Brothers and sisters, our Southern Baptist convention lies in ruins. Many of our leaders are openly heartbroken. Wonderful believers like Russell Moore and Beth Moore and plenty of others have left and pulled back the curtain on their way out so we can see what is behind it: corruption, abuse, pride, racism, and lust for power. We are fragmenting and arguing. Writing letters. Publicly condemning each other.
Our convention is in ruin. It is broken down, in great trouble and disgrace—the same words Nehemiah uses in the opening chapter of his book to describe a broken Jerusalem.
I love the Old Testament so much because it puts flesh and bone to complicated concepts from the New Testament. Idea is made story, and concept is made concrete. The New Testament talks plenty about unity and one Body, about how in Christ there should be no us-and-them, and about how we should treat women as our sisters and protect them.
But Nehemiah shows that. In his story, the exiles return to their homeland to find its capital dilapidated and destroyed. Nehemiah gathers them under the unified purpose of rebuilding their home and turning to God anew.
As I have been working to collect Bible stories to help refugees understand and believe the gospel, Nehemiah’s story struck me as a particularly powerful one. It teaches the basics behind the gospel: repentance of sin, a biblical understanding of suffering, God’s redemptive restoration, and more. But this clear picture of the gospel doesn’t flow the same way our normal VBS ‘sinner’s prayer’ does. Nehemiah and the people rebuild the wall and reclaim the home God gave them before they can fully dedicate themselves to righteous living. And I think in more ways than one, Nehemiah’s rebuilding blueprints can be blueprints for rebuilding and repairing our broken SBC.
First, as we should, Nehemiah begins by praying for favor because he realizes the monumental task ahead of him. He fasts and prays, and weeps for the brokenness he has heard about. He confesses his sins and the sins of his people.
Once he arrives in Jerusalem, he inspects all the walls to find the broken bits. The returned exiles already living there had become comfortable with something that was unacceptable. Their wall lay in shambles, and they did not live in safety or in the power of the Lord’s protection.
In our case, the SBC is not the same as Jerusalem’s city walls. But we are, in a New Testament sense, the people of God. And our community lies broken around us while we have become all too comfortable with unacceptable conditions ourselves. Scandal after scandal has exploded into the public eye in which a church authority has sexually abused people under his care. Survivors of such an experience are hushed and demeaned in the name of ‘saving a reputation’ or ‘not wanting to drag the name of God through the mud.’ Spiritual abuse and manipulation is rampant. Our cultural values are hardly separated from our understanding of biblical conduct. We feel all too comfortable or complacent to do anything about our broken heritage that can make women, children, abused, singles, or minorities feel like second class citizens of the Kingdom of God in our churches. Because maybe they only feel mistreated but misperceive the reality. Or maybe they’re sensitive. Or maybe they’re not mentally healthy and don’t fully understand what they experienced. Maybe they’re ‘crying wolf.’
These things don’t happen in every church, but there is an incredibly disturbing pattern of them across the denomination. People experiencing spiritual or sexual abuse are hushed or discredited. Women are exhausted navigating a male world of ministry that wants to keep them at arms’ length. People who don’t conform to white, southern culture have to swim against the tide every day for recognition that the Spirit of God in them is just as trustworthy a leader as it is in others. And these sadly aren’t exaggerations or caricatures. These are each personal experiences I and dear friends have felt at the hands of our SBC churches.
After seeing the ruined walls for himself, Nehemiah pointed out the trouble to the people. And his words ring frighteningly true for us and our convention too: “You see the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and we will no longer be in disgrace.” But the work after that obvious statement wasn’t so easy. People mocked them and questioned their motives. People tried through fear and intimidation to keep the work of rebuilding from happening, just as we see in our case as well.
But they did rebuild. Because EVERYONE pitched in. Families. Men. Women. Names no one remembers or knows about. Religious leaders. Wealthy men. Political leaders. Skilled artisans. People from the country. People from the city. Day laborers. Servants. Salesmen. It took all sorts to build Nehemiah’s wall, just as it will take all of us if we hope to repair or rebuild our SBC. We can’t leave the work of rebuilding to people behind pulpits or in seminaries or behind stacks of books or gathered at the convention. We have to address it at every status and level. We have to work to create change on our very own section of the wall, in our own little circles of influence.
The people faced more mockery. “They’re wasting their time.” “Will they ever finish?” “Will they bring stones back to life from those burned heaps of rubble?” But the people kept working. And because EVERYONE worked with all of their heart and God blessed their work, they managed to build the wall to half of its height.
But the workers got tired. They grew reasonably fearful of attack and ridicule. They despaired of ever finishing. That sounds incredibly familiar to me, at least. I fear getting worn down and compromising my convictions. I fear response to this blog post. I fear that our work will never begin or finish because so few people seem to be convicted to the point of action about the root of these problems in our churches. But in the middle of those feelings, Nehemiah reminded his people that this was a fight for the securities of their families and their homes. As we fight against cultural tide or powers-that-be, we have to remember our unity of purpose: to work together to build an SBC we are proud of because it is full of the Lord’s Spirit, one that is truly safe for every member of the family of God.
As they continue to work, Nehemiah realizes that the work is extensive and spread out around the whole city; the people are separated from each other along the wall. So he says tells them that wherever they hear the sound of the trumpet, they have to join there to fight: “our God will fight for us.”
In a similar way, we have so much work to do in our churches. We are rightfully spread out and doing work where we’re convicted. But when our brothers or sisters need us to stand up for something they are convicted about and working toward, let them call. And let us answer and come to help. After all, if this is work God has called us to—to repair or rebuild our broken community of the faith—he will fight for us.
