Reflection on ‘The Church’ (Mark Dever)

When I began this book I was anticipating a ‘typical’ 9Marks book. That is, some popular level references and arguments that are helpful and instructive, but in my opinion lacking in some of the substantive depth needed for a foundation. I had longed for a more rigorous exposition of the nature of the church. Happily, this was the book I had been looking for all along! The Church proved to technically proficient and dealt with the most basic issues of what (or who) a local church is.
Early on Dever makes the point that God has consistently been in the business of saving not just individuals, but a people. And specifically, a people that accurately reflects God’s character. And one of the attributes/adjectives that has been used to describe the church is holy. This is very helpful. The church is not merely a group of Christian extroverts coming together to exist however they want. Instead, Christians represent Christ. They are always promoting a message with their lives and doctrine of who God is.

And this is so crucial to understanding church discipline. The primary reason that the church body must dismember from unrepentant (unholy) individuals is because Christ is holy. That is, should the local church not remove the individual, they are preaching that God is not essentially holy. So by removing the unrepentant sinner, the local church is proclaiming that Christ is a holy husband intent on a holy bride. Furthermore, when a church fails to appropriately discipline a member, they actually lie (to the sinner, the church, and the watching world). For they are stating that not only is God unholy, but he does not care to have a holy people. By rightly exercising the keys, a local church proclaims “This is a temporary judgement—but there is a final judgment coming! Repent and believe the gospel. Or you will be excluded from God’s people and God’s very own presence”. This is a sober calling. When exercising discipline, local churches are warning of the final separation between sheep and goats at Christ’s return (Matthew 25:31-46). Dever states that, “Church discipline done correctly might bring a sinner to repentance, but it will always faithfully represent the gospel to the surrounding community” (68). And as those called to faithfully represent God and his character, this must be our chief goal and priority.
Dever also shows how the Church—and therefore local churches—orient around the gospel. They do so through the preached Word, and they do so when participating in baptism and Lord’s Supper. In preaching, the church hears how God’s Word points to Christ and his work for sinners. And in the sacraments, the church sees what Christ’s work is (his life, death, and resurrection). This was very illuminating for me—that churches are actually structured around one central message! I was especially struck by the role that the ordinances play. In communion the church remembers Christ’s incarnation, righteous life, and atoning death. And in baptism the church remembers and identifies with Christ’s death and resurrection. I am reminded of the lyrics, “O praise the One who paid my debt, and raised this life up from the dead” which also highlights all that Christ has accomplished for his people! Through his death, he has nailed my record of debt to the cross, and through his resurrection we too have been raised to life (Col 2:11-14).

I was also struck by the importance of the sacraments in delineating who God’s people are. In a perfect world, the invisible Church would be all those persons visibly baptized and visibly taking communion regularly. Of course such precision cannot be expected in this world (Matthew 13:24-30). But because of the significance of these acts, great care must be taken by all those with the authority to administer these ordinances. And that authority—as any good baptist will tell you!—lies not simply with the elders but ultimately with the congregation.
In chapter seven Dever discusses the mission of the church and quotes Kevin DeYoung Greg Gilbert that it is “to go into the world and make sickles by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ…and gathering these disciples into churches” (75). This was helpful and telling for me. Because we are not simply to ‘make disciples’ and then leave them stranded in isolation, we must work hard to make sure our ‘community’ (if ever there was a twenty-first century buzzword) is biblically based. That is, we need churches that are rightly shaped, oriented, and existing by God’s word. The church matters because this is what we are bringing people into. And it is also what equips believers to be sent out to make disciples. As he writes elsewhere, “The church is God’s plan and purpose” (87).

Dever also comments on what this gospel is that we share. And I think he rightly critiques the gospel presentation that emphasizes the kingdom, but neglects conversion. Why? Because without conversion, the amazing kingdom of God may indeed exist, but you will be outside it! So any preaching of creation, fall, redemption, consummation is incomplete if you do not tell the sinner how they can be included in this grand and glorious plan. That Jesus is bringing/has brought the kingdom is not good news for me, if I am outside those benefits and he punishes those outsiders! That is why faith in Christ, personal forgiveness of sins, repentance from sin, and personal holiness is so important. Because without which, I will never see God (see Heb 12:14).

I was particularly struck and helped by Dever’s remarks on discipline. There is perhaps nothing so antithetical to this culture’s ‘total affirmation’ ethic than church discipline. But there is perhaps nothing so precious in preserving the glory and beauty of Christ’s bride! Yet why has this practice largely disappeared? “Church discipline presupposed a stark dichotomy between the norms of society and the kingdom of God. The more evangelicals purified the society, the less they felt the urgency of a discipline that separated the church from the world” (Greg Wills, 123). That is sadly true. In the pursuit of relevance and contextualization, I am afraid that evangelicals have lost the distinctiveness that is to characterize God’s people.

Someone might retort that discipline is unimportant. But John Dagg is spot on. “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it” (124). Christ’s bride is a holy bride. Imperfect, but repenting of her stains and sins. When a local church as grown weary of being watchful and has succumbed to the spirit of the age, they have effectively stopped treating the stains. And then, Christ’s bride becomes so marred that she is unrecognizable.

I think that Dever is mostly right about a multi-service or multi-site ‘church’. The different groups of individuals are not sharing in the same meal, same baptism, or same preached word (unless done with video—which is a whole different issue!). They may share a budget, vision, and even the same elder board, but they fail to share the marks of true church. Its difficult to see how they even share the same members, because members from group/congregation A never interact with group/congregation B. To me, this was the best argument that I’ve heard against multi-x.

Finally, on page 139 Dever states, “A congregational church recognizes the congregation as the final earthly court of appeals in matters of dispute”. This is key. In the recent Tullian divorce situation, the church flew in an outside/celebrity pastor/counselor to arbitrate and help. In one sense, that is completely understandable. Why not go with the expert? Well unfortunately, I think this model has more to do with corporate American practices, than the ones laid out in the Bible. That is, the congregation is to have final authority—especially in matters of leadership and dispute! Calling in such experts and consultants undermines the local church and is more in tune with post-Enlightenment individualism than the Bible’s instructions for churches.
I love this book. It is clear, concise, and much needed. Dever gives a biblically robust case for a congregational, elder-led, Word preaching, ordinance administrating, and holy local church that rightly reflects God’s character. May God make all our churches so.

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