[‘encouragement’, ‘exhortation’, for life and ministry]
Last month I wrote about personal confession of sin, which is a crucial ingredient of our daily prayers. For each of us knows not only our sins, but our sinfulness, and how frequently we sin against our gracious, holy, and forgiving heavenly Father. No wonder Jesus taught his disciples to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins’.
This month I want to point out an even more neglected prayer, in which we pray that God would forgive the sins of his people, of his church. This is expressed in either personal or corporate confession of corporate sin [‘corporate’ here refers to ‘church as the body of Christ’, not big business!].
Can churches sin?
According to the Old Testament, God’s people can engage in shared, corporate sin. Moses said:
‘Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the LORD. At Horeb you aroused the LORD’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you’ Deut 9:7,8].
‘Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land. Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame …’ [Dan 9:4-7].
‘Return, Israel, to the LORD your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins, and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips”’ [Hos 14: 1-2].
Jesus addressed his contemporaries as bearing corporate sin, guilt, and responsibility:
‘”You unbelieving and perverse generation”, Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? … Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation” … “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world … Yes I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all …” [ Luke 9:41, 11:29, 11:50-51].
Here are some examples from Christ’s words to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3.
‘To the angel of the church in Sardis write: Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent’ [3:1-3].
‘To the angel of the church in Laodicea write … But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent’ [3:14-19].
In these two cases, the whole church and every member of it is called to repent for their corporate and shared sin.
In Pergamum, the whole church is complicit in the sins of someone within the church within the church. The church has to repent.
‘To the angel of the church in Pergamum write … I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! [Rev 2:12,14-16].
Paul accused the churches of Galatia of a common and shared corporate sin:
‘To the churches in Galatia … You foolish Galatians! I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel … Who has bewitched you?’ [Gal 1:2,6,3:1]. And Paul summoned the church of Corinth to be reconciled to God. ‘We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God’ [2 Cor 5:20].
[We who read the Bible in English are so often deceived, because the English word ‘you’ can be refer to one person, or to many people. Because we are natural individualists, we read plural ‘you’ as singular ‘you’. This distorts our understanding of the Bible. Individualistic Bible reading, and individualistic preaching, blind us to corporate sins. In the Old and New Testament, God most often addresses his people as a body, not individuals. Perhaps we should use ‘youse’ in our Bibles!]
How can we identify corporate sins?
Imagine a prayerless church. The intercessory prayers on a Sunday are non-existent or dutiful, not expectant. Not many husbands and wives pray together, there is not much family prayer, and friends only pray together in emergencies. Missionaries are supported, but not with fervent expectant prayer. This means that prayerful individuals are discouraged, and young people and new believers follow the pattern they see, and are similarly prayerless. In this situation, prayerlessness is the norm for the community, and, as sin blinds us to its presence, the community is corporately blind to this sin. Prayerlessness binds the community together. It is a community value, or rather, a community disgrace!
What needs to happen is corporate repentance, in which the leaders challenge themselves and the people to repent of their sin. They need to repent of their individual prayerlessness, but also repent of their shared sin of neglecting prayer in every part of the life of the church, and establish prayer as a priority in every part of the life of the church.
This kind of corporate repentance is much more demanding that individual repentance. If I hear Paul’s corporate instruction ‘devote yourselves to prayer’ [Col 4:2], it is not enough for me to devote myself to prayer. I must continue to pray and exhort and encourage the leaders to lead in prayerfulness, and to pray and exhort and encourage others until everyone in my church is prayerful, and until prayer has an established role in the daily life of the church!
How serious are corporate sins?
Very! As I have pointed out above, God and Christ are really concerned about corporate sins. Sinful church dishonour God. And a church’s sins are its most serious problem.
And corporate sins infect every member of the church, and if the members of this church join other churches, they will carry the plague of prayerlessness with them. People who go out into gospel ministry from the church are also likely to be prayerless. For we are all powerfully shaped by our primary community of faith, for good, or for ill.
What does repentance of corporate sins look like? [Let’s take prayerlessness as our example.]
- The leaders remind the people that Christ came to cleanse his church: ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless’ [Ephes 5:25-27].
- The leaders name the sin, allow time to ensure that the people recognise the sin, call people to repentance, and, when they are ready, lead the people in a public prayer of repentance.
- The leaders remind the people that ‘the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin’ [1 John 1:7].
- The leaders and every member of the church resolves to pray fervently and frequently on their own, in families, with friends, in every ministry of the church, and on Sundays!
Please take time to reflect on this issue. Next month I will continue this series of three on sin, and write about sins of ministry. [So the series is ‘personal sins’, ‘sins of churches’, and ‘sins of ministry’].
Let’s end with Paul’s prayer:
‘To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ … May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it’ [1 Thess 1:1,5:23,24].
May our faithful God himself sanctify our churches. Amen! Amen! Amen!
With warmest good wishes, beloved friends and fellow-workers.