Corporate confession is what happens when a specific community comes together to confess before God a collective sin. A well-known example of corporate confession is found in Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of a national day of prayer and fasting: “We have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness” (signed March 30, 1863). Throughout the proclamation, President Lincoln uses plural pronouns such as we and our and mentions “national sins.” Americans who joined in that “day for national prayer and humiliation” were involved in corporate confession of sin.
Corporate confession of sin is public, but it is distinct from other types of public confession of sin. For example, personal confession of sin might involve an individual coming before the community and before God to confess a personal or secret sin. In corporate confession, an individual leads the community in publicly confessing sins common to that community. Corporate confession is not commanded in the Bible, but it is modeled as an appropriate means of communal repentance and humility before God.
God affirms corporate confession of sin as a model for the Jews in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” God spoke these words to Solomon in the context of the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem. God was not setting a liturgical format; rather, He was emphasizing the principle of mercy over a community who lives in humility before Him.
The clearest example of corporate confession in the Bible is found in Ezra 9 — 10. Ezra has just learned of the enormous sins of Israel that had defiled the community as a whole. In particular, Israelite men had taken to marrying pagan women from the nations around them, and such marriages were expressly forbidden by God (Deuteronomy 7:3). Ezra comes to God weeping and confessing the sin of the people: “Our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. . . . We have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets” (Ezra 9:6, 10–11). While he is praying at the temple, a large group of people join him in crying and confessing their sin. It is important to note that biblical confession is always accompanied by genuine remorse and repentance. Simply naming sin is not complete confession. In this situation in the book of Ezra, the people follow up their weeping and confession of sin by devising and executing a plan to send away the foreign, forbidden wives.
Another notable example of corporate confession is found in the book of Jonah: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish’” (Jonah 3:5–9). Again, in the case of Nineveh, a specific community was made aware of their guilt before God and humbled themselves in public, communal confession and repentance. While confession is not specifically mentioned in the passage, it is implied by the call to repent and “turn” from the evil and violence that was so prevalent in their culture. Even in a blatantly pagan community, when the people acknowledge God, agree with Him that their sin is evil, and actively abandon their patterns of sin, God has mercy.