At this point the wall-building finally encounters a problem that halts the work. The wealthy and corrupt families had been slowing down the work. The hard workers on the wall barely had enough to sustain themselves because of these families’ extortion, greed, and underpay, so the poor families practically had their sons and daughters enslaved to be able to afford food. They felt powerless, and they kept quiet because they couldn’t even think of what to say. Sadly that mirrors an unacceptable number of people’s experiences with the SBC right now. Nehemiah harshly rebuked the people abusing their power, and he demanded immediately that they give back their dishonest gain.
And wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they repented and gave it back!! He also shook out the folds of his robe for dramatic effect and said, “May God shake out the house and possessions of every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied.” Can you imagine if someone did that at the annual convention soon? Nehemiah tells everyone that the wealthy and powerful should be generous with their possessions and positions. Sadly and unfortunately, we do have pastors and leaders in the SBC who throw money around to move their agendas to the front of the line. But Nehemiah and the exiles mounted a unified effort so convicting and full of God’s sustaining power, that the sinful leaders repented and joined in.
When the wall is finally finished, Nehemiah says that it was an obvious testament to God’s work, because there was no way it would have been done otherwise. May God work in our hearts, our churches, and convention in such a way that we can’t praise any president or board or meeting for its success, but rather the pure, unadulterated movement of God.
Only then do the exiles go back to reading their ‘Bibles.’ And now they understood the words they had heard preached to them. How much better will our congregations hear and understand the Word when it has been modeled for them?
Then the people wear ash and sackcloth. They publicly confess and repent. Sadly, the story does not end well. As much as the people try, without the new covenant and God’s law written on their hearts, they cannot obey God’s law and live righteously on their own. As long as our convention mingles believers with a true relationship with God alongside cultural Christians who only practice ritual religion, we will fall short of our aims. Our most earnest recommitments to righteousness will not be enough to keep every heart from straying away from the narrow path of righteous faith. But that doesn’t mean that our ‘wall’ doesn’t need to be rebuilt.
If the story of Nehemiah teaches us anything about rebuilding our communities to honor God, may it teach us about the utter necessity of rebuilding on a foundation of confession for the sins of our people. Nehemiah’s fathers weren’t there to confess their cultural sins and the sinful heritage that had led to exile, to God’s city becoming a burned down ghost town, and to the ruin of the people of God. So whether he had committed the same sins or not, Nehemiah confessed them before he could even begin to rebuild.
I have heard many well-meaning friends and respected leaders say that the biggest problems in the SBC right now are that we don’t preach the Word, we don’t read our Bibles, we don’t evangelize. They’re right in part. Just like Nehemiah’s exiles, many of the people living in our broken convention do not actively follow the Lord in these ways. But that’s not where Nehemiah started.
The foundation Nehemiah laid to rebuild his people’s spiritual home was confessing social sins: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against You.”
Nehemiah didn’t ask the king’s permission to print a thousand copies of the Law to give out. He didn’t ask permission to walk the broken streets of Jerusalem and tell people to listen to the Word of the Lord. He asked the king’s permission to rebuild a broken home. He and all the people got to work and then they read their copies of the law together. Then they repented. Then they began to live righteously.
Just like Nehemiah, we need to know the word of God ourselves. We need to be hungry for it, to be committed to obeying it, to be utterly broken and to fast and pray when we see that others don’t live by its life-giving words. But that knowledge must drive us to confess, and not just for ourselves, but for our broken institutions and communities. Nehemiah stopped the building of the wall to address slavery and extortion and the Powerful making others feel Powerless. Then they got back to work. He wouldn’t disenfranchise some people just because he wanted the wall built in a hurry. He wouldn’t overlook the abused and the hungry and rush to complete his project. The wall meant nothing if it didn’t keep ALL of God’s people safe.
Isn’t that true of our beloved SBC too?
Brothers and sisters, I have worked alongside you, schooled alongside you, gone to summer camps and choir practices and prayer meetings and Sunday services alongside you. I love you and I am grateful for the Baptist heritage we share. It led me to the Lord and deepened my walk with Him. I value you as brothers and sisters and co-laborers. I have grieved with you at funerals and celebrated with you at baptisms and shared True Baptist Love with you over potluck tables piled high with favorite recipes and community staples.
But we have a responsibility. Our SBC means nothing, our churches mean nothing, if they don’t show warm welcome to every single person made in the image of God—if a sexual abuse survivor feels fearful and lonely at the back of our church; if a woman feels she can’t use her spiritual gifts; if someone unmarried feels their input less valued at Bible study; if someone feels stared at for the shape of their eyes or the color of their skin; if an Asian-American believer isn’t surrounded with love and put on our meal-train when their communities are attacked and they feel vulnerable; if a Black man is treated with any less respect in the pulpit. If our churches are places that protect the man in the suit behind the pulpit because of where he stands, instead of protecting a woman who fearfully outs his abuse because she needs protection, then we have earned our broken down walls and public disgrace.
We must confess, repent, and turn from our group sins like Nehemiah did, even if they are not our own personal sins. We must make that the foundation to rebuild our SBC. And after all of us from every walk of life put our backs into finishing that exhausting work, then we disciple our people and read the Word together and obey it. Our practice must match our principles or all the Bible reading in the world means nothing. No one is kept safe within our walls. And no one sees our example and says, “Only God could have done that work, and raised up a living people from burnt up rubble.”
*Much of Nehemiah is quoted or paraphrased in this post, both in and out of quotation marks. All of these passages are taken from the NIV translation.