Sins Corporate and Individual


Another gem from Tim Nichols:

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 yourpeople.

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?

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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.”


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