What is the Extent of Corporate Sin?


by Steve Van Riessen (SteveSvR@aol.com)

The writer of Hebrews admonishes the believer to lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, so that we may run with endurance the race that is set before us. (12:1) A Biblical understanding of the doctrine of sin is important to the saint who desires a growing and vibrant life in Christ. The weight and severity of sin is not overlooked in the Bible and should not be glossed over with mere theological terms. Bernard Ramm points out that our understanding of corporate sin must be fused with the awareness of our own sin in order have a complete doctrine of sin. "The Christian doctrine of sin must help us understand the nature of humanity's social or corporate existence. It must not be a mere addition to our understanding." (p. 145) The focus of this paper is therefore to understand what corporate sin is and how extensive it is.

Before tackling the topic of corporate sin, we must first identify what sin is. Cornelius Plantinga defines sin as "any act -- any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed - or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame. Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God." (p. 13) To clarify this, Plantinga goes on to explain that sin is culpable, or deserving blame, in the eyes of God. Certain forms of civil disobedience for example may be offensive to the government, but not to God. (p. 18) Specifically, the Bible refers to sins in many ways including the following: murder, adultery, idolatry, greed, fornication, slander, envy, sexual immorality, anger, deceit, orgies, malice, quarreling, impurity, lust, boastfulness, drunkenness, and evil desires. (Doty, p. 344) While the "idea of sin as an inner force, an inherent condition, a controlling power, is largely unknown" (Erickson, p. 564), we are able to gain insights on its nature, particularly in a corporate sense.

Corporate sin is defined as any sin committed on a larger scale, from a community or society. Thus it is also referred to as group sin, communal sin or social sin. These corporate sins are characteristic sins of a group, and can also be committed as a whole. The question of culpability for communal sins is one that needs addressing. In analyzing theories on corporate sins and evils, Ted Peters brings forth an important question regarding sin among people in communities. He asks, "How do we bring evil into existence? Individually or communally?" (p. 47) This question is of great debate and Plantinga speaks on this in his discussion on environmental determinism.

In general, we do not know to what extent evildoers are themselves, as agents, the main cause of their evil and to what extent they have fallen into a trap set by others. Only God knows the percentages in these matters. Only God knows the human heart. Only God knows how much of our evil is chargeable to us as sin. (p. 65)

Since the cause of communal sin is uncertain (caused by the individuals or by the community), this paper will examine the extent of corporate sin which emanates from a community as a whole.

Historical Hypotheses

Historical views on the extent of corporate sin are varied in depth and recognition. The early Church theologians viewed the corporate nature of sin to be possible, especially when considered from the entirety of mankind. Tertullian viewed man as being independent and possessing free will. He did however recognize that men do partake in the evil present in all of mankind, inherited from Adam. (McClanahan, p. 116) Augustine similarly views all of humanity as being guilty of sin. He declares that "even unbaptized infants are condemned to hell because of the guilt they have inherited from Adam." (Smith, p. 37) While these statements do not speak directly about communal sin, the principle of the sins of a corporate entity (humanity) are present. Emil Brunner in his discussion on theologies of sin states that the "early Church saw that the union of the Son of God with human nature (the Incarnation) was intended for humanity as a whole, yet it profited only those who believed. The chief point is always that of decision." (p. 321)

Besides views on the universal sin of mankind, Martin Luther considered there to be a distinct link between the godliness of a society (or lack thereof), and the role of the Church in that society. However, he was opposed to the imposition of a "divine" social order to change society by way of a "revolution in the name of Christ." (Henry, p. 172) The Calvinist Heidelberg Catechism reflects Augustine's view on the sin of mankind. Answers 7 and 10 in the Catechism state that "we are born sinners -- corrupt from conception on," and that "God is "terribly angry about the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit," therefore we are culpable for both. (Plantinga, p. 26) Brunner, a Reformed theologian, echoes a similar view on the corporate nature of mankind's sin.

