Corporate Responsibility: What It Is and Why It Is Important

G. I. Williamson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 5, no. 1 (January 1996).

By “corporate responsibility” we mean the biblical teaching that there is no such thing as a merely private, personal or individual faith. According to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 12:12-16), the people of God are like a body. The members of the body are related one to another. They are affected by the condition of the body (the church). And we do not think in a biblical way about ourselves, or others, if we do not take our corporate unity seriously. But, sad to say, this is a very common error. There is in American evangelical thought, for example, the idea that one can belong to the invisible church regardless of what one’s visible affiliation may be. I want to demonstrate, from the bible, that this really is not true.

To begin with, then, please read 1 Kings 11:9-13. It tells of a very important period in the history of ancient Israel. This nation came to its greatest outward glory in the days of Solomon. But it was also in the days of Solomon that the outward glory was undermined from within. We know, for instance, that Solomon installed pagan temples for his wives right there in Jerusalem. So there was—before the death of Solomon—already a marked decline in zeal for the things of God. Solomon just did not have it to the same degree that David did. I point this out because we need to recognize that a period of decline always precedes great spiritual catastrophes. So the underlying cause of what came later was this decline in faithfulness. It characterized the entire body of the nation of Israel, but was especially seen in the acts of its leaders.

If you will now turn to 1 Kings 12:1-19, you will see what happened after Solomon died. The old united kingdom was now divided. It is also clear that both sides contributed to this tragic division. Certainly Solomon himself laid the groundwork for it, and Rehoboam’s folly greatly advanced it. But we also need to see that there was a complete disregard for the Messianic promise, pronounced by God upon the House of David, on the part of the ten tribes that rebelled to form the Northern Kingdom. So the division became a fact, and God said through His servant that—in the ultimate sense—even this was of Him. We must realize, in other words, that divisions of this kind are ultimately a manifestation of the sovereign will and control of God.

Had it stopped there it would not have been such a serious matter. But now the realities of the situation began to come out, 1 Kings 12:25-33 tells us what happened. Then a man of God—a prophet—was sent from Judah to denounce the altar set up for worship in this new kingdom. What you had then—in the Northern Kingdom at this time—was a very serious act of apostasy. It was a deliberate and willful rejection of the divinely instituted house of worship—and plan of worship—revealed by the one true God. It was an official act of rejection of the divinely instituted sacrifices, Levitical priesthood and temple (concerning which the Lord had said that He would cause His name to dwell there).

As a consequence of this, there were some who—having before perhaps rashly followed Jeroboam—now thought better of it. If you consult 2 Chronicles 11:13-17, you will see what happened. It became clear that the Northern Kingdom—by the official acts of its leaders—had become apostate! They had, in other words, rejected God’s way in order to institute their own. And so godly people saw this as an inescapable time of decision. They had to make the decision not to remain involved in the apostasy, but to cleave and adhere to Rehoboam, the king of Judah. Even though I’m sure some of them objected to his high-handed ways, yet they did see a vital difference between the kingdom that only had a man-made religion and the one that had a God-ordained religion. That was the difference between these two realms at this time in history. The religion of the Northern Kingdom in many ways aped and imitated the religion of Judah, but it was not the same because God had only ordained one place at which men could bring acceptable sacrifices, and it was in Jerusalem.

By the way, we should not imagine that Jeroboam—when he set up calf worship—said, “Folks, I want you to worship a different god.” That is not what the Hebrew tells us. What he said was, “Here, folks, here is Elohim. Here is your God.” In other words, he employed the same religious terms—the same God words—but he filled it with an entirely different meaning. You need to see that. He didn’t use a different word for God, but he did completely change the definition, or content of the word. So, if you worshipped Elohim up there in the Northern Kingdom, you were worshipping with a different concept of God than you would if you went down to the Southern Kingdom and worshipped the true God under that name of Jehovah the covenant keeping one.

As a consequence of this, God declared His judgment and it came about in this manner (read 1 Kings 14:1-17a). In the sixteenth verse we find one of the momentous statements of the bible on the subject of corporate responsibility: “And He will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, who sinned and made Israel to sin.” Look again at 1 Kings 15:30, which gives the reason why this marked the beginning of the end for the house of Jeroboam. What it says is this: everyone who continued to adhere to Jeroboam was unavoidably involved in the guilt, sin, and punishment of Jeroboam. Now that is what we have in mind when we talk of corporate responsibility. Everyone who remains in a church after it became apostate shares in its guilt and judgment.

Please turn now to 2 Chron. 13. Here we read that the King of Judah, Abijah, came up and that there was war between Abijah and Jeroboam. The king of Israel—and the people who still followed him—vainly imagined that they could defeat God’s people. Abijah, on the other hand, was conscious of the difference between a true and a false kingdom. He knew the difference between those who really are God’s people and those who are not God’s people. And he was vindicated that day in a most remarkable way when, in spite of this clever entrapment scheme of Jeroboam, the Lord delivered His people. So the calamities that came over the Northern Kingdom did indeed involve all of those who adhered to Jeroboam. And if you know your bible, and the rest of the Old Testament story, you will know that the Northern Kingdom was carried into captivity at a much earlier time than the Southern Kingdom. It was carried away into Assyria, never to return again. But the Southern Kingdom of Judah, though it was carried into Babylonian captivity, yet had a remnant which was spared according to God’s unbreakable covenant promise.

