The Third Generation:
Nehemiah and The Question of Identity
Note: While this
article was written with a specific religious tradition in view, the
principles derived from Nehemiah 13 would apply in a wider context.
The Phenomenon of the Third
Historians and sociologists have observed an interesting trend that
occurs with groups of people, or in communities, or even in families. It is
called the phenomenon of the third generation. Simply put, they have observed
that there commonly occurs deterioration within a community that tends to
climax with the third generation.
The process begins with a period of dynamic activity, usually stimulated
by a strong leader or by some significant event in the life of the
community. This is the first generation. It is characterized by great
growth, materially, intellectually, socially, and even spiritually. There
are new ideas around, there is a dynamic to living, an excitement because
new things are happening. There is expansion and growth on all levels of
human endeavor. The first generation is marked by
Then time passes and the second generation takes over. They have
not directly experienced the dynamic events of the first generation. They
have inherited good times and prosperity. There is no longer the drive to
accomplish, to create new ideas, to grow. The second generation is usually
content to preserve and consolidate the gains of the first generation. They
know the triumphs of the past and sometimes wish or dream for them. Yet,
because they are content with what they have inherited, there is little
motivation to put forth the genuine effort to sustain the dynamic of the
So the second generation is content with listening to the stories of the
old days, wishing for them, but is too involved with the preservation of the
success of the present to continue the growth of the first generation. They
work hard to preserve the status quo, fearing that any movement will
risk losing what they have received. The second
generation is marked by entrenchment.
Time passes again and the mantle falls on the third generation.
They have only heard about the dynamics and vitality of the first generation
second hand. They have not seen that kind of vitality; they have only seen
the process of preservation and entrenchment. They have heard the stories of
the past but they are far away and unreal. They find no compelling reason to
be driven by the vision that drove the grandparents. They are freed from the
need to fight for recognition and security, and are even freed from the
worries of preserving what was originally hard won. They are idle, with no
vision that drives them, no passion that inflames them, and no purpose that
gives them meaning.
As a result, members of the third generation usually begin to question
their identity, their belonging. "Why even be a part of this group, of this
community, of this family, if I serve no purpose and see no future?" Here is
the tragedy of the third generation! The third generation is often a people
lacking a strong sense of identity and belonging and so are uncommitted to
the group; a people without a driving passion because they are fired by no
vision; a people not sure of who they are, what they believe, or what they
should do. The third generation is marked by
We do not have to look too far in the Bible itself to see examples of the
third generation problem.
The Exodus and Settlement
Moses and Joshua were first generation leaders who led the people of God
through some of their most exciting days: out of Egypt, across the Red Sea,
through the wilderness, across the Jordan and into the Land! The Israelites
always looked back on these events as the most important events in their
history. There was diligent worship of God as they built the tabernacle and
organized the tribes.
Then the second generation came along. They had much of the land. The
biggest task was to take care of the few remaining Canaanites, establish
themselves in the land, and preserve the gains made. They were relatively
secure and the worship of God was halfhearted.
And as they became more secure, the third generation arose. They had to
fight few battles and so had little need for God the mighty warrior. They
had good times and were not driven to accomplish much. This is the end of
the period of the Judges where the summary verse of the era is the last
verse of the book of Judges (21:25): "Every man did what was right in his
David and His Family
Another example even within a family is David. David was the first
generation leader who, by the help of God, forged the bunch of disorganized
escaped slaves into an empire. The reign of David became a model of what God
can do with a people and a leader who follow him.
But Solomon, the second generation, followed David. Solomon was not
driven by the vision of his father. He was content to consolidate and
preserve. He made compromising alliances with surrounding nations in order
to preserve what David had gained. These compromises led to a long and
bitter struggle within the nation of Israel as they tried to decide whether
they were followers of Ba’al or followers of Yahweh, the God of the fathers.
Solomon did accomplish some things, but much for which he became
known, including his great wealth, was the result of the stability brought
about by his father on the battlefield.
And then Rehoboam, the third generation, became king. Driven by no
vision, inflamed by no passion, unsure of his heritage, wavering in his
loyalty to God because he was not really sure what to believe, he
precipitated the division of the nation of Israel, a division of the
community of faith that would not be even partially healed for a thousand
Which brings us to a consideration of Nehemiah and a rather unusual
chapter of the Bible, Nehemiah 13. While he would not have used the term,
Nehemiah was a man who recognized the danger of the phenomena of the third
generation and presented a way to counter the problem of deterioration
within a community.
