by John Owen
What makes a healthy church? That’s a question many prospective pastors are asking as conversations about church planting, church revitalization, and church membership seem more popular than ever. Does church health depend on a particular model, set of programs, or a good marketing strategy? Or is it something else altogether? How do we know?
Thankfully, Scripture doesn’t leave us in the dark. We’re not the first generation of Christians to wrestle with this question.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to talk to Michael Jordan about basketball, or Willie Mays about baseball. In one sense, John Owen’s Duties of Christian Fellowship comes close to that. J.I. Packer has called the Puritans “the redwoods in the forest of theology” with John Owen as “the greatest of the redwoods.” In God’s kindness, pastors and church members alike can read Owen’s multi-pronged answer to what healthy church membership looks like.
Owen’s book, originally titled Eschol: A Cluster Of The Grapes Of Canaan, is based upon four principles “with respect to the management of churches agreed upon by all who long for the increase of the power of godliness, though they may belong to different denominations and persuasions.” These principles include:
The gathering of individual assemblies or congregations of believers, under the leadership of their officers, so that they might participate in the ordinances of Jesus Christ, is a divine institution.
Every faithful believer is bound to join himself to some such single congregation that displays the notes and marks of a true church.
Each believer’s voluntary consent and submission to the ordinances of Christ in that church is required before he may join with it and have fellowship in it.
It is convenient for all believers living in one place to join themselves into one congregation, unless through sheer numbers more congregations are required. Otherwise there is the danger of strife, envy, and breach of love.
The book is comprised of 22 “rules” or Scriptural commands that Owen says are responsibilities of every member of a Christian church. These rules are broken down into two distinct sections.
Section one includes seven “rules for walking in fellowship with respect to the pastor of the congregation.” In other words, he explains what a church member’s responsibility is to his or her pastor, noting submission to authority (Heb. 13:17), the call to pray for one’s pastor (Eph. 6:18–20), and other Scriptural principles defining the pastor-church member relationship.
Section two then focuses on a church member’s relationship to other members. Owen clearly and concisely lays out 15 “rules for walking in fellowship with respect to other believers, with explanations of the rules, and motives for keeping them.” As with section one, this follows Owen’s straightforward structure. He gives a rule, defends that rule from Scripture, and then describes the Scriptural motives behind the rule.
Unsurprisingly, Owen’s book is saturated in Scripture—not market-driven research that changes constantly, or the latest fad in church growth. This book is full of wise biblical counsel from the “tallest of the redwoods.” Though his purpose is to explain the duties of a church member, Owen ends up explaining what it looks like to be a healthy church member, and therefore a healthy church.
The book finishes with Rule 15: “Believers should live and walk in an exemplary way in all holiness and godliness, to the glory of the gospel, the edification of the church, and the conviction of those outside the church.” In other words, he’s saying that the church is the gospel made visible. When Christians, by God’s grace, actually pursue obedience, the gospel is proclaimed through their lives together. Furthermore, the church is edified and grows spiritually. Owen is clear: biblical ecclesiology is truly evangelistic.
As a church planter and pastor, I found this book encouraging and helpful. I’ve long been a proponent of the Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which can sometimes seem like I’m on an island amidst all that‘s out there in the church planting world (specifically in the area of church membership). Duties of Christian Fellowship provides a strong affirmation from the grave of the doctrines 9Marks seeks to be taught and implemented in churches across the world.
I highly recommend this book and believe it would be most helpful if read in groups for discussion. It may also be a helpful book for churches to give out in a membership class. As Christians, we stand on the shoulders of faithful saints who have gone before us. Praise God for brothers like John Owen, and for books like this.
Review by Drew Cunningham