It’s been a busy season for public apology and repentance. Just within my denominational orbit: Overture 43–repenting of corporate and historical sins regarding race and civil rights–passed by a wide margin, while at the same time several individuals voiced their post-Orlando apologies for the ways Christians contributed to the persecution of those in the LGBT community. Less recently, Donald Miller, of Blue Like Jazz fame, once popularized the use of confessional booths on college campuses where Christians would set up shop and say they were sorry for the Crusades or slavery or the Salem Witch Trials.
How then should Christians think about corporate apology and repentance?
My short answer: as a careful, genuinely corporate exercise there can be great value in approving statements of shared repentance, but as a genre of complaint and rebuke, public apologies are normally misguided and misleading.
And what does that look like in real life? Here are several questions to ask as you reflect on a statement of corporate repentance or ponder making a corporate apology yourself.
1. Has the corporate apology been made corporately?
When the PCA said “we,” there was actually more than one person expressing repentance. The statement was crafted, debated, refined, and voted on by several, then dozens, then hundreds of people. Overture 43 could rightly claim to be a corporate (better yet, covenantal) act of contrition.
The same cannot be said for individuals who take it upon themselves to apologize for the entire church or for other conservatives or for evangelicals everywhere. The intentions may be entirely sincere, but why say “we” when you hold no position that would require you to speak on behalf of others and you have not been empowered to do so? An apology that begins “I’m sorry that we…” should really say “I’m sorry that I…” or say nothing at all.
2. Is there an obvious institutional or covenantal sense of responsibility?
The more direct and more specific the connection, the more appropriate the apology. Expressing sorrow for something my family did makes sense, likewise if my local church had done something wrong. I have a leadership role in both of those institutions and have some right to speak on their behalf. Similarly, a school or denomination may, like Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:19-21) or Daniel (Daniel 9:3-19), want to repent for actions and attitudes done under its aegis or by its leaders in years gone by. In these instances there is a line of obvious institutional continuity.
That line is far more ambiguous (or nonexistent) when we say we are sorry for the 12th century Crusades or for a general sense of not loving people enough. I suppose someone could argue that as Christians we bear responsibility for everything done by or within the body of Christ, but I don’t think any individual Christian functionally operates with that understanding. We don’t celebrate everything done in the worldwide church as our achievements. The history of the Church is simply too big, too long, and too wide to think any one of us will have to give account for all of it, everywhere, at all times.
3. Am I confessing my sins or other people’s sins?
In 1940, C.S. Lewis penned a striking article for The Guardian entitled “Dangers of National Repentance.” His basic point: we should be exceedingly careful when apologizing for something we disdain in someone else. Some solidarity with your nation or your tribe (to use a word Lewis didn’t) can be a good thing, but it can also easily turn into the sin of pride where we “confess” all the silly things our benighted forefathers weren’t smart enough to avoid and all the contemporary crimes our fellow citizens and colleagues are not enlightened enough to denounce.
The Apostle didn’t apologize to the Greco-Roman world for the sins of the churches he planted and nurtured; he openly tried to correct their faults (see 1 Corinthians), without denying his own previous, personal transgressions (1 Cor. 15:9). If a rebuke is meant, let a rebuke be given, but not under the guise of saying you’re sorry. As Lewis warned: “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others” (in God in the Dock, 190).
More recently, physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple has labeled this phenomenon the “False Apology Syndrome.” The syndrome is dangerous because it allows us to feel good without having to be good. We get all of the moral high ground that comes with confession and none of the personal pain.
The habit of public apology for things for which one bears no personal responsibility changes the whole concept of a virtuous person, from one who exercises the discipline of virtue to one who expresses correct sentiment. The most virtuous person of all is he who expresses it loudest and to most people. The end result is likely to be self-satisfaction and ruthlessness accompanied by unctuous moralizing, rather than a determination to behave well.
We get to feel grandiose for “our” guilt without the burden of having to change or the shame of having people see our actual faults. What could be more satisfying than saying we are sorry for other people’s sins?
4. Why was this repentance made public?
Confession of sin is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. As a pastor, I don’t want to quench the work of the Spirit where He is poking and prodding a brother or sister to turn from sin and run to Christ. And yet, I admit I’m skeptical when sin is confessed loudly and publicly to no one in particular. If a fellow Christian feels he has wronged the LGBT community, I trust he has expressed that privately to his LGBT friends before making it public to the rest of us?
Again, I do not wish to question the motives of those making public apologies, but I do question the wisdom in doing so. It’s a fine line between commendable humility and exaggerated (and, in time, dangerous) self-flagellation. Sometimes I read public apologies and think, if you were really presently guilty of all these things I’m not sure why you are still in the ministry. We should repent of sin and make amends with those we have wronged. But that repentance, if it is our genuine repentance, must be based on the facts of real transgressions, and our making amends, if we are really trying to seek reconciliation with those we’ve wronged, should be personal before it is public.
5. Is the contrition costly?
Corporate repentance can be appropriate, even noble at times, but that depends on what such a confession costs us. Again, we should listen to Lewis:
When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies, he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an education man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasm of his less-education fellow countrymen. (190)
Many in the church face the same danger as these young Englishmen. In confessing the sins of the church—with easily cheered apologies for homophobia or for contributing to a “culture” of hate—the danger is we have everything to gain with these remonstrations and nothing to mortify. “The communal sins which they should be told to repent,”Lewis advised 75 years ago, “are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have heard nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candour towards the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue” (191).
Saying “sorry” for the church’s sins, if it must be done, should only be done with great heartache and a genuine sense of shame for our part in them. The office of communal repentance, says Lewis, “can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance.” A son rebuking his mother may be necessary and even edifying, “but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her—that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling below it in the unnatural—the spectacle becomes merely disgusting. The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard” (191).
In other words, it’s a pretty good test of the appropriateness of our repentance to consider whether our confession is costly to us, or rather, aims to be costly to someone else.