Corporate repentance

Do church leaders today need to repent for the sins of their predecessors? Does the church as a whole need to repent for what happened in 1888?

George E. Rice, Ph.D., is the pastor of the Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church, Clarksville, Maryland, United States.

With the arrival of 1988, the thoughts of many Seventh-day Adventists are turning back to the historic General Conference session held a century ago in Minneapolis. What happened at that meeting is yet to be fully understood, but Ellen White's letters and manuscripts indicate that a serious wrong was committed. For a number of years some church members have stressed the necessity of corporate repentance for the wrongs done by the generation of church leaders that was alive in 1888. They found their justification for the calling for corporate repentance on three assumptions: (1) the church committed a sin at the General Conference session of 1888 by rejecting the message of righteousness by faith, (2) the church has never repented of this sin, and (3) because the church is a corporate entity, the church today will not receive the latter rain until it enters into corporate repentance for the rebellion displayed at Minneapolis.

Other articles in this issue deal with the history of the Minneapolis General Conference session, so I will not repeat that history here. However, the implications of the corporate nature of the body of Christ deserve the church's careful consideration.

Is corporate identity a sound biblical teaching? And, if so, what contribution do the writings of Ellen White make to our understanding of it?

Perhaps the most obvious Old Testament example of corporate responsibility is found in the story of Achan. Joshua clearly instructed the army of Israel how to conduct themselves during the capture of Jericho, "The city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.... But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction. . . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord" (Joshua 6:17-19).*

In spite of this strict proscription, Achan took some of the devoted things and hid them in his tent. Describing this one man's sin, the Bible speaks in corporate terms. * "But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things; . . . and the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel" (Joshua 7:1). This anger was manifested in the defeat of Israel at Ai. When Joshua threw himself upon his face before God, God told him that the whole nation had sinned. "Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant which I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, and lied, and put them among their own stuff'(verse 11).

Corporate identity can also be seen in Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the temple (2 Chron. 6:24-39); in God's response to Solomon's corporate prayer, "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face. . . then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin" (2 Chron. 7:14), and the corporate prayers of Daniel (Dan. 9) and Ezra (Neh. 9). Both Daniel and Ezra acknowledge that Judah's kings and princes, priests and Levites have sinned and rebelled against God; then these men of God go on to accept guilt with those who have re belled. "We have sinned, we have done wickedly," Daniel says (Dan. 9:15). "Thou hast been just in all that has come upon us, for thou hast dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly," Ezra confesses (Neh. 9:33).

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul makes it clear that the church is the corporate body of Christ. "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (verse 26). Paul's statements on spiritual gifts in Romans 12:4-8 and Ephesians 4:1-16 are also set in the context of the corporate body.

Our doctrine of the nature of man and the nature of sin is also built upon the concept of corporate identity: "There fore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned" (Rom. 5:12). "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation of all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous" (verses 18, 19).

In defense of Jesus' high priesthood, Paul argues for the superiority of the Melchizedek priesthood over the Levitical priesthood on the basis of corporate identity: "One might even say that Levi him self, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him"(Heb. 7:9, 10).

Ellen White's understanding

In 1904 a series of 19 articles by Ellen White appeared in the Southern Watch man dealing with Nehemiah and the spiritual revival that occurred under his and Ezra's leadership. The very first words in the first article are a statement on corporate identity. "Among the children of Israel scattered in heathen lands as a result of the 70 years' captivity, there were Christian patriots men who were true to principle; men who esteemed the service of God above every earthly ad vantage; men who would honor God at the loss of all things. These men had to suffer with the guilty."1

In the last article of this series the following sentence appears, "Ezra and Nehemiah repeatedly humbled themselves before God, confessing the sins of their people, and entreating pardon as if they themselves were offenders."2 Through out the series Ellen White portrays the responsibility of church leadership within the corporate body of Christ.

Thus the Bible and the writings of Ellen White picture God's people as a corporate group.

In our consideration of corporate repentance we must look at two more concepts: (1) divine punishment is shared by the corporate body, and (2) a later generation may share the guilt of a previous generation.

It is clear that the members of God's corporate people share punishment. Israelites of Achan's generation shared the displeasure of God for Achan's sin. "Christian patriots" like Daniel and his three friends were taken into Babylonian captivity because of the sins of Judah, both past and present. Ellen White says, "These men had to suffer with the guilty." But was it because they shared guilt with the rebellious that they suffered?

We must be careful not to confuse shared punishment and shared guilt. They are both corporate experiences, but they are two different things. Can the guilt of one generation be shared by an other? Jesus accused the religious leaders of being the "sons of those who murdered the prophets" (Matt. 23:31), and indicated that they would be punished for the sins of their ancestors. He added, "that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation" (Matt. 23:35, 36). Obviously these men had not killed Abel, Zechariah, or any of the other martyrs. How could they be accounted guilty?

