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Mark Dever taught at Cambridge University, where he earned a Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History, and has pastored Capitol Hill Baptist Church since 1994. He is president of 9Marks Ministries and the author of numerous books on what makes for strong churches.
What was it like growing up in rural Kentucky? In the ’60s there, everybody’s Baptist. We never read Scripture in our home, never had prayer in our home, but when I was 4 and 6 and 8 we were always at church.
When did God call you to be a pastor? It wasn’t until I was 32 and guest preaching at the church in Washington that I now pastor. I had been preparing for 10 years to teach historical theology, so I was not aiming at pastoral ministry, but they had lost their previous pastor under unfortunate circumstances. I preached Sunday morning, and Sunday night was praying about the situation. I felt strangely, subjectively called to pastor that church. Objectively, that congregation literally called me several months later.
What was that subjective call like? It was a very immediate sense of prayer: Wow, God wants me to do this. The church was not in good shape, D.C. was not in good shape, Capitol Hill was not in good shape, but I knew I should do it.
Until then you were on an academic career track. How is teaching different from preaching? Very different. I love teaching: It’s a lot more relaxed, I let my personality come out, I can kid around a lot more, I can give multiple views a lot more. When I’m preaching, I’m giving God’s word to God’s people. I need to get my personality, at least in part, out of it. I need to be freer with the imperatives than I would be in teaching.
If you use humor in sermons, unless it’s broad humor, is it misinterpreted? Maybe initially, but the great thing about being not just a preacher in general, but the pastor of a local church, is that the congregation gets to know you, and understands the raise of an eyebrow or the use of a certain phrase.
How is your church like other churches, and how does the Capitol Hill location make it different? Anything that’s unique about our church will never be the most important thing. What’s most important about any Christian church is always what it shares with every other truly Christian church: right preaching of God, right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. On baptism, we agree that it’s not saving.
So you don’t feel called to give an election-based sermon every Sunday? You mean, God’s election?
Democratic-Republican election? Most people have no idea whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican. Some members are loud Republicans. Some are loud Democrats.
Do you ever preach on a pro-life subject? Sure, but it’s up to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party about how faithful it wants to be to the understanding that people are made in God’s image. That is their partisan concern.
Do some in your congregation want to hear from you on Sunday stuff they could put to use on Monday in governing? The issues they face will often bring about conversations. The ethical questions people have in the intelligence community are very common.
Do they ask about engaging in torture, waterboarding …? That was an urgent question in a phone call from a high government official.
What did you say? I don’t want to talk about those things.
I want to ask you questions about things you don’t talk about. When I retire. … A senator once asked me what he should do on a specific budget matter, and I had very strong opinions but said: “I could tell you what I think about this, but I have a responsibility in your life to tell you about the gospel and about Jesus Christ. I am not wrong on that. I could be wrong on this other thing. So you exercise your responsibility as best you can, and I’ll exercise mine.”
Let’s turn to what you do want to talk about, the nine marks of a healthy church, starting with expositional preaching. A lot of preaching in America is cruddy. It’s terrible in liberal churches because they don’t understand God or the Bible, and terrible in conservative churches because they take it for granted and just want people to have good families. Whether a preacher is a hipster church planter or an overconfident revitalizer who’s going to take care of the last cruddy guy’s ministry, the main work is to open the Bible and tell the people what God’s Word says.
Marks 2 and 3: biblical theology, biblical understanding of the Good News? If you don’t get that right, you’re wasting everybody’s time. We want everyone who joins our church to be able to tell us in 60 seconds or less what the Good News of Jesus Christ is.
What is the Good News of Jesus Christ? That we’ve all been made in God’s image to know Him, but we’ve sinned and separated ourselves from God. Because He is such a good God, He will punish us for our sins, and in His amazing love He sent His only Son to live the life of perfect trust in Him that we all should have lived. We have no reason not to live that life, but none of us has lived it. Jesus lived it for us, and He died on the cross as a substitute, a vicarious sacrifice, taking all of God’s right wrath against us for our sins, bearing it completely, exhausting it. Then God raised Him from the dead, showing that the Father accepted the sacrifice of the Son. All of us who repent and believe are those for whom He has died, and for whom forgiveness is available.
What percentage of your congregation members can do that in a minute? Ninety percent? All have to do some version of it in joining. Doesn’t have to be as concise.
Almost out of time. Marks 4, 5, 6: biblical understanding of conversion, evangelism, membership … There has been an unfortunate emphasis on numbers. We have maybe 930, and if we go to 1,500 it could be because the Holy Spirit has granted revival, or it could be because I’ve become markedly unfaithful and then remarkably gifted. It could go to 400 because there’s been a huge economic depression that’s hit D.C., or because I’ve gotten old and in my dotage am just slobbering and speaking for 85 minutes.
Marks 7, 8: biblical church discipline, discipleship, and growth? In some churches, when somebody starts to grow spiritually, it looks unusual. It should be normal in churches to see people growing spiritually.
Mark 9, leadership: Not just one man, but a plurality of elders? A group of men who meet the biblical qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Churches that do not recognize elders are depriving themselves of a crucial means of health and soundness.