God always deals with humanity as a whole. The wonder of redemption is only known for what it really is when we see that the God who sees us before Him as sinful humanity has had mercy upon us all. This is what is meant, and not something physical, by the doctrine that the Son of God assumed human nature. By doing this He made it evident that humanity as a whole is the object of His activity; it already implies the universality of the divine will of redemption, the significance of the fact of Christ. (p. 321)

Alternative views on corporate sin have more definition from the more contemporary theologians. Roger Haight, in his Roman Catholic systematic theology, recognizes that our being part of social structures leads to our participation in their social sinfulness. This participation in social sin is not termed "personal sin," but is distinct and is a "social sin" which Haight refers to as what is traditionally called original sin. (Peters, p.30) Modern Liberals view sin as a selfish lack of interest in the social goals of the kingdom of God. Albrecht Ritschl, a proponent of the Social Gospel, advocates that the "sinful state of society is not due to the Fall of the original pair but due to the momentum of sin in society itself." (Ramm, p. 132) Marjorie Suchoki, a Claremont process theologian, emphasizes that "sin is not an individual phenomenon but a social phenomenon in the sense that each individual sin is understood properly only in relation to the backdrop of sin evidenced by the human race as a whole." (Peters, p. 30)

Evangelicals view the sin of mankind in the same terms as the early Church did. Today Evangelicals are also recognizing the presence of corporate sin in several different arenas. One of which is idea that the theology of corporate sin is intertwined with demonology and the theology of Satan.

They (Christians) have discovered that sin is not only personal but also interpersonal and even suprapersonal. Sin is more than the sum of what sinners do. Sin acquires the powerful and elusive form of a spirit -- the spirit of an age or a company or a nation or a political movement. Sin burrows into the bowels of institutions and traditions, making home there and taking them over. (Plantinga, p. 75)

Evangelicals have also recognized such corporate sins as addiction in society and culture through a Biblical awareness of our culture. (Plantinga, p. 134)

Biblical Theology

Old Testament

Individual Sin Related to Group Sin

The Old Testament clearly states that individuals are culpable for their own sins. Deuteronomy 24:16 states that "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin." However, the consequences of their sins may ravage one's children and later generations. (Doty, p. 69) This is certainly the point of the Second Commandment: "for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me." (Ex 20:5, Deut 5:9) This is seen in the life of king David where his sin with Bathsheba was felt in the lives of his children. (Stedman, p. 169) The results and consequences of one's sin have far reaching effects into one's family, which is often the focus of modern counseling. These consequences however do not equate with guilt. Ezekiel 18:2 makes the clarification that the individual is culpable for their own sin and that the group is not culpable. (Murray, p. 22)

An interesting dynamic is introduced where the leaders are involved. There is much debate on whether a leader's sins are a reflection of the people's sins, or if the people's sins are a reflection of the leader's sins. The Bible does not explicitly speak on this, but there are many examples of sinful leaders in the Old Testament. Leviticus 4:22-26 recognizes that the leaders will sin and that they are culpable for their own sin which necessitates a sin offering. Numerous accounts of leaders and their sins are recorded in Kings and Chronicles. In one of these accounts we can see the efforts of the king to make reforms in the land of sinful people. King Jotham succeeded several godly kings and he "did what was right in the sight of the Lord." (2 Chronicles 27:2) Despite his efforts at reform and the efforts of those before him, the corporate sin of Israel went unaffected. When the next king came into power, Ahaz' sinfulness allowed an increase in the expression of Israel's sinfulness. While it often seems that that the corporate sin of a group is seen in its leaders, often the leaders need only to lower their moral standards for the sins of the people rise up and take over.

