My response to Dever’s BIG statement

Mark Dever makes some very helpful points in this sermon but he also draws a very strange application lesson out of the John 17 text.  I say “Amen” to the first paragraph below but don’t follow the logic of paragraph two. 

 “Therefore, I conclude that it is sin to divide the body of Christ—to divide the body that he prayed would be united. Therefore for us to conclude that we must agree upon a certain view of alcohol, or a certain view of schooling, or a certain view of meat sacrificed to idols, or a certain view of the millennium in order to have fellowship together is, I think, not only unnecessary for the body of Christ, but it is therefore both unwarranted and therefore condemned by scripture.

 So if you’re a pastor and you’re listening to me, you understand me correctly if you think I’m saying you are in sin if you lead your congregation to have a statement of faith that requires a particular millennial view. I do not understand why that has to be a matter of uniformity in order to have Christian unity in a local congregation.”

 “You are in SIN if you lead your congregation to have a statement of faith that requires a particular millennial view.”  WOW!  On the basis of John 17 you make that strong of a statement?  Really?  Dr. Dever is not one to make reckless statements.  This is clearly something he has thought about for some time before saying it ever so boldly.

 I know a very mature Christian couple that use to attend Dever’s church (they were church members at CHBC).  One of the reasons why they felt led to leave this congregation was over this very issue.  Not every church member or local church pastor has the same (strong) doctrinal convictions over the same areas of Christian theology.  It is probably one of the reasons why we have so many denominations & churches in America.  For example, many believers could not attend a church that doesn’t practice “believer’s baptism” even though they would never condemn a gospel preaching infant-baptizing church as heretical.  Some believers have spent many hours studying the text of Scripture and have developed strong convictions with regards to eschatology, pneumatology, church polity, etc.  What may be a “third order” doctrine to some may be a “second order” doctrine to someone else.  I think that is ok.  It is never ok when a fundamental doctrine is wrongly understood.  

 On this topic I would suggest reading the many posts Phil Johnson has written on this topic like “What do common sense and Scripture tell us about the relative weight of different truths?” or “Why is the distinction between essential and peripheral doctrines so crucial?”; or for my favorite article on this topic, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” by Dr. Al Mohler (posted July 12, 2005).

 In Mohler’s article he writes, “God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.”  A recent trip to the Emergency Room helped Mohler come up with the triage concept.  He goes on to say this, “First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christ faith…The set of second order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on second-order issues though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers…Third-order issues are doctrines which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.”  Later Mohler notes, “A structure of theological triage does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness.  We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture.  There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.”

 So back to Mark Dever’s BIG statement.  I think what Dever said recently does not take into account the reality that not all “statement of faith” documents are applied the same way.  I also don’t think he takes into account the point that not everyone agrees on what second-level matters are and what third-level matters are.  For Pastor Dever’s church family, eschatology is a “Third-order issue” therefore CHBC has chosen not to include a specific millennial position in their statement of faith.  Fine, but if another pastor or local assembly decides this is a second-level matter for their particular church body don’t call it “sin” brother.  To be continued.

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28 responses to this post.

  1. This comment should be read with the post above.

    First, let’s put this discussion into its proper perspective. At the city library yesterday I witnessed a short dialogue between a 7 or 8 year old girl and her mother. “Look mom! Saw II!” The girl went onto explain some of her favorite parts in this gruesome horror movie DVD. Her mother’s response? “Shut the **** up and get it!” As our culture grows darker and darker may Jesus’ Church shine bright and fervently proclaim the saving gospel message.

    Second, I really like Mark Dever. I have heard him preach at T4G and at the Shepherd’s Conference. I use his “9 Marks” book for our men’s leadership training and development class. I would love for him to come and preach at our church anytime on almost any topic.

    With that said, I think Mark Dever misunderstands the complexities of a church doctrinal statement (or statement of faith). Obviously, not all churches operate the same way. Not all churches view the function of their statement of faith documents the same way either. Some think it is best to have a more ‘minimalistic’ statement of faith while others prefer a document that is more ‘precise’ and lengthy. The church I pastor has been around for 159 years. Our current statement of faith is quite long and in a few places very detailed. Apparently, the founding church members decided to include a paragraph or two about eschatology in the doctrinal statement. However, just because a church decides to do this does not mean they would never let a professing Christian join their local fellowship with different doctrinal positions. In my opinion, this matter should be determined on a case by case basis.

