Can God Hold You Accountable for Another Person’s Actions?
- Cap Stewart Crosswalk.com Contributing Author
- 2021 21 Oct
These days, corporate responsibility is often brought up in the context of racism. For example, if and where white people benefit financially and/or socially from the legacy of now-defunct institutions (chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.), there are some who say these benefits involve an intrinsic transfer of guilt. Thus, white people are inherently and collectively guilty of the sins of slavery, segregation, and racism.
Pushback against such distorted visions of justice is good and right. However, that pushback can cause the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction—to the point where we deny any sense of corporate responsibility, either within our nation or the church. This denial represents another distorted vision of justice, one aided by our culture’s overemphasis on individualism.
To work against such an imbalance, let us examine three Biblical examples of corporate responsibility.
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1. Community Responsibility
Before God defeats Jericho on behalf of Israel, Joshua commands that any treasure plundered from the city is to be consecrated to the Lord, not taken for personal use (Joshua 6:18-19). In direct violation of this command, Achan steals some treasure and hides it away.
The Bible places the responsibility for Achan’s sin on the people of Israel as a whole: “But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things. . . . So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel” (7:1). As a result, the covenant community of Israel experiences God’s punishment: he has men from the city of Ai kill “about thirty-six [Israelites]” (7:5).
This instance of community responsibility/punishment is echoed and amplified later in the Canaanite narrative. In Joshua 22, when Israel approaches three tribes whom they suspect of sinning, they say to these tribes, “And are you now turning away from the Lord? If you rebel against the Lord today, tomorrow he will be angry with the whole community of Israel. . . . When Achan son of Zerah was unfaithful in regard to the devoted things, did not wrath come on the whole community of Israel? He was not the only one who died for his sin” (vv. 18, 20). This appears to be an argument called a minore ad maius—i.e., from the smaller to the greater. The point seems to be thus: “If one man (Achan) sinned, and thirty-six Israelites died as a result, how many more Israelites will God strike down if three whole tribes of Israel sin against God and we do nothing about it?”
In commenting on the story of Achan, John Calvin writes the following:
[I]t seems very unaccountable that a whole people should be condemned for a private and hidden crime of which they had no knowledge. I answer, that it is not new for the sin of one member to be visited on the whole body. Should we be unable to discover the reason, it ought to be more than enough for us that transgression is imputed to the children of Israel, while the guilt is confined to one individual.
As unpalatable as the situation may appear to staunch individualists, it should be enough for Scripture to assert that communal responsibility can result from an individual act. Such a concept is, as Calvin says, “not new.”
And lest we relegate such an occurrence to the Old Testament alone, there are instances in the New Testament where an entire church body is held liable and accountable for the actions of a few. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:1 and following, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for the incest of one of its members. And in Revelation 2:14-16, God rebukes the church in Pergamum as a whole because “some among [them]” adhered to wrong teaching and wrong practices.
It won’t do to reject both these New Testament examples on the grounds that the churches in question obviously knew about—and were therefore willfully complicit in—the sins and errors in question. Such a conclusion is, at best, speculation, and, at worst, adding something to the Biblical texts that isn’t there.
2. Generational Responsibility
During one lengthy denunciation of the Pharisees in Luke 11, Jesus connects the dots between previous generations (“your ancestors…killed [the prophets],” v. 47) and his audience: “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all” (vv. 50-51).
Jesus is not saying the socio-economic and cultural situation of the Jews had remained stagnant for thousands of years, as if nothing had changed since Cain killed Abel. No, Jesus is one who consistently dug below the surface of circumstances to the root of sin: the human heart. He is not equating the social structures of Rome with that of the antediluvian age, but the state of the heart of “this generation” with that of ages past (i.e., “since the beginning of the world”).
In his commentary, Matthew Henry explores different reasons why it is right and proper for Jesus to hold a particular generation responsible for the sins of previous generations. One reason, he says, is this: “Children fill up the measure of their fathers’ sins…if they persist in the same or the like.” Notice the distinction between “the same” and “the like.” The sins of one generation may not be identical to those of the previous (or next) generation, but they may be equally guilty of the same heart-level sins.
For example, a Christian from Generation Z might condemn secular society for creating a culture of sexual objectification. But if he patronizes pornography, he is guilty—right along with Harvey Weinstein and his ilk from previous generations—of the same.
