Biblically, Is There Such a Thing as Communal Sin?

Biblically, Is There Such a Thing as Communal Sin? March 30, 2017

Some Biblical Examples of Communal Sin

 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.–2 Chronicles 7:13-14 NIV

This passage is often cited on the National Day of Prayer. First of all, we must consider the context of the passage. It is God speaking to Solomon after the building and consecration of the temple in Jerusalem. It is a specific promise made to the people of Israel. Second, note that even if one interprets this passage as now, post-Christ, applying to all of God’s people–including Christians–the promise is to restore the land of those who confess their own sins not the sins of society around them. It is the ones called to be holy confessing their lack of holiness. Third, this call to repentance is communal. It is not “if Isaiah confesses his own personal sin, I will heal his land.” It’s “if my people,” plural. It is a communal recognition of sin within the believing community and a communal turning away from sin.

While I’m a bit skeptical of applying this passage directly to Christians in America (for example, we do not live in a theocracy), there certainly is a way in which it can be instructive to us. It is easy to point the finger at society and suggest those outside the faith are the ones responsible for the bad things that happen. But doing that allows Christians to ignore the wickedness in their own community. A believing community is meant to be salt and light in society, but, as Jesus said, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13 NIV). I see too many Christians today pointing the finger at secular society and blaming it for the abandonment of biblical values. And yet, I see the American Church beset with pride, political idolatry, covert immorality, the cover-up of abuse, the scapegoating of certain kinds of sin (so they don’t have to face their own sin), a lack of compassion for the vulnerable (those most close to God’s heart), and embrace of hatred and anger. What many American Christians miss is that though unbelievers have their own bundle of sins to deal with, a big part of what drives people away from the Church is the hypocrisy, pride, and unrepentance of Christians. Until those matters are dealt with, until the log is taken out of our eye, how can we credibly be salt and light in society? How can we credibly speak about truth in any way that will be taken seriously? How can we ask a broken world to repent when we the Church are not willing to do the same for our communal sins?

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.–Nehemiah 9:1-3 NIV

Note that the Israelites confess not only their own sin–and not only the sin of current society, but their ancestors’ sin. This would never fly in American society. Over and over again, when I try to talk to people about racial justice, about how whites stole land from Native Americans and broke treaties, or about how whites enslaved Africans and then later imposed Jim Crow on their descendants, I am met with the reply, “Well, I didn’t have anything to do with that! Why should I be penalized?” There is a lack of willingness to repent for communal sins, sins very often committed by Christians who twisted Scripture to justify their sin. In the case of sins against the African-Americans, this sin was often against fellow Christians, as if one part of the body had chosen to brutally beat another part of the body, the hand striking the knee over and over with a hammer, perhaps.

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