Regarding Christ's statement to the religious leaders, Ellen White says, "In like manner Christ declared the Jews of His time guilty of all the blood of holy men which had been shed since the days of Abel; for they possessed the same spirit and were seeking to do the same work with these murderers of the prophets."3 It was because the religious leaders sought the blood of Christ and shared the same spirit that drove previous generations to kill God's messengers that they shared the guilt of their ancestors.

Speaking of the reaction of the Jews to the preaching of the apostles after Jesus' ascension, Ellen White says, "The children were not condemned for the sins of the parents; but when, with a knowledge of all the light given to their parents, the children rejected the additional light granted to themselves, they became par takers of the parents' sins, and filled up the measure of their iniquity."4

Notice that the last sentence of this statement has two parts. The main statement is "The children were not condemned for the sins of the parents." This is followed by a qualifying statement that expresses a condition under which the children did share the guilt of rejecting Jesus along with their parents "when, with a knowledge of all the light given to their parents, the children rejected the additional light granted to themselves, they became partakers of the parents' iniquity."

Thus the guilt of one generation can be shared by a later generation, if the later generation clings to and perpetuates the sins of the former generation. If the religious leaders had accepted Jesus, they would not have shared the guilt of those who preceded them. If the Jews who heard the preaching of the apostles after Jesus' ascension had accepted Jesus as their Saviour, they would not have been guilty with their parents.

Corporate repentance

Is the church today, because of its corporate identity, required to repent for the sin that was committed at Minneapolis by our spiritual forefathers?

If, as Ellen White wrote, the children are not condemned for the sins of the parents, the children can hardly repent of a sin for which they are not accountable. But what about the corporate confessions in the prayers of Daniel and Ezra? A careful reading reveals that their prayers were prayers of intercession.

Notice the following in Daniel's prayer:

1. Daniel confesses the sins of his people, "We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from thy commandments and ordinances" (Dan. 9:5). "To us, O Lord, be longs confusion efface, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee" (verse 8).

2. Daniel intercedes for his people and asks forgiveness for them, "O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive" (verse 19).

3. The burden of Daniel's prayer is an appeal to God to remove the punishment which he and his people share as a corporate group because of their sins as well as the sins of previous generations, "O Lord, according to all thy righteous acts, let thy anger and thy wrath turn away from thy city Jerusalem, thy holy hill; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people have become a byword among all who are round about us" (verse 16).

Ezra's prayer is similar to Daniel's. He acknowledges the past and present sins of his people and asks God to remove the punishment Israel shares as a result of being a corporate body (Neh. 9). Neither of these prayers support the idea that one generation repents for the sins of an other generation. Daniel does recognize shared guilt, "because of our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers" (Dan. 9:16), "While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel" (verse 20). These prayers do, however, illustrate that God deals with His people as a corporate body, and punishment is shared by the corporate group.

Neither can the Ellen White statement concerning the children's becoming partakers of the parents' sins be used to support the idea that a later generation must repent for the sins of a former generation, for the later generation becomes partakers of the parents' sin only when they perpetuate the sins of the former generation. As partakers of these sins, they share the guilt but do not become responsible for the sins of the former generation. The children's responsibility is to repent of their own sins. When this is done, they no longer share the guilt of the former generation.

During the 1888 General Conference session, the debate over righteousness by faith and which law is called our school master in Galatians 3:24-26 (KJV) quickly deteriorated into a bitter struggle between the "old guard" and the supporters of Jones and Waggoner. Because Ellen White supported the position of Jones and Waggoner on righteousness by faith, she became the object of ridicule and scorn (see E. G. White manuscript 24, 1888). Her role as God's messenger and the integrity and truth of her testimonies were called into question.

The feelings of jealousy and hatred that led to the rejection of God's counsel is "the spirit of Minneapolis." Righteousness by faith is more than a doctrine; it is a living relationship with Jesus engendering love for God and for others. The spirit of Minneapolis is totally foreign to righteousness by faith.

That spirit of resistance and hostility prevented the Holy Spirit from doing the work that God intended. After the conference, the delegates carried the spirit of Minneapolis to their fields of labor.

If the church today demonstrates the spirit of Minneapolis resistance and rebellion against the testimonies, and feelings of hostility and bitterness toward fellow believers we share in the guilt of that former generation. But if we do not adopt these wrong attitudes, we remove ourselves from shared guilt, even though we still participate in the shared punishment the delay of Jesus' return. While, by perpetuating their sins, a later generation may share in the guilt of a previous generation, each generation is responsible for only its own behavior; repentance belongs only to those who actually commit an offense.

*All texts in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

1. Southern Watchman, Mar. 1, 1904. Footnotes in this article refer to the writings of Ellen G. White.

2. Ibid., July 12, 1904.

3. The Great Controversy, p. 628.

4. Ibid., p. 28.


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George E. Rice, Ph.D., is the pastor of the Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church, Clarksville, Maryland, United States.

February 1988

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Did the 1888 session yield good for the church or bad? How can we benefit from Ellen White's reaction and counsel?

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