Don’t Be a 9Marxist!
In a “one-star” Amazon.com review of a 9Marks book, the reviewer shares her experience of being a part of what she calls a 9Marks church. Formally, there is no such thing as a 9Marks church. We are not a denomination. But I think I understand what she means—the pastors probably identify with our message.
Anyhow, the reviewer did not have a good experience at this church. She describes it as “insufferable, authoritarian, rigid, legalistic, abusive, controlling, [and] spiritually abusive.” Members were “infantilized.” Power was “concentrated at the top” and had no accountability. People with sincere questions were treated as “being factious, deceived, unsaved.” The reviewer himself, apparently, was excommunicated for bringing a registered sex-offender to the attention of the elders. All in all, the review promised to never have anything to do with a “9Marks church” again. It was like “the Salem Witch Trials.”
Wow. Okay. Beside THAT how do you feel? as my dad used to say in such moments.
I’ve been the editorial director of 9Marks for over a decade, and part of the church behind the ministry for two. I don’t often hear criticism with language this strong; maybe one or two other times. It causes me to feel several things at once:
- Sympathetic: “I’m so sorry you went through that.”
- Defensive: “What you’re describing, if it’s accurate, is certainly not what we’ve been teaching, but is a perversion of what 9Marks says.”
- Humbled: “I suspect we could do a better job of saying what we’re not saying, and guarding against abuses.” In other words, I hope we can learn from our critics.
Several years ago I was asked to speak at a church about cultivating a culture of discipling. The night before, a friend told me the church’s members had a reputation for being spiritually zealous, proud, and a bit judgmental. I realized I had prepared the wrong message. My applications aimed to stir up the complacent. But here was a church that possibly erred in the opposite direction. So beginning at 11:30 p.m, I radically redrafted my applications: disciple, yeah, sure, I suppose, but remember grace and Christian freedom. Anyone wanna go dancing?
9Marks talks a lot about authority in the church—authority in preaching, authority in membership and discipline practices, authority among the elders. The thing is, sinners like us easily abuse the authority that God gives. So even as 9Marks encourages churches to avoid the squishy complacency of nominal Christianity, we also don’t want churches to err in the direction of being doctrinaire and authoritarian.
Think of how God indicts Israel in Hosea 4:3: “Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away.” Adam and Eve were to rule over those three domains—land, sky, sea—so that all would flourish. But Israel’s rule led to mourning and languishing.
Abusive rule wilts the flower, starves the herd, crushes the soul.
Someone else, commenting on Amazon.com review above, characterized 9Marks as “9Marx.” Clever, right?
Let’s run with it. Mark Dever helped me brainstorm fifteen marks for not being a 9Marxist, that is, not being a church leader who abuses authority. I’ll explain each.
Mark 1: Embrace the sufficiency of Scripture for leading churches and pastoring people. Meaning, don’t require what Scripture doesn’t require.
We should be very reluctant to require anything not expressly set down in Scripture. For instance, the leaders of the Shepherding Movement of the 1970s were rightly concerned about the weak commitment, shallow community, and general worldliness characteristic of so many American churches. But they wrongly required things not required by Scripture, such as membership in a house-group or having life-decisions “covered” by their house-group leader, elder, or pastor. Decisions to be covered included where to live and work, whom to marry, or even whether to make a doctor’s appointment. They also adopted other unbiblical authority structures.
Now, you and I might disagree about what Scripture requires. Fine. But let’s agree that’s the standard.
As someone who has written several books on church membership and discipline, I know how easily we can require too much here. One godly, well-meaning pastor asked me if we should hold onto members who have left our churches until their new pastor calls or emails to confirm that they have in fact joined the new church. I understand logically how he drew this conclusion, but at this point I would hope a little alarm bell would go off in his mind: “Wait a second, does the Bible require this?”
Admittedly, a church might require a few things unspecified by Scripture. Our church requires membership classes and interviews and signing a statement of faith to join the church, for instance. It’s our judgment that these are prudential forms for implementing the biblical element of church membership. You have to adopt some form, after all. The Bible doesn’t quite say how to join a church. But beyond these few things, I cannot think of anything else we require not required in Scripture.