Nehemiah 13 seems a rather odd passage at first. I suspect that if
one has read this at all, they hurried through it rather quickly because at
first glance it does not appear very edifying. But if we take the Bible
seriously we dare not disregard passages simply because they do not say what
we want or expect them to say.
Three incidents in this chapter reveal the gravity of the situation and
the manner in which Nehemiah responded. The first incident illustrates
Nehemiah’s concern for proper worship (vv. 1-3):
On that day they read from the book of
Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no
Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God . . . . When the
people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign
Then beginning in verse 15, Nehemiah confronted those who were violating
the Sabbath laws by bringing goods into the city to sell on the Sabbath.
Notice the action that he took (vv. 19f):
When it began to be dark at the gates of
Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut
and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath.
And I set some of my servants over the gates that no burden might be
brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds
of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and
said to them, "Why do you lodge before the wall? If you do so again I will
lay my hands on you." From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath.
And the third incident is even more serious because it involves the
integrity of the community (vv. 23f):
In those days also I saw the Jews who
had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children
spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of
Judah, but rather spoke the language of their own people. And I contended
with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair,
and I made them take an oath in the name of God saying, "You shall not
give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons
or for yourselves." Did not Solomon king of Israel sin because of such
women?. . .Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign. . . .
All of this may sound a little harsh, and perhaps this passage should not
be used directly as a program of church reform! Yet a closer, more careful
inspection, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, may lead to some
spiritual principles at work in this chapter that are vital for us today.
Nehemiah lived at a time after the exile, around 450 BC. It had been 135
years since the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians and
the Israelites carried off into exile in Babylon.
After a period of time, God had allowed the Israelites to return to
Israel from their captivity. This was the new day promised by the prophets
and there was great excitement. Great things had happened after the return.
Work on the temple was started, people began rebuilding their houses, and
there was eager anticipation of still greater things to follow. This first
generation after the exile experienced an awakening of loyalty to God, a
renewal of the promises. The temple was rebuilt and dedicated and there was
an excitement in serving God.
But then after a few years, the excitement began to wear off. They looked
to the past and wished for it be so again. They hoped for the future when
times would be better. Gains had been made but the ambitions and the
enthusiasm began to wane. The second generation had arisen. Oh, they offered
the sacrifices, went through the motions, but the vitality was ebbing low.
They were trying to maintain and preserve what they had inherited. They
heard the stories of the old days, but they had not seen God act. They had
no vision, other than dreaming for a better day. Apathy set in. They were
not forsaking God, but neither were they doing much for Him either. The
prophet Malachi addresses the indifference of this period.
At the time of Nehemiah, the community was entering the third generation,
the generation that is marked, not just by apathy, but by outright rejection
of the old ways. The people of Nehemiah’s time were far removed from the
days of God’s activity in restoring the exilic community. They were secure
in their homes, the city walls were being completed by Nehemiah and his
crews, they had prosperity; there was nothing to fight for. They were
beginning to conclude that there was nothing worth fighting for.
They began to imagine that they did not really need God; they had not
seen God do much lately, so they assumed that he was no longer involved. And
if he was not really involved, why bother paying much attention to his laws,
let alone worrying about enforcing them?
But Nehemiah would not let them slip into the trap of the third
generation. He recognized the problem and countered it. The issue for
Nehemiah was the very survival of the people. Nehemiah understood that if
the people did not maintain their identity as the people of God, they would
not survive as a community. If they allowed compromise with other nations,
with other gods, with other beliefs, the community would be so diluted that
it would not be capable of functioning as the people of God.
Nehemiah knew that if the people did not maintain their identity as the
people of God they would be swallowed up in the paganism that surrounded
them. God’s revelation of himself to the world that had been entrusted to
them would then be in danger of being lost, or at least of being so
corrupted that it could not serve as a beacon to draw humanity to God.
And so Nehemiah undertook the task of countering the problem of the third
generation. We can identify three things that lie at the heart of Nehemiah’s
response to the problem.
First is the question of identity. Nehemiah understood that for the
people to survive, for them to rekindle the flames of the vision of the
first generation, then they must know who they are. They must understand
their heritage, their reason for being.
Nehemiah reminded the people who they were as the people of God, from
where they had come, and what their real heritage was. In chapter nine,
verses 6-38, Nehemiah retold to the people their history in order to make it
their history. He recounted God’s acts in their behalf throughout the
history of the Israelite people, from the time of Abraham all the way
through the return from exile until their own time.
And then he asked them to commit themselves to the God of that history!
