The Common Good

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

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.

Apology text, chevanon /
Apology text, chevanon /

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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."

Stephen Mattson has written for Relevant, Red Letter Christians and The Burnside Writer's Collective. He graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and is currently on staff at University of Northwestern – St. PaulMinn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

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