Christians: It’s OK to Apologize (to Non-Christians)

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Jesus never said “I’m sorry.” Sure, when he was being crucified, he cried out: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (NIV).” But technically he was apologizing on behalf of others and not for a sin he actually committed.

Apologizing is one of the only Christian virtues Jesus didn’t do himself.

Maybe this is why Christians rarely hear sermons or teachings about apologizing to non-Christians. Mainstream Christian culture teaches the opposite: believers are always right. The inner-circle perception is that Christians don’t make mistakes — only non-Christians do.

As children we’re taught to apologize for lying, stealing, hitting our little brother, budging in line, cheating on a test, and swearing (among other things). Most people with common decency apologize to each other for these trivial wrongdoings, but when it comes to spiritual things — especially on a widespread and corporate level — Christians rarely apologize to people beyond their faith.

When Christians do apologize, it’s often reserved for fellow believers and viewed as an act of righteousness, or it’s a forced act of public accountability, but even then it’s infrequent. We’ve all witnessed theologians, pastors, and parishioners verbally attack one another — but a heartfelt apology is rare.

Despite vast Biblical support requiring followers of Christ to apologize, historically, Christians have been guilty of using “forgiveness” as a pseudo-weapon to point out the sins of others. Forgive the gays, the abortionists, the liberals, the Communists, and the Muslims! Spiritual leaders have manipulated “Christian forgiveness” into a subtle way of pointing out the faults of those we disagree with. They’re sinners. They’reguilty. They’re ignorant. They’re wrong. “Apologizing” can quickly devolve into Apologetics — becoming a form of self-righteous elitism.

We burn books, boycott, create petitions, post hateful social media comments, hold up protest signs, shame individuals, attack, ridicule, engage in endless culture wars — then we expect them to apologize to us. For decades Christians have been guilty of this because they’ve been in a position of mainstream acceptance and power and faced little resistance.

Christians mistakenly believe that apologizing discredits everything they’ve ever said. As if saying “we’re sorry” will somehow negate the fact that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. In reality, apologizing promotes honesty, transparency, authenticity, and humility — things all Christians should exhibit throughout their lives. When Christians apologize, it adds integrity and legitimacy to their words and actions.

Recently, Alan Chambers from Exodus International, a controversial interdenominational organization that “ministered” to homosexuals, apologized for the harm his ministry had caused to various people. The reaction was amazing, and most of the response was overwhelmingly positive. Ironically, Chambers probably gained more respect from the LGBT community by apologizing than he did from all of his previous years working at Exodus.

The apology raised headlines because it’s rare for Christian groups to apologize (especially publicly). Unfortunately, Chambers’ apology is the exception to the rule within Christianity, and corporate apologies (orany type of apology) continue to be uncommon — but they shouldn’t be.

The Marin Foundation, another group working with the gay community, started an entire movement titled ‘The I’m Sorry Campaign’ in an effort to apologize on behalf of Christians for the enormous pain and suffering caused because of homophobic bigotry. There was (and continues to be) tremendous and affirming feedback to their work.

As Christians, we need to continue this trend. When our pastors, leaders, churches, and organizations sin against our neighbors and communities, we must apologize instead of rationalize. There are no excuses.

Millions watch as Christians spew hateful things in the name of Christ, and fellow believers are often painfully silent. We’ve been silent for too long. There is no shame in admitting our sins and owning up to them. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is constantly correcting his disciples and holding them accountable — we need to do the same.

Apologizing is a sacred act. Christians need to stop seeing themselves as being more morally and spiritually superior than those around them and start embracing the idea of being humble servants who fiercely love everyone. Apologizing is intrinsic to loving. Imagine how the world would be different if Christians throughout history had been brave enough to say these two simple words: “I’m sorry.”

 

This piece was published on Sojo.net on 7-24-13

25 thoughts on “Christians: It’s OK to Apologize (to Non-Christians)

  1. Schroonse

    It’s something that I hold very high. To not fall into saying that they’re wrong and create a division where Christ died for unity. It’s not us against them, but it’s ALL of us against the enemy.