Mark 2: Be a strong advocate for Christian freedom.
We shouldn’t bind the conscience where Scripture doesn’t, but be strong advocates for Christian freedom. To put the Pharisaical impulse in the best possible light, the Pharisee doesn’t want to break God’s law or to even risk breaking God’s law, but to play it safe. So he puts a hedge of protection around God’s law, and binds the conscience there. That could be drinking or dancing. That could be how you vote.
One attribute of authoritarianism is that it turns prudential “mays” (“you may join a small group”) into “musts” (“you must join a small group”).
Something I appreciate about Mark Dever is that he’s not short on strong opinions, but if you spend any time with him, you’ll discover that he is one of the stronger advocates of Christian freedom I know. I’d even say he cultivates a sanctified irreverence toward so many evangelical false pieties. We’d do well to do the same.
Mark 3: Maintain a clear line in your mind between issues of biblical righteousness and issues of wisdom.
This is another way of stating point two, but this language helps me pastorally. Perhaps a member wants to do something that I perceive to be foolish or a sign of immaturity: leave the church for another; pursue this woman; take this job; adopt such-and-such a fashion statement; watch such-and-such a television show. And suppose he or she asks my counsel. It’s good for me to either say nothing, or to just to ask questions, or even to say, as I often do, “That’s a wisdom question, not a biblical principle question,” which is my way of reminding myself and them that my counsel is not inerrant. It’s not Bible. It might be wise, but it doesn’t bind the conscience like the Bible does. Keeping these two categories explicit and clear puts things in right perspective for me and them. I dare say, the vast majority of the counsel pastors are asked to give requires them to reach into the wisdom bucket, not the absolute principle bucket.
Also, many of the programmatic decisions a church must make—should we have a Sunday evening service? A Sunday school program? Encourage this approach to evangelism or that approach to discipling?— depend on wisdom. Remember that. To be sure, 9Marks might have opinions about what’s biblical that you don’t share, e.g. about multi-services. The point is, keep both lists in your mind.
Can you give people strong counsel in matters of wisdom? Sometimes, yes. Can you bind the conscience? No. Even if you’re 75 percent sure that your advice might be a matter of sin and righteousness, based on your deductive reasoning powers from Scripture, I hope that last 25 percent keeps you from pushing too hard. It’s the path to the dark side of authoritarianism.
To be sure, we want to people to make wise and good and godly decisions. But good decisions come as we teach them slowly, over time, through the careful preaching of God’s Word week after week—drip, drip, drip—as with raising children. You want their good decisions to grow (super)naturally out of changed hearts and love of Christ. Legalism and non-biblical rules are a short-cut that might produce good decisions today, but pride or resentment in the long run.
Mark 4: Beware asceticism, or at least of imposing your asceticism.
The Bible certainly warns against the love of money. It commends generosity and loving our neighbor with our money, even giving sacrificially. It condemns the rich man who keeps building bigger barns and praises the faith of the woman who gives out of her poverty.
Still, I think there’s a long tradition of Christian asceticism—going all the way back to St. Francis or the Benedictine Monks—that risks binding the conscience with a self-manufactured picture of what piety looks like. “If I’m really holy, I’ll only buy old cars and previously owned-clothes.” Not only that, “I’ll sort of look suspiciously at Christians who buy nice new cars and clothes.”
Friend, buy old clothes and cars so that, for love’s sake, you can give more money away. Praise God. But make sure you’re not grounding your sense of righteousness in some self-manufactured picture of the pious lifestyle. What’s more, don't impose your own wisdom-based judgment on how other should spend their money. Doing otherwise creates self-righteous church, and self-righteousness is behind much abuse.
Notice how sensitively Paul puts it: “each should should put something aside as he may prosper” (1 Cor. 16:2) or “according to what he has” (2 Cor. 8:11).
