In a recent conversation, I was asked for my views regarding racial reconciliation and justice, especially as it pertained to local churches in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA). I explained in response how the Lord has put this work on my heart over the last 4-5 years. As I have tried to lead in this area, both in concrete action and dialogue, I have often been met with accusation, defensiveness, resistance, and slander. Such reactions have only convinced me even more that the subjects of race and racism, both in and outside of the church, cannot be avoided but must instead be addressed by local churches head on.
I further explained how I believe our presbyterian and reformed tradition has a rich theology of lament, restitution, and corporate sin which seems to be conveniently ignored and forgotten in recent conversations on these subjects. In light of ongoing racial disparity in our communities and churches, I concluded by saying that the White Evangelical Church at large (which includes the PCA) must accept responsibility for advancing racism and segregation in our country for centuries; actions which continue to have lasting impact in our communities and our churches today.
My response was met with thankfulness and gratitude, and a warm conversation followed where it was safe to talk through challenges and obstacles in pursuing racial reconciliation and justice. However, there was one question that followed which required further explanation:
“What exactly do you mean by responsibility?”
This is a good question, and it is one I probably should have anticipated. This article is a fuller explanation of the answer I gave at that time. My hope in sharing what follows is that you might be able to think through these ideas in light of a rich Christian and Reformed heritage, rather than the polemical discourse of modern pundits and soundbites. Furthermore, I hope this brief survey of historic theology will encourage you to take part in the work of racial reconciliation in your local church and context.
This use of responsibility in regard to racial reconciliation can be thought of in four ways: it is corporate, contextual, generational, and individual.
The 20th-century Westminster theologian John Murray wrote a remarkably relevant essay in 1952 aptly titled “Corporate Responsibility.” In this brief essay, Murray made the case within a corporate relationship between two or more parties (such as a family, a commonwealth, etc.), there is a level of responsibility in which there are obligations for us to discharge toward those who are related to us in this corporate entity. When corporate entities faithfully conduct their responsibilities, “then due credit or approval accrues to them.” However, whenever corporate entities fail to fulfill their responsibilities, “they are worthy of condemnation.” Murray put it plainly when he said, “We may, therefore, speak of corporate credit in the case of faithfulness and corporate guilt in the case of delinquency” (Corporate Responsibilitiy, Collected Writings I:274).
Murray further developed his argument with an important distinction. Corporate entities cannot exist without the individuals who are members of that entity. As a result, “the corporate credit or guilt, of which we have spoken, never exists in abstraction and cannot be conceived of as existing apart from the individuals who compose the entity” (Ibid.). Therefore, this corporate credit or guilt bears upon individuals who must bear responsibility either for the corporate successes or failures of the entity to which they belong.
While we must take this important distinction into account, we also must not confuse corporate and individual responsibility as if they are one and the same. Murray himself wanted to carefully delineate between the two. A distinction must be made, not one which “absolves the individual from responsibility” and simply blames the corporate entity, but one which “must devolve upon the individuals and become individualized in a way distinguishable from strictly individual responsibility, but not in a way that relieves the individual of responsibility” (Ibid.).
In other words, we bear responsibility for the failures of our corporate entity by way of our membership in that entity, even if we may not have been directly involved in the faults or failures of that entity. This “corporate-individual” responsibility is different from an individual responsibility that would come if we had committed the sin or failure ourselves, but those differences do not absolve us from any kind of responsibility whatsoever.
Murray’s argument was grounded concretely in his understanding of church membership: “That the church is a corporate entity lies on the face of the New Testament, for the church is the body of Christ. Christ is the head of this body and believers are members” (Ibid.). Murray lamented how often individualism can cause Christians not to take responsibility as members of this body. He wrote,
“…at no point does the gravity of the abnormality and offence of individualism become more conspicuous than when it takes the form of discounting the unity and solidarity of Christ’s body…we cannot abstract ourselves from the corporate responsibility which belongs to the church as a corporate entity” (Ibid. I:275).
In summary, by nature of our membership in the body of Christ, we bear responsibility both for all of its successes and all of its failures. There is both corporate credit as well as corporate guilt, and an honest account of the Church will take responsibility for both.
Responsibility is not only corporate, but it is also contextual. Sin – while never changing at the heart of the matter – adapts and conforms to various social and cultural contexts. Therefore, the responsibility we bear for sin – either corporate or individual – will also be reflected within a particular context. The 20th-century Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck made a helpful articulation on this matter in the chapter “On Sin and Death” in The Wonderful Works of God.
Bavinck worked out this idea by beginning with an analogy from the family. When parents have collected a property or inheritance that benefits their children, those children will never object to those benefits when their parents die. They do not even object if they did nothing to earn the inheritance. Indeed, entire extended families are happy to inherit not only physical goods, but also spiritual goods such as “the values of rank and status, of honor and good name, of science and art” which “they have in no way earned” but nevertheless “appropriate without protest” (The Wonderful Works of God, 225).
From this simple observation, Bavinck believed that “such a law of inheritance is generally operative, in families, generations, peoples, in state and society, in science and art, and in all mankind.” We are happy to inherit the benefits of those who came before us, and we thank God for this “gracious arrangement” which he made for us (Ibid., 225-226).
All of this changes, however, when “this same law of inheritance works to someone’s disadvantage.” Indeed, when children are sought for their support of their poor or aging parents, they will turn from this responsibility because it is inconvenient for them. Bavinck concluded this point with precision that cuts to the heart:
“To some extent, greater or less, the tendency is present in everyone to enjoy the advantages of community and interrelationship but to reject the corresponding obligations. That tendency is in itself, however, a powerful proof of the fact that among people there is such a community of privileges and of duties. There is a oneness, a solidarity, a community whose existence and operation no one can deny” (Ibid.).
