In a recent episode of the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll is heard using Nehemiah as an example and justification for an aggressive approach to church leadership. Driscoll teaches the book of Nehemiah as a spiritual metaphor for how their church should look in Seattle—God’s city in a secular city. As pastor, Driscoll casts himself as Nehemiah, God’s forthright leader who worked to restore the city.
Is Nehemiah really a good model to follow? Or are Driscoll and others using his example to wrongly justify violent and intimidating ways of leading God’s people?
This kind of interpretation of the book of Nehemiah is not new. Many Bible teachers have taught Nehemiah like this. The problem is, although there are some good things about Nehemiah, other things are less attractive. When men from the community marry foreign women, Nehemiah beats them up and pulls out their hair! He then calls on God to remember him for his good work—maybe even in a self-righteous way. Is Nehemiah really a good model to follow? Or are Driscoll and others using his example to wrongly justify violent and intimidating ways of leading God’s people?
1. Nehemiah isn’t perfect
Although Nehemiah is the narrator of his own story, this does not immediately justify his behaviour. All through the Bible, God’s leaders are beset by sinful motives and actions. Think of Abraham’s mixture of doubt and faith. Or David, who was faithful in many ways, but raped Bathsheba and murdered her husband.
It’s not that these stories simply describe the past; the Bible does draw us in to imitate the best of people like this. But we should expect some of Nehemiah’s actions and motives to be impure. We need to work out how Nehemiah can be an example to us and how he cannot.
2. Nehemiah is not a model for our leadership preferences
When we read Nehemiah as a model for leadership, we easily end up confirming our own biases.
The problem with looking to Nehemiah as a model leader is that we tend to come with our own preferences and prejudices about what makes for a good leader, and then judge Nehemiah accordingly. If you prefer a collaborative and gentle leadership style, you will not like Nehemiah much, and will not want to imitate him. (Ezra might work better for you.) But if you prefer a leadership style that is confident, energetic, and unafraid to tackle hard issues, Nehemiah is your man. Then when you look to Nehemiah, you will simply see the traits that drew you to him in the first place.
When we read Nehemiah as a model for leadership, we easily end up confirming our own biases. It’s not the way to go.
3. Nehemiah’s context is not like ours
Another issue is that Nehemiah’s context was unlike ours. Nehemiah was a civil leader in a political theocracy, where the death penalty was possible for offences like adultery and idolatry. In that context, his response was measured.
Second, Nehemiah is most extreme when he responds to intermarriage. This issue had led Israel to worship other gods and eventually go into exile in the past. The same risk is posed here. Under the old covenant, either the Judahites continue in their faithfulness to God, or they face the exile again.
Pastors in Christian churches are different to Nehemiah. We should be careful not to read ourselves directly into his story.
4. Nehemiah should be read in the context of the whole Bible’s teaching on leadership
A better way to understand Nehemiah as an example is to look to the whole Bible on how to lead people faithfully. We cannot just look at the example of one idiosyncratic person like Nehemiah.
On the one hand, Nehemiah’s righteous anger and impassioned actions reflect the prophets, apostles and even Jesus Christ. It is surely right that sometimes people need to be rebuked., especially if God’s holiness or other people’s safety are at stake. In these ways, Nehemiah can surely be an example.
On the other hand, Nehemiah’s violence and possible self-righteousness do not fit with the fruit of the Spirit or models of leadership where, for example, church leaders are called not to lord it over people, but to serve with humility and gentleness (e.g. 1 Peter 5:1–4). In this way, we should resist following in Nehemiah’s footsteps.
In addition, Nehemiah’s self-governing style of leadership should be complemented by other accounts where God’s people are called to act with accountability, mutuality and collaboration. Even Nehemiah leads the people to build together as a community (Neh 3), and the community mutually resolve to obey God’s law (Neh 8-10).
5. Nehemiah leads the people in God’s restoration.
Another way to see how Nehemiah can be worth imitating is to look at how he lives up to the central concerns of the book. Instead of looking for ‘leadership lessons’, we can see Nehemiah, the faithful leader of God’s people who 1) works to restore the city of God and 2) works to restore the people of God to obey his law.
The burning of the walls of Jerusalem is a sign of God’s judgement for breaking his law. When Nehemiah leads the people to rebuild the walls, he partially brings about God’s plan of restoration from exile.
At the climax of the book, the people of God read the law, repent of their sin, and swear a solemn oath to keep the law (Neh 8–10). When Nehemiah returns from time away and discovers that the people have disobeyed the very law they promised to keep, he puts measures in place to restore community obedience to the law, so they will not experience God’s judgement (Neh 13, esp. v. 18). That’s why Nehemiah asks God to remember him: that God would show mercy and refrain from bringing judgement on the people.
This is where Nehemiah serves as an example to us. As God’s people today, God invites us to build his spiritual city by preaching the gospel and building the church—not just in numbers but in godliness and love and mutual service. We are also called to repeatedly hear God’s word, repent, and obey him. Any leader who leads God’s people in this way is on the right track.
6. Nehemiah’s Restoration was not perfect
The ending of the book is ambiguous. Nehemiah was not able to effect generational or lasting change
And yet, a cloud of uncertainty rests over Nehemiah’s restoration. Did Nehemiah succeed? Or was it a failure? The ending of the book is ambiguous. Nehemiah was just a man, and he was not able to effect generational or lasting change—and who of us is?
Nehemiah was a man with mixed motives, a strong will, and a confronting style of leadership. The book of Nehemiah draws us as God’s people not to imitate his idiosyncrasies, or to use him to justify intimidating leadership styles and methods—too many of which we have seen uncovered in recent times including in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
But as readers of Nehemiah, we are challenged to continue the work of Nehemiah and the restored community, to continue to work with God to bring restoration and to remain faithful. Yes, Jesus Christ is the one who ultimately brings restoration and is truly faithful, and his Spirit transforms our hearts to be faithful too. But we are still called, like Nehemiah and the restored community, to work for God’s kingdom and seek to live faithfully.