A Biblical Model for Corporate Confession

Rick Phillips

The pressing matter coming out of this year's General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was the Personal Resolution on Civil Rights Remembrance.  The assembly decided to postpone this resolution to the coming year in order to allow reflection and improvement.  This is an important matter at a time when the pain of racism and its effects are so prominent in our society.  Not only is it essential that care be given to hearts of those who have been wounded by sin but it is even more important that the honor of Christ and his gospel be defended from sins within our church history.  Members of the PCA should be keeping this matter in prayer, asking the Lord to help us act as one in biblical integrity, humble contrition, and gospel love.


When wrestling with such matters, it is important to seek biblical models.  It turns out that there is no lack of biblical precedence for the matter of corporate confession of sin.  One valuable example is the response of Ezra  to the exposure of great sin among Israel.  The relevant chapters are Ezra 9 and 10, when the sin of intermarriage with pagan neighbors was exposed.  Ezra's and Israel's response is particularly useful in that we see the biblical response in two settings: the courts of the church in discipline and the courts of God in prayer.

The Courts of the Church in Discipline: Detailed Examination of Facts


Ezra 10:16-44 reports the scene as Ezra confronted the gathered leaders of Israel over this sin.  The passage begins by saying that Ezra assembled the spiritual leaders of Israel to confront this issue.  Their first purpose was to examine the details of the matter: "they sat down to examine the matter; and by the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women" (Ezra 10:16-17).  This provides an illustration of a principle that should govern all church discipline: a detailed examination of facts is needed before charges are made.  The questions were raised: who did this? what did they do?  The rest of the chapter consists of the detailed records -- mainly names -- of those who had committed sins and what they had actually done.  There were no excuses, no stinting, no justifying of sinful actions and motives.  It is noteworthy as well that while people were cited in the general category of "Israel" (Ezra 10:25-44), special notice was made of church officers who had sinned, under the category of "the sons of the priests" and "the Levites" (Ezra 10:18-24).  Not only were these sins specifically and publicly exposed, but they were accompanied by church sanctions.  Those guilty of taking foreign wives were to come before the leaders to demonstrate effective repentance for their sins (Ezra 10:14, 19).  The great majority did so, and their sin was publicly atoned by the prescribed guilt offering.  


The example of this Israelite court provides a valuable model for the PCA in dealing with the stain of racial prejudice in our past.  There are of course important differences between the procedures of Old Testament Israel versus the New Testament Church.  For instance, Christ has made the atoning offering once for all!  Yet principles can still be drawn from this biblical example.  For instance, we see that it is not sufficient to make sweeping accusations, which have the effect both of covering the actual perpetrators and also of falsely accusing those who did not in fact sin.  With this in mind, all those involved or interested in the PCA's attempt to address past and present racism should anticipate Sean Lucas' soon-to-be-released book on the origins of our denomination, For a Continuing Church. (Advanced materials on this subject were published on this website in a series that began with this article.)  When, Lord willing, this matter is effectively resolved, we are likely to find ourselves in considerable debt to Dr. Lucas for providing the important scholarly research to shed light on this legacy of sin.  Following Ezra's example, it may be wise to establish a commission (as we generally do in church discipline), to judiciously examine the records and produce a candid, godly report.  Ezra's commission spent three months delving through the facts and producing a report (Ezra 10:16-17) - how very Presbyterian! 


In making a public account of past collective sin, however, the goal should not be to pillory men who had otherwise served faithfully and well, most of whom have entered into glory already.  But an honest and accurate depiction of sin, including its varied contours, is needed in order to deal with this matter biblically.   Every member of the PCA, past, present, and future, is a sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ.  To expose the details of grievous systematic sins need not unduly disgrace those involved, as if only they have sins for which to account, but rather should show the precise nature in which we have all been involved together.  The point is not to shame our fathers but to own the fact that in this sin we are their sons and daughters. 


The Courts of God in Prayer: Corporate Confession and Lament


The second, and more prominent feature, of Ezra's response to Israel's sin dealt with his prayers of confession in the courts of God.  This appears in two phases.  The first was Ezra's personal response when the news reached him: "As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled" (Ezra 9:3).  The impression is given that Ezra immediately knew that the report was true, even though a proper disciplinary process had not yet taken place.  This provides a model for how members of the PCA should receive confirmations of systematic racism in our denominational past.  Our immediate response should be a stricken abasement before the Lord.  Such actions are shameful, hurtful, and disgracing to the gospel.  Before we have sifted the details -- which needs to be done -- as soon as we realize the truth of the general situation we should join together in humility before God.  If Ezra's example is an example, and that of the godly people who joined him (Ezra 9:4), private fasting and humble prayers are more than appropriate.  It is essential to note that while Ezra himself had not committed the sin of intermarrying with pagans, he embraced his solidarity with the people of God and owned the sin before the Lord.  We should do the same.


Having responded personally in abasement and grief, Ezra acted officially in his capacity as Israel's spiritual leader.  This is recorded in Ezra 10:1: "While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly."  They confessed together before the Lord, with weeping and fasting, because as a church they had sinned grievously when so many of their number had committed this sin.  It is noteworthy that the records indicate in Ezra that less than 0.5 % of the population committed the sin, yet the sin was grievous enough that the whole covenant community confessed to God.  When it comes to charges of systematic racism in the PCA's past, this corporate aspect of confession and prayer before God should result if the charges are found true.  It would be quite in accord with the biblical pattern if the general assembly itself engaged in a day of prayer and fasting when next year's resolution is competed, as is warranted by the evidence.


A Sign of the Holy Spirit's Work


What is the proper label for what happened in Ezra's and Israel's response to their sin?  The answer is Revival!  It is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit to rend our hearts over sin, both personal and corporate.  Moreover, the pursuit of true repentance and reconciliation is one that leads us humbly into the arms of the Savior who desires to revive our souls, individually and together.