Those Who Repent Together, Stick Together

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A story is told of a wise old theologian who learned every jot and tittle of the Bible. Say the name Belshazzar in his presence and he would expound Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for an hour, then continue for sixty more minutes with a history of the Medes. He knew his stuff.

One Sabbath a young woman new to the faith approached the theologian in the narthex after the eleven o’clock service. She wanted to get things straight and understand the details of this religion that had so smitten her. The old sage’s reputation preceded him. Though she was nervous, she was more earnest than scared. She inquired, “Tell me sir, I would like to get things straight and understand the details of my new Christian faith. What must I know first?”

The old bookman opened his eyes wide and raised an arthritic finger to the sky. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” he said. He spoke with such conviction, the young woman looked up, half expecting to see the Sistine Chapel overhead. She collected herself. “And what must I know next?” she asked excitedly.

The theologian wrinkled his nose and shook his head. Sadly he recited, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

The new Christian was not expecting that. It took the wind out of her sails. Even so, she pressed on, “And what must I know next?” The old man looked into her eyes, and his demeanor was as pastoral as learned. “Only one more thing,” he said. “It is all repentance and forgiveness after that.”

Actually, I have no idea if the story of that old theologian has ever been told before. I just wanted to write about repentance and thought it would be a good way to start. Repentance has been on my heart and mind lately. I have been especially thinking of repentance together.

If you are an evangelical like me, who has peeked during altar calls to look at the raised hands, but who also has walked the aisle yourself and asked for forgiveness, then you are comfortable with repentance. You are grateful the Apostle John said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We all rest on the mercy of this Scripture each day. But (I am not sure I will get this thought out well) we too many of us rest on the mercy of this Scripture each day by ourselves.

This is tricky to say right. We think of our sins as my sin. And we think of repentance similarly. We speak in the first person plural to describe what we think of in the first person singular. But should we?

Reading Deuteronomy 30 or the story of King Josiah or the book of Jonah or Romans 11 or Jesus’ words to the seven churches in Revelation, one gets the impression that repentance and forgiveness is not only for individuals. Being sorry and being forgiven sometimes happens corporately. Moreover, it seems possible to be sorry and be forgiven corporately for sins one did not commit individually. Perhaps I am misreading this? There seems to be Scriptural precedent for groups of people confessing sin together, even if individuals among the group did not themselves commit the sin being confessed. In a scenario like that, does God’s mercy extend to the whole group?

Again, perhaps I am misreading this. But if not, then it begs some questions. Should there be examples today of Christians repenting together? If there should be, then where are they? And if we are not a part of those examples, are we missing out?

It is Lent, which is one reason I am considering these things. There also are other reasons that would be too cumbersome to try to explain in a blog post. I know I have not developed an argument here for what I am about to say. Yet, let me propose it anyway. Those who repent together, stick together.

The body of Christ is powerfully cohesive when its members do not all assume the role of pointer finger. Or another way to look at it is like this: If the body’s foot unjustly kicks and injures someone, the body’s hand sounds foolish protesting, “Well, that wasn’t me.” More reasonable would be for the hand to reach down, help up the offended person, and then the mouth could say, “We are sorry.”

Profile photo of David Michael Bruno

Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.


9 Comments

  1. Kelly Keller

    I agree, David. Very true.

    I’m studying Psalm 77 this week; it’s an interesting progression from an individual lament to corporate praise. We miss out on goodness if we are approaching our walk on an individual level only.

  2. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Corporate repentance is a great good, and the more of it that happens the better.

    Your concluding (and perhaps paradigmatic) example, though, introduces significant complications. There is a difference between the kind of corporate repentance that is incidentally public simply because many people are involved, and the deliberately public repentance of apologizing either to the world at large or to some social, religious, or political group that is not the Church. And when the body of Christ is grievously divided it is presumptuous for one part to repent on behalf of the whole. More, when one part of the Church presumes to repent on behalf of the whole before the watching world, it may well inflict injury on the rest of the Church. (“We the true Christians, the enlightened Christians, recognize the evil we have done you, and apologize accordingly. Those over there, who either do not recognize this evil or intentionally persist in it, are false or ignorant Christians.”)

    That does not mean that the Church must achieve total visible and institutional unity before such public repentance becomes possible (though it would be nice!), but it does mean that the matter repented of should be broadly recognized as a sin by the Church Catholic. As agreement among the members breaks down, the more likely it becomes that the public repentance of one member will involve beating up or (in extreme cases) severing the other members.

  3. Laure Hittle

    This feels like grief. And i’m so convinced that you’re right.

    One of my favourite people is Nehemiah. i love him for his constant prayer, for his passion for justice and righteousness, for his no-nonsense courage, for his determination to do what was necessary and the wisdom he showed in carrying out that determination, for his deep heart-desire that his life be pleasing to G-d no matter what. And i love his strong personality and his sharp tongue. He and Ezra both faced the problem of intermarriage, and their reactions could not be more different. Ezra pulled out his beard, lay on the floor, and wept. Nehemiah beat the offenders and pulled out their beards. He called them out and shamed them publicly. But before all this, he had a visit with his brother, who told him what a pitiable state Jerusalem suffered. The walls were broken down. Everything had been burned. The people were vulnerable and discouraged. So Nehemiah grieved, and he prayed, and he confessed their national sin with the words “i and my father’s house.” He identified with the guilt of his family, as well as the guilt of the nation. This was in private prayer, not a public confession, but his willingness to identify himself with the whole, to not pass blame but to own it whether or not he had done the specific things that had caused the exile, make me love him. And i think it’s that heart that drew him to action and which drew G-d’s pleasure and blessing. When our hearts break over sin, G-d values that. A generation earlier, Ezra, lying on the floor weeping, was also owning the sins of his community, sins he had not committed himself.

    Achan is another good example, albeit a negative one. His individual sin had dire consequences for the whole community. G-d sees us, covenantally, as responsible for each other. (He also says that those who eat sour grapes, their own teeth will be set on edge, not their children’s. He’s not unjust. Individuals do reap individual consequences.)

    We were never meant to be saved alone. Individual salvation and salvation of individuals are two different things. Once saved, we belong to each other. We’re responsible for each other. (The world recognizes this even when we don’t. This is what unbelievers mean when they accuse us, saying “you Christians.”)

    i wonder, though, when confessing corporate sin to the watching world, whether it would be better to say “i am sorry for what we have done” rather than “we’re sorry.” We may not all be sorry, but i can still own our sin and do my best to make amends.

    That was long; sorry. This is heavy on my heart. And i do love Nehemiah.

  4. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Thank you for the comments, which do bring up the issue of the old Puritan bugaboo, what constitutes a “visible saint?” We need your help Edmund S. Morgan! Seriously though, while this is a tricky topic to navigate, increasingly I wonder if it is a crucial one for our times. Perhaps any time.

  5. David

    Well said, David. The fact that corporate repentance has perils does not negate either the fact that God views his Church as a single body, or our duty to repent as such. In that, however, a bit more manifest unity — a shared commitment to end the schisms that divide Christ’s body — would make the corporate repentance much more powerful. In part because more voices would join the chorus; in part because it would then be clearer that we’re not aggrandizing own branch(es) of the Church by issuing apologies that cool-shame others.

    For example, that’s why I found the confession booth scene in the movie Blue Like Jazz more moving than the corresponding scene in the book: the movie-Don shows a much deeper awareness of having harmed Christ’s body by standing aloof from its members and poking fun at them. The “I wouldn’t eat lunch with the uncool kid at school” picture is outstanding.

  6. LauraEm

    God is so good to lead me to read this piece today. It deeply resonates with happenings in my life at the moment. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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