    For example, if a person came to our church with a different view on “end time’s theology” but really wanted to join our local assembly I would recommend to our leadership team that we present that person to the congregation (with that doctrinal difference noted) for a church vote.

    Even though I think it is totally appropriate for a church to include their position on eschatology in their doctrinal statement I also echo Dever’s opening statement; “I think that millennial views need not be among those doctrines that divide us. . . . I am suggesting that what you believe about the millennium—how you interpret these thousand years—is not something that it is necessary for us to agree upon in order to have a congregation together.”

    Dr. Mohler ends his article (see post above) with these very important words, “This structure of theological triage may also help to explain how confusion can often occur in the midst of doctrinal debate. If the relative urgency of these truths is not taken into account, the debate can quickly become unhelpful. The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity is the inevitable result.

    Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.

    Living in an age of widespread doctrinal denial and intense theological confusion, thinking Christians must rise to the challenge of Christian maturity, even in the midst of a theological emergency. We must sort the issues with a trained mind and a humble heart, in order to protect what the Apostle Paul called the “treasure” that has been entrusted to us. Given the urgency of this challenge, a lesson from the Emergency Room just might help.”

    Even though the church I pastor is NOT KJV-only i am not concerned that a few of our members may hold to this particular understanding. We have taught on this subject and a few believers have graciously agreed to disagree with the pastoral leadership. If these members are content being apart of a non-KJV only church that is ok with us.

    At the same time if a church body/pastor strongly believes the arguments for the KJV only position it makes sense to me that they would want to have their own fellowship. So long as they don’t turn that particular conviction into a first level doctrinal matter i can agree to disagree with them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    All that to say, Mark and I disagree on the application of John 17 but continue to stand together for the gospel.

  2. It seems that Dever is out of step with his own church’s doctrinal statement (see article XVIII, rev New Hampshire). Their confession by definition excludes certain millennial beliefs. Is Dever “in sin” according to his own standard?

  3. So it would seem that this really is a question of whether eschatology is a second- or third-order issue. Since Dever takes it as third-order he feels that it is sinful to make it a point of division.

    For those of you who consider this to be second-order, could you explain to me why that is? Why does it matter whether your people are pre- or a-mil, for example?

  4. Jason,

    Could it be that some pastors feel strongly about this because they believe this to be a major emphasis and theme of Scripture not relegated to only one passage (e.g., Rev. 20)? Also could it be that since such teaching is attached to the bodily return of Christ it carries a weight that other doctrines might not? Could it be that looking at everything through a first, second, third order paradigm only works within the authority of a local church? Could it be that a cherished teacher that many have profited from (including me) has said something the Bible does not (i.e., “this is sin”)?

    I believe the answer to all of the questions is “yes.”

  5. Posted by Vic Robertson on July 14, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Responding to Paul’s observation: Perhaps Pastor Dever believes that their statement of faith is sinful and is leading his congregation to remove millennial views from their statement.

    I too view eschatology as third order, as does my pastor and congregation. It seems to me that a person who views end times as second order might spend too much time teaching and defending such a strong view. Indeed he would have to expend a lot of effort to build that mole hill into a mountain, and risk giving too little time to knowing and trusting and obeying our Lord in order to be ready whenever He does decide to come back.

    Might 1 Cor 8 and 10 apply? Could it be sin for Pastor Dever to lead his congregation that way and yet other pastors have freedom in Christ?

  6. Paul,

    Based on the tone of your response I am afraid that you may have misunderstood me. I really do have a deep desire to know why this is so important to some. I am sorry if you thought I was being sarcastic or trying to pick a fight as that was not my intent.

    So if I read your response correctly regarding the “orders” of doctrines, it seems that the authority of the local church means that Dever has no business in how other churches view this? Is that correct?

  7. Posted by Vic Robertson on July 14, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    As usual, when I write quickly and hit “Submit,” I regret it. I do apologize and ask forgiveness of anyone who I have insulted by calling end times a “mole hill.” It is certainly not a mole hill.

