A Theology of Apology

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Life in community is hard, and life in large community is even harder. When we have angered someone we didn’t want to anger, or hurt someone we ought not to have hurt, we should be eager to put it right, and we should act like we are eager to put it right (Prov. 15:1). When we offend someone we were intending to offend, and we had good biblical reasons for intending that, we should do our level best to be what I call Tom Petty Presbyterians — don’t back down. Don’t climb down either. Above all, don’t crawl.

This is complicated even further when one action (say a book or article) draws both responses — one from the target group and another from what might be called the collateral damage group. You have to respond fittingly to both groups. And if 95% of the damage was with the surrounding civilian population, that is what should be called “missing,” and fulsome apologies are in order. But even there, apologies are not extended to the group that was originally and lawfully targeted.

Anyone who has not noticed that “demands for apologies” have become one of the central political tactics of our day has simply not been paying attention. Like many effective tactics, it depends on an impulse that was originally good and right. It is the old Pottery Barn rule — you break it, it’s yours. Everybody knows that. But in our hyper age, we have gotten to the point where old high school pranks can be hauled out in presidential campaigns. This is simply pathological.

So a Christian must always distinguish those who want you to apologize so that relationship can be restored, and those who do it to steer and manipulate you. There is a vast chasm between the two. What I mean is that the principle involved here is not subtle, even though the practical side of it can be challenging.

This can even be challenging with just two people (depending on which two it is), but when you are dealing with hundreds of people, or thousands, the level of difficulty rises exponentially. But, as I just mentioned, this is a practical difficulty, not a theoretical one. Life is simple. You want to apologize to those you owe one to, and you want to refuse to apologize to those you don’t own one to. But life is also complicated. Who belongs to each group?

This is why James tells us that not many should want to become teachers (Jas. 3:1) because teachers work with words, and where words are many, sin is not absent (Prov. 10:19). The tongue is compared to a small fire in a bone dry forest (Jas. 3:5-6), and teachers are those who work in the woods all the time. There are trees all around, in every direction.

Here are some scriptural examples of the kind of thing I am talking about. The apostle Paul wrote some white hot rebukes to the saints at Galatia, but he also wanted to be present with them so that he would be able to change his tone with them (Gal. 4:20). He knew that his communication needed to be calibrated in real time, and he knew this even when his written words were the inspired word of God. How much more is face-to-face communication necessary in contextualizing uninspired words? This is why we have sought, multiple times, to arrange for face-to-face meetings with our brothers, and have thus far been refused. We think it is necessary, but this is not something we can do by ourselves. Such refusal to meet, incidentally, is part of what we take into account when trying to evaluate the sincerity of the grievance.

Then there was the time when the apostle Paul issued a qualified apology, that is, one that was not straightforward and simple. He was on trial before the Sanhedrin, and when he defended himself by saying his conscience was clean, the high priest ordered him to be struck on the mouth (Acts 23:2). Paul’s eyesight was apparently not very good, and he didn’t know who had given that order. He said “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall . . .” (Acts 23:3). When he was informed that it was the high priest he was talking to, he corrected himself, in effect explaining that his mistake was made in ignorance, while at the same time applying the Scriptures to himself under his new understanding. He apologized, but it was most certainly qualified. That qualification was not “spin.” Had the order come from the kind of person Paul had originally thought it had, he would have apologized for nothing.

Keep in mind this was the same body that had murdered Jesus. You offer apologies in accordance with what Scripture requires of you, and this may or may not be in accordance with the desires of those who receive the apology. Also keep in mind that Ananias was a whited wall. Paul apologized for saying it, not for thinking it. He apologized because the context turned out to be different than what he had assumed.

Then there is another angle. There was the time when Jesus insulted the scribes and Pharisees, and some lawyers took up the offense, and said that His words insulted them also (Luke 11:45). The Lord’s response to that was to thank them for the reminder, and to say “Woe unto you, ye lawyers . . .” (Luke 11:46). He was asked for an apology to a “collateral damage” group, and what He did was simply expand the target zone.

In a little known episode from the Old Testament, one time John Knox wrote a small missive aimed at a tyrannical woman, Bloody Mary. That pamphlet was entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Unfortunately, after the rock left Knox’s hand, Mary died and was replaced by Elizabeth, a Protestant. She was a Protestant, unlike Mary, but she was also a woman, like Mary, and when the rock bounced off her forehead, she was displeased, which is something Elizabeth knew how to be. Knox labored to explain and beg pardon, but it was a tough audience. There are times when “that’s not what I meant” is a difficult sell. Oh, well. Church history staggered on regardless.

Now bring this back to our discussions about racial insensitivity. If you look at my previous post, near the end of which I seek forgiveness from Thabiti, I invite you to take a look at some of the sneers in the comments. That illustrates the difference between those who demand apologies as a weapon, and those who want to see genuine reconcilation.

For those just joining us, this claque of accusers, that’s not-good-enoughers, and the deeply grieved has been following me around for well over a decade. Sometimes it involves race, and a lot of times it doesn’t. It always involves throwing jagged objects at my head, which helps us maintain at least some kind of continuity. When it involves race, I make a point of factoring in the very real problem of racial sensitivity scam artists. They are out there, and there are a lot of them. One of the central reasons there are a lot of them is because the sins of white people against blacks were the kinds of inexcusable sins that spanned centuries, and hence created a vast quarry in which the scam artists may labor happily for many years to come.

Because conflict is the kind of thing it is, there have been times over the years when I have owed an apology in the midst of conflict, and there are times when I have owed an apology to those whose sole interest is to take me out. I have, under such circumstances, offered the apology regardless of whether or not I believed it would be either ignored or used against me. God is the one who sees everything, and He knows the heart. He is the one who requires it. But in such settings, it must be offered in submission to God, and never in surrender to the enemies of grace. Paul apologized to the Sanhedrin because Ex. 22 required it, and not because Ananias was wiping his eyes.

There are other times when I have seen that my words and actions (appropriate in one setting) affected someone negatively (in another setting), and I have no desire to be on the outs with that person at all. My apology to Thabiti is in that category. This is because, on the race issue, he is the first person in a long string of years to make a visible and conscientious effort to repeat my arguments in a way that I could still recognize. I honor him highly for it, but I will also mention that a number of the folks applauding his side of these exchanges are not able to imitate what they applaud.

This is a tender spot in the body of Christ, and I may need to return to it.

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