Leaders of groups, cities, and nations are often seen as being the representative of the whole. Leviticus 4:15 instructs the elders to represent the corporate body in the offering for corporate sins. A second example of representative leadership is seen in the non-Jewish king of Nineveh. The king saw the judgment of God upon his city's sin and repented, while instituting national decrees of repentance. (Jonah 3:7). The king recognized that the sins of the people were not separate from his own sins and repentance needed to begin with himself and then occur ultimately on a national level. For a leader to act in such a way, the king must have recognized that the cumulative and corporate sins of the city were going to be dealt with in a corporate manner by the wrath of God. Such wrath upon a people or a city for their communal sins has actually been carried out upon cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen 19)

Citywide and National Sin

The Old Testament also presents corporate sin on larger levels of cities and nations. The book of Judges is an excellent case study on how the moral (or lack thereof) singularity of a people created the spirit of the age where "every man did what was right in his own eyes." As mentioned before Leviticus 4:13-21 speaks of the corporate sins of the people and how they were to make an offering for those sins.

Now if the whole congregation of Israel commits error, and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly, and they commit any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and they become guilty, when the sin which they have committed becomes known, then the assembly shall offer a bull of the herd for a sin offering, and bring it before the tent of meeting.

This passage recognizes that the sin of the people was done in such a corporate manner that it was to be dealt with in a singular way. It is also important to recognize that there needed to be atonement for their corporate sins. Since no individual could be held responsible for the corporate sins, a single corporate offering had to be made after the offense was recognized and the people repented.

Several examples of the corporate sins of a city are found throughout the Old Testament. As noted previously, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because "the outcry against its people has become so great before the Lord." (Gen 19:13) The book of Habakkuk deals extensively with the sins of the city of Babylon. All of chapter 2 is a poignant indictment of Babylon’s evils and sins. When the moral decay of a society leads to everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, characteristic sins of the society rear their head. In Judges 19, the "men of the city" act out their lusts and sinfulness upon the concubine of the traveling Levite. The lack of moral structure within the city allowed the men of Gibeah to freely act on their sinful desires in a group context. (McClanahan, p. 94)

Corporate sins of the nation of Israel are unfortunately quite numerous in the Old Testament. Examples of such corporate sins can be seen in Israel's blatant sin of idolatry in Exodus 32-33 which was a breach of the Second Commandment given shortly before in Exodus 20:14. Israel was also rebuked (and exiled) for their disobedience of the commandment in Leviticus 25:2-8 to give a Sabbath rest for the land. Israel and her surrounding nations often chose their gods on a corporate level. Israel was often warned and rebuked for choosing to serve the gods of the Canaanites.

God speaks of His remnant and His nation of Israel throughout the Old Testament, which are obvious corporate terms. The sins of Israel were often the subject of much of Scripture, especially among the prophets. In Isaiah 5, God addresses Jerusalem and the men of Judah for their moral corruption that existed on a national scale. Israel's moral and spiritual values were twisted and misguided causing them to sin in characteristic and corporate ways. God addressed these through the prophet of Jerusalem who sought to invoke the repentance of Judah. (McClanahan, p. 95)

Many of the other prophets were sent to address corporate sin within Israel. Haggai later brought the accusation against Judah regarding their sin of forsaking the Lord and greedily hoarding their possessions. Even the prophet Jonah brought a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh, which presumes the existence of a city-wide presence of sin and evil. Nineveh's repentance and submission to God also points out a solution to the problem of corporate sin.

Sin of Mankind

While the Old Testament does not explicitly address the sin of mankind, key passages shed light on the extent of sin in the Old Testament. Although Adam's sin is recorded in Genesis 3, the original sin of man is not explicitly stated. The doctrine of original sin is more explicitly stated in the New Testament and will be expanded upon in that section. However, the effects of original sin are seen throughout the Old Testament in the form of mankind's sinfulness. In Ezekiel 18 God declares that every person is responsible for their own sins. In verse 4 He declares that all living "souls are Mine. The soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die." The father as well as the son shall be responsible for their own sins. (Doty, p. 68) This passage along with Psalm 14 is similar to Paul's statement that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom 3:23)