How easy it is to assume that godliness and piety look and sound a certain way, and to question those whose prayers and lifestyles don’t match our own. And the more charismatic and powerful a leader is, the more this is a risk. I remember when I was in seminary how, in many of our seminarian minds, the truly godly man looked and sounded like John Piper. That’s no critique of John Piper. He’s just being himself. It’s just a witness to how easy sit is to impose our non-biblical ideas on others or ourselves.
Mark 5: Beware being a slave to logic. Or rather, learn to be comfortable with unresolved tensions by practicing Christian forbearance.
Theology, to a large extent, works by logical extension, by implications and applications from the biblical text. So those of us given to theological thinking will be inclined to trace out these kinds of implications and applications.
But this produces a challenge: some logical implications or applications are spot on, like the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. Others are problematic:
- Rock music is bad because the backbeat provokes a sexual response.
- Women wearing pants is bad because it blurs the line between biblical manhood and womanhood.
In general, so many of the decisions we must make pastorally, and so many of the situations we are asked to speak into, are in the realm of implication or application.
- Can women pray in the church’s gathering?
- Can parents attend the wedding of their gay son?
- Can a church member vote for a pro-choice candidate?
- Can Christian men get vasectomies?
Sometimes, we have to make a decision by logical extension from the text. You either have women pray publicly or you don’t. Other decisions, as in counseling situations, leave us more room to say, “I don’t know.”
But here is something that should belong to our pastoral instincts: except in those places where Christians have agreed for centuries that a doctrinal or ethical position is a legitimate implication or application from Scripture, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, I want something inside of you to feel nervous about binding people’s consciences when you’re out on the tree branch of a logical extension from Scripture.
Let me give an illustration (and the important thing here is not that you agree with my posture on the illustration itself): Suppose a church member asks me, “Can I attend the wedding ceremony of my gay son?” I personally would not attend, since it seems to give approval to the sinful relationship. In fact, the assembly’s affirmation of a marriage is part of what makes the wedding a covenant-making ceremony.
That said, I have to combine a couple of logical steps to reach this conclusion. So I would warn the inquiring church member about the very real possibility of sin in attending this wedding, but there’s just enough reserve in me because we’re dealing in the realm of logical implication or application, that I would not move to excommunicate the parent who arrives at a different conclusion than me. Not only that, I’m also not going to informally separate myself from those parents, say, by adopting a scornful, condemning posture toward them.
Part of trusting God and his Word, and avoiding abusive pastoring, is learning to live with tensions. Sometimes living with a tension is a sign of unfaithfulness. Sometime it’s a sign of humility and the recognition that we are not God.
We definitely need to learn to live with tensions when it comes to assessing repentance in matters of admitting members or disciplining them from the church. There is a tension between correcting sin and forbearing with one another.
Mark 6: Be willing to say you don’t know.
We want to cultivate the humility and freedom of honest uncertainty. The person who has difficulty saying, “I don’t know,” in the best case, will just come across as a know-it-all. In the worse case, they will give answers where Scripture doesn’t actually give them, and impose on people what should not be imposed.
Ironically, saying “I don’t know” can help a pastor earn trust. It helps people to listen when he does speak, because they know he won’t prattle on and discuss matters with which he is unfamiliar. Part of abusing authority, however, is claiming to know something you don't.
Mark 7: Cultivate a willingness to be corrected.
Part and parcel of saying you don’t know is saying that you could also be wrong, which means that you should be willing to be corrected. A proud person thinks he always knows, and a proud person is unwilling to be corrected.
Not too long ago, my wife told me that I’m defensive. “No, I’m not…Let me explain why I’m not.”
I told her! Won that argument!
Ah, how often we win the battle but lose the war, the marriage counselors tell us. So it is for us pastors. Have you ever found yourself backed into a corner, pastor, and basically pulled rank to get yourself out of it? You put on your best “Now I’m the pastor” tone, speak in a vague and ambiguous way with specialized theological vocabulary, and then bring the conversation to a close with the sigh of, “Oh, if you only understood.” The member walks away having lost the argument on the surface of things, but inarticulately sensing that you won that argument by the force of erudition, or personality, or position. And trust has begun to erode.
