The relationship between personal sin and corporate sin

“Since we have many witnesses, like a cloud that surrounds us, let us put off all the burdens and sins that so hinder us, and run with diligence the race that is laid down for us. Let us do this with our eyes fixed on Jesus, who leads us in faith, and brings our faith to perfection, who, ignoring humiliation, endures the cross for the joy that is reserved for Him, who is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

The writer of Hebrews in the verse above exhorts us to put aside every burden, and sin that so hinders us, so that we can run with perseverance the race that is required for us. A biblical understanding of the doctrine of sin is important for believers who want a growing and vibrant life in Christ. The gravity and severity of sin’s consequences are not overlooked in Scripture and therefore should not be glossed over in theological terms.

Sin in general can be divided into two types. Personal or individual sin, and corporate sin. According to the dictionary, the word corporate is defined as “having or relating to a corporation or legal entity”. Thus, this term can be used for official organizations based on law, such as church and state. These two sins are different in terms of responsibility but influence each other. Our understanding of corporate sin, then, must merge with an awareness of our own sin to have a complete doctrine of sin. The Christian doctrine of sin should help us understand the nature of social or societal existence.

Before addressing the topic of personal sin and corporate sin, we must first identify what sin is. Renowned theologian Cornelius Plantinga defined sin as “any act — any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed — or lack thereof, that displeases God and is blameworthy. Sin is a personal insult and guilt against a personal God.” To clarify this point, Plantinga goes on to explain that all sins are wrong in the eyes of the most holy God. However, what the government considers wrong is not necessarily a sin in God’s eyes. Certain forms of civil disobedience, for example, may violate government laws, not necessarily God’s laws.

Specifically, the Bible refers to sin in many ways including the following: murder, adultery, idolatry, greed, fornication, slander, envy, fornication, anger, deceit, debauchery, envy, quarrelling, uncleanness, lust, pride, drunkenness, and evil desires. All this is easy to understand. However, the idea of sin as a spiritual force, an inherent condition, a controlling power, is for the most part not easy for humans to understand.

“But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart and that is what defiles a person. For out of the heart come all evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury and slander.” Matthew 15:18-19

Corporate sin is defined as sin committed on a larger scale than community or societal sin. These corporate sins are characteristic sins of a group and are committed as a whole and common and even legitimate. In general, we do not know to what extent corporate criminals are the root cause of their crimes and to what extent they have fallen into the traps set by others. Only God knows the human heart. Only God knows how much corporate crime is passed on to us as personal sins.

The Old Testament clearly states that individuals are guilty of their own sins. Deuteronomy 24:16 states that “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor should children be put to death because of their fathers; everyone must be put to death for his own sins.” However, the consequences of one’s personal sins can be detrimental to children and future generations.

“You shall not worship or serve him, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, who repays the iniquity of fathers to their children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me” Exodus 20: 5

This can be seen in the life of King David where his sin with Bathsheba was felt in the lives of his children. The results and consequences of one’s sin have deep repercussions on one’s family, which is often the focus of modern counselling. But awareness of these consequences does not necessarily make someone feel guilty.

Leaders of groups, cities, nations, and churches are often seen as representatives of the whole. Leviticus 4:15 instructs elders to represent corporate bodies in offerings for group sins. For a leader to act in such a way, he must realize that the cumulative and corporate sins of the city will be dealt with corporately by the wrath of God. We can read about God’s wrath against a people or a city because of their communal sins in the Bible, like what He did to cities like Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).

The corporate sins of the Israelites are quite numerous in the Old Testament. An example of such corporate sin can be seen in Israel’s blatant sin of idolatry in Exodus 32-33 which was a violation of the second commandment given shortly before in Exodus 20:14. Israel was also rebuked (and exiled) for their disobedience to the command in Leviticus 25:2-8 to rest on the Sabbath. Israel and the surrounding nations often chose certain idols through corporate means. Israel was often warned and rebuked for choosing to serve the gods of the Canaanites.

Because corporate sin exists and is prevalent in structures ranging from church to state, questions arise about the causes of and responsibility for this corporate sin. We have seen from Scripture that corporate sins are separable and distinct from individual sins (Leviticus 4:13). The implication of this is that if a nation, city, or church sins as a whole, they need to confess their sin and repent as a whole. However, when a sin is seen only in a corporate sense (because many other people do), we ignore our individuality and tarnish our responsible relationship with God and fellow human beings.

How is the relationship between individual sin and group sin? Throughout the New Testament, our salvation is explicitly stated in individual terms. Our decision to accept Christ is an individual decision and not based on the individual decisions of those around us. However, it is important to realize that our personal sins and mistakes can affect those around us. The New Testament acknowledges this just as much as the Old Testament and shows the relationship between the church and its leaders. James 3:1 stated that those in the church who teach the congregation must be aware that their actions and the exposure of the Scriptures will result in harsher punishments for them. Paul echoes this thought and writes,

“Watch over yourselves and watch over your teachings. Persevere in all this, for by doing so you will save yourself and all who hear you.” 1 Timothy 4:16

Today, we must recognize that corporate sin is just as serious as personal sin. What is legally permitted in the country and what is preached or taught in our churches does not mean that we automatically believe and do it without studying what God really wants in the Bible. Our disregard for our responsibility in terms of being affected by corporate sin, and in terms of influencing corporate sin is sin. Therefore, we need to confess our sins and repent from them, while realizing that if we engage in corporate sin, it will affect our personal relationship with God and will also affect other people’s relationships with God.

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