  8. Vic, We have all done that before. No hurt feelings here.

    Jason, i know you are developing a number of convictions right now. The internet and interacting online with like-minded pastors and church members via blogs can be helpful. Of course nothing is better than your own study of the Word, reading good books, and a close relationship with your very own local church (discipleship relationships, teaching, etc). Paul is a very busy man and i think he writes accordingly (to the point).

    T4G

  9. Caleb — thanks for the note. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t causing trouble in my questioning.

  10. Dever’s statment of faith has his position on the Christian Sabbath in it.

  11. Posted by Steve Meister on July 14, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    With my profound appreciation for Mark Dever notwithstanding, I think his statement is short-sighted. This may be anecdotal, but I usually only hear these types of statements from amill guys. What they are usually doing is ignoring the direct connection between one’s eschatology and the priorities for a local church.

    There is a cause and effect relationship between one’s view of the millennium and how one understands the place, purpose, and priorities of the local church in the world. Even the most obtuse understand that post-mill and pre-mill churches approach things differently. So, when a church decides not to make its millennial position clear it is actually committing a two-fold disservice:

    (1) It removes from their congregation the “why?” behind their focuses as a church and ministry activity is based on activity itself as opposed to a holistic biblical theology.

    (2) It also assumes those churches that differ disagree in their approach to ministry in the local church are just dolts, rather than those who have a sincere theological disagreement based upon their conviction from Scripture.

  12. Posted by scott shaffer on July 14, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Paul,

    Actually, his Statement of Faith doesn’t say much about eschatology. It appears there is a statement of faith that members affirm, and a more detailed doctrinal statement which doesn’t need to be affirmed in order to be a member?

    Link to statement of faith: http://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/we-are/governed/statement-of-faith/

  13. Scott-

    To have a short statement of faith and a more detailed church doctrinal statement would be sin…That practice may sound a bit odd to some but it really only proves the points i made above.

    So when is Mark going to retract his statement? :)

  14. I have a question that I kind of touched on in the other thread. It is clear that many believe that Dever is wrong about what he said. You don’t believe that you are in sin if you limit church membership based on eschatology. If we assume the authority of the local church I don’t have a problem with that. After all, as the pastor of an autonomous body you certainly have the right and in fact the obligation to do what you believe to be biblical.

    How is this any different than the situation with MacArthur and Driscoll? There you have a pastor of one church telling the pastor of another church that he is in sin. The accuser has what he believes to be a biblical basis for the accusation and the accused has what he believes to be a biblical basis for his defense. In the abstract, the two situations seem identical to me.

    It seems to me that because of local church authority all that anyone can do is make suggestions. Each local pastor and his church leadership have to decide if the counsel is worth heeding. When a prominent pastor makes a big proclamation like Dever’s it is fun to discuss, but there is certainly nothing binding about it.

    I apologize in advance for disappearing as I have a 10 hour car ride ahead of me today with my family. I’m looking forward to thinking a bit more about this question when I’m not trying to help entertain the 5 year-old and the 2 year-old.

  15. Posted by scott shaffer on July 15, 2009 at 5:16 am

    Caleb,

    I must have missed something. Dever’s point was that it was sin to exclude people from membership based on their view of eschatology. How does having a statement of faith that allows for different eschatological perspectives contradict that? Further, if CHBC uses the NHBC as a doctrinal statement as Paul suggests, there is no issue because premils, amils, and postmils could affirm it.

    Don’t get me wrong, while I agree with placing eschatology in the third tier, I don’t have a problem with churches putting it in the second tier. I would be concerned if a church changed its statement of faith, or whatever document members must affirm, for the purpose of removing members from fellowship. I also don’t see a problem with having a more detailed doctrinal statement that church elders and perhaps teachers have to affirm.

    Grace,
    Scott

  16. Scott,

    For Dever to set up his church with two different (non biblical) structures is fine. It is also ok for someone to include eschatology in their statement of faith or doctrinal statement as they (the local church) see fit.

    Notice i said non biblical not unbiblical…

    Jason, MacArthur’s concerns with Mark Driscoll are only as good as his concerns/remarks are Scriptural. I believe those concerns can be backed Scripturally but that is getting us way off track.

  17. Posted by scott shaffer on July 15, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Caleb,

    Thanks for the response. How does Dever’s eccelsiology as described in this post differ from your church’s?

