Understanding individual sin comes easily to most Westerners. This is attributable, in large part, to the two pillars of American society: individualism and meritocracy. It is primarily through these two lenses that Westerners in general-and Americans in particular-view the world.
Individualism can be defined as the idea that everyone is unique, autonomous, and undefined by their social groups. Inherent to individualism is self-determination and various levels of rejection to the idea of group identity.
We see a “rugged individualism” play out in American society through the stories we tell of our cultural heroes. As Westerners, we exalt the “self-made” man and hold him on a pedestal. I’ll share one cultural example.
This past Valentine’s Day, my wife surprised me with tickets to go see the broadway musical Hamilton. (If you haven’t seen this musical, and the opportunity presents itself, you absolutely should.) Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating and often forgotten individual that played an integral role in our nation’s founding. One of Hamilton’s defining characteristics was his self-determination - a trait that most Americans champion and admire. He barely knew his father and his mother died when he was young, he was self-taught, he worked his way up the ranks of the American military, and he ultimately became one of the most influential figures in history.
The second pillar of Western society is meritocracy - the idea that individuals can achieve almost anything so long as they have the initiative and drive to accomplish it. If this concept is followed to its conclusion, an individual's success or failure is determined solely by their abilities. Success or failure is not a result of social systems but individual character.
FILTERING THE GOSPEL THROUGH INDIVIDUAL LENSES
American Christians are not immune to the effects of individualism and meritocracy - in fact, we embrace these ideals with open arms. Two examples that demonstrate this is our understanding of church membership and the gospel itself.
Church membership is often determined by a list of individual desires. Rather than Christians seeing themselves as an ambassador of God’s Kingdom or understanding the local church as an embassy to care for and disciple all citizens of this kingdom, we tend to view church membership as a voluntary social club. We make a covenant to a local church first assuming the majority of our personal preferences will be met. I once had a conversation with a man whose sibling had recently moved to our city and had been attending our church. When I asked if that sibling had any plans to become a member, he said they did not as they “weren't in love with our worship style” and “were going to see what other options there were.” Instead of seeing church membership and commitment to a local body as vital to our Christian lives, we often treat it as an optional activity we’ll consider if all of our “personal needs” are satisfied.
If asked to concisely share the heart of the gospel, most Christians would say something along the lines of, “I am a sinner in need of grace.” This is a right and accurate statement. While it’s not the entire gospel, it is a concise expression of it. What’s worth noting, however, is how our understanding of brokenness tends to revolve entirely around ourselves. We talk about our individual sinfulness and individual need of a Savior.
Because individualism is such a core value, we are understanding of and open to the doctrine of personal sin. We easily accept the need for people to make an individual choice to turn from sin and put their faith in Christ. The problem with seeing society - and the gospel - exclusively through this individual lens is that it reinforces a cultural narrative, not a biblical one. Throughout the Scriptures, we see God specifically address corporate sin - belonging to a people group as a whole.
But what exactly is corporate sin?
As easy as it is to understand individual sin, it is immensely difficult for Americans to understand corporate sin.
Tim Keller explains, “Western people in general and white Americans in particular have little or no concept of corporate evil, or they are actively against the idea” (Racism and Corporate Evil).
Corporate sin can be understood as “sin that is prevalent in our society and exists alongside individual sin. Persons who oppose sin on a personal level may be drawn into the corporate nature of sin through the evil acts of government, economic structures, and other forms of group identification.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 584)
Non-Western cultures and minority people groups better understand that individuals are not simply the product of their decisions. Rather, these groups understand that individuals exist inside of a complex world in which they are influenced and formed by others. The families, communities, and the environments in which we are raised profoundly shape the way we process information, see the world, and interact with those around us. These networks of communities make up the systems by which we as a society get things done. To be a member of these communities requires us to participate in systems. Consequently, when an individual or group becomes marginalized, everyone who participated in the system that created the marginalization played a role in their suffering. An unjust system can be defined as a system that excludes and marginalizes (the treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral) people on the basis of race, class, or economic standing.
It’s important to understand that most people participating in a system that leads to marginalization do not desire to hurt anyone. The unfortunate reality of systems is that intent does not matter. Participation in a broken system is all that is required for suffering and marginalization to continue.
Minorities understand corporate connections - many of them have seen firsthand how a member of their group often becomes the “poster child” of the larger group. As the de facto “spokesperson” for their group or culture, the individual will represent the larger collective from which he or she comes to outsiders.This idea of corporate identity isn’t completely foreign to Americans, we typically see this play out in sports.
Recently, the Toronto Raptors won their first NBA Championship in franchise history. As soon as the game clock hit all zeroes, one of the game commentators declared that Raptors star player Kawhi Leonard “put the entire country of Canada on his back and made them champions!” In sports, we are quick to recognize how the effort of one player can reflect on the entire team, organization, or even sport. In Kawhi Leonard’s case, a young African American from Los Angeles came to represent the whole of Canada.
THE BIBLE AND CORPORATE SIN
There are a number of places throughout the Bible that address corporate sin. Here are a few:
- Leviticus 26:40,42
- Joshua 7
- Nehemiah ch.9-10
- Psalm 106:6
- Isaiah 65:6-7
- Jeremiah 3:25
- Jeremiah 14:20
- Daniel 9
- Romans 5
Romans 5 is one of the most crucial passages in developing a biblical understanding of sin and the gospel:
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned… Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:12, 18-19, NIV)
These verses are often tied to the doctrine of “original sin.” In one sense, this text describes the most important effects of Adam’s sin. At a minimum, this passage makes clear that Adam’s sin introduced sin into all the world and now predisposes all humanity toward sin rather than God. However, the primary significance of the passage is not sin but the righteousness and life found in Christ.
This passage also makes clear that Adam and Christ serve as representatives for all humanity. This idea is known as “corporate solidarity.” In discussing corporate solidarity, New Testament Professor Douglas J. Moo explains, “If this way of thinking seems strange to us, we must remember that the Bible teaches a closer relationship among humans than we are accustomed to in the modern west.” Corporate solidarity is the term scholars use to describe this perspective. For example, the sin of Achan -an Israelite that took spoils from a battle to keep for himself - is also deemed the sin of Israel (Joshua 7:11). Furthermore, the reader is told that this sin could lead to judgment for Israel as a whole (Joshua 7:12). “In Romans 5,” Moo continues, “Paul reminds us that Adam’s sin brought death to all people, who belong to him through physical birth, while Christ’s righteous act brought life to all who belong to him.” (Encountering the Book of Romans, 105-106)
The point Romans 5 draws out is simple. Without a corporate understanding of sin and salvation, there is no gospel. Again,
Tim Keller notes “the whole structure of the gospel is based on corporate responsibility. If you really want to go all the way and say, “I am only responsible for what I have done, and only what I have done,” there is no gospel! At the heart of Protestantism, the Bible, and theology, is corporate responsibility.” (Racism and Corporate Evil)
At For the City, we seek to understand and embrace the tension and complexity that arises in individual and corporate sin. To genuinely serve the marginalized by loving our neighbor as ourselves, we must not only look to save the souls of individuals but seek justice and flourishing for the systems in which we all live.
I lead our Resource Development Team and have been a part of the For the City Network since 2017. I have an M.Div in Missional Studies and a M.A.R in Intercultural Studies from Liberty University. I am married to my beautiful wife Angela and we have four kids. I am a native of San Antonio, TX, and now live in the inner-city of Austin, TX.