  2. I have some question about the use of the term apology in the context of addressing past/current failures of us Christians. In my years of counseling, it was clear to me that apology is useless and a meaningless use of words if it isn’t accompanied by a change of behavior. To apologize without manifesting a change of behavior is surface and makes the person saying it feel better and maybe another but doesn’t change the reality of the wrong behaviors. Often apologies are accompanied by the words I am sorry…which again if not accompanied by a change of behavior, are just hollow words. When groups of Christians ask forgiveness for sins that they identify with that they and others representing us in the past have done, that then indicates a recognition of some wrong behavior involving an offense and is truly an aspect of love. Just another perspective perhaps on this issue….

  3. I really like this. Man, I really love the way you criticize the parts of the church and the different things we Christians do that are detrimental to what God meant for is to achieve through our faith in Christ. We as a conservative party are so caught up in politics that we fail to see the reality of our choices. They are ways to obey God’s Word while still showing the love of Jesus to the world. By the way, I believe that homosexuality is a sin but I think there is a Christ-like way we can lead people out of sin without condemning them and telling them their lifestyle is wrong.

    • Brennen, quick reply on your comment: What about homosexuality is a sin? Is it being a homosexual? The definition of lifestyle is the the habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards, economic level, of an individual or group. Which of these specifically might you find wrong? I think we have to be careful here. Many homosexuals are Christians. Are they celibate? Just sayin’.

      • Mam, if you would like to discuss this I would be glad to explain to you my beliefs but this is not the place to debate. If you want I can set up a Contact page on my blog and we talk there. And I’m sorry if my convictions offend but I cannot ignore the Holy Spirit and please forgive me if I’m upset you. :)

  4. Very good points raised here. Many believers pride themselves on being “unapologetic” with their faith, but fail to allow room for their being incorrect in their actions/motives or even misguided. This should be brought up in more conversations.

  5. “Christians need to stop seeing themselves as being more morally and spiritually superior than those around them and start embracing the idea of being humble servants who fiercely love everyone.”

    AMEN!
    A true Christian is a humble servant of God.

    “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” –1 Peter 4:11 (NIV)

    • Stephen Mattson

      Yeah, humility is key. Something I need to constantly remind myself of. Christians often do themselves a disservice when they fail to be humble.

  6. I like this. It is an area where Christians need to be very careful. If ever we are ever unsure how to respond to something, we have to remember that Christ specifically instructed us to love The Lord our God and to love one another, above all else. There’s a big difference in accountability and condemnation.

  7. Ellen

    Reblogged this on When Church Hurts and commented:
    I found this post very applicable to my story. Here are the two “apologies” that I received from the senior pastor over the years:
    “You were the victim of poor leadership” (no indication of what he was referring to) and an “I’m sorry” when I emailed him about his wife shaming me in front of several people. When I emailed back and asked him what he was “sorry” for, he did not respond.
    Finally, we were dismissed from our church when my husband specifically said that they needed to apologize to me. Rather than apologize, we were told to leave. I have never heard a sermon in that church about going to someone and apologizing. Lots of sermons on forgiveness and grace but I don’t recall anything on saying, “I’m sorry.”
    I do recall one staff person commenting that they were “trained” to never apologize for their decisions. Perhaps that explains it . . .

  8. Warren

    I cringe whenever I hear the words: “Love the sinner, but hate the sin”.

    “Love the sinner”. That’s what Jesus did. Quite simply, God is Love. And I am a sinner. You are a sinner. We all are. And I think the sooner we all get used to saying it, and the more we say it, the better off we all will be as Christians, as human beings, as a society, and as a nation. There is no “but…”. It’s simple, clear-cut, and needs no explanation, no footnote, no annotation. It’s perfect, even as God himself is perfect and holy.

    “but hate the sin”. This is mankind’s flawed rationale of what it means to love the sinner. I can’t stop and go at the same time. I can’t live and die in the same instant. One leg won’t walk while the other is running. If I’m sinking, I’m not swimming. When an army charges, it’s not retreating. I don’t fall backwards while stepping forward. We’re not loving, if we are too busy hating.

    Let’s just love the sinner … and forget about hating.

  9. Great post Stephen! I have seen more accomplished when a Christian admits his or her failures than any amount of moralistic rebuke of the world. I call it practicing “empathetic evangelism” in one of my video blogs. We have to remember that all of God’s words were either written to God’s chosen Israelites or God’s church. It is us that is supposed to live the way God commanded. When we turn the sites on our own failures, the world takes notice. It’s a taste and see gospel, not a read and rebuke message. Live inspired!

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