  18. Posted by Massimo Mollica on July 15, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Caleb,

    Can you clarify what you mean by saying having two doctrinal statements is sin (or was that sarcasm), one more brief that must be affirmed for membership, and one more lengthy to be affirmed by leadership/teachers/elders? This is an issue I’ve discussed on more than one occasion with people.

    What are the potential strengths and pitfalls of this approach?

    Thanks. I hope you’re well :)

    Massimo

  19. Massimo,

    Yes, i was being sarcastic about the two doctrinal statements. I do think it is wise to sort of view the church as a pyramid. By that i mean, to allow new members to simply affirm the core tenants of the church (which may vary some from congregation to congregation) but to require greater like-mindedness with the elders/teachers/staff pastors/etc. For example, if a member at our church held the “KJV only” position i would be very careful about letting that person teach and would be even more careful about allowing them to serve on one of our leadership boards. As you move up the pyramid (for the sake of unity) i think it is important to be very like-minded on the second and third level doctrines.

    Biblical unity always start with an affirmation of the core doctrines of the faith (sola fide, the Deity of Christ, etc). From their I think it is up to each local church to sort out how they are going to set up a statement of faith, church covenant, etc. That is one of the reasons why Dever’s statement was so out of place (in my opinion).

    Blessings to you brother-

  20. Pastor Lance Quinn had a great post that sheds some light on our most recent dialogue. http://www.shepherdsfellowship.org/

    “It is for the good of the local church that Elders work together toward the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). When possible, Elders should manifest this unity by attempting to make unanimous decisions regarding both the nature and function of the local church body, Jesus Christ being her ultimate spiritual Head. When it comes to the nature of the church, Elders should make decisions based upon the principles laid out in the Word of God. This practically means that principled decisions which are achieved by proper and sound exegesis can and do reflect affirmations in unanimity because the Elders are submitting their wills to Holy Scripture, ensuring the Holy Spirit’s illumining role in the church’s male leadership, and thus securing a healthy course of action for the strengthening of the corporate body (Ephesians 4:4-16). The very nature of the church is said by the apostle Paul to be the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

    When it comes to the function of the church however, with the Elders being called upon to make judgments on preferential issues, unanimity is desired but not required. Issues of preference within the local body are precisely what the apostle Paul refers to when he declared to the Roman believers of the 1st century: “Each [person] should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). When preferences are being considered, Paul teaches the body—including the Elders—to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). The same apostle is therefore calling both for unity in essentials and flexibility in non-essentials.

    The Elders of any local congregation may differ in their understanding and application of areas which have no explicit or implicit mandate for leadership unanimity. Such freedom then should lead these men to pray and implore one another to consider all possible alternatives in order to achieve unanimity. In the absence of any desired unanimity, disagreements in matters of preference don’t inherently militate against the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The church, through its leadership, should strive for essential unity in doctrine and practice, but should not become paralyzed because of the lack of preferential unanimity. Unanimity must be achieved in principles; differences may exist in preferences without destroying unity; charity must predominate in both.”

  21. All,

    I really appreciate the discussion here. I am in the middle of a writing project with a hard deadline coming next week so I have kept my inputs brief. My fundamental concern with Dever’s comment is that he has bound the consciences of weak brothers and sisters by calling something a sin that the Bible does not. His use of John 17 is what I would call an over-application of the passage. All the talk about tiers of doctrine seems to miss key aspects of the discussion. Al Mohler’s original article on this pointed out that all doctrine is important and that each local church must decide how best to emphasize what is essential within their fellowship.

    I can only speak for our congregation in that we have a very detailed statement but we are careful to note (hundreds of times over) that this is “what we teach.” In other words when a person joins our church they are asked to submit to the elders teaching on these matters but that does not mean that they are unable to hold differing convictions on such doctrines. We have every millennial position represented in our membership but we would not allow such a person to teach their position as the position of our church if it differed with our statement.

    At the same time we do not beat the drum of eschatology but have chosen to primarily address such issues only as they come about in the text being preached. Outside of this we offer theology classes, SS, and leadership training where all perspectives are discussed yet affirming our church’s convictions on such issues.