Bavinck continued by making a similar distinction which we saw in Murray, “We cannot point to the boundary where community or solidarity ceases…and individual responsibility begin.” Nevertheless, we must recognize that real corporate guilt does exist within our particular cultural context: “All this does not take away from the fact that such a solidarity exists…There is an individual soul, but there is also…a popular or national ‘soul.’…There are particular, individual sins, but there are also general, social sins. And thus too there is individual guilt, but also common social guilt” (Ibid.).
Later in this same chapter, Bavinck further explained what he meant by social sins and guilt. His explanation is worth quoting at length:
“There are personal and individual sins, but there are also common, social sins, the sins of particular families, nations, and the like. Every class and status in society, every vocation and business, every office and profession brings with it its own peculiar dangers and its own peculiar sins. The sins of urbanites differ from those of village people…those of the rich from those of the poor, and those of the children from those of adults…If we could penetrate through to the essence of appearances, and trace out the root of sins in the hearts of people, we should very probably come to the conclusion that in sin, too, there is oneness, idea, plan, pattern – in a word, that in sin too there is system” (Ibid., 230).
To say it another way, sin manifests itself differently within different social and cultural contexts. Therefore, any responsibility we bear for sin must take context, both past and present, into account.
As it just so happens, the White Evangelical Church in our U.S. context has left a wretched legacy of racial injustice and disparity which has yet to be truly reckoned with and accounted for.
If we bear corporate responsibility (particularly as Christians who belong to the body of Christ), as well as contextual responsibility (as members and citizens in a context where racial injustice and disparity is evident), then we also must wrestle with the extent to which we bear generational responsibility for the actions of those who came before us.
In his explanation of the Eighth Commandment in his Family Catechism, the 17th-century puritan Richard Baxter said this about the importance of making restitution:
Q. 21. What if those that I wronged be dead?
A. You owe the value to those that they gave their estate to: or, if they be dead, to the next heirs: and if all be dead, to God, in some use of charity.
Q. 22. What if any father got it ill, and left it me?
A. He can give you no right to that which he had none to himself; sinful keeping is theft, as well as sinful getting (The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 19, 233).
Notice Baxter’s emphasis of making restitution even for theft that occurred in past generations. There is a responsibility to make amends to the heirs of those who are wronged. There is also a responsibility upon the descendants of those who committed these wrongs to make restitution with their ill-gotten inheritance. In either case, if it is not possible to properly make restitution to the descendants of the victims, donation should be made to the Church or to charity to make blessed use of the stolen goods.
Baxter was not alone in his thinking. Similar ideas can be found in the writings of other puritans, such as James Ussher (17th century) or Thomas Ridgely (17/18th century). The point is simple – if something was stolen, it must be given back.
The examples given in these writings focus on generational responsibility merely within biological families. However, if the Church is a new household (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Timothy 3:15) and spiritual family (Mark 10:29-30, 1 John 3:1-2), then wouldn’t similar generational responsibility fall upon members of the body of Christ? Why should our doctrine of the Church stop short of such generational accountability and responsibility? While we might be able to say that our biological fathers did not own slaves, our spiritual fathers certainly did. While our biological mothers may not have supported segregation, our spiritual mothers certainly did.
Taking generational responsibility means we acknowledge the actions of our spiritual forebears and take responsibility for those actions as if they were our own family.
After all, aren’t they?
While our responsibility for sin is corporate, contextual, and generational in manner, it is also individual – but not in the way you might expect. As members of the corporate body of Christ, we must be willing to acknowledge the influence of the sinfulness of others upon our own individual lives.
In his explanation of the general confession of sin (often referred to as the corporate confession of sin in many churches today), John Calvin wrote this:
“Now this sort of confession ought to be ordinary in the church and be used extraordinarily in a special way, whenever it happens that the people are guilty of some transgression in common. We have an example of this second sort in that public confession which all the people performed under the guidance and direction of Ezra and Nehemiah [Neh. 1:7; 9:1–2]. For since the punishment for the common rebellion of all the people consisted in that long exile, that destruction of the city and the Temple, and that overthrow of religion, they could not rightly recognize the benefit of liberation, had they not previously accused themselves. Nor does it matter if sometimes a few in one congregation be innocent, for when they are members of a feeble and diseased body they ought not to boast of health. Nay, they cannot but contract some contagion and also bear some part of the guilt” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.4.11, emphasis mine).
Observe Calvin’s point at the end of the paragraph – if we believe we are innocent of the sins that are present within our church body, we are likely deceiving ourselves (1 John 1:8). If we are a member of a “feeble and diseased body” where sin is present, we should not boast of our own supposed health. Indeed, it is likely that we have played some part in this sin ourselves and bear some of the guilt for it. For this reason, we would do well to humble ourselves and confess the sin for ourselves.
What we notice here in Calvin brings Murray’s argument full circle: participation in a corporate body (the Church) comes with responsibility for sin and guilt in the body that bears upon the individual.
If we fail to acknowledge any of this responsibility for ourselves, we have likely been influenced by secular individualism more than we want to admit.
However, an Evangelical church whose members are fully confident in the grace and love of the Lord Jesus Christ; who are ready to accept responsibility for the corporate, contextual, generational, and individual nature of our sins; who are ready to right what has been wronged and ignored for so long – that is a righteous force I want to be a part of.
I hope you do too.