Principles of Leadership from Nehemiah: The Challenges of Godly Leaders

Nehemiah had no sooner begun to assess the rebuilding work in Jerusalem than the enemies of the Lord’s work began to marshal their forces.

The Challenge of Opposition

Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition hardly took Nehemiah by surprise. Using a combination of derision, intimidation, distraction and deception, they maintained a prolonged campaign against him and his work. We should not be surprised when the world opposes us. The Lord Jesus warned, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Joh 15:18).[1] Nehemiah kept a cool head. Recognising their ploys (6:2,9,13), he encouraged the people to pull together (4:19-21), focus on the goal (4:14), keep at the work (4:21; 6:11), and, above all, to commit the situation to the Lord (6:14) and trust Him for the victory (4:20). We should learn from his example.

More subtle, and certainly more sinister, was the opposition from within. Tobiah had brought many in Judah under his influence (6:18) and compromised the leadership in Jerusalem by a forbidden marriage bond (6:8; 13:4,7). His allies waged a propaganda war against Nehemiah (6:19). Regrettably, the opponents of the Lord’s work are not all without. Paul warned the Ephesian elders: “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Act 20:30). We should be on guard against those who build “power bases” or foster rivalry in the assembly, talking up favoured allies and talking down or passing over others.

The Challenge of Oppression

Nehemiah was a strong but sensitive leader. He was incensed by the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable by the wealthy and powerful (5:1-13). It may seem unnecessary to state that there ought to be no place for such practices in the assembly, yet, sadly, honest and careful examination sometimes reveals uncomfortable realities.

Presumably, the complaint by the Hellenists which “arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Act 6:1) did not develop overnight. While we should not be swayed by secular populist movements, overseers today must be vigilant to ensure that individuals or sections within the assembly do not begin to feel neglected or marginalised because of race or ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender (notwithstanding biblical teaching on the respective roles of brothers and sisters) or any other grounds. Extra sensitivity may be necessary where assemblies are blessed with immigrants who could feel disadvantaged by language or cultural difficulties or economic constraints. The assembly does not belong to the dominant ethnic group, and overseers should uphold the principle that “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:11-12).

We must avoid spiritual oppression at all cost. While it is not a democracy, there is little more debilitating in an assembly than an authoritarian culture of fear and intimidation, particularly when it masquerades as piety. Alarm bells should ring when saints are afraid to speak up because all “difference” is characterised as “dissent” and therefore a carnal cause of strife and division.

The Challenge of Occupation

Nehemiah appreciated, as astute leaders do, how important it is to maintain progress by occupying territory won. Realising how quickly and easily unconsolidated gains become losses, he ensured that the rebuilt city was owned and populated without delay (11:1-2).

The principle holds good in the spiritual realm. Godly overseers understand that spiritual progress is incremental – in the life of an assembly and of individual believers – and that each small gain must be secured – or lost. For example, overseers should not assume that new converts will instinctively know how to read and pray. Young believers must be encouraged to pursue personal holiness, perhaps needing sympathetic help to overcome (rather than be overcome by) addictive habits and destructive attitudes. Developing believers should be encouraged to use, not lose, their spiritual gifts, and be instructed in and entrusted with additional responsibility as they grow. It is usually an indictment of oversight when there is no one to whom responsibility can be passed.

The Compensations of Godly Leaders

As we conclude our series of studies, it is reasonable to ask whether all Nehemiah’s efforts were worthwhile. Having considered the many and varied difficulties that this faithful servant of God faced, the question becomes even more poignant from our historical perspective when we consider how the spiritual decline of the nation of Israel continued after his time, culminating in their rejection and crucifixion of their Messiah, and their subjugation under successive world empires, until at last they all but ceased to exist as an entity with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Given such apparent failure, was it worth it?

Many an overseer has asked the same question concerning his own heartache and toil, Is it worth it? This is, of course, the wrong question. We ought to ask, Is He worth it?

We began our studies by observing that true spiritual leadership is motivated by the aim of bringing glory to God; it is about pursuing His interests and nurturing those things that are precious to Him.

That this is often at odds with what the world prizes is evident from Paul’s ministry. Writing generally about the value of spiritual service, he said, “Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1Co 3:13). Paul also wrote, “We must all appear [become manifest] before the judgment seat of Christ” (2Co 5:10). Paul, willing to be regarded as a fool “for Christ’s sake,” realised that spiritual service cannot be evaluated upon earth because God weighs faithfulness, not success.

Almost certainly Peter had his special commission (“feed my sheep” – “follow thou me”) in mind when many years later he wrote particularly to overseers, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly … eagerly …. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1Pe 5:2-4).

Nehemiah didn’t have the benefit of the full revelation of Scripture that we enjoy; nevertheless, this truth seems to have taken hold of him. Constantly seeking God’s guidance and resources, he strove only for His approval and reward. Dear child of God, when the task seems thankless and the difficulties endless, let Nehemiah’s repeated words be your prayer, “Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh 13:31).

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.