By Ryan Sanders
A genuine apology can be a powerful apologetic. But that’s not something you’ll find in many apologetics courses. There’s nothing about asking for forgiveness in Mere Christianity or The Case For Christ.
Most works in the apologetics genre frame the conversation in legal terms. There are two sides, competing ideas, and the people representing those ideas must confront one another. The goal is to win the argument, so an apology can feel like going in the wrong direction.
Lately, however, our social media feeds were filled with a constant parade of Christian leaders making apologies.
This week, leaders and institutions issued apologies for racial insensitivities. In recent weeks, several pastors have apologized for putting people at risk by hosting in-person worship services too soon during the coronavirus pandemic. And these are just a few of seemingly increasing occurrences.
Are leaders right to take these steps? What do these apologies say to a watching world?
Could it be time to consider the apologetic power of an apology? Could it be that apologizing holds as much power for God’s work as arguing does? There are at least four reasons this is true.
1. An apology separates us from Jesus (but in a good way)
Several years ago, I was talking with a missionary sponsored by our church. I can’t say where he works because it’s a sensitive context, but suffice it to say most of his neighbors have little exposure to evangelical Christianity.
He told me about the surprise of people there when they learned about his fidelity to his wife. “You’re a Christian,” they asked, “and you don’t sleep around?” When he asked about the surprise, the answer was American TV shows.
The logic was simple: 1) America produces salacious stories about sexually promiscuous people. 2) America is a Christian nation. Therefore, 3) Christians are promiscuous.
What my missionary friend had to teach—what all Christians have to embrace at some point—is that there’s a difference between God’s vision for a world set right and His follower’s administration of that vision.
We’re supposed to represent Jesus, but we’ve done a pretty lousy job of it.
When we can point to European crusaders or American reconstructionists and say, “That’s not Jesus,” it supports our message.
Even better, when we can expose our own personal shortcomings and say, “That’s not Jesus,” it lends credibility.
Jesus removed the stain of sin from our hearts; an apology can remove our stain from His reputation.
2. Hypocrites don’t apologize
One of the most damaging stereotypes Christians face is that we’re hypocritical. We judge others for their sinfulness while we ignore the sin in our own lives. Sadly, in many instances, we’ve earned that stereotype.
One often-quoted 2007 study by the Barna Group showed that 85% of non-Christian Americans aged 16-29 think Christianity is “hypocritical — saying one thing doing another.” And 52% of Christians the same age agreed.
But a hypocrite doesn’t apologize—at least not genuinely. A hypocrite might offer a politician’s apology: “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry,” which is code for “I don’t see what I did as offensive but if you received it that way, I’ll apologize on your behalf for being too sensitive.”
Genuine contrition is disarming and even admirable. Perhaps if Christians had a reputation for apologizing all the time instead of arguing all the time, we might shed the hypocrite label.
3. An apology sets an example
The journey of faith begins with repentance. The trailhead of any walk with Jesus is the expression of an apology to God.
In fact, Charles Spurgeon once said that, “Repentance is as much a mark of a Christian as faith is.” This is the journey we want our non-Christian neighbors to walk.
As ambassadors for King Jesus, we’re calling our friends and neighbors to join us on the path of salvation, a path that begins with repentance.
Why wouldn’t we show them the way? Why wouldn’t we be eager to model apology and repentance as a way of life in hopes that those who don’t yet know our gracious God might take a step behind us?
4. Authenticity makes the gospel attractive
As I argue in my book Unbelievable, we’ve entered a cultural era wherein “contemporary audiences trust authenticity over airtight arguments.”
This is why people love Brené Brown, the “shame researcher” with her own Netflix special. She gets it. She’s not afraid to be herself and to call us to the same courage.
Brené is a backlash to the airbrushed, edited, staged-selfie pressure of our FOMO (fear of missing out) way of life. People trust her because she entrusts herself to them. That kind of authenticity comes with apologies. It has to.
In Unbelievable, I write:
“Overwhelmed with complexity and deluged with disparate information, we distrust categorical, absolute statements. So we hedge. As Jedediah Purdy illuminated in his insightful book For Common Things, our culture is afraid to get behind any leader or cause because of the possibility, even the likelihood, that we’ll get burned. So we look for signs of genuineness. In contemporary discourse, conceding points lends strength to an argument, not weakness.”
As Christians, our mission is to reveal Jesus at His weakest; at the moment He died for us all on a Roman cross.
What if that mission is best achieved when his followers reveal their own weakness? How many of us would be willing to accept that mission?
Confess our sins
There’s a scene in Donald Miller’s controversial 2003 book Blue Like Jazz in which he retells his experience with a Christian student group on the campus of staunchly secular Reed College in Portland.
Because Christians at Reed faced exclusion and ridicule due to their faith, when it came time for the school’s annual campus-wide bacchanal called Renn Fayre (think Mardi Gras for Portlandian college students) the Christians decided to take a new approach to their mission.
They constructed a wooden confessional on the campus lawn and invited their classmates to confess their sins.
But when any partier had the courage to step into the confession booth, he got a surprise. Instead of asking him to name his sins, the Christian named his own.
Miller apologized to strangers for lashing out in anger, for ignoring the poor and oppressed, for mixing politics and religion, for misrepresenting Jesus.
He apologized on behalf of his fellow Christians whom he’d never met but who were part of his tribe.
Miller wrote, “For so much of my life I had been defending Christianity because I thought to admit that we had done any wrong was to discredit the religious system as a whole, but it isn’t a religious system, it is people following Christ; and the important thing to do, the right thing to do, was to apologize for getting in the way of Jesus.”
After his first confession that night, to a young man named Jake, Miller felt unburdened but also unsure.
Would confessing to all the sins of Christendom only convince Jake that he had been right to avoid it? Was confession good for the saved soul but not the lost?
I believe Jake’s response foreshadows the response of many in our culture if they could hear our contrition.
“What is the deal with the cross?” he asked. The pair talked a while about Jesus, His sacrificial death, and the difficulty of obeying His commission. When Jake stepped out of the confession booth, he looked back at Miller.
“This is cool what you guys are doing,” he repeated. “I am going to tell my friends about this.”
We should acknowledge that whenever there’s need for confession, there has been some wrong to cause it. Confession isn’t magic pixie dust that makes our sins disappear in a poof, nor the wounds we cause by those sins.
But confession has the power to give credibility to the credulous, the power to disarm disbelievers. In that way, an apology is an important tool of apologetics.