New Testament

Individual Sin Related to Group Sin

Throughout the New Testament our salvation is explicitly stated in individual terms. Our decision to receive Christ is an individual decision and not based on the individual decisions of those around us. However, our relations with God and with other people are not exclusively individual, contrary to what the Western worldview advocates. (Murray, p. 22) It is true that our sins affect those around us. The New Testament recognizes this just as the Old Testament does and points out the relationship between a church and its leaders. James 3:1 states that those in the church who are teaching the congregation must be aware that their actions and exposition of the Scriptures will incur stricter judgment upon them. (cf. Mt 18:6) Paul echoes this thought in I Timothy 4:16 where he writes, "pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." These passages does not speak directly on corporate sin but refer to the dynamic between a leader's godliness (or lack of) and a church's godliness (or lack of).

Citywide Sin

The New Testament not only speaks of the church leaders and their relation to the whole, but it also teaches on the corporate aspects of a church. While there are those individuals in churches whose sin is reason for rebuke (Phil 4:2), there are also sins of the church that as a whole need to be addressed. In Revelation 1 through 3 Christ encourages but also rebukes the seven churches in Asia for their good deeds and their sins. The churches are each addressed as single entities with specific points of transgression. This shows the corporate nature of a church, both its ability to obey as a whole and to be disobedient as a whole.

Similar to the Old Testament, the New Testament is not without references to the sins of a city. In Matthew, Jesus proclaims judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum for their unreceptive hearts to the message of the Gospel. (Mt 11:20-24) Jesus compares their sins as a city and the judgment that will come upon them to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This shows that the concept of citywide sin is not restricted to the Old Testament but is found throughout the Bible.

Sin of Mankind

On a larger scale, the sins of mankind are explicitly identified in the New Testament. Paul declares that all of man has "sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23) and that we are all in need of redemption. The sin of mankind is certainly a summation of all the individual sins, but in Romans Paul focuses on the universal sin of all mankind. (Rom 5:12) God therefore deals with the sins of mankind in a corporate manner by sending His Son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of the whole world (I Jn 2:2) in a single act of atonement.

Personal Synthesis

The historically Orthodox doctrine of the corporate sin of mankind is well founded in Scripture and in history. The fact that Christ bore the sins of mankind points to the concept of corporate sin. We can therefore say without a doubt that man has sinned corporately. In more specific terms, we have seen that corporate sin is evidenced in the Bible in several forms. We have seen that nations and cities sin corporately in the Old and New Testaments. We have also seen that groups of people and congregations sin communally and are culpable for their sins. Individuals, especially leaders, also play a distinct role in the corporate sins committed by a group, city or nation.

Since corporate sin does exist and is prevalent in structures ranging from churches to nations, the question arises as to the cause of and responsibility for these corporate sins. We have seen in the Biblical references that these corporate sins can be separate and distinct from individual sins (Lev 4:13) and that the entity as a whole is responsible (Gen 19). The implications of this are that a nation or a city or a church do commit sins as a whole and that they need to recognize their sins and repent as a whole. However, as Murray points out, if sin is only viewed in the corporate sense, we discount our individuality and "desecrate our responsible relations to God and to men." (p. 22) As noted before, only God knows to what extent the blame for a sin lies on the individual or the group as a whole.

