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The Third Generation:
Nehemiah and The Question of Identity

Dennis Bratcher

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 Generation

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 growth.

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 past.

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 decline.

Biblical Examples

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 own eyes."

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 years!

Nehemiah’s solution

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 descent.

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 allegiance.

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 heritage was.

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 survival:

  • 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 survived?

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 less real.

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 think]."

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 we 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 perspectives!

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 it?

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 are perpetrating.

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 a church!

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!

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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