    Ironically we are decidedly premill in our theological persuasion with a number of wonderful members who are not and yet we have not experienced the lack of unity that Dever seems to think is inevitable. To the contrary our church is wonderfully unified and seeking to grow in grace.

    On a theological note I think it is more helpful if this larger discussion looks at the total package rather than reducing the issue to one passage (e.g., Rev 20). I have said many times that my eschatology begins in Gen 3 and reaches a fever pitch in Gen 12 and then takes off from there through the rest of Scripture. My expectations for what God will do within His redemptive program are largely bound up in His promise to Abram which is progressively amplified and detailed through the progress of revelation. As for me and my house this forces me to be premill but I still love and appreciate pastors like Mark Dever.

    As Brian Regan says, “godspeed!”

  22. Posted by Scott Christensen on July 15, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Paul,
    I have a very practical question. This whole matter is very apropos to our church right now. You said:

    “When a person joins our church they are asked to submit to the elders teaching on these matters but that does not mean that they are unable to hold differing convictions on such doctrines.”

    This is understandable with regard to eschatology. But is this the same approach with non-negotiables? IOW, do you require new members to agree with those portions of your doctrinal statement that present absolute non-negotiables like the Trinity, deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc…?

    • Scott,

      What we do is ask them to specify in their membership application if there are any points with which they disagree with “What We Teach.” Through interviewing them we are then able to determine to what level they hold their particular disagreement and if it concerns a basic tenet of biblical faith. If it is a so-called secondary issue (2nd, 3rd tier) then we ask them to remain teachable knowing that their position is not held by our church. Practically speaking, most of our members who disagree with us have indicated that it is because they simply have not studied the issue(s) to the point of a settled conviction.

  23. Posted by Scott Christensen on July 15, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Paul,
    That is helpful, thanks.

  24. Paul, I think in practice we are pretty much in full agreement. You noted, “All the talk about tiers of doctrine seems to miss key aspects of the discussion. Al Mohler’s original article on this pointed out that all doctrine is important and that each local church must decide how best to emphasize what is essential within their fellowship.” That statement is true so long as everyone understands that some doctrines are “essential” to every fellowship if such and such a local church is in fact a true church. In this regard Phil Johnson and Al Mohler’s articles are quite relevant to the discussion at hand. All this reminds me of Pastor MacArthur’s disturbing dialogue with Dr. J.I. Packer many years ago. John’s series on “Delivered by God” is still one of my all time favorites. It compliments Iain Murray’s “Evangelicalism Divided” very well.

    I really believe in many congregations people sign on the dotted membership line that they do “ascribe to the churches doctrinal statement” even though many of them really don’t have strong biblical convictions with regards to many doctrines/positions listed. Our church (as do many) offers a mandatory membership class where we try and go over the fundamentals of the faith before anyone joins the church officially. Of course, at the church i currently pastor this practice has not always been the case so that complicates matters some.

    One of the goals of Matthew 28 is to teach new disciples all that Jesus commanded His church to do/be. That is something I will strive to accomplish until the day I die (Col 1:28-29).

    T4G-

    • Yes Caleb I’m with you here.

      Now here’s something I have not heard discussed or questioned. Why was Dever using the pulpit to charge pastors who were not present with sin on a secondary issue? Even if he believes this is what John 17 teaches (which it doesn’t) he is still guilty of using the pulpit to further his own agenda rather than preach the Word before him.

  25. Posted by Mike Jarvis on July 15, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Paul, you raise a very important question that I have about “sermon application,” which I would like to have addressed by all of you in a future post. You used the term “over-application” earlier, and now, you raised the issue of Dever “using the pulpit to further his own agenda rather than preach the Word before him.” Though I agree, Dever goes beyond the bounds of John 17 to arrive at an application that sounds implausible, what constitutes “over-application” or, worse, preaching application that furthers one’s own agenda?

    Secondly, what comments would you all have about MacArthur’s statement on preaching the implication of the passage and leaving the application to the work of the Spirit? (http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/GTY117)

    Again, perhaps for another post later. Thank you.

  26. […] to be an exposition of 3 John, expressed a Mark Dever kind of attitude (and see further discussion at this post also) in his inability to distinguish between true lesser matters such as eating and drinking, and the […]

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