As the Annual Council of 2017 approaches, and the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church confront challenges to both Biblical and structural integrity, more than one story from sacred history offers guidance and encouragement. The story of Nehemiah's reformation in post-exilic Judah is one such example.
Following the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah's leadership, a great revival of godliness had gripped the hearts of God's people. The nation's leaders led the way in drawing up a covenant before the Lord, pledging that they would from henceforth observe all of God's commandments (Neh. 10:29), that they would maintain a clear distinction between themselves and the surrounding heathen peoples (verse 28), that they would not intermarry with those not sharing the Israelite faith (verse 30), that they would practice faithful Sabbath observance (verse 31), and that they would support the Temple services, the priests, and the Levites with their tithes and offeringss (verses 32-39).
But it wasn't long before their solemn pledge was forgotten. When Nehemiah returned from Persia sometime later, he found apostasy rampant throughout Judah and Jerusalem.
The Sabbath was being disregarded (Neh. 13:15-22). Unholy alliances, through marriage and other means, were being pursued, even by the priests and rulers (verses 4-7; 23-28). Tithes and offerings had not been returned, as pledged (verses 10-13). Tobiah the Ammonite, one of Israel's worst enemies, had even been given a chamber in the Temple at Jerusalem for his personal use (verse 5). Even the grandson of the high priest had married the daughter of Sanballat (verse 28), the Samaritan governor who had tried so hard to stop the Jews from rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:19; 6:1).
Under God's direction, Nehemiah took strong measures to correct these departures from truth and integrity. The thirteenth chapter of the book that bears his name gives a detailed account of the reforms Nehemiah pursued in the face of this apostasy. Tobiah was expelled from the Temple (Neh. 13:8), heathen marriages were disallowed (verses 25-27), Sabbath desecration prohibited (verses 17-22), and the faithful returning of tithes and offerings restored (verses 11-13,31).
A number of these reforms required the removal of unfaithful leaders from the positions they occupied. Speaking of the high priest's grandson, who had married the daughter of Sanballat, Nehemiah declares, "Therefore I chased him from me" (verse 28). Then he prayed, regarding these unfaithful leaders:
"Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites" (verse 29).
Big changes followed:
"Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and of the Levites, every one in his business" (verse 30).
Ellen White, commenting on this work of reform and what it cost this man of God, observes:
"How much anguish of soul this needed severity cost the faithful worker for God the judgment alone will reveal. There was a constant struggle with opposing elements, and only by fasting, humiliation, and prayer was advancement made" (1).
Unfortunately, sadly, a parting of the ways became necessary, as those who had chosen a path contrary to God's Word refused to abandon their course. Ellen White describes the separation that resulted:
"Many who had married idolaters chose to go with them into exile; and these, with those who had been expelled from the congregation, joined the Samaritans. Hither some who had occupied high positions in the work of God found their way and after a time cast in their lot fully with them. Desiring to strengthen this alliance, the Samaritans promised to adopt more fully the Jewish faith and customs, and the apostates, determined to outdo their former brethren, erected a temple on Mount Gerizim in opposition to the house of God at Jerusalem. Their religion continued to be a mixture of Judaism and heathenism, and their claim to be the people of God was the source of schism, emulation, and enmity between the two nations, from generation to generation" (2).
Far from rebuking Nehemiah for being too rigid, or suggesting that had he been more pliable and moderate in his methods he might have prevented this schism, the servant of the Lord writes in the very next paragraph:
"In the work of reform to be carried forward today, there is need of men who, like Ezra and Nehemiah, will not palliate or excuse sin, nor shrink from vindicating the honor of God. Those upon whom rests the burden of this work will not hold their peace when wrong is done, neither will they cover evil with a cloak of false charity. They will remember that God is no respecter of persons, and that severity to a few may prove mercy to many. They will remember also that in the one who rebukes evil the spirit of Christ should ever be revealed" (3).
As the worldwide Adventist body addresses its current challenges, let us all pray for the courage of Ezra and Nehemiah on the part of our General Conference leadership. Let us pray that strict adherence to God's Word and its affirmation by the world church in General Conference session will take precedence over the desire to please as many and offend as few as possible. Tragic as the withdrawal of certain ones from our ranks in the wake of disciplinary measures would surely be, faithfulness to the written counsel of God must remain supreme above all else.
In yet another statement, the pen of Inspiration declares:
"We cannot purchase peace or unity by sacrificing the truth. The conflict may be long and painful, but at any cost we must hold fast to the Word of God" (4).
1. Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 674.
2. Ibid, pp. 674-675.
3. Ibid, p. 675.
4. ----Historical Sketches, p. 197.