‘Doing theology’ on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON — Mark Dever arrived on Capitol Hill in 1994 to pastor a church of primarily 70- to 90-year-old people that was weary after nearly a half century of decline and weighed down with pouring its limited funds into the maintenance of a block of real estate.
It also had a deeper problem.
Members of the church “were kind of a-theological, I would say,” recalled Matt Schmucker, the lone staff member at the time who remains today at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), in a recent interview for Southern Seminary Magazine. “They knew they should be conservative. They knew they should look to the Bible. But at the same time there seemed to be this disconnect between what the Bible said and how they lived it out.
“They looked like the rest of America in many ways, except maybe they didn’t drink and smoke the way the rest of America did.”
Nearly 20 years later, the difference is greater than a membership dominated by 20 and 30 year olds instead of 70 to 90 year olds.
“We’re full of sinners … but I can also say we are a people that is marked out and holy and distinct, and there’s a bright line now generally between the people known as Capitol Hill Baptist Church and then the people around us,” said Schmucker, who is also executive director of the semiannual conference, Together for the Gospel.
In the intervening two decades, “the Word has done everything,” he said. “It has made us. It has brought life, and it has reshaped us and it has united us and made us distinct.”
That began with the preaching of the Word.
“Mark just kept going to the Scriptures, going to the Scriptures, going to the Scriptures for instruction,” Schmucker said.
He would “point out how Christians are called to live together and to live distinctly from the world,” Schmucker said. “And that’s what we vastly needed to hear. … The sin that was in this church looked a lot like the world, and Mark was — through preaching expositionally — calling the church to look different.”
For Dever, preaching was the major part, though not the only one, in helping the church grow theologically.
“The gospel is theology,” Dever said. “Everything we’ve talked about from Scripture is theology.
“So I understand when I preach I’m doing theology. When I pray, I think I’m doing theology. When we read Scripture, we’re listening to the raw material of theology. When we sing hymns, we’re singing theology. So I think theology is inseparable from what we’re about as a church, especially when we assemble.”
Instead of theology “being some exotic spice that some people add to their churches to give it a special, extra kick, it is that without which there is no meal,” he said. “There’s just no church there. There’s no meat.”
Dever, a former chairman of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Board of Trustees, sees the inseparableness of the church and theology in Eph. 3:10-11, which says that “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”
He said, “So it seems that in God’s decision to have his justice met by his mercy in Christ and to have the proclamation of that be at the core of the center of the life of the local church, the local church then naturally and necessarily becomes the center of the display of God’s glory and his attributes, his characteristics.”
Dever — with degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Southern Seminary and the University of Cambridge — prepared for more than a decade to do theology in an academic setting. He preached one Sunday in 1993 for the Capitol Hill church and was “ambushed” by God. For his wife, Connie, and him, it was “a subjective sense of God’s call on my life,” he said of his change in plans to become pastor.
He began his pastorate by preaching expositionally and has continued to do so — with rare exceptions. He “slowly but surely turned up” the “content density of the sermons,” Dever said. “I think I deliberately worked on the sermons knowing this is a believing church but it hadn’t been maybe that well-taught of a church, that well-disciplined of a church.”
He also was “giving away lots of books, encouraging people to read and using Wednesday night Bible study to do more teaching,” he said. He prayed and evangelized. “I love telling non-Christians the gospel,” he said.
“In God’s kindness, we saw some early conversions and slowly but surely people started visiting,” Dever said.
Now, the church building, located just four blocks from the U.S. Supreme Court Building, is filled for corporate worship, and several other churches in the Washington, D.C., area are thriving as revitalizations or plants with pastors, members and funds provided by CHBC.
Dever and the church provide other opportunities for growth in understanding the Bible and its theology outside the Sunday and Wednesday gatherings.
On Sunday morning, the church offers “core seminars” on such subjects as Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, apologetics, missions, spiritual disciplines, marriage and money. For children, the church uses a six-year systematic theology curriculum, Praise Factory, which is written by Connie Dever.
Mark Dever, meanwhile, reads aloud Richard Sibbes, a 17th-century English pastor, and other theologians at “theology breakfasts” to all members who wish to attend.
“We’ve seen Mark kind of squeeze theology into the diet through more than merely Sunday morning preaching,” Schmucker said.
For Leia Joseph, the past five years at CHBC as first a single, now wife and mother, have produced “exponential” growth in her understanding of the Bible and the benefit of participating in a “special community of discipleship undefined by life-stage.”
“[I] never sat under teaching that so specifically discipled my heart to truly understand how all of the Scriptures point to Christ,” Joseph said. “This understanding has ignited a greater hunger to be in the Word, to grow in my understanding of it and to share this with others.”
Dever and the church also have invested in the lives of future pastors, as well as other churches and their pastors.
Led by Dever and Schmucker, the church started 9Marks in 1998 to help build healthy churches and equip church leaders. In addition to producing books, articles, book reviews and a bi-monthly e-journal, 9Marks conducts conferences nationally and internationally and, three times a year, the church hosts 9Marks Weekenders, intensive Thursday-to-Monday training for pastors and church leaders.
The church has interns and pastoral assistants to whom Dever devotes large amounts of time and attention. Each year, two groups of interns from throughout the United States and around the world spend five months at CHBC learning from Dever and others.
The church and Dever also host meetings, typically monthly, of the Columbia Baptist Ministers’ Association, which consists of Southern Baptist pastors from the D.C. area. Helping pastors and future pastors is the responsibility of churches, Dever said.
“Pastors need to know what a church is, and pastors need to teach others what a church is,” he said. “That’s theology. They need to know that from the Word. They need to teach that from the Word. We want to help pastors do that.”
Aaron Menikoff is one of those pastors who benefited from being part of CHBC and having Dever take him “under his wing.” Menikoff began attending CHBC upon his move to Washington in 1994. He said he was “blown away by the preaching. I simply had never heard expositional preaching, and it changed my life.”
He served as a pastoral assistant and elder at the church before attending Southern Seminary, where he earned both a master of divinity and doctorate. Since 2008, he has been senior pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Ga.
“Over the years, I came to appreciate Mark’s unique gifts more and more,” Menikoff said. “However, the lesson that stuck with me more profoundly than any other lesson was simple: God uses his Word to build his church. I left convinced that I didn’t have to have Mark’s gifts to be a ‘successful’ pastor. I simply needed to love God’s Word and teach it as clearly and lovingly as I knew how. The rest is up to God. Is there a better truth for a pastor to cling to?”
Tom Strode is a writer based in Washington, D.C., primarily reporting for Baptist Press and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. This post originally appeared in the Spring 2014 Issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.