Perhaps the subject of this post is the one I’ve considered most as I’ve thought about race relations in America today and the effects of the cultural tension on the body of Jesus . The subject is the transferral of the sins of some members of a group to the whole group. Can a class or group or body of people be guilty of, repent of, and make reparations or restitution for the sins of present or past sub-groups within the larger group?
I believe Ezekiel 18:20 answers the question:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
I am only responsible for my sin. I cannot repent of the sins of others merely because they are in the larger group of which I am a part. While pondering this, I thought about the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s, a well-known apologist and creationist was committing adultery and, in the end, brought scandal to the organization which he founded. Does it follow that all creationists should apologize for him and attempt to make restitution to his wife and children and those in the other families that he hurt along the way? Well, of course not—because of the principle of Ezekiel 18:20. Just as no soul bears the guilt of another’s wrongdoing, so no person or group can repent of sins for any other person or group. Each of us will give account only for our own failings.
Being a white Christian, then, does not give me the right to repent or make reparations in behalf of those white Christians who have been (or even those who are currently) racists. Scripture does not allow me to repent in behalf of another. No one should require that which the Bible does not permit.
In reading about race relations in the church, I read one author who said that the modern church of Christ needs to repent of racism. Once again, the Biblical principle of personal responsibility for sin is violated in this plea. Can the universal church sin? I do not believe so. Individual people sin. Groups of people only sin in the sense that the individuals within the group have sinned. Can the universal church repent? If so, how? May I suggest that the New Testament provides no hierarchy, no pope, no headquarters to make such confession even if worldwide penitence in the church was needed or possible. The church becomes better one soul at the time. It is for my sin and my sin only that I can repent and seek forgiveness.
We should refrain from saying the church needs to repent and, instead, say there are individuals who have needed or do need to repent of racism. Further, we cannot call for reparations within the body for sins committed by others in days gone by. According to scriptures, restitution is made by those who sin.