For it was not to the past that their loyalty lay, but to the God who
was active in that past. They must commit themselves anew to the God who was
active in Nehemiah’s day, to the God who is still active today, to the God
who is faithful to all generations.
The people responded in chapter ten by making the account of God’s acts
in history their own. They made a covenant to honor the God of the fathers
as they took to themselves an identity. The stories of the past were not
really just stories of long ago, but were a heritage that concerned them.
They existed as a people because of that heritage. And that demanded
So they took an oath to walk in the ways of God as given to Moses (one of
the first generation men), to be people of God. In order to face the future
with any hope of survival, they had to know who they were and what their
It is interesting to note that modern Jews are still fired by this sense
of identity as they take the heritage of the past and God’s great acts in
history and make them personal. At the Jewish celebration of the Passover,
which commemorates the deliverance of God in a first generation encounter,
the youngest child asks, "Why is this night different than all other
nights?" The response is: "Once WE were slaves in Egypt . . ." They
know who they are and what their heritage is, and so have survived intact
these twenty-five hundred years after Nehemiah!
The second thing that Nehemiah addressed was the question of belief and
obedience. The conditions in Nehemiah’s day showed that the people thought
that it was not really important what a person believed or how a person put
into practice what they believed. As they intermarried with the surrounding
peoples who worshipped idols of the forces of nature, the attitude seemed to
be, "It won’t hurt; one god is as good as another, one set of beliefs is as
good as another. As long as we offer Yahweh the right sacrifices, it doesn’t
really matter what we believe."
Nehemiah countered this just as strongly. Back in chapter eight, Nehemiah
had gathered all the people together and had read to them the law. But he
did not stop there. He had priests scattered throughout the assembly
translating the law into the language that the people spoke. And even beyond
that, if they did not understand what the provisions of the law were, he had
assistants explain the laws to the people so they would understand clearly.
Nehemiah was convinced that proper understanding comes from proper
instruction which will, in turn, lead to proper action. And conversely,
Nehemiah realized that confused thinking comes from lack of instruction and
that the subsequent lack of understanding will inevitably lead to
destructive practices. Nehemiah understood that for a community to avoid the
problems of the third generation it must know what it believes and why it
believes it. And it must put into practice what it believes!
A Burning Passion
Which brings us to the third aspect of Nehemiah’s reforms that are
reflected in chapter thirteen. Why did Nehemiah act so harshly with the
people? Why did he enforce the law so strictly? Why exclude the foreigners
from the assembly? Why act so harshly, even to threatening bodily harm, with
those who violate the Sabbath laws? And why even do
bodily harm to those who violate the marriage laws?
Here perhaps we can understand Nehemiah if we are careful. Nehemiah was
driven by a burning passion for who he was as part of the people of God, and
for what he believed as a part of that people.
Let us be careful at this point not to confuse passion with emotion.
There is far too much superficial emotion today that would pass itself off
as passion. Emotion is temporary and volatile, is basically self-centered,
and is tied to feeling. Passion is a permanent attitude that drives the soul
from within and is always directed outward in a concern for others.
Nehemiah was driven by a passion for his people as he tried to preserve
the identity, purpose and mission of a community that was quickly becoming a
third generation. Nehemiah’s community was in danger of losing its identity,
of forgetting what it believed, and thereby in danger of allowing the
disintegration of the community. Nehemiah was willing to preserve the
community, because he was driven with a passion for the identity and beliefs
of the community.
Nehemiah believed that his community was worthy of survival. He
actually believed that it still had a purpose in its existence as the people
of God and he was willing to fight for its survival! He even dared to
believe that the identity and beliefs of the community were worth
fighting for, even at the risk of causing offense to those who did not see
the need for such a community!
Nehemiah understood three things that lie at the heart of a community’s
It must have a clear sense of identity, knowing who it is and what
its heritage is.
It must know what it believes and why it believes it.
And it must have a burning passion for both, a willingness to
proclaim without compromise who it is and what it believes.
Historians and Bible scholars alike agree that Nehemiah’s seemingly harsh
reforms gave the community the backbone to survive the onslaughts of the
Greeks and the Romans not too many years later. And who would have carried
the torch of God’s light to the world if Nehemiah’s community had not
The Church Today
One of the concerns I have as a minister, as an educator, and as a
member, is that the Church of the Nazarene is deep in its third generation.
even moving into the fourth.
And I must ask if we are exhibiting any of the signs of the problems of the
third generation? And I fear we are.
It is no secret that the Church of the Nazarene is numerically in decline
in the United States, and has been for nearly a decade. I hear a lot of
reasons being thrown around for that fact.
