The Church, Corporate Sin, and Christ as Community Savior


“Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior?”

Anyone who has been around born-again Christians and Evangelical churches long enough has heard this said. A Christian mantra of sorts, this question often makes it into comedy routines, as both Christians and non-Christians poke fun at its overuse.

Anyone who fancies himself on the cutting edge of ministry would carve that phrase to pieces and come up with enough loaded Christianese in its eight short words to gag the most ardent deconstructionist.  “What does it mean to accept Christ? Doesn’t He instead accept you? And just what is a personal savior?”

While all the deconstruction going on in 2013 can get a little tiresome, I still find it worthwhile to ask that final question.

What is a personal savior?

Anyone who has read ancient Christian texts will find that the language used by the Church for most of its history has been the collective you and we. Community, the expressed life of the ChurchWhen Paul wrote, he wrote to entire churches. When Church leaders created policy, they aimed it at the collective Church. Even when the Church as a whole spoke about something as personal as sin, it maintained a corporate language. In other words, it wasn’t just individuals who sinned, but the assembly of those individuals.

I contend that one of the most destructive changes in the history of Western Christianity was the abandonment of a collective understanding of sin in favor of an entirely individualistic model. That individual model is driven by individual-focused language such as personal savior.

I grew up in the Lutheran Church, and one of the statements I can still recite today, despite leaving that Church decades ago, is the corporate confession:

“We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”

We. Not I. We.

Approaching sin in terms of the collective changes everything. Sin doesn’t just become the collected sins of individuals, but something that the group may participate in as a group.

This is not American thinking, though. The closest most of get to thinking that a group has sinned is when we consider that a collection of people roots for the wrong sports team. “You guys are Steelers fans? Get thee behind me!”

But what does it mean that a group of people may sin by commission or omission?

What if an entire local church fails to show mercy? We can say that each individual in that church has failed to show mercy, but does the Lord always judge with that granularity?

Consider this: When the churches in Revelation receive their rebuke from the Lord, isn’t it the sin of that entire church that receives condemnation for what it did or didn’t do as a whole?

Another thought: At a time when we talk and talk about strengthening community in our churches, what does a better understanding of corporate/community sin do for building that better community?

It seems to me that the rise in the concept of Jesus as Personal Savior came at the same time that a more corporate understanding of sin and its effects on the community of faith were being abandoned.

What if the Church in America moved away—at least in part—from emphasizing Jesus as Personal Savior in favor of adding more of Jesus as Community Savior? What does that change in language do for how we Christians actually practice our faith? How might it reinvigorate certain aspects of the Body of Christ and how we see ourselves as believers linked by the Holy Spirit? And how would it possibly open our eyes to areas of corporate/community sin within the Church—as both a local body and as a whole entity—that we have routinely overlooked (yet unbelievers often notice first)? And what does it mean for you and I as individuals that the corporate body to which we belong is capable of sin as a collective?

Because it seems to me that the Golden City is both a complete building as a whole and is comprised of individual bricks of gold. That we have for too long focused on the bricks at the expense of the building has hurt the Church immeasurably.

12 thoughts on “The Church, Corporate Sin, and Christ as Community Savior

  1. Corporate sin is often a set of sins of omission; the person who didn’t get greeted at all on more than a “good morning” basis should have had someone take the time to reach out, but it’s hard to point to a particular person who should have done so.

    I’m reminded of the Family Circus ghost Not Me. No one wants to take ownership of the commons.

  2. Veronica

    The focus on personal salvation, rather than the more corporate notion of being saved “into” the body of Christ, has lead to numerous problems that plague the church today: The increase in “church shopping,” the notion that “I can worship God on my own, so I don’t need a church,” the refusal to be accountable to any human because everything’s “between me and God.” We read scripture – in fact, we are encouraged by our leaders to read scripture – as if it were personally written to us as individuals. I shudder to think how many times have I heard, “Read this passage, and where it says ‘you,’ substitute your name.” The concepts of a corporate identity, a corporate life, corporate sin, are all outside many Christians’ understanding.

  3. I cannot see this as a one or the other choice. They are both important.

    However, I do see this as a genuine problem and agree we need some focus on this element.

    There is a very appropriate discussion going on about the future of the body of Christ. While I am not sure the first century church is a perfect example, I would cherish sharing some of its characteristics.

    Before we can focus on the collective sins of the church, we need to find a new understanding of what it means to be a member of the body. Only then can we see where we fit in and how we all share a responsibility for its mortal leadership. What does it mean to be a member of God’s church and what are the aims of that body? When we understand that, we may see that some of the sins dwelling within are the ones where each of us individually choose to not lead or try to lead when we are called to follow. The discernment within the new model may be difficult.

  4. Dan, I think you’re on somewhat thin ice with this one and are making a way too out of St. Paul’s use of the plural first person pronoun. What about other places where he uses the first person singular? Such as “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live…”? Does what he say there apply exclusively to himself? Obviously not!

    I suspect your anxious desire to put space between yourself and what you perceive to be the mistakes of “American Trash Evangelican Culture” may be causing you to become both over-wooly and over-refined.

    • This is the emphasis of the entire Bible. The emphasis in Scripture is God’s dealings with an ecclesia, a gathering, not a series of personal relationships or conversions.

    • Oengus,

      I’m not trying to eliminate the need for an “I” in the NT. The point of this point is to say that much of the language and expression of the NT is collective, and we ignore this reflexively when we keep defaulting to a focus on the individual. But the collective matters just as much! And it may matter more when you really consider it.

  5. Dan, you’re calling my name. This is one of the most desperate corrections we need. The story of the Bible is the story of God and a people. A created people, a rebelling people, a called people, a wayward people, an enslaved people, a freed people, a redeemed people, a Christ-imaging, God-glorifying people. When people insist on rooting out “personal” implications from every text, as if that was why the Bible was written, I’m strongly tempted to leave or change the subject.

    I would carry this over to use of the phrase the “personal relationship with God” too, which seems to have no root in the New Testament at all. The best you can do is give individual examples of God putting the bricks in the building. Which are good and necessary stories. But there’s no way to emphasize the small picture without losing the big picture eventually.

    Incidentally, this is why many people think of the most important part of Christianity as they’re own personal conversion moment, instead of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

    • Nate,

      Living stones make up the New Jerusalem. And it’s an edifice that’s formed from the many into one.

      And yet our fascination is so intent on the lone brick, we fail to see anything else.

  6. David

    Biblically, God has tended to hold the community responsible for the actions of it’s members. From the flood, to the letters to the 7 churches, it was the whole community that was judged, not the individual.

  7. It seems to me that one of the problems with an individualistic model of sin is understanding the doctrine of original sin. From an individualistic mindset, how is Adam’s sin also my problem? So, I do think corporate sin plays in God’s equation.

    I wonder, and have been challenged by, the possibility of how salvation is also regarded as corporate?

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