Matthew Henry continues in his commentary: “That national guilt which brings national ruin is made up of the sin of many in several ages, and in the successions of societies there is a score going on.” There is such a thing as collective guilt (or, in Henry’s words, “national guilt”) that crosses over generational boundaries. God doesn’t settle all his accounts at the end of one generation and the beginning of another. A new generation doesn’t automatically create a new slate.
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3. Representative Responsibility
Even though the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, and even though Adam’s sin followed Eve’s, the Bible lays the responsibility for humanity’s fall on the shoulders of Adam. This is implicit in Genesis 3:9 (where God addresses Adam first as the one with the greatest responsibility), but it is made explicit later in Scripture.
As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, since “death came through a man” (v. 21), so “in Adam all die” (v. 22). But the problem is worse than just that. Every human not only experiences death because of Adam’s sin—they all share responsibility for Adam’s sin. In Romans 5, Paul asserts that “one trespass [i.e., Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people” (v. 18), and “through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners” (v. 19).
This concept—what theologians refer to as federal headship—is a staggering assertion for the individualistic thinker. Christianity itself is predicated on the concept of individuals being held responsible for someone else’s actions.
Corporate responsibility brings the stark reality of sin into sharper focus. The deck was stacked against us even before we were born: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Adam passed on his spiritual DNA—his own sinful image—to his children: “[Adam] had a son in his own likeness, in his own image” (Genesis 5:3).
It is this imputed guilt which Charles Wesley addresses in the fifth stanza of his famous hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
But What about Personal Responsibility?
In the eyes of some, the Bible doesn’t strongly promote the idea of corporate responsibility. But that’s similar to saying, “Except for the gospel message, the Bible doesn’t strongly promote the idea of grace to sinners.” The Bible is the gospel message, and God’s grace to sinners runs through all of Scripture, from beginning to end.
Likewise, corporate responsibility plays a strong—and even a critical—role in our understanding of how sin and redemption work. After all, if we are condemned in Adam, without having done anything bad, we know we can be accounted righteous in Christ, the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), without having done anything good.
Nevertheless, how do we reconcile verses that assert corporate responsibility with verses that assert individual responsibility? Once again, we look to John Calvin. In his commentary on Ezekiel 18, he provides the answer to this apparent contradiction (and you will notice we’ve actually already looked at it):
[I]t will be easy to remove the contradiction by beginning with the fall of Adam. . . . [T]he principle of one universal fall in Adam removes all doubts. For when we consider the perishing of the whole human race, it is said with truth that we perish through another’s fault: but it is added at the same time, that everyone perishes through his own iniquity. If then we inquire into the cause of the curse which presses upon all the posterity of Adam, it may be said to be partly another’s and partly our own.
Are we guilty because of our sinful state or that of another? The Bible’s answer is “both.” It is not either/or, it’s both/and. Calvin states a person is a sinner before God “through Adam’s declension from God” and “through his own fault.” The problem is both imputed sin and personal sin. The problem carries a corporate component and an individual component.
Truth from Paradox
It may help to briefly address another apparent Biblical contradiction. When asked to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human responsibility, Charles Spurgeon said, “I never reconcile friends.” He knew the reality of either doctrine did not require the elimination of the other. God is sovereignly in control and humans are responsible for their choices. As hard as it may be for us to fully comprehend, each of these truths is complemented—not contradicted—by the other.
So it is with the doctrines of personal responsibility and corporate responsibility. Both represent a facet of reality as we live, breathe, and know it. Both represent, not a set of contradictions, but a paradoxical coupling of truths that help inform and balance each other out.
Individual rights and responsibility are legitimate and honorable concepts. Like any concept, however, they can be overemphasized and abused. We must reject the excesses of our individualistic culture, where the imagined “freedom” of the self reigns supreme. That doesn’t mean we reject the reality of individual responsibility. Rather, it means we accept the Bible’s teaching even when it leads us outside our comfort zones and tramples on our society’s sacred cows.
There is much more that can—and should—be said to establish a robust understanding of corporate responsibility. For now, we can conclude there’s no need to pit corporate responsibility against personal responsibility. After all, why try to reconcile friends?
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