Nine Marks and Holiness

dever_9marks1I always like it when an author asks questions like: “For what purpose does your church exist? How do you know if it is fulfilling its purpose? How do you know that things are going well in your church?” (186)

In other words, What’s it all for?

I find myself drawn back to that question again and again. It’s like a North Star or the Big Dipper for me. I can make sense of what’s going on around me as long as I can relate it to that question. I can tell that Nine Marks was written largely in response to so many wrong answers to that question. Many books out there pre-suppose that bigger must be better (how could a church that’s growing by the thousands be bad, right?). Dever takes dead aim at that. Numbers, according to Dever, are not the best indicator of a church’s success or health.

Paul hoped the Corinthians would grow in their Christian faith (2 Cor. 10:15). The Ephesians he hoped, would ‘grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ’ (Eph. 4:15; cf. Col.1:10; 2 Thess. 1:3). It is tempting at times for pastors to reduce their churches to manageable statistics of attendance, baptisms, giving, and membership, where growth is tangible, recordable, demonstrable, and comparable. However, such statistics fall far short of the true growth that Paul describes in these verses, and that God desires. (215)

So what is a good indicator of this growth and maturity?  For Dever the answer is holiness (190).

What then is the evidence of true Christian growth?  According to [Jonathan] Edwards… the only certain observable sign of such growth is a life of increasing holiness, rooted in Christian self-denial. (215)

Do I agree with this?  It depends.  Only a fool would presume to disagree with a theological heavyweight like Jonathan Edwards.  And here I go…

I see a flaw in this conception.  It’s very Reformed and I recognize it clearly.  You naturally feel bad for disagreeing with it.  But I think the way we understand holiness is skewed.

Earlier in the book, Dever explains that we were created to bear God’s image and reflect his character.  “Our lives are the storefront display of God’s character in His world” (191).  Well put.  And I’m cool with the holiness target as long as it is defined in those terms.  What makes us “holy” (i.e. specially marked — different) is our tendency to love as He loves.  Since that’s the essence of his character, then our differentness is expressed fundamentally in that very thing.

I suspect that holiness means, for many people, that there’s a bunch of things we don’t do.  We don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t run around with folks who do.  We don’t listen to those kinds of music or watch these kinds of movies, etc.  It’s all about avoidance of dirt, keeping ourselves clean and undefiled by contact with the world.  But that sounds exactly like the kind of “perfection” that we people think up on our own.  It’s all about us.  Our goodness.  Our righteousness.  Our status.

Loving someone, on the other hand, gets you dirty sometimes.  It means going where they are, and in many cases doing what they do.  Like Jesus going to all their parties.  Was that being holy?  We know we’re supposed to say yes but come on!  Doesn’t that really mess up our categories just a bit?  I have often wondered, if the incarnation had happened first in my day, and if I were to run into him somewhere, would I have associated with him?  I wonder sometimes if I would have only been offended by him.

The ultimate mark of maturity in a church is that they love well.  They love one another and share that love with the world around them.  Will that make them a large church?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I know what ingredients make a church large.   A dynamic speaker in the pulpit.  Gifted musicians.  Well-run programs (choir, children’s activities, support groups).  These things work.  But I don’t think they produce mature saints.  I don’t see them making what I’ve heard called “disciple-making disciples.”  For that to happen, I think smaller is actually better.  Even if we’re talking about a huge network of smaller groups.  Healthy churches in the future, I believe, will not meet in gargantuan buildings with thousands of people in attendance.  They will consist in hundreds of small groups meeting for encouragement, instruction, discipleship, worship, etc.

One can dream, right?


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2 Responses to “Nine Marks and Holiness”

  1. brotherjohnny Says:

    Good observations. I get what you are saying about the reformed guilt complex.
    Jesus was sometimes referred to as a ‘glutton’ by those who observed his ‘social life’.
    Even so, I do believe that there is *something* to the ‘clean living’ aspect of the Christian life, I just don’t think that it is the same thing as ‘holiness’.

    As you say, to be holy is to be ‘set apart’ for God. This is certainly an aspect of what it means to be a Christian. As far as rules and regulations as to what we eat and drink goes….well I think that it is ultimately a matter of the government of the Spirit to determine that within the context of our lives and relationships.

    Scripture gives some guidance in that area….

    And who do we hang out with?
    I think the over all ‘principle’ That I see in scripture concerning this is that Christians are ‘in the world, but not of it’.
    In other words, we live among, interact with and relate to everyone, but we, ourselves are to be governed by One who makes us live differently than those who are not.

    As you say, we learn to ‘love well’.
    Love does no ill to their neighbor.

    This cut’s out a lot of stuff which many folks include in their daily life. It does, indeed, call for self denial (although not simply self denial in itself…).

    All things are lawful for (those in Christ), but not all things are good (for His testimony).

    Didn’t mean to write this much here….
    Peace out.

  2. JoshL Says:

    Coming from a Holiness/Pentecostal background, I found your post interesting (actually, I’ve enjoyed all of your review of 9 Marks). We spend a great deal of time making sure we don’t engage in any activity or wear any attire that would be “unholy,” but it too often turns into a legalistic ruler to judge one’s spirituality.

    Should Christians be different than non-Christians? Definitely, but I think we (speaking for that movement) missed the boat and have failed to focus on the most important things. I can’t put our mission any better than Jesus did: Love God, love people.

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