There’s No ‘I’ in ‘Corporate’- Recovering a Biblical View of Repentance for the Church

March 21, 2009

For this week’s Sunday School lesson I have been studying chapters 29 and 30 of the book of Isaiah.  In these passages we see various warnings and condemnations directed at the people of Israel.  I particularly found myself keying in on verses 12 through 14 of chapter 30:

Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel,”Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern.”

The accusal of despising God’s instruction (cf. 30.9) through relying on “oppression and perverseness”  really hit me as a horrific charge, and the subsequent images of a pregnant, forbodeing wall crashing down and a dish being obliterated made this all the more moving.  If there is anything that Christians today major in it is trusting in oppression and perverseness in place of a right regard for the Word of God, and to be able to open a discussion of this on Sunday morning should certainly generate plenty of thought as to just how we are guilty of this.

However, as I continued working on the lesson, I knew that I wanted to wrap up with how we should respond.  Of course, the typical idea for response would be to present the gospel and present Christ as the eternal, unchanging savior who died once for all to pay for our sins– this is correct certainly.  But, thinking about the recent emphasis in my life on working through our issues in a true covenant community, I noticed something else about the charge: it is directed to “a rebellious people.”  This is not just the failing of one person, some ostracized screw up out of the people of God; this is an indictment of the whole nation.  Yet even that isn’t such a great revelation, as we know so much in the Old Testament, particularly the prophets, is an acknowledgment and warning over the failings of the whole people.  What really struck me was this: if the condemnation fell against the whole people, then how were they supposed to respond?  As individuals?  No.  They were supposed to correct it as a whole people as well!

The perfect picture of this would be the response of post-exilic Israel in Nehemiah 9.  Following a renewal of understanding in the law and of the transgressions which they had committed leading to their exile from Jerusalem, this is what Nehemiah says about their response:

Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.  And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God. (Nehemiah 9.1-3)

These people stood, confronted with their sins, with the years of rebellion and following the ways of the world right before them, and corporately they rallied together, opened God’s Word, and confessed their sins.  As a people, they separated themselves from those outside the covenant and confessed together where they had gone wrong.

Likewise, why should we not join with the others in the church, all of us who have in one way or another despised what God has commanded, and be in repentance together?  Sure we have examples of personal sin and personal repentance (see David in 2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51), and we are all responsible for our own individual sin (Ezekiel 18.20), but we also  frequently see the people repenting as a whole because they were all guilty of some sin that had crept into their collective,  accepted way of life.  So are we, so is the church.  We are all guilty.  We are all complicit in rebellion together.  Yet never do we call for corporate repentance for what we’ve done wrong.  

It is my belief that we will see a greater, quicker, and more lasting change in the church, in all of Christianity, if we were to learn how to do this.  How to not sit back every Sunday and pretend like we’ve got it all together.  Like we did not in some way despise God’s Word this week, did not rely on oppression and perverseness instead.  No, we just sit around and wait until someone is caught in “unacceptable” sins and then harass them into individual repentance; which only serves to make us more self-righteous and smug as we continue strolling down the road of rebellion ourselves.  We must confront the sins that we are all guilty of– self-sufficiency, pride, slander, materialism.  It’s all there, we know it is.  But every Sunday it is just the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

God charged the whole nation for their  sins, and it took the whole nation joining back together in recognition of their corporate failings to rightly repent and return the people to their God.  Can we embrace this idea as well?