In a video on YouTube entitled "Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective," Tim Keller uses several passages of scripture in an attempt to argue for an idea he calls “corporate evil” or “corporate sin." In support of this idea, he uses language borrowed from critical theory, which primarily draws ideas from Karl Marx.
At the root of critical theory is a belief that sin is “corporate,” or shared among everyone. By using the flawed premises of critical theory to argue for his understanding of corporate evil, Keller directly perverts the Gospel message. After about seven minutes, he goes so far as to say the following:"...just by virtue of being in the entire human race you are responsible for things you didn’t individually do. You are condemned for what they did." About two minutes later, he adds: “We, of course, do sin ourselves, but we’re also sinful and condemned for being part of the human race...”
The sinister result of this idea is the very perversion of the core of the Gospel message, and Keller says as much in his own words when he claims, “The whole structure of the Gospel is based on corporate responsibility. If you really want to go down all the way and say I am only responsible for what I have done and only I have done, there is no Gospel.”
If this statement is true, then our neighbors need Jesus only because they are guilty of sins they have not committed. Using Keller's argument, we can somehow replace our guilt from our own sins with guilt and shame over someone else’s sin. That is simply not the Gospel message. Passages in Ezekiel and Deuteronomy make it very clear to us that we are only guilty of our own sins.
The prophet Ezekiel explains that, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." Similarly, Deuteronomy 24:16 plainly states that, "Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
Keller Misapplies the Doctrine of Federal Headship
The central doctrine that Keller relies on to support his ideology is what’s known as “federal headship." Paul, in Romans 5, explains the role of Adam as humanity’s representative in the garden with Eve, a role that Bible scholars have termed a “federal head,” as humanity’s federal head or representative. In choosing to eat the forbidden fruit and disobey God, Adam made humanity become guilty of sin. It is through our connection to Adam as our federal head that Keller claims we are corporately guilty for Adam’s sin of eating the fruit.
While it is true that because of our connection to Adam through our genetic human ancestry, we are condemnable for our own inherited proclivity to sin, Keller, however, takes the concept of federal headship too far when he states that we are also corporately guilty for our ancestors' sins.
Keller makes no delineation between God’s people and those of the world, but rather explicitly discusses “corporate evil” on the basis of genetic, ethnic ancestry, and perhaps even cultural association. His delineations become increasingly unclear, as is typically the case when casting blame on broad groups of people for political ends. Of course, Keller only uses this theology to state his belief that the European race should feel guilt and responsibility for their ancestors' sins against the African race, as is popularly demanded in the modern West. But presumably, his ideology should extend to any race and culture that has committed an atrocity against another, such as the slavery of Jews by the ancient Egyptians, or the slavery of Mongolians by the Chinese. But, unsurprisingly, Keller limits his condemnation based on federal headship exclusively to white people.
Taking Keller’s assertion at face value and applying some simple apologetics, we can quickly detect an error in his understanding of federal headship. The centerpiece of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ, though God, was born as a man through the lineage of Mary, whose ancestry traces all the way back to Adam. Jesus came as a new federal head so that “by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” He was nevertheless born a human, from a human mother, and was tempted as we are, yet was without sin. This can be seen in Romans 5:19 and Hebrews 4:14-15.
If Keller’s doctrine of “corporate evil” is correct, and simply “by virtue of being in the entire human race” we are “responsible” and “condemned” for things we “didn’t individually do,” then it follows that Jesus, too, would be condemnable for all of the great many sins of His ancestors through the lineage of Mary, including the multitude of sins committed by God’s people in the Old Testament.
Just as the modern West suggests, if “corporate evil” is a Biblical doctrine, then Jesus ought to be made to feel guilty and literally be condemnable for His own birth and lineage to an idolatrous, adulterous, murderous ancestry of human individuals. However, we know that Jesus wasn't guilty for his ancestors' sins because the Bible makes it clear that he was sinless.
Correctly Understanding Federal Headship
Aside from this apologetic approach, one need only examine Romans 5 for clarity and assurance of the correct understanding of Adam as our federal head. Romans 5:12, for example, says “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin.”
Having already been informed in Deuteronomy that, “Each one shall be put to death for his own sin,” the truth of federal headship becomes abundantly clear. The curse of sin came into the world through Adam’s sin—verse 12—each individual human is under the curse, which leads us all to commit our own sin against God—verse 19. This results in our personal condemnation under the law—verse 18—a punishment of temporal death at minimum—verse 12; Deuteronomy 24:16—and eternal death for those who do not believe in Christ as their Lord and Savior.