Apologetic Interaction

In response to the denial of original sin by many Liberal theologians, the doctrine of corporate sin presents a logical answer. As Emil Brunner put it, original sin must exist since it is evident that "God always deals with humanity as a whole. He assumes the whole of human nature in the incarnation because only thus can He lay hold of sinful humanity." (p. 321) Certain Liberal views also discount the seriousness of sin, thus stating that sin, including corporate sin, will not hinder the salvation of all men. Brunner refutes this by stating that "unconditional salvation would diminish the seriousness of the Judgment of God. The universalism of the divine will to reconcile and redeem is only in the sense which calls for decision, thus as a will it is possible to disobey." (p. 321)

While one may question that corporate sin actually exists on multiple levels, the existence of corporate sin is evidenced throughout the Scriptures as was shown. It is also evident in societies, cities and nations today. In Peters' book on sin, several of his "seven steps to radical evil" can be identified on the larger, corporate scale in our modern world. The fourth step of concupiscence can most certainly be a national characteristic of Americans. Everywhere you go, one can easily see at work the all encompassing drive for gratification of our lusts as we "lust after what they have." (Peters, ch. 5)

Even research from the secular community supports Scripture by showing that sin has distinguishable group characteristics. Theories on group sin attribute its origin to conditioning from family, community, and society. Group sin can also be the byproduct of social customs. "Human societies generate systems of right and wrong actions called mores, and sin is nothing more or less than going contrary to accepted social mores." (Ramm, p. 4) While these theories may not be entirely correct, they do reaffirm the existence of corporate sin on all levels.

Several issues are related to corporate sin that were not addressed in this paper and are most likely beyond the scope of the doctrine corporate sin, but should be noted in this apologetic section. Such issues involve questions of where does corporate sin actually begin, how do we correct it, and how is it forgiven.

If corporate sin is as serious as has been proposed, the next logical question is how do we as Christians address these sins? Carl Henry addresses this question applied to the Church residing in a sinful society. Should Christianity forcibly revolutionize the exiting social order to a more righteous, divine social order? (Henry, p. 172) Should the Church instead encourage more peaceable means such as "sit-in" demonstrations to advocate change? (Henry, p. 184) What is our role as the Church in light of Christ's declaration in John 18:36 that "My kingdom does not belong to this world?" Some Scriptures give general principles in dealing with corporate sin. II Chronicles 7:14 and Lamentations 1:18 offer examples of corporate confession. Jonah 3:7 is an example of national repentance. While these passages point to general principles in corporate confession and repentance for our sins, the modes of advocating corporate repentance and social change are situational and require guidance by the Holy Spirit.

Another question regarding corporate sin is in response to the fact that the Christian God is a righteous and holy God. The Father requires payment to be made for our sins against Him. Christ was sent to die as "the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the world." (I Jn 2:2) The question that arises when studying the doctrine of corporate sin is, how are corporate sins atoned for? Christ's death for the believer's sins is obvious. However, if corporate sins cannot be held to individuals, how are they atoned for and ultimately forgiven? These questions deal with the doctrine of the atonement (Erickson, p. 811) and ultimately with the nature of God and how He relates to mankind.

Relevance for Life & Ministry

The purpose of recognizing that corporate sin does exist at all levels is not to just acknowledge its presence and add it to our doctrine of sin, but it is to recognize that corporate sin is just as serious as personal sin. We need to call sin, sin and repent from it, realizing that if we don't our continued involvement in corporate sin will affect our relationship with God. As Smith points out, "There is no point in warning people against sin without also exhorting them to repentance and forgiveness." (p. 412)

As many psychotherapeutic theories purport, effects of group sin are wide reaching. Addiction, family abuse, societal patterns, etc., are addressed and sought to be corrected. Without a biblical perspective on these problems, the root causes will be overlooked while the resulting sins will be addressed with only temporary results. The doctrine of corporate sin helps us recognize the sinfulness on the group level and that to correct it, we must address it on that level also.

