An Essential Mark of a Healthy Church: Biblical Theology

By Mark Dever

(Originally published as chapter 6 of What Is a Healthy Church?)

What do you think these italicized words mean: "But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2 NIV).

If you carefully read through the biblical storyline presented in chapter 3, you would probably know that these words point to how, at the end of time, the church will purely reflect God's loving and holy character apart from the distorting influence of sin.

Yet if you were sitting in a Mormon tabernacle, you would hear that the words "we will be like him" mean that we will all become gods!

What's the difference between these two interpretations? One is informed by the theology of the whole Bible; the other is not.

I have argued in a number of places that expository preaching is essential for the health of a church. Yet every method of preaching, however good, is open to abuse. Our churches should not only be concerned with how we are taught, but also with what we are taught. That's why an essential mark of a healthy church is sound biblical theology, or theology that's biblical. Otherwise we will interpret individual verses to mean whatever we want them to mean.

Soundness

Soundness is an old-fashioned word. Yet we should cherish soundness—soundness in our understanding of the God of the Bible and his ways with us. Paul uses the word "sound" a number of times in his pastoral writings to Timothy and Titus. It means "reliable," "accurate," or "faithful." At root, it is an image from the medical world meaning whole or healthy. Biblically sound theology, then, is theology that is faithful to the teaching of the entire Bible. It reliably and accurately interprets the parts in terms of the whole.

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says that "sound doctrine" is doctrine that "conforms to the gospel" and opposes ungodliness and sin (1 Tim. 1:10-11 NIV). Later on, he contrasts "false doctrines" with "the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and ... godly teaching" (1 Tim. 6:3 NIV).

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul exhorts him, "What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:13 NIV). Then he warns Timothy that "the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Tim. 4:3 NIV).

When Paul writes another young pastor, Titus, he shares similar concerns. Every man Titus appoints as an elder of a church, Paul says, "must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (Titus 1:9 NIV). False teachers must be rebuked "so that they will be sound in the faith" (Titus 1:13 NIV). And, finally, Titus "must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1 NIV).

Pastors should teach sound doctrine—doctrine that is reliable, accurate, and faithful to the Bible, and churches are responsible for keeping their pastors accountable to sound doctrine.

Unity, Diversity, and Charity

We cannot lay out here everything that constitutes sound teaching since that would require us to reproduce the whole Bible. But in practice, every church decides where it requires complete agreement, where it permits limited disagreement, and where it allows complete liberty.

In the church I serve in Washington, DC, we require every member to believe in salvation through the work of Jesus Christ alone. We also confess the same (or very similar) understandings of believer's baptism and of church structure (that is, who has the final say in decisions). Agreement on baptism and structure are not essential for salvation, but they're practically helpful and health giving for the life of the church.

On the other hand, our church allows some disagreement over matters that are necessary neither for salvation nor for the practical life of the church. We all agree that Christ will return, but there is a range of opinions about the timing of his return.

Finally, our church allows entire liberty on matters still less central or clear, such as the rightness of armed resistance or the question of who wrote the book of Hebrews.

There's a principle running through all of this: the closer we get to the heart of our faith, the more we expect unity in our understanding of the faith—in sound biblical doctrine. The early church put it this way: in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things, charity.

Week 1 What Is Sound Doctrine and Why Does It Matter?

Getting Started

Theology has gotten a bad rap lately. To some, the very word "theology" conjures up images of medieval monks in ivory towers musing over how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. Others think of sleep-inducing lectures. To others, it signifies an outdated way of thinking that simply doesn't work for postmodern people.

1. What are some objections to theology that you've heard? (Or said!)

The New Testament consistently places a strikingly high priority on theology and doctrine. According to the New Testament, sound doctrine—that is, teaching that conforms to God's Word—is of first importance for the Christian life and for the entire church.

Digging In

Throughout 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus, the apostle Paul insists that sound doctrine is of first importance in the life of the church. Consider the following passages:

1. Drawing on the seven passages listed before, fill in the chart below with characteristics of sound doctrine (What is it? How does Paul describe it?) and results of sound doctrine (What follows when sound doctrine is taught? How does it impact our lives?). Also, list the verse each characteristic or result comes from.

Characteristics of Sound Doctrine Results of Sound Doctrine
   
   
   
   
   
   
   

2. Is there anything that surprised you about sound doctrine as you went through these passages?