It is no surprise that much of Scripture is foreign to us. The most recent part of the Bible is over 1,900 years old and was written in a language most of us don’t know and was written to people living in cultures very different from ours, people with a very distinct perspective on the world—both the unseen world and that which we can see. There are assumptions the original audiences held that we do not hold. When we approach Scripture we must be aware of our own assumptions and how these assumptions can distort our understanding of the text. We see this in the book of Joshua with the Ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric that is employed. A victory in battle is expressed in absolute terms: “we killed ’em all—every man, woman, and child”. It’s clear that this is hyperbole, however. Consider Joshua 10:20.
When Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished striking them with a great blow until they were wiped out, and when the remnant that remained of them had entered into the fortified cities, then all the people returned safe to Joshua in the camp at Makkedah. Not a man moved his tongue against any of the people of Israel.Joshua 10:20–21 ESV
Joshua says they wiped out the people and immediately mentions the remnant that remained. Well, which is it? Did they completely wipe them out or were there survivors? Yes. The hyperbolic language that was common in ANE literature simply means the victory was total. They ended all resistance. We see this in the statement that not a single man “moved his tongue” against the people of Israel, so total was Israel’s victory.
Recognizing these significant cultural differences can be difficult because we approach the text with very deeply rooted convictions about the world and how it is supposed to operate. One of the most difficult concepts for us as modern Americans is found in Joshua 7. The very first verse challenges a deeply held assumption we have.
But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the LORD burned against the people of Israel.Joshua 7:1 ESV
God is angry with the people of Israel because the people of Israel “broke faith”. How? A single man stole from the Lord. Because Achan, acting on his own, violated the command given to the entire nation, the anger of the Lord burned against the entire nation.
This is contrary to how you and I see the world. It is especially difficult for those of us in the majority in our nation to reconcile with how we perceive the world. We don’t like the concept of corporate responsibility, the idea that I should not be held responsible for what someone else has done. There is a sense in which this is true for God. In Ezekiel 18 he declares that the soul who sins shall die. In Deuteronomy 24 God says that fathers shall not be put to death for the sins of their children and children should not be put to death for the sins of their fathers. The truth is that God deals with us individually, but it’s also true that God deals with us corporately. It was the people of Israel who broke faith on account of one man taking the forbidden treasures from Jericho.
What is beneath the surface in Joshua 7 is that God knows everything. No sins are hidden sins. No sins are private and personal. The anger against Israel serves to warn them about sin in their midst. His anger burned against the entire nation and would continue to burn if they would not deal with that sin appropriately. It is not that each Israelite was guilty of the sin of Achan. It was that each Israelite bore the responsibility of Achan’s sin—especially in the sense of dealing with it and making the necessary corrections. They didn’t commit the sin, but they—all Israel—were responsible to make it right. God’s anger would burn against them unless and until they did so.
This is where the rub comes in for us. If I’m not personally guilty of committing a sin, they why should I be personally responsible for making it right? I don’t mean making it right in the sense of atoning for it; only Jesus can do that. Yet it is clear that God expected Israel to deal with the sin in the camp. This is why sin in the church must be addressed. This doesn’t mean that we go after those who struggle. It means that when there is unrepentant sin we must “make it right”—we must correct the individual or individuals engaged in the sin and we must call them to repentance and faithfulness. While we would never pick up stones to throw at a person, it is clear in the New Testament that the time comes when an unrepentant sinner must be cast out of the assembly—excommunicated.
In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul addresses the church concerning an individual engaged in a form of sexual immorality that he says not even the pagans tolerate: a man is sleeping with his step-mother, and won’t repent of his sin. This man was a member of the church, claiming to be a follower of Jesus even as he acted worse than a pagan. This is made clear in verses 9–13 of that same chapter. Here is Paul’s instruction to them for dealing with this “Achan” in their midst.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.1 Corinthians 5:3–5 ESV
This man was to be delivered to Satan. He is to be removed from the church’s protection. He is denied fellowship and encouragement, save for the continued call for him to repent. Paul makes this clear in verse 11.
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.1 Corinthians 5:11 ESV
The aim was the man’s salvation. Should he persist in acting like an unbeliever he will prove himself one. The church’s hope was for his return to faithfulness. He should not be encouraged in his unrepentant sin but called to repentance. If—when?—he acknowledges his sin and returns to faithfulness, he must be received back into the church, back into the church’s protection and fellowship. Paul had to instruct the church to do this very thing in his second letter.
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.2 Corinthians 2:5–8 ESV
The church excommunicated this man and denied him fellowship and encouragement, but called him to repent. He finally did so, and Paul now instructs them to restore him to fellowship, to reaffirm their love for him. They are to encourage him again, reminding him of God’s love to him in Christ, of mercy and forgiveness, that his righteousness is found in Christ alone. What changed is that while he was unrepentant, they had no way of knowing whether he were actually in Christ alone! Now that he has repented and is bearing the fruit of faith in Christ, they are free to reassure him of God’s love.
The truth is that our culture insists we stand and fall on our own, that our responsibility is to mind our own business and deal with ourselves. “You do you, and I’ll do me.” This is not how God sees the world and is certainly not how God sees his church. While we may not be guilty of the sin committed by another, we are responsible for making it right, for calling the sinner to repentance and then executing God’s divine instructions for his church. Failure to correct the problem makes the entire church culpable.
The story of Achan demonstrates the importance of corporate responsibility. This is why church discipline is not primarily the responsibility of the Council of Elders, but belongs to the whole church. This why Paul told the Corinthians to take this final, drastic step “[w]hen you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus”. The church acts corporately to deal with unrepentant sin, just as Israel acted corporately to deal with unrepentant sin.
The aim isn’t to remove people we don’t like. It isn’t about a particular person’s sin that we just don’t like. It isn’t even about the nature of the sin itself, as if some sins are allowed to be indulged in while others are not tolerated. The issue is the unrepentant heart of the person engaged in the sin. As we saw last Sunday, even in Achan’s “confession” was the implication that God was holding out on him so he took some of what he had a right to take. Achan was not repentant.
There is no rugged individualism in the church or even in the broader world. No one is an island responsible only for his or herself. We all bear corporate responsibility on some level, even if we do not share guilt for a particular sin. It was Cain who asked whether he were his brother’s keeper and the Lord is clear that the answer is always yes.
Of course, there is a better way to all of this. We could remember that our confession is Jesus is Lord, and we could all choose to submit to his authority in our lives. It is far better to heed the warning of Joshua 7 and confess our sins and acknowledge the ways we have acted unfaithfully, trusting in the Lord and his mercy and in his promise to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That is far better. Let’s commit ourselves—corporately—to faithfully follow the Lord.