That is to say, we are not “corporately” guilty and condemned for Adam’s specific sin of disobedience, but we are “made sinners” through the curse of sin that entered the world through Adam’s sin as our federal head, thereby resulting in us being born “dead in our trespasses and sins,” as Paul clarifies in Ephesians 2:1. As Paul explains in Romans 7, it is a consequence of Adam's sin that "the law of sin... dwells in my members," or body, predisposing each of us individually to sin.
In no way does the doctrine of federal headship support an idea like “corporate evil,” which simply seeks to push the guilt and shame narratives that are integral to critical theory and its examination of society through power structures and cultural assumptions. In the pure, authentic Gospel message, federal headship teaches us that each person will commit personal sins against God, thereby warranting death, and requiring personal repentance and saving faith in Jesus for salvation.
A Covenantal Duty, Not Corporate Guilt Explain Joshua 7 and Daniel 9
In defense of his thesis, Keller also uses passages in Joshua 7 and Daniel 9 for support. In both passages, we see God’s people enduring and seeking mercy from consequences brought on by the sins of individuals amongst God’s people. When examined under the light of a pure Gospel message, and when tested against aforementioned scriptures, what may at first appear to be evidence of the idea of “corporate evil” turns out to be the result of covenant theology and what’s known as “covenantal duty.”
Covenantal duties are primarily cited from Deuteronomy 28, as well as the second greatest commandment and what’s known as "positive law." These can be summarized as laws placed on God’s covenant people which obligate them to Him and their neighbors. In positive law, there is a strong emphasis on God’s covenant people, Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament, but there is not an association with ethnic or cultural group identities. If one of God’s people fails in their covenantal duty to Him or their neighbor, they have in fact committed a personal sin regardless of their ethnic or social status.
As James 4:17 instructs us, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” As quoted from Calvin in the positive law citation, the sixth commandment is not just a negative command to not murder: it carries with it a positive command to defend our neighbor from murder as well. If we stand by and watch an unjust attack come upon our neighbor and don’t attempt to help, we have sinned against God for failing in our duty. It is sin from failing to do our duties, and therefore disobedience to God, which may result in a temporal consequence and chastisement of God’s covenant people as a whole, as described by the curses listed in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. Thus, it is a covenantal duty that properly explains the occurrences in Joshua 7 and Daniel 9, not Keller’s construction of “corporate evil.”
The Doctrine of Corporate Evil Is a Heresy
Ultimately, the doctrine of “corporate evil” is a false doctrine, and the “corporate” Gospel is a false Gospel; it is heresy. As it is commonly defined, "heresy" is a “self-chosen opinion” that has been made into a doctrine that is not of God, and a doctrine is considered heresy if “it explicitly undermines the gospel.”
From ideas of “social” justice to material equity, morality, and the like, “self-chosen opinions” pervade post-modern society and much of the Church. At the heart of a “corporate Gospel” and “corporate evil” is a self-chosen opinion that has required Keller to alter the Gospel message in such a way that supports his socially convenient chosen opinion. Especially in the 21st century, popular opinions around the meaning of justice, liberty, and the role of the authorities burn hot in the hearts of many. Though there are many possible explanations for how these self-chosen opinion can take hold of a sinful heart, directing it through a kind of passion instead of truth is a well-worn path. Unfortunately, the inevitable outcome is always the corruption of truth and a deviation from God-glorifying worship.
Daniel Boggan wrote in his timely article, Renouncing the Faith One Compromise at a Time, that "If Christians do not start fighting back and properly apply scripture against opinions that pervert Biblical principles like justice (Leviticus 19:15) and liberty (James 1:25), we’ll end up renouncing our faith in a 'death by a thousand cuts' until it can be no longer distinguished from the world, and becomes no faith at all."
This is already the work we see at play in the views taught by Keller, which seek to welcome and make room in the Gospel message for the ideals of critical theory and applying guilt by group identity. It’s the work of a self-chosen opinion regarding the meaning of justice, equity, and human identity that necessitates the doctrine of “corporate evil” and a “corporate” gospel in order to exist under the guise of “Gospel-centered” teaching.
Just as Boggan states: “...so it is that bit by bit, choice by choice, that the faith becomes meaningless..."; a “corporate” Gospel is the result of choosing societal opinions over truth and a concerning corruption to the Christian faith's pure message of personal salvation.
Richard Ortman is a computer engineer by trade, a dedicated consumer of the Word when he’s not working, and an aspiring entrepreneur. In his free time, Richard likes to race rally cars, make educational content, and master music for musicians.