church doesn't have to be so structured and rigid. Find someone to be your mentor. Be a mentor yourself. Take advantage of social media and share your story with "online friends". Learn from dead Christians. It's okay to visit churches without "membering". Perhaps someday you will be led by the Spirit to formally join a healthy congregation.
You may have been scarred by your awful experiences at church. Learn to love your scars. My scars remind me not to fear man. They remind me to rest and revel in my relationship with Jesus Christ. They remind me that God loves me so much that He removed me from my abusers. I can look back and see God's hand in everything that happened to me and see how He still is guiding me.
3. Avoid these churches
It is the responsibility of Christians to "act like Bereans". Do your homework. Go to the 9Marks Church Search. ASK QUESTIONS! Abusive pastors/elders are threatened by those who are independent thinkers. If they become at all defensive, you should consider "gittin' outta Dodge". Tell others about churches you consider unhealthy. Don't sign covenants. Be patient in getting to know the church you are attending. Don't submit to people based on their office. Avoid anyone who claims to have a special anointing. Beware of following leaders who have been given a "ministry vision". Leave if Hebrews 13:17 is used to demand submission. Watch out for legalism. Do the elders have a critical spirit? See if Jesus is the center of attention at the church. Listen to some sermons online. Watch out for unbiblical accountability structures. If there is any sign of sin-sniffing, leave. If you are married, pay attention to your spouse's feelings about the church you are attending.
Very important: keep yourself from idols. No hero worship! Don't base your church attendance solely on "pure doctrine". If you do, you may find yourself joining another abusive church with the "Ephesian love problem (Rev. 2)" — one where God has removed the lampstand of the Spirit.
4. Warn the abusers
This can be very dangerous. Know that if you do this alone, you may become prey. You are risking abuse and maybe excommunication. Your abusers typically try to divide and conquer. They will not let you bring others with you to confront them, and they will gang up on you. Tell your stories to others, and get their support. This also may be difficult, because you may have become part of a spiritually abusive collective. Your friends may have become addicted to the "candy and pictures" that they have been receiving week after week at the hands of divisive spiritual abusers.
Pray for these men. They will be held accountable by God for acting like gods. Perhaps He will be gracious and bring these wayward pastors to repentance. But it probably will not be according to your timetable. In any event, the Bible tells us to warn divisive people twice. Three strikes and they're out! Have nothing to do with the abusive person if they do not respond to your warnings. These men are unqualified to be leaders in the household of God. They lord it over the flock. They lack love and empathy. They are not above reproach. They are beyond approach.
There is Nothing New Under the Sun
I would like to conclude this article by recognizing three very brave individuals who have gone before us in this battle for freedom.
The first person is the Apostle Paul. He confronted the Judaizers who wanted to divide the church based on Jewish law. Paul warned Christians of this error and his writings set free the Christian conscience. He suffered persecution.
The second person is Martin Luther. He confronted the powerful papacy, who were dividing the Christian from Christ's righteousness. He set in motion the Reformation, which freed multitudes from bondage. He suffered persecution.
The third person is Roger Williams. He confronted the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who were dividing Christians from liberty. He set in motion religious liberty in America. He suffered persecution.
May God continue to raise up brave warriors who will defend our freedom that we have in our wonderful Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. May He be magnified and glorified in the church now and forever! Amen!