One of the struggles that I’ve watched many fellow believers deal with is the loss of a sense of the corporate in today’s western (especially American) church. We usually have a great and growing grasp of our individual culpability and are (usually) grateful for the opportunities presented in worship to confess it. But when it comes to our collective ownership of the sins of the many, and our participation in a more “corporate” (not in terms of “corporations” a la businesses, but simply meaning severally over individually), we wrestle; as a pastor, I’ve heard more than once from a congregant, “I didn’t actually commit those sins; why do I need to confess them?"
We DO need to confess them, for several reasons:
- Our participation may not be active or direct, but often we are complicit (at least in simply turning a “blind eye”)
- Scripture promises that the sins of our forefathers are visited on us, which means that we bear the burdens of such sins
- We may have more inclination toward such sins than we are ready to admit (or even aware of), and our confession is good for our soul’s nurture
- At very least we find solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who DO have direct guilt with such sins, as we are all members of the same body
We can look to Ezra for an example here. While he’s not one of the more well-known Old Testament figures, Ezra played a key role in re-establishing the people of Israel (the remnant that would set the stage for the New Testament) in the Promised Land. Ezra was from the priestly family of Levi, and was recognized by Jew and Gentile alike as being a righteous and upright man. He oversaw the initial rebuilding of the temple, and brought the Law of God (essentially, their form of the Bible) back to the people, calling them to hear and heed what God wanted them to know and to be.
Unlike many prominent leaders in Bible times, there is no indication from Scripture that Ezra was a man marked by his sinfulness. Was he a sinner? Of course. Did he struggle with the fallenness of man, as present in his own life? For sure. But, from all that we know, he was not proud (like Moses), an adulterer (like David), rash and headstrong (like Peter), or haunted by a torrid background (like Paul).
After calling on Israel to return to the Lord, for He had indeed restored them to the land He had promised would be theirs, and declaring the law of God to them—after he had specifically called on them to be set apart as God intended—Ezra received this report: “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:1–2).
How did Ezra respond? He prayed—in confession for the sins of the people of Israel. Here is what he prayed:
"O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.
“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this."
Look back over that prayer. How many times did Ezra pray, “THEY have done this…”? How often did he cast the blame for their corporate guilt on his fellow Israelites, as he had every right to do?
You won’t find any. Instead, over and over he prayed, “I am ashamed…” “Our iniquities have risen…” “We have been in great guilt…” and so on. Ezra claimed for himself the guilt of his fellow Israelites, past and present, and he prayed accordingly.
Why? Because there was not merely individual sin; there was corporate sin present among the people. Ezra knew this, and took it up as his own—even though he was not guilty of this sin; in fact, he had been the one calling them out of it.
“But wait,” you say. “Ezra was a priest—that’s exactly what he was supposed to do: intercede for his guilty fellow men.” Exactly. And what does the Apostle Peter say to us, the church?
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9, emphasis added).
We are the ones now called to take up Ezra’s model and intercede for the guilt that is upon us corporately, as well as individually. We are not freed from the guilt that those corporate structures we are a part of—including (and especially) the church—have, simply because of our individual salvation in Christ.
Christ died for our corporate sins, too—and promises us that, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive usour sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9, emphasis added). So we must join in confessing the sins of our corporate guilt, just as we have and do confess our individual sins.