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It’s been a busy season for public apology and repentance. Just within my denominational orbit: Overture 43–repenting of corporate and historical sins regarding race and civil rights–passed by a wide margin, while at the same time several individuals voiced their post-Orlando apologies for the ways Christians contributed to the persecution of those in the LGBT community. Less recently, Donald Miller, of Blue Like Jazz fame, once popularized the use of confessional booths on college campuses where Christians would set up shop and say they were sorry for the Crusades or slavery or the Salem Witch Trials.

How then should Christians think about corporate apology and repentance?

My short answer: as a careful, genuinely corporate exercise there can be great value in approving statements of shared repentance, but as a genre of complaint and rebuke, public apologies are normally misguided and misleading.

And what does that look like in real life? Here are several questions to ask as you reflect on a statement of corporate repentance or ponder making a corporate apology yourself.

1. Has the corporate apology been made corporately?

When the PCA said “we,” there was actually more than one person expressing repentance. The statement was crafted, debated, refined, and voted on by several, then dozens, then hundreds of people. Overture 43 could rightly claim to be a corporate (better yet, covenantal) act of contrition.

The same cannot be said for individuals who take it upon themselves to apologize for the entire church or for other conservatives or for evangelicals everywhere. The intentions may be entirely sincere, but why say “we” when you hold no position that would require you to speak on behalf of others and you have not been empowered to do so? An apology that begins “I’m sorry that we…” should really say “I’m sorry that I…” or say nothing at all.

2. Is there an obvious institutional or covenantal sense of responsibility?

The more direct and more specific the connection, the more appropriate the apology. Expressing sorrow for something my family did makes sense, likewise if my local church had done something wrong. I have a leadership role in both of those institutions and have some right to speak on their behalf. Similarly, a school or denomination may, like Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:19-21) or Daniel (Daniel 9:3-19), want to repent for actions and attitudes done under its aegis or by its leaders in years gone by. In these instances there is a line of obvious institutional continuity.

That line is far more ambiguous (or nonexistent) when we say we are sorry for the 12th century Crusades or for a general sense of not loving people enough. I suppose someone could argue that as Christians we bear responsibility for everything done by or within the body of Christ, but I don’t think any individual Christian functionally operates with that understanding. We don’t celebrate everything done in the worldwide church as our achievements. The history of the Church is simply too big, too long, and too wide to think any one of us will have to give account for all of it, everywhere, at all times.

3. Am I confessing my sins or other people’s sins?

In 1940, C.S. Lewis penned a striking article for The Guardian entitled "Dangers of National Repentance."  His basic point: we should be exceedingly careful when apologizing for something we disdain in someone else.  Some solidarity with your nation or your tribe (to use a word Lewis didn't) can be a good thing, but it can also easily turn into the sin of pride where we "confess" all the silly things our benighted forefathers weren't smart enough to avoid and all the contemporary crimes our fellow citizens and colleagues are not enlightened enough to denounce.

The Apostle didn’t apologize to the Greco-Roman world for the sins of the churches he planted and nurtured; he openly tried to correct their faults (see 1 Corinthians), without denying his own previous, personal transgressions (1 Cor. 15:9). If a rebuke is meant, let a rebuke be given, but not under the guise of saying you’re sorry. As Lewis warned: "The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing--but, first, of denouncing--the conduct of others" (in God in the Dock, 190).

More recently, physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple has labeled this phenomenon the "False Apology Syndrome." The syndrome is dangerous because it allows us to feel good without having to be good.  We get all of the moral high ground that comes with confession and none of the personal pain.

The habit of public apology for things for which one bears no personal responsibility changes the whole concept of a virtuous person, from one who exercises the discipline of virtue to one who expresses correct sentiment.  The most virtuous person of all is he who expresses it loudest and to most people.  The end result is likely to be self-satisfaction and ruthlessness accompanied by unctuous moralizing, rather than a determination to behave well.

We get to feel grandiose for "our" guilt without the burden of having to change or the shame of having people see our actual faults. What could be more satisfying than saying we are sorry for other people's sins?

4. Why was this repentance made public?

Confession of sin is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. As a pastor, I don’t want to quench the work of the Spirit where He is poking and prodding a brother or sister to turn from sin and run to Christ. And yet, I admit I’m skeptical when sin is confessed loudly and publicly to no one in particular. If a fellow Christian feels he has wronged the LGBT community, I trust he has expressed that privately to his LGBT friends before making it public to the rest of us?

