Social Justice and the Gospel: 4 – The Corporate Sin of Racism


Matthew Hall, provost of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said this:

I am a racist…I’m going to struggle with racism and white supremacy until the day I die. 1

 
Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church, said this, when writing on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination:

My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice. 2

When you combine the statements of these two men, what you have is the provost of a leading American seminary being a self-confessed racist and white supremacist whose parents and grandparents were complicit in the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

How can this be? And how can this man not be immediately disqualified from pastoral ministry? He is in clear violation of the requirements of an elder:

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity… 1 Timothy 3: 2 – 4

It is possible for a man to be a self-confessed racist and not be disqualified from ministry because of the doctrine of corporate sin, which plays a major role in Social Justice. Let us define corporate sin as this:

Sin committed by a body (corporation) of people.

As we consider the quotes from Hall and Anyabwile, the corporate body being referenced is white Americans and the sins are racism, white supremacy, and murder. In other words, they are implying that white America as a group is racist and has shed innocent blood. Before we discuss the particular claims of Hall and Anyabwile, we need to look more generally at the concept of corporate sin, for it is a Biblical teaching.

In the New Testament, we see corporate sin in Jesus’ messages to the seven churches in Revelation. Consider the message to Sardis:

Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. (Revelation 3: 2 – 4)

Jesus rebukes the church of Sardis as a whole, telling it to repent. Jesus also states that there are some people in Sardis excluded from this corporate rebuke (the ones not soiled). And thus we derive from this example two fundamental principles:

  • Entire bodies of people can be charged by God with sin
  • Even if an entire body is charged with sin, there can be individuals within that body who are exempt from the charge.

We see these two principles at play in the Old Testament. The prophets of God, preaching to Israel to repent, were not individually considered transgressors of the covenant and were not individually responsible for the sins charged to the corporate body of Israel, sins which ultimately resulted in exile. When Israel was worshipping Baal instead of God, and the prophet Elijah came against them, he and others were exempt from the corporate sin of idolatry:

It shall come about, the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall put to death. Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him. (1 Kings 19: 17 – 18)

Biblically speaking, corporate sin does not exist without individual sin. A corporate body, or (using today’s vernacular) a system, is simply a collection of individuals; their words, their thoughts, their deeds. If there is corporate racism, then there must be individual racism. If there is not individual racism then there cannot be corporate racism. And the proof of this is that anywhere in Scripture where you find God charging a corporate body with sin, the individuals in that body have committed that sin. Nowhere does God charge an innocent man with a sin he didn’t commit or an innocent body of people with a sin they didn’t commit.

It must be pointed out this view of corporate sin is in opposition to a view of corporate sin held by Social Justice Advocates, who tell us that you can have corporate sin without individual sin. Corporations and systems in the Social Justice framework seem to exist as sentient beings with their own sins and biases. Because the self-sentient system acts as the covenantal head for all the individuals within the particular system, its sins and biases then get imputed to the individuals, whether or not an individual actually has that particular sin or bias. It is as if the system is Adam and the individuals within the system are Adam’s descendants, afflicted with original sin. And so to summarize what has just been said, we see major differences in the definition of corporate sin between the Bible and Social Justice. The Bible starts with individuals, and if enough individuals in a group have committed a sin then a charge of corporate sin can be levied. Social Justice starts with abstractly defined “systems”, and then imputes the sins of the systems to the individuals within the system.

Now that we have this understanding of corporate sin from a Biblical and Social Justice perspective, we must point out that the Bible does not provide explicit detail for making a charge of corporate sin. This is a very key point for the day in which we find ourselves. The Sardis church knew it was in sin because it received the words of Jesus from an apostle. How does your congregation know God has charged it with a corporate sin? How do you know whether your church is on the cusp of having a lampstand removed due to transgression? Does God base a charge of corporate sin on the percentage of people committing a certain sin? Is it based on who within the body commits the sin (lay person vs elder)? In the Levitical system the leaders had to offer a more expensive sacrifice than the laity, when sin was committed. If that principle carries forward, we could expect a judgment on a body of people if the leaders are especially corrupt, even though the laity may not be.

In the absence of divine revelation, the best we can do in the church is to examine ourselves. When there are clear violations of God’s commands, a body of people can charge themselves corporately with sin, and when the violations are clear it is probably safe to suppose that God agrees with the judgment. Using the topic of corporate racism as an example, let us say that a white congregation turned away black visitors because they were black. If the visitors were turned away publicly and everyone knew about it and no one stood up in the moment to defend God’s truth, then the entire body would be liable. And if the congregation realized their sin, they could corporately repent to God and ask for corporate forgiveness. This is a clear corporate violation of God’s commands.

What Matthew Hall and Thabiti Anyabwile are calling racism is not such a clear violation of God’s commands. When Matthew Hall says he is a racist and white supremacist he is not comparing words or thoughts or deeds that he has and pointing them to a law of God in Scripture and demonstrating a violation of that law. Instead, he is accepting and agreeing with the Social Justice definition of corporate sin and corporate racism – the kind espoused by the now infamous book White Fragility. In this pagan definition of racism, the powerful oppressor class is inherently racist, because it inherently oppresses the weaker classes. In America, the powerful oppressor class is made of up whites. Therefore, to be white is to be racist. Matthew Hall is white, so Matthew Hall is racist. And in regards to Thabiti’s accusation that all of the white people of yesteryear are complicit in MLK’s murder, it is made on the same basis. The whites of yesteryear were the power class and therefore inherently racist and therefore inherently complicit in the murder of MLK. These Christian leaders are making charges of corporate sin not based on a careful examination of Scripture and thoughtful application of individual sin versus corporate sin, but by accepting the premises and conclusions provided by Social Justice.

What has been said thus far is the tip of the iceberg in regards to the Biblical doctrine of corporate sin, and how one might apply that doctrine to the American population as a whole and the American church as a subset, past and present. In the absence of divine revelation, such as the kind given to the prophet Elijah or to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation, how does a Christian speak on behalf of God and charge Christian groups with corporate sin? The Bible does not explicitly state the mind of God on the matter, and therefore any discussion of the applicability of corporate sin is inherently an argument of inference and induction.

As Christians who are required to think and act truthfully, there MUST BE grace and patience when debating charges of corporate sin that are by their nature inductive and inferential, when clear violations of God’s commands are lacking. If Matthew Hall wants to declare himself a racist and a white supremacist for simply being a white American, and if Thabiti Anyabwile wants to say all white Americans are guilty of MLK’s murder, where is the evidence to go along with the accusation? I am not going to call myself a racist simply because they or Robin DiAngelo tell me to.

Let us remember that the Bible teaches corporate racism cannot exist without individual racism. And regarding racism, which fits under the Biblical sin of partiality, James has these words for us today. And if we each follow them, we can be assured there will be no corporate charge of partiality against us:

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2: 1 – 9)

1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IiKCYSevDU

2 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/await-repentance-assassinating-dr-king/

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