Part of being willing to be corrected is being willing to lose elder votes, or being willing to submit to other church leaders. If a man cannot submit, he should not lead. And that includes the guy at “the top.” Mark Dever is the “senior pastor,” but I regularly see him losing votes and submitting to the other elders—once or twice a meeting in fact. I also see him building opportunities into his schedule to be corrected. He does this at the weekly service review, for instance.
The abusive use of authority, as much as anything, is about wanting control and respect. It roots in a kind of idolatry and godlessness. Which brings us to the next point…
Mark 8: Fear God more than man.
The best defense against abusing authority is fearing God. When you know that the people under your authority are God’s, and that you will give an account for your stewardship, you are less likely to take advantage of them; less likely to prize your own wisdom over God’s; less likely to demand respect and honor for yourself, because you know that, when you decrease, he will increase.
Here’s something unexpected I’ve discovered by watching Dever. True humility, and the true fear of the Lord, doesn’t necessarily mean what Christians often think it means: not having strong convictions, always being willing to shrug your should and say, “Oh, I don’t know,” and always deferring to what the group thinks. Sometimes it means those things. But sometimes true humility and fear of the Lord also means standing strongly on God’s Word, because humility knows that we humans know truly in no other way. It’s easy to dismiss the “truth people” or the “people with convictions” as proud. And they might be. But they might also be very humble, and they don’t fear you and your opinions like you want them to.
There’s a balance to strike between standing courageously on God’s Word, while also recognizing our imperfect grasp on God’s Word. Which brings us to the next point…
Mark 9: Beware the easy potential to use God’s truth and justice as weapons
Something I’ve observed in those who would speak harshly or abusively to their wives or children is that they will justify their harshness by appealing to true truths. They’ll point to the Bible…and say true things from it. Or they will say things like, “I have such a strong justice instinct, I couldn’t stand seeing the injustice done!” And so with a sense of righteous fury and justice, they have attacked the injustice, sought to correct the untruth. But in the process they have destroyed and hurt.
Here’s what’s tricky. Sometimes that response to untruth or injustice might be in earnest, but there is a lack of faith in God’s power to change someone. So we push too hard. Very often, our best ambitions will be combined with other, less sanctified ambitions, such as the desire for control or honor or respect. Worse, the desire for control or respect may be the primary ambition, and the concern for truth or justice is just camouflage.
All that to say, those of us who are “truth people” or “justice people”—of which I consider myself one—must beware this potential to employ God’s truth to control or hurt others. Now, truth be told, “feelings people” can do this, too. You’ve heard the phase, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Mark 10: Beware of giving more authority to your heroes than to the Bible.
This is easy to do when you’ve really been impacted by a man’s ministry. And praise God for those men or women he has used to save us, or build us up in the faith, or dramatically changed the way we think in a more biblical direction. I’ve been dramatically impacted by Mark Dever’s life and ministry, to be sure. But I’ve also been dramatically impacted by my dad and mom, Tom Schreiner, Bruce Ware, Chip Collins, a number of authors, certain fellow elders…I could keep going. Each of these men and women have given me a different glimpse of Jesus.
Keeping that perspective is helpful for not putting any one of them to highly on a pedestal.
But get this: when we are imbalanced in the reverence and honor we give to a human being over us, we will be imbalanced in what we demand of the human beings under us. After all, we will always invite people to worship what we worship, whether that’s God, a football team, or a pastoral hero. So if I’m putting my theological hero’s words in a place functionally higher than Scripture, I am going to teach that man’s theology in a way that’s imbalanced, overly-aggressive, even abusive.
Mark 11: Don’t lose sight of the person in front of you when implementing rules and procedures.
Wrong approaches to church leadership can occur whenever we rely on regulated processes instead of personal pastoral care. And I do think this may be more of a temptation for large churches. The need for economies of scale is met with consistent and tidy procedures and precise codes of conduct. Treating each case uniquely and thoughtfully becomes difficult.
For churches large and small, however, remember the lesson of a wise parent. He or she treats each child individually. Wise discipline and discipleship treats each member individually. From personal experience, I can say that disciplining and training my children is slow, inefficient work that consumes hours. And so is the work of discipling and training our fellow members.