Again, I do not wish to question the motives of those making public apologies, but I do question the wisdom in doing so. It’s a fine line between commendable humility and exaggerated (and, in time, dangerous) self-flagellation. Sometimes I read public apologies and think, if you were really presently guilty of all these things I’m not sure why you are still in the ministry. We should repent of sin and make amends with those we have wronged. But that repentance, if it is our genuine repentance, must be based on the facts of real transgressions, and our making amends, if we are really trying to seek reconciliation with those we’ve wronged, should be personal before it is public.

5. Is the contrition costly?

Corporate repentance can be appropriate, even noble at times, but that depends on what such a confession costs us. Again, we should listen to Lewis:

When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies, he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle.  But an education man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother's milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasm of his less-education fellow countrymen. (190)

Many in the church face the same danger as these young Englishmen. In confessing the sins of the church--with easily cheered apologies for homophobia or for contributing to a “culture” of hate--the danger is we have everything to gain with these remonstrations and nothing to mortify. "The communal sins which they should be told to repent,”Lewis advised 75 years ago, “are those of their own age and class--its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have heard nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candour towards the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue" (191).

Saying "sorry" for the church's sins, if it must be done, should only be done with great heartache and a genuine sense of shame for our part in them. The office of communal repentance, says Lewis, "can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance." A son rebuking his mother may be necessary and even edifying, "but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her--that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling below it in the unnatural--the spectacle becomes merely disgusting. The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard" (191).

In other words, it's a pretty good test of the appropriateness of our repentance to consider whether our confession is costly to us, or rather, aims to be costly to someone else.


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16 thoughts on “How Should Christians Think About Corporate Apologies?”

  1. Curt Day says:

    Not a fan of this post. My view of the PCA’s overtures on past race-based corporate sins is that it didn’t go far enough. Though the above artiicle is eager to say that we should repent of personal sins, it is hestant on our need to repent of corporate sins and I am not sure why. After all, if we glory in past corporate beliefs and accomplishments, why shouldn’t we also share responsibility for past corporate sins? Here, we could think about what it typically means to be patriotic. For we can so easily be so proud of our ties with our nation’s founding fathers when discussing their ideals and what they accomplished, but we so easily distance ourselves to them when discussing their use of slavery and their treatment of Native Americans. While we celebrate our ties with the past over what is perceived as good and honorable, we too easily employ Steve Urkle’s famous line of ‘Did I do that?‘ when talking about their faults and sins. Such selectivity shows that we prefer a magic mirror that at least glosses over our sins, if doesn’t tell us how beautiful, we are to a regular glass mirror.

    We should also ask if the descnedants of the victims of past sins both deserve and/or need to hear an apology. It doesn’t matter if that apology is costly or not, what do these descendents need to hear? Sometimes, a mere apology gives the victims or their descendants a needed and wanted acknowledgment of past wrongs. Such an acknolwledgment can also imply a guarantee that those sins will not be repeated. And this is especially true if the descendants of the victims of past sins still pay the price for those sins. We should also ask whether those sins from the past are still being repeated

    Finally the door of the false dichotomy of repentance for corporate sins or for personal sins can swing both ways. One can focus on repenting from personal sins in order to ignore the need to repent from participation in corporate sins. Here, we should note that we are called to repent from all sins. Here, the need to repent from corporate sins will greatly depend on one’s believing that there are such things as coproate sins–some reformed Christians deny their existence. As a result, they fail to see how the Church, for example, is repeating some of the sins committed in the past. We see this with today’s support of wealth and power by today’s Church as was practiced prior to the French, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions.

    Perhaps, DeYoung should look at the reactions to the PCA’s apology. One such reaction came from Jemar Tisby who writes for the Reformed African American Network blog (see https://www.raanetwork.org/reflections-pcas-overture-racial-reconciliation/ ). It is an interesting exercise to put his reaction to the PCA apology next to DeYoung’s article for a side-by-side comparison.

  2. Danny says:

    Myself not being a member of the PCA, this was a well written article and I think people need to take some time in prayer when considering making corporate apologies.

  3. rebecca says:

    I couldn’t agree more. The recent “trend” has me scratching my head!

  4. Matt says:

    I appreciate the interaction with Lewis’ article. I have often wondered what these sorts -no less so with this specific Overture- how it is costly to those making it.

    Being publicly opposed to racism is about as costly as being publicly for apple pie. No, I am not wanting to trivialize the matter because it’s not trivial.

    It’s statements like this one that make me question these sorts of apologies: “It doesn’t take an individual or group engaging in overt acts to incur guilt for racism, all it takes is inaction in the face of injustice.”

    I would want to tease out what is meant by such statements a bit more, but okay [and yes, I think we should have a robust view of sins of omission]. It is hard for me to see that if one grants that in principle that racist sins are the weightiest matter for us.

    There are Christians being slaughtered en masse in various parts of the world; if we’re going to repent for our inaction in the face of injustice lets go there first. That would be costly.