"We have become so educated and sophisticated
that we have lost our spiritual fire," is one misdirected reason that is
heard a lot.
"The pressures of our modern society are just too
great," is another frequently heard.
"We are not meeting the total needs of the
people; we need more programs, social events and concerts to attract
people today," is another.
"We have to go back to the old days and do things
like we did them then," is another common second generation response.
"We need to be more up to date and change our
beliefs to keep up with the times," is a common third generation response.
I think all of these reasons miss the point. Let us ask the question from
Nehemiah’s perspective as he faced the phenomena of the third generation.
Do we know clearly who we are and
what our heritage is?
I think not. In my dealing with young people today, our third generation,
and moving into the fourth generation of Nazarenes, I find that the vast
majority have little sense of identity, either as a Nazarene, as a Wesleyan,
or even as a member of a holiness church. Some have little sense of being
Christian, at least in terms of a distinct lifestyle that differs in
significant ways from the dominant secular culture. It is easy to mark this
up to generational differences or the shift to post-modern thought that does
not value heritage, institutions, or authority. While this can be
attributed to a variety of factors and forces in our society, the fact is no
There was a time that I can remember when there was a clear sense of
identity in being "holiness" or "Nazarene." Unfortunately, that identity was
linked with too many negative things. We holiness people were frequently
identified as "the people who don’t ________" I remember in high school and
even into college, when I told people I was Nazarene they would reply, "O,
you’re the people who don’t [whatever legalism of which they happened to
I have no desire to return to the legalism and sectarianism of the past.
But as we have moved away from that legalism as a source of identity, we
have failed to put much in its place for our next generation. So, now
how do we identify ourselves?
Sadly, most young people with whom I deal, even though most of them come
from Nazarene churches and homes, cannot identify the Church of the Nazarene
as Wesleyan in distinction from other religious traditions such as Reformed
or fundamentalist evangelical. Virtually none of them can give
five characteristics that would distinguish the Church of the Nazarene from
a Southern Baptist Church. Most cannot give one. In fact, as they
have learned from too many of their third generation parents, they would
most readily identify with Baptists even though that theological tradition
is diametrically opposed to their own religious identity and holiness
heritage (see Neofundamentalism).
And perhaps just as sadly too many of us, ministers included, know little
or nothing of our heritage as Wesleyans past the revivalist movement of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So, we find it easier to identify with the revivalism of
some Reformed churches or the emotionalism of the charismatics or the
faith-healers of the Neo-Pentecostal movement, or the generic Christianity
of teh emerging church, than we do with the high
ethical principles and deep social consciousness inherent in the Wesleyan
tradition as a natural outgrowth of applied Wesleyan theology.
Thankfully, we are no longer "the people who don’t," but are we sure who
are, and what our heritage is? And even if WE know, are we
making sure our third and fourth generation knows?
Do we know what we believe and, perhaps
even more importantly, why we believe it?
I fear that our third generation does not. I have found that nearly 90%
of the young people I ask cannot distinguish the Wesleyan doctrine of
holiness from a Reformed perspective. These are students who have grown
up in holiness homes, sometimes even parsonages, and in holiness churches. I
have observed that the majority of people even in local holiness churches,
cannot clearly articulate a view of sanctification that is not adulterated
with aspects alien to our tradition, or that is not expressed in 19th
century American Holiness jargon that they cannot really explain. Or they are content, in good second
generation fashion, to defend a certain aspect of sanctification as a
foundational doctrine without much thought to how it might actually work out
in the lives of people today.
So Nazarenes can easily identify themselves as fundamentalist, as
charismatic, or embrace generic evangelicalism, radical orthodoxy, or
emergent churches without ever asking whether perspectives in those
traditions might be alien and hostile to our Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. It is not unusual to talk
to people who listen regularly to Osteen, Hinn, Copeland, Meyer, Lea, or
who read Warren, Peretti, Maxwell, Lucado, Cymbala, and others, allowing them to
shape their theological perspectives and beliefs, without ever realizing
that these people, even though Christian brothers, represent traditions
totally at odds with, often even directly opposed to, Wesleyan holiness
Somewhere, we are failing to teach the faith! We are failing to pass on
the dynamics of our first generation leaders who were fired with a passion
for taking the message of heart holiness to a troubled and searching world!
Here often a conflict arises when college professors or other educators or
pastors in the church try to teach Wesleyan principles; they are often
rejected because the people have never heard them before!
