On Public Apologies

We live in an astonishing day that at times makes a very large world operate like it is very small. 100 years ago, the sinful actions by a pastor on the other side of the country would probably be known only by those affected by them and those responsible to correct them. Changes in technology and culture, hand in hand, have changed all of that. At least it seems like it has changed all of that.

I say seems because the part that has certainly changed is our knowledge of sins committed across the continent. But because this knowledge is no longer tied mainly to those affected by and responsible to correct them, I wonder if our knowledge is all that we think it is. We often have no firsthand knowledge of the sins committed, only reports of them, and those are often run through filters that distort and confuse more than inform. We also have very little firsthand knowledge of what steps have been taken to correct sins, probably properly so since we often are not actually party to either the problem or remedy.

I’m pointing this out because I want it to be clear that I find this aspect of our day very troubling. Land mines dot the field and there is hardly a safe place to step in trying to discuss this. To raise concerns about how accusations are made, received, and viewed as credible is to open yourself to be criticized as a defender of sinful people. To express concerns about the qualifications of people who are charged with serious sins and errors is to open yourself to the charge of being a hater, not believing or practicing grace, or of wanting to besmirch the name of Christ before a pagan world. To question the accuracy and/or sincerity of a person’s apology is perhaps to court the worst kind of flack–how could someone who believes the gospel not accept an apology?

So, I know that I am stepping on to thin ice in a post that touches on Mark Driscoll’s open letter of apology, but I think there are some significant issues in how we view this type of thing that potentially affect all of us. I think I can safely come along side of this public apology and Ray Ortlund’s response to it because I don’t have to take sides or express views on matters to which I am not privy. Driscoll has admitted error. Ortlund has stated that the moral obligation now lies with those who called for his repentance. Ortlund says some good things, but I think the net outcome of his post is not helpful.

Bad Form
I was very disappointed that Ortlund introduced the specter of haters into the equation. Although I don’t believe that he thinks that all who have criticized Mark Driscoll have done so out of hatred, there is no denying that the tactic of labeling critics as haters is a too common practice (you may, for instance, have seen Steven Furtick’s “Hey Haters” video). If genuine repentance and forgiveness is the goal, then why toss in this prejudicial label? Any public apology or call for its acceptance is diminished by anything that implies the criticisms spring from ill-motive.

Time for Fruit?
An accurate, sincere apology should be accepted. Absolutely. To refuse to accept it is sinful. For long-term, habitual patterns of sin, though, words are not enough to resolve the problems that have been created, nor to truly assess the sincerity of any apology. Anybody who has counseled people who have habitually sinned in any area knows that some folks easily express verbal remorse, but do not follow that up with real change. In biblical terms, they don’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:20). The Scriptures are clear that “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). It calls us to confess and forsake, and determining if someone has forsaken a particular sin pattern takes time. This issue is not as simple or easy as Ortlund’s article makes it out to be.

Forgiveness and Consequences
Even granting the sincerity of a public apology does not eliminate the fact that some sins bring consequences which affect future relationships and actions. A church treasurer who embezzles funds can repent and apologize, but I doubt that very many people think he should be allowed to continue managing the church’s funds. When someone serves in an office which requires that he meet the qualifications established in Scripture, an apology does not necessarily wipe away the impact of disqualifying actions and/or patterns of life. So, as an example, if someone is accused of and admits that he has violated God’s Word that shepherds are not to be “domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3), should an apology simply wipe that away? Does he immediately get a “do over” or should a new pattern of humble service be demonstrated before being restored to leadership? If character actually matters, then character should be displayed.

Let me say this again and quite clearly: this is not a post about whether Mark Driscoll should step down from his pastoral role. It is a post about how we respond to the confession of sin, with particular focus on someone who is in pastoral ministry. It is very important, I believe, because our sub-culture is coming very close to elevating ministerial success over ministerial qualification. There are a few reasons for this, but the largest explanation is the celebrity culture that dominates our world and, sadly, the church. More on that later.

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