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Is corporate confession of sin biblical?

Corporate confession of sin is when a community confesses together a collective sin. It is different from individual, public confession wherein a single person confesses before God and before another person or group a personal sin that he or she has committed. Instead, corporate confession of sin happens when an individual leads an entire congregation in publicly confessing sins common to that particular community. This kind of corporate confession of sin is both commanded and modeled throughout the Bible.

After the Exodus, in making the Mosaic covenant with the people of Israel, God explained to Moses the blessings they would experience when they obeyed Him and the negative consequences they would endure for breaking His covenant. God told Moses, "But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me… then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land" (Leviticus 26:40, 42). He instructed that the people confess their sin corporately, including confessing the sins of their fathers. God knew that they would turn away from Him and His ways as a community, and He wanted them to repent together and be restored as a community. Even in the New Testament, when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He said, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). The use of the plural pronouns "us" and "we" shows the corporate nature prayer and confession can take. Corporate confession of sin, as shown in this model prayer, is to be a regular part of our practice of prayer.

The command to corporately confess sin was obeyed by many throughout biblical history. Judges 10:10 records, "the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, 'We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.'" In 1 Samuel 7:6 we read, "they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the LORD and fasted on that day and said there, 'We have sinned against the LORD.'" Jeremiah prayed in Jeremiah 14:7, "Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name's sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you." The psalmist led his congregation in prayer saying, "Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness" (Psalm 106:6). In all these instances, God's people came together to confess their corporate sin before the Lord.

Furthermore, the Bible gives examples of leaders praying on behalf of their people, confessing sins that they personally may not have even committed. Daniel prayed a prayer of confession on behalf of his people in Daniel chapter 9. After reading Jeremiah's prophecies in Scripture, part of Daniel's confession stated, "we have not listened to your servants the prophets" (Daniel 9:6). Daniel had requested special foods in order to keep God's law when he was brought to Babylon as an exile (Daniel 1:8). Years later he refused to pray to king Darius, was thrown into a lion's den, and was rescued (Daniel 6). Yet we see Daniel pray, "we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets" (Daniel 9:9–10). So while Daniel personally had studied and believed the prophets and had striven to follow God's laws in every way, he still recognized his own shortcomings and identified with the sinfulness of his people.

The New Testament teaches, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The psalmist explained this concept in the Old Testament saying, "They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one" (Psalm 14:3). While the individual leading the prayer or certain individuals in the congregation may not be personally guilty of the particular communal sin being confessed, it is appropriate for them to join in the corporate confession of sin.

Ezra led his people in a prayer of confession that included, "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens… For we have forsaken your commandments… Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this" (Ezra 9:6–15). Later, Nehemiah led the people when "the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers" (Nehemiah 9:2). During this confession, Nehemiah said, "Yet you [God] have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly" (Nehemiah 9:33). Both Ezra and Nehemiah were following an example set by Moses. After the Israelites had fashioned a golden calf to worship and Moses had to return to the Lord for new stone tablets, he prayed, "pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance" (Exodus 34:9). Moses, while not guilty of participating in worship of the golden calf, nevertheless recognized his own sinfulness and identified with his people, as being part of them; he prayed for forgiveness.

With these biblical examples, we learn that corporate confession of sin is a practice that God expects of His people. It is true that salvation is an individual matter of personal faith in Jesus Christ through which, by God's grace, a person is fully forgiven of sin and made new (Ephesians 2:8–10; 2 Corinthians 5:17). It is also true that continuing to confess our personal sins to God after we are saved is important for the closeness of our relationship with Him (1 John 1:8–9). However, we need also remember that saved people are part of the family of Christ; we are part of His body, inextricably linked to one another. We live in community not only in God's family, but also in the contexts of our worlds. We can identify with our communities in communal sin. In truth, because of our sinful natures, we each contribute to the sins committed in our communities. Sometimes our personal contribution is committing that sin, sometimes it is contributing to the atmosphere where that sin can flourish, and sometimes it is simply a failure to recognize and help others struggling with that sin. So when the opportunity for corporate confession of sin arises, we should humbly participate knowing that this practice pleases the Lord.

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