Sins Corporate and Individual

Consider Daniel 9, the prayer of the just man Daniel. Go ahead and read it; I’ll wait.

Did you notice that Daniel identifies fully with his people?  “We have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His laws,” he says — although Daniel himself did, in fact, keep them.  “We have not made our prayer before the Lord our God” — although Daniel did so daily, even at risk of his life.  “Neither have we heeded your servants the prophets,” he says — although he himself was a close student of the prophets, especially Jeremiah.

How can Daniel say these things?  He can say them because “we” is a real category to God.  If the corporate body of which you are a part is mired in sin, you cannot simply say, “But I had nothing to do with that.”  No one knew this better than Daniel and the other righteous exiles.

Habakkuk’s Judah was wicked and required harsh judgment, and that was Daniel’s native land; the men of Judah in Habakkuk’s day were Daniel’s people.  God promised judgment, and Habakkuk passes on that promise. However, there were also just men living in Judah, just men who would suffer with the unjust when the judgment came.  Habakkuk also passes on God’s promise to them: “The just shall live by faith.”  Daniel suffered this judgment, as did his three friends.  They were ripped from their homes as young men, dragged into captivity, and destined to die in exile.  Yet they lived through peril after peril by their faith, as God had promised.

We are Christians.  We are required to think of corporate and individual, and the relationship between the two, the way God thinks of them.  As in Daniel’s case, Scripture shows us time after time that being part of a sinning corporate entity has consequences that a righteous individual cannot dodge, and the righteous thing to do is own the sins of one’s own people.  Simply saying “But I didn’t participate” – even if it’s true – doesn’t mean that “we” didn’t do it.  You can’t extract yourself so easily, which is to say that your people are your people.

What really brought this home to me was several years of pastoral leadership.  It’s one thing to be part of a group; even that is tougher to get out of than we think.  But it’s another thing altogether to be responsible for that group’s spiritual well-being as the one who gives account for their souls.  You can’t just leave because it turns out the sheep really need a shepherd — what are you there for, anyway?

***

Some commands can only be kept corporately.  If there’s a particular way to observe the Lord’s Table, for example, you can only keep it with other people – because the Lord’s Table is something we do together. A group can either keep those commands, or it can disobey them.

If you find yourself part of a group that is disobeying a corporate command, obeying the command individually is often not an option, and even if you can, you remain part of a group that is breaking it.  Like Daniel.  What ought you to do?

Like Daniel, you should walk with God.  Like Daniel, you should fulfill God’s will in those things that are up to you.  And like Daniel, you should pray, “We have sinned” without any riders, or addenda, or excuses.  These people are your people; their sins are your sins, and you can’t separate yourself from those sins simply by disapproving.  You may, like Daniel, find yourself suffering the corporate lack of blessing – or even punishment – as a result of corporate disobedience.  But like Daniel, you can trust God to watch out for you through the trial.

Maybe, if God is kind to your people, you’ll be given a chance to call them to repentance.  Maybe not.  Sometimes it’s not your job; God will raise up someone else.  There were many in Israel who walked with God in the days of Jeremiah, but only one was called to, well, be Jeremiah.  Other times, the season for repentance is past, and God is moving in a different fashion, as He was when He called Isaiah.  Many times, there is nothing you can do but hunker down and wait, trusting in the faithfulness of God.

Regarding such times, I once heard an experienced pastor advise praying in this way: “Lord this is sin.  It is wrong.  Please bless it; the only alternatives available right now are far worse.”

Amen.

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3 Responses to Sins Corporate and Individual

  1. Zoe says:

    Very interesting post, Tim. Do you think that the corporate identity means that the repentance is related to the leadership? For example, if you were a member of a group that was sinning, would it be necessary for you to confess those sins before God? Is there a place where that sense of responsibility ends? Either in terms of structure of group, or generationally for that matter? Would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Jim Reitman says:

    I’ve been recently thinking along exactly the same lines as Zoe. This to me is one of the biggest dilemmas evangelicals face today in a culture of individualism. The elders at our church have been challenged to step up to the plate by a courageous pastor over the last 8 years who has refused to “own” all of the prerogatives of church leadership—this includes owning the past corporate sins of our body.

    And just like the disclaimer for several popular TV shows: “Do not try this at home. The stunts you have seen were performed by professionals” . . . . we probably need church “fathers” now more than ever before (1 Jn 2:13-14).

  3. Tim Nichols says:

    Zoe,
    It would seem fitting for any member of the group, but even more so for leaders. Daniel does not appear to have been a ‘leader of Israel’ in any recognizable sense, but he steps up. It would be equally appropriate, one would think, for some exiled widow of Judah in her prayer closet to confess the sins of the nation and call on God for His mercy. It would, of course, be even more appropriate for the leadership of the nation — the royal family, the high priest and his sons, and so on — to offer such a prayer, and in the way that God administers corporate things, this latter case would probably mean more. But I don’t think that makes it inappropriate for rank and file members to pray in this way.

    When it comes to ending the sense of responsibility, we have to remember Who we’re talking to. He visits the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him, but shows mercy to thousands who love Him and keep His commandments. If we’re frantically combing through the sins of our grandparents in a desperate attempt to confess them all so as to stave off the wrath of God, then we’ve got it all wrong. We love Him because He first loved us. As we love and serve Him, we can be assured that He will be merciful to us.

    This is a priestly thing. I come before God bearing the sins of my people, confessing them to Him as a representative of my people, in order that His forbearance might lead them to repentance. I am confident that as I confess my sins and our sins, God will forgive me, and I ask that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, that what is enacted in my worship in representative fashion might become a reality, so that my people will repent and God’s forgiveness will be extended to us all.

    Jim,
    I agree. Owning past sins is an important step. We have trouble developing ‘fathers’ in part because we are a culture of fatherlessness and father-hatred. We try to shed our past, cut ties to it, rather than draw from it and own it (and, if necessary, repent of it). We will have more (living) fathers when we have more men who are willing to own their relationship to our (Church) Fathers.

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