The principle is this: the bible says Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, sinned and made the people of Israel sin. And the only way any Israelite could escape involvement was to do what certain Levites and other godly people of the Northern Kingdom did! When they realized what had happened they left the Northern Kingdom and went down and became part of the Southern Kingdom, Judah. And—in principle—the very same thing happened again in the first century when the Jewish church rejected Jesus as the Messiah. There is no need to go into great detail. But, in the first century, you had the people who claimed to be the people of the Messiah. If you went anywhere in the Roman Empire and asked, “Do you know anything about a people who believe in a Messiah?” they would have said, “Oh, sure, there’s a synagogue of the Jews up the street and they are always talking about a Messiah who’s supposed to come.” So there were two religious organizations at that time, both claiming to be people of the Messiah. But only one of them really was the people of the true Messiah. The other one had rejected Him.

In Matthew 23 we read of the judgment of God on the people of Israel in the first century. It was even more severe than the one that came in the time of Jeroboam (note, especially, Mt. 23:37-38). So, in the first century, because the Jews redefined the meaning of the word “Messiah” so as to eliminate a humiliated, suffering, dying Christ, in favor of one who would only be victorious, powerful, and king-like, they became an apostate people. The words of the apostles about them are really quite strong. In Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 we see that Jesus himself called them Synagogues of Satan. Now just imagine that! Some of the members of the early Christian churches were related to people in those Synagogues. But Jesus says, “Those people are not members of a Synagogue of God, but of a synagogue of Satan.” So you can see, again, it was no use to imagine that all was well with these people who stayed in the old church of the Scribes and Pharisees, instead of joining the Christians. It was no use pretending that they would still be acknowledged as God’s people.

Can you imagine the people of the churches at Smyrna or Philadelphia gathering together for ecumenical bible study or worship with members of the synagogue of Satan? “But,” you might say, “couldn’t there have been some real believers there in the old Jewish organization?” Yes, of course. But they were in mortal danger. That is why God said “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). And, if you look at John 12:42, 43, you can see the proof that there were such people. In their heart of hearts they knew they were in the wrong assembly, but they had too much to lose in terms of this world so they decided to stay there. But you can’t do that without consequences, because God says in His Word, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” And He also says we had better leave or share in the plagues that are coming. One of the difficult things the Reformers had to deal with was precisely this problem: members of Reformed churches, at the time of the Reformation, would still foolishly gather for fellowship and worship with Roman Catholics. Well, it wasn’t right, and Calvin wrote a very powerful tract against it. So did John Knox in Scotland.

The situation for us was much the same because the thing that led to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was a terrible denial of the truth about Jesus. Did you ever hear of the Auburn Affirmation? It was signed in 1924 by almost 1,400 ministers of the Presbyterian Church. Do you know what the doctrines were that were called into question in that document? Well, here they are: (1) the inerrancy of the bible, (2) the virgin birth of Christ, (3) his substitutionary atonement, (4) his miracles and (5) his physical, bodily resurrection. The modernists said, in effect, “You don’t have to believe these things to be a Christian.” And the people who led in the formation of the OPC said, “Oh yes you do. You don’t have the real Christ unless you have the One who was born of the virgin Mary, worked mighty miracles, died to pay the terrible price of sin for his people, and rose on the third day in the selfsame body in which he was crucified.” Dr. Machen rightly said that the Modernists redefined Christian words and that this had resulted in a different religion. The result was that the Presbyterian Church, at that time, was experiencing a clash between two religions that could not coexist in peace. So our church came into existence.

It would be nice to be able to say the Presbyterian Church in the USA has improved in the fifty years since the OPC came out of it, but it has not. As a matter of fact it has become even worse. It has reached the place where a young man, who wants to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, will not be ordained if he is not willing to ordain women to the ministry (even if he is convinced that the Bible forbids it). Yet a man who denies the deity of Christ can obtain ordination. That is the kind of thing that separates us, and what I am troubled about is the fact that some of our people do not see that people who are involved in this apostasy are not “good Christians” according to the bible. It is wrong to call them “good Christians” for the same reason that it was wrong to call those people who stayed in the Northern Kingdom “good Israelites.” You wouldn’t call those Jews who stayed under the Scribes and Pharisees—instead of joining the Apostolic Church—good Israelites, would you? We do not deny that such could be people who have conviction in their heart of hearts about Jesus. But the Bible says we have to act in a manner consistent with what we believe to have the biblical right to be acknowledged as Christians. It follows, therefore, that we should not recognize those who remain yoked with unbelievers as “good Christians.” Should we witness to them? Yes. Call them out? Yes. Say to them, “Don’t go on supporting unbelief. Don’t go on paying for it. Come out from among them?” By all means. But recognize them as they are in their complacency as good Christians? No. That just is not biblical.

We should be glad, at any time, to meet with other people in the community in a forum in which these issues are brought up, so that they can be challenged, and so that we can talk about the unbelief in which they are involved. But to act as if all is well dishonors our God, and it doesn’t help these people. How would you like it if you were paying money to support enemies of the Gospel, putting yourself under God’s judgment, and nobody warned you? Yet that is exactly what people are doing. People who live right up the street from us are putting money in the plate that goes to false churches and dangerous ecumenical organizations. Perhaps in ignorance, but nevertheless in fact, they have financed enemies of the Gospel. And the fact that members of Liberal churches don’t know, and don’t want to know, doesn’t get them off the hook. And we are not at liberty to pretend that all is well just because we live in a nice peaceful neighborhood and want to get along. No, the issue is too big, too serious.

Think about it. Jeroboam the son of Nebat not only sinned himself, but also made Israel sin. No one who remained under his authority could escape involvement in that sin. So, in this account, we see the reality of “corporate responsibility.” May the Lord use this to inform our consciences so that we might learn to act with greater consistency with this important biblical doctrine.

G. I. Williamson is editor of Ordained Servant.