What’s Really Wrong in the Church?
There are many excellent works published that eloquently describe the problems of the Church. David Wells has done an excellent service in this whole area. But many have neither the time nor the inclination to read tome after tome and even less time to follow through on the footnotes. Which is where Scripture is so valuable, being firstly, the voice of the Holy Spirit and therefore infallible. Secondly, it is accessible to all and without footnotes, endnotes or any other paraphernalia. Thirdly, it doesn’t require a degree in English in order to follow and understand it.
Nehemiah 13 may be history, but it is given to teach us enduring principles and truths that are vital to the Church. What we see are five issues that continually plague the Church through time.
1. Worldliness in Life (13:1-3)
God’s people are to be a separated people, a peculiar people, holy unto the Lord, distinct from the world around them. Yet, the Church is frequently plagued by its associations and alliances contrary to the express testimony of Scripture. The Ammonites and Moabites were enemies of Israel who promoted those (v. 2 Balaam) who spoke openly against the Church, yet here they were embraced and taken into the bosom of the Church. How like the Church of today which too often does the same. Do we not see this with the embracing of evolution, pragmatism, same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, holy days, etc., all promoted by religious commentators and professors who, while hating the Church, want the Church to embrace all that is contrary to the written Word of God.
The answer in Nehemiah 13 is the answer for us; separation in accordance with holy writ.
2. Compromise in Ministry (13:4-9)
The ministry is to pursue the interests of God kingdom and the welfare of God’s people. But what happens when personal interests trump spiritual duties? This is the case with Eliashib who was related to Tobiah – that implacable and inveterate foe of Zion who didn’t merely oppose the work of God but slandered it and threatened the people of God. Now, during the absence of Nehemiah (v. 6) he is installed in the very temple with his own rooms and possessions and worse, he is maintained by the very tithes that are for the ministry! Here too we see a parallel. Those who are enemies are courted. Often by means of relations and patronage they are cunningly instated into the work of God being given bureaucratic positions within the institutions of the Church and paid for by the tithes of the Lord’s people. All done while those who are in charge are lawfully engaged elsewhere (v. 6). Have we not seen sceptical professors appointed to teach in seminaries for the training of ministers who continue to infect students with their scepticism and sinful doubting of the veracity of Scripture? Appointed because they had links, however tenuous or otherwise, under the foolish boast that they had something to contribute to the overall life of the Church. And besides, how clever the move was to recruit such a person.
The answer in Nehemiah 13 was to excommunicate the unfaithful.
3. Neglect of Tithing (13:10-14)
The Biblical rule in both the Old and New Testaments is that they who preach the gospel should live off the gospel (1 Cor. 9:4-14). What happens when this is neglected? As we see in Nehemiah the ministry collapses. Just as everyone needs food, clothing and shoes, so too do ministers, their wives and children. The result is the house of God is forsaken, for employment where provision will be made. The consequence is a diminishing of the Church. Who will volunteer for a ministry where they starve unless they have private means?
We are commanded by Christ to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send forth labourers, but it is we who have the duty of looking after them.
The answer in Nehemiah is to correct the fault and to teach what God requires.
4. Commercialising the Sabbath (13:15-22)
God has set apart one day for Himself. Alas, as too often happens, commercial considerations encroach upon the Lord’s Day even to the extent of making it nothing more than an ordinary week-day. The Jews and Tyrians were undifferentiated in their worldly pursuit of financial gain. A free people keep God’s day. It is an enslaved people who do not. Remember the slaves in Egypt were denied a Sabbath. Here they are enslaving themselves to the god of mammon.
Sadly, we have the very same problem facing the Church. Those who profess to be God’s people, openly and unashamedly engage in commercial activity whether by work or shopping. Tragically, New Covenant Theology actively promotes destruction of the fourth commandment. As the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1853 declared – a Church without the Sabbath is apostate.
The answer in Nehemiah was protestation (contend v. 17, to sue), preach (v. 18 Nehemiah reminds them of the same folly in history), prevention (v.19) and protection (v. 22). The persistence of Sabbath-breakers notwithstanding, Nehemiah pursued his course until he was successful.
5. Disobedience in Relationships (13:23:31)
Relationships have always been difficult. Sin makes them complicated. Failure in one generation has tragic consequences in the next. Over three generations are evidently considered here. The first generation believed the truth but didn’t strive to see that their sons followed it. The result was mixed marriages, sons marrying outside the faith, in this case women of Ashdod, Moab and Ammon. The children who were born grew up in abject ignorance symbolised by their failure to speak the language of God’s people. How sad! The language of Canaan was foreign to them.
And how often do we see that in the Church. Christian parents who fail to instil into their children any love to God. First commandment loyalty is missing. They assume that allowing them to stay at home on the Lord’s Day is merely a phase. Thus the children grow into teenagers who despise Church as being ‘boring’ because their carnal hearts have not been restrained by indulgent parents who believe that after they have lived in the world they will return to the Church. Few do. The rebellious teens become rebellious adults and marry according to their rebellious taste to the sorrow of those foolish and indulgent parents. Then grandchildren arrive who are no different from their pagan neighbours. Ignorant of Scripture and the truths of Christianity and indifferent to the infinite excellency of Christ they speak the language of their culture – a strange, idolatrous, craving, sensuous language.
The answer in Nehemiah was excommunication of those who, whatever their status, have wilfully flouted the law of God.
Nehemiah 13 is an enduring, inerrant and infallible commentary on the state of the Church. What was true then is still true. The problems that plagued the Church in Nehemiah’s days are our problems and the cure is the same. We say with the Psalmist – ‘That in thee may thy people joy, wilt thou not us revive? Show us thy mercy, Lord, to us do thy salvation give’ (85:6-7).