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Repentance is a corporate responsibility

Imagine if Jesus wrote a letter to your church. I wonder what He would say? If the book of Revelation is anything to go by, His message would more than likely include the words, “I have something against you …” The fact is, three of the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (Ephesus, Pergamos and Thyatira) received a censure as well as a commendation; two (Sardis and Laodicea) received an outright rebuke; and only two (Smyrna and Philadelphia) received unqualified praise.

It’s important to remember that Jesus’ letters were addressed to whole churches, not just individual members, and were designed to be read aloud when the community gathered for worship and prayer. Five of the seven churches were summoned to repent — to stop what they were doing, turn around, and start heading in a new direction. Based on the template of Revelation, there’s a 71.4286% chance that Jesus would have something stern to say to your Christian community!

When confronted with the conviction of the Holy Spirit, human nature has a tendency to evade responsibility and shift the blame to someone else. Going as far back as the Garden of Eden, God said to Adam, “What have you done?”, and Adam replied, “It was the woman.” And God said to Eve, “What have you done?”, and Eve replied, “It was the serpent” (Gen 3.9-13).

However, as George Eldon Ladd observes in his classic commentary on the book of Revelation, “The entire church is summoned to repent for a sin of which only a few were actually guilty.” In other words, repentance is a corporate responsibility.

This principle is demonstrated in the life of Nehemiah, the architect of the restoration of Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C. Whilst serving as the king’s personal advisor and cupbearer in the palace of Shushan, Persia, Nehemiah learned about the distress of the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem and the derelict state of the city.

Instead of blaming others for the dire situation in which the Jewish people found themselves, Nehemiah sat down and wept, and said, We have sinned against You … both my father’s house and I have sinned … We have acted very corruptly against You” (Neh 1.6-7). Nehemiah fully identified with the sin of his people, even though he was not personally guilty of wrongdoing. As a result, he was able to lead the remnant of Israel in a campaign of physical restoration and spiritual renewal.

Similarly, the prophet Joel called for community-wide repentance in a time of crisis, beginning with the priests and the elders:

Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and nursing babes …

Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar; let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, and do not give Your heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2.15-17)

Ironically, modern day mega-churches that find themselves engulfed in sexual or financial scandals seem to do everything but assume responsibility for the sins of their high-profile leaders. In one widely reported case, the ‘global senior pastor’ was quick to brand the offending leader as an aberration, an anomaly, one who did not reflect the values of their international movement. “That is not who we are” became the catchphrase, in a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign.

But according to some disillusioned and disenfranchised members of the organisation, ‘that’ is precisely who they are. The disgraced leader is an extreme example of a broader problem in the movement. Most concerningly of all, I never once heard the ‘global senior pastor’ use the word ‘repentance’, or countenance the possibility that there might be a flaw in the church itself. Nor did I hear him call the church to a season of prayer and fasting, and contrition before God.

To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “when one member suffers, all the members suffer together” (1 Cor. 12.26). Or, to put it another way, “when one member sins, all the members should identify with that sin, and repent together.” So that “when the fallen member is restored, all the members may rejoice together.”

For as Paul pointed out to the Galatians, bearing one another’s burdens — supporting one another’s moral and spiritual frailities — is a fulfilment of Christ’s commandment: to love one another as He has loved us (Gal. 6.1-2). In the eyes of our Heavenly Father, repentance and restoration is a corporate responsibility.

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