On the personal level, a healthy and honest look at any corporate sin promises healing and transformation if repentance is involved. Our gracious Father who sent His Son to die for the sins of the world (I Tim 2:6) desires us to repent from our sins and depend on Him (Jn 15:5). A healthy understanding of the horrid and deep extents of sin will help us to recognize sin and deal with it. Ignorance and naiveté of corporate sin will only limit the depths of our transforming relationship with our Savior. To ignore and disregard the weight of corporate sin is in itself a sin, the sin of omission and self justification. (Erickson, p. 565)

Western (especially modern westerners) are focused on the individual. Corporate societies where the whole is considered to be more important than the individual are completely foreign to westerners. Even in the family unit, Americans view the individual as more important than the family as a whole. To westerners the doctrine of corporate sin is unfamiliar and its implications are unnoticed. In culturally diverse urban settings, Christian Americans have great opportunities to expand their perception of spiritual reality by understanding the weight of corporate sin, especially when ministering cross-culturally. An understanding of corporate sin is also vitally important in mission work where deeply rooted sins must be addressed in societies.



Brunner, Emil, The Mediator, 1947, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 622 pp.

Doty, Brant Lee, What the Bible Says About Sin, 1992, College Press Publishing, Joplin MI, 376 pp.

Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology, 1983, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1302 pp.

Henry, Carl F. H., Aspects of Christian Social Ethics, 1980, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 190 pp.

Lewis, Gordon R. and Demarest, Bruce A., Integrative Theology, 1996, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, 574 pp.

McClanahan, John H., Man As Sinner, 1987, Broadman Press, Nashville, 153 pp.

Murray, John, The Imputation of Adam's Sin, 1959, Eerdmans Press, Grand Rapids, 95 pp.

Peters, Ted, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society, 1994, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 338 pp.

Plantinga, Cornelius, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, A Breviary of Sin, 1995, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 202 pp.

Ramm, Bernard, Offense to Reason, The Theology of Sin, 1985, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 187 pp.

Smith, David L., With Willful Intent, A Theology of Sin, 1994, Bridgepoint, Wheaton, IL, 464 pp.

Stedman, Ray C., Adventuring Through the Bible, 1997, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 832 pp.

April 21, 1999

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Scripture Interaction

Romans 5:1-11








THS 502S
Dr. Sawyer


Steve van Riessen

Box # 168



Romans 5:1-11

Paul’s theme in Romans 5 verses 1 through 11 is a theme of the grace of God given to us through the death of Christ for our sins. Paul begins this section of the book by reminding the reader that because we have been justified by faith we have peace with God. It is our justification through the death of Christ that has given us our hope of future grace. We can therefore exult in this future grace and praise God for His provision of our sins.

Although our hope is in a future grace, God’s grace through the death of His Son is also given to us now on earth, especially among our trials and tribulations. Paul declares that we can rejoice in our tribulations because they will produce in us perseverance. Our perseverance will produce in us lasting and quality character. Our character will then produce in us added hope in the future grace that will be given to us. However, just as the Proverb says, "hope deferred makes the heart sick," God has not given us a future hope alone, but he has given us grace now through His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit pours out in our hearts the love and comfort of God during our tribulations. This love helps us to persevere through our trials producing character in us. Our character will then be one of a child of God obediently persevering while looking to the future hope of glory with the love of the Holy Spirit giving us grace in our current trials.

Paul then expands on the greatness of God’s grace which was given to us. He states that Christ died for us in a timely manner, we who are helpless and ungodly. Paul uses the illustration that very few people die for other people, even if it is somebody important. But in contrast, Christ had no reservations in dying for us, the ungodly and helpless, which points out the extent of God’s love for us. Paul again points out God’s love for us through the death of Christ for our sins.

Paul continues in the discussion of Christ’s death for us. Christ not only died for us as helpless sinners, but He also died for us who were His enemies. This deepens the meaning of Christ’s death for us. Christ gave up His life for us so that as enemies of God we might be brought to the other end of the spectrum to become completely reconciled with God. Paul uses this image of enemies and reconciliation to point out the important meaning of the death of Christ and the extreme to which God’s grace has been given to us through the death of His Son.

Paul then concludes this section by again declaring that we can rejoice in God because Christ’s death for us has reconciled us to God. Our reconciliation gives us peace with God which is what we are to exult in, just as was stated in verse 2.