Mark 12: Love the church more than its health.
There’s a temptation young pastors and 9Marks-types are susceptible to: we can love our vision of what a church should be more than we love the people who comprise it. We can be like the unmarried man who loves the idea of a wife, but who marries a real woman and finds it harder to love her than the idea of her.
Your “ecclesial” goal is not to cross your membership “t”s and dot your programmatic “i”s. It is to shepherd real people toward life-giving, gospel-reminding relationships where they learn to trust God. And they will learn to trust him, in part, as they learn to trust you because you demonstrate that you are trustworthy.
I remember overhearing a church elder complain about a family who let their unbaptized children receive the Lord’s Supper when the plate of communion crackers was passed down their pew. What struck me was the elder’s tone. It was slightly contemptuous, as in, “How could they?! The fools!” But these people were untaught sheep. Of course they didn’t know better. And God had given them this elder not to complain about them, but to love them toward a better understanding. At that moment, it felt like this elder loved his vision of the biblical church more than he loved those individuals.
Mark 13: Consider what Scripture says about the authority of the congregation.
Anecdotally, most (or all?) of the unfortunate cases of church discipline I have heard about in recent years have occurred in non-congregational churches, where the elders are free to impose their will on the congregation. I’m sure congregational churches have failed in this area as well.
Frankly, the mere fact that a group of elders or pastors in a congregational church must sit in a small elders’ meeting before the big congregational meeting, scratch their heads, and ask themselves, “How are we going to explain this to the church?” tends by itself to moderate their decision-making. It slows them down. A group of well-meaning but tired elders might get highjacked by a bad strain of thinking in their meeting at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night. But Sunday’s congregational meeting will serve as a useful reality check.
Mark 14: Rely on the Power of the Word and the Spirit to Change Minds and Hearts
Pastoral authoritarianism commands the flesh and makes no appeal to the spiritual new man in the gospel. It looms heavily over the will, doing all it can to make the will choose rightly. It requires outward conformity rather than repentance of heart. Pastoral authoritarianism is impatient and forceful. Since it does not recognize that decisions have their ultimate foundation in the heart's desires, it feels successful whenever it produces a "right" decision, whether or not that decision was forced or manipulated.
Godly pastoral authority is by faith, and relies upon God to make change, knowing that it cannot raise the dead or change the leopard’s spots. It believes that God always has the power to change people and that he will if he so determines. Godly authority therefore relies exclusively on the power of God’s gospel Word and God’s Spirit. It doesn’t rely on the power to persuade, or the power of ethnic similitude, or the power of personal charisma, or the power of intellectual prowess, or the power of good rhetoric, like the super apostles who criticized Paul. It relies upon an open statement of the truth, not manipulative or underhanded ways (2 Cor. 4:1–3). Therefore, godly authority is exceedingly patient and tender, knowing that only God can give growth (1 Cor. 3:5–9). An immature Christian may need to walk a hundred steps before he arrives at maturity, but a wise pastor seldom asks for more than one step or two.
Ironically, an emphasis on numbers and outcomes presumes upon the power of human wisdom, human will, human strength. Pragmatism, like authoritarianism, roots in a reliance on the powers of the flesh. Strong charming people, finally, is not that different than strong-arming them. That is to say, a church leader who thinks that rock music is necessary to make his church grow, ironically, is going beyond Scripture and relying on human wisdom just like the fundamentalist who says that all rock music is sin goes beyond Scripture and relies on human wisdom.
It’s worth meditating on Paul’s ministerial confidence:
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus 'sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:1–6)
Which brings me to…
Mark 15: Rely on the Sovereignty of God
One of the best defenses again authoritarianism—perhaps unexpectedly to some people—is Reformed theology. We speak or preach the biblical word, but we know only God can do the new creation work of giving light to the eyes. So we don’t force. We don’t manipulate. Instead we pray, finally speaking more to God about the brother, than to the brother about God (borrowing from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). And then we rest.