If our third generation does not know what it believes and why it
believes what it does, what are the chances of the dynamic survival of our
community as a distinctive community of faith? And what are the chances of a
genuine revival of holiness teaching and preaching in the community of faith
we call the Church of the Nazarene if our third generation sees no value in
Do we have a burning passion for our
identity and our beliefs?
It does not take too long in talking to young people to realize that the
question of distinctive identity in a community is precisely the opposite of
their concern. The emphasis today is on commonalty, a playing down of
individual differences, of conformity on a broad scale.
This thinking has even crept into our church leadership. In some circles
it is fashionable to evade the fact that the Church of the Nazarene is a
Wesleyan holiness denomination with some clearly distinctive beliefs. This
can be seen in the growing trend to name our churches something like "The
Community Church" in large letters on the sign, and then in tiny letters at
the bottom have the required "of the Church of the Nazarene." Other names
that incorporate the word "fellowship" while avoiding the Wesleyan,
Nazarene, holiness identity simply demonstrate the second and third
generation tendency to compromise identity. Even the signs and banners that
used to figure prominently in many of our churches proclaiming "Holiness
Unto the Lord" have virtually disappeared in the United States, although
they are often seen in churches outside the United States. While those
banners were partly an expression of a certain social context, what they
expressed in identity has found no analogy in many modern churches.
Our lack of passion for our beliefs is also evident in other ways. It has
become fashionable recently to model worship services after the person with
the largest church or the latest book, with little regard to the theological
base and set of beliefs that underlie that change. It has also become
fashionable to adopt the latest program or the latest solution to a problem
based on purely pragmatic concerns without any input from the theological
perspectives of our own tradition.
Our lack of passion for our beliefs and our identity has even allowed many to
rationalize personal lifestyles that do not reflect "the collective Christian
conscience" of the church "as illuminated and guided by the Holy Spirit,"
reflected in the Covenant of Christian
Conduct. While those are not "laws" or entry requirements for
admission to an elite group, they do provide "guides and helps to holy living"
that members of this community neglect "at their own peril and to the hurt of
the witness of the church." Yet, many, while claiming the highest level of
spiritual maturity and experience, exhibit lifestyles, attitudes, and actions
that functionally deny that claim, all without ever considering either the
ethical implications of their actions or the violation of community that they
A Reason for Being
I would dare to suggest that the Church of the Nazarene, and the wider
Wesleyan holiness tradition of which it is a part, has a reason for being. I
would dare to suggest that the Church of the Nazarene is worthy of survival.
And I am willing to contend for its survival. And here it must be said that
I am not talking about the survival of an institution or a denomination but
the survival of a community of faith that has a reason for being!
The Church of the Nazarene, along with its sister holiness denominations
in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, has a distinctive message that this
world desperately needs! It has been entrusted with the message of
experiential and practical holiness, the power of the Holy Spirit at work in
the Christian’s life enabling her to fulfill the law of love and live as a
child of God as love excludes sin (Romans 7-8)! Calvinists do not believe
that. Charismatics do not preach that. We do not hear that message from the
television evangelists. If we really believe that, and I do, we need
to start recovering our passion for who we are and what we believe.
I am not calling for a return to the legalistic, sectarian days of the
past. I am not calling for a defender of the faith to ride out and burn
those heretic Baptists (or heretic Nazarenes!) at the stake. Of course not!
We have learned in the past decades that Catholics and Baptists and
Presbyterians and all the others are Christian brothers and sisters.
But I am not Baptist. I am not Catholic. And I am not charismatic. And I
am not fundamentalist. And neither is the community of faith whose heritage
I have taken as my own!
I do not recommend that we go out like Nehemiah, grab the first person we
see who does not conform to our ethical standards and beat on his head while
cursing him! But a principle is there in Nehemiah 13! If we have anything
distinctive to offer the world, let us do it with a passion,
unapologetically, as if we had a purpose in doing so. And if we do not have
something distinctive to offer the world, if there is little or no
difference between us and the Calvinists, then we have no reason to exist as
If we are going to impact the world with the truth of the message with
which we are commissioned as a distinctive community of faith, we should
listen to Nehemiah. We should find out who we are and what our heritage is,
and teach it to our third generation. We should find out what we
believe and why we believe it and teach it to our third, and fourth,
generation. And we should make no apology to anyone for the distinctiveness
of our community of faith!
If we do that, we will find that we will have rekindled our first
generation passion to share with others who we are and what we believe. And
I think that is why we Wesleyan, holiness people, and specifically the
Church of the Nazarene, exist as a community in the first place!