  5. Noel Adams says:

    Thank you, Rev. Deyoung.
    Corporate apologies, starting with Lord, Save Us From Your Followers, sit badly with me. Individuals aren’t guilty of every -ism/-phobia that culture charges us with. God is my Judge; the Word is my guide; culture is unqualified to be either. It seems to me that God is far more pleased if I’m repenting through my own rap sheet, which is costly, than repenting for things I’m not actually guilty of. That’s merely (to borrow from another pastor) to be more pious than God. I realize it is an effort at sincerity. I wonder if God just thinks it’s silliness.

  6. Phil Hicks says:

    Thank you Rev DeYoung for an important article on a matter that has irked for years.

    Silliness indeed. Thank you Noel Adams. And thank you Matt for pointing out the on-going wholesale slaughter of Christians daily around the world which we should be fighting with our money and time unceasingly as Paul points out to us in Gal 6:10.

    And finally, Curt Day, do you ever point the mirror at yourself.

  7. David Fleming says:

    I’ve sent a lengthy response. And it shows up on my phone, but not here. Please advise.

  8. Dr. Richard Zeile says:

    Curt Day’s comments are based on the notion that we are to expose rather than cover our mother’s sins, whether she be the nation, or the church. The idea that the Church can sin is contrary to any serious identification of believers with the Body of Christ. In practice, this means that we distinguish the sins of belleivers from the corporate body, for only when we do right are we acting as Church or the Body of Christ. It makes more sense for a church or nation to disown, rather than apologize for, past actions. If my grandfather had a fight with your grandfather, it is better to say that is not my quarrel than to apologize for what cannot be changed and speak for someone no longer present. And there may be other factors. Our apology may be based on a genuine moral insight, or it may be based simply on ignorance of the circumstances. The fact that earlier societies seemed eager to put criminals to death was based in part on the knowledge that a percentage of people would starve every winter and bitter experience had taught folks of those societies that it was better to execute the uncooperative and untrustworthy than feed them. In our well-fed age, it is easy to stand in judgment of earlier ages whose grim realities no longer trouble us, as we abort infants, as an alternative to corporate self-discipline. And this latter I see as the greatest danger of such corporate apologies, that they perpetuate ignorance and complaisance, much as C.S.Lewis and Rev. DeYoung have warned.

  9. Steve White says:

    As I have read him for the past few years, it seems clear to me that DeYoung is one of the brightest lights in the PCA. He also apparently has the guts to speak truth, even against a wave of “Of course we’re in the right” current. That there were no hard questions about obsessions of identity outside of Christ, the binding of consciences of those who have not commited the sin, or things like that is concerning. The fact that there is a chilling of dissention over this issue, because of a common notion that the dissenter is racist, or just ignorant should have been cause to think twice about it.

  10. Suzanne Berman says:

    I appreciate Rev. DeYoung’s thoughtful reflections as well as Rev. Tisby’s. In my mind, both articles highlight that repentance is a heart issue that should be characterized by genuine grief, the desire to change, and actual fruit of changed lives going forward. None of these things happen with an “Achievement Unlocked: Racial Reconciliation” mentality. There is an important distinction between an apology, which can be delivered hastily, showily, and insincerely, and repentance, which is apology PLUS self-examination, individual-level heart change, and different results going forward at both the individual and institutional-level.

  11. ndemi says:

    Sometimes we as Christians are highly taken advantage of because of our meekness simply because the corporate world knows we can always accept an apology.So my opinion is to to show them that you havent forgiven them but deep down your heart just forgive

  12. Curt Day says:

    Phil,
    24 hours a day.

  13. Curt Day says:

    Dr. Zelle,
    I believe you misunderstood my position. The issue isn’t wheter we are compelled to uncover our mother’s sins. The issue is whether we will judge ourselves by the same standards we use to judge others.

    And the idea that the Church can sin is inherent in the parable of the two men praying and in the Gospel that says we are saved by faith alone.

  14. kevin phillips says:

    Daniel 9 is a vast corporate apology by Daniel as he addresses the sins of his people publicly. I think corporate apologies are biblical in that they put specifics to corporate sins, helping a group of people identify these sins, confess them publicly and move corporately to repentance. I like Rev. DeYoung but do not agree with his post.

  15. Ken Abbott says:

    Kevin Phillips: Daniel 9 records a prophetic prayer of confession to God (verse 4) regarding the sins of Israel, not a corporate apology. In this, Daniel functioned much as a pastor or elder does who leads a congregation in a prayer of confession and repentance, seeking God’s forgiveness and grace in Christ for wrong committed against him.

  16. Eric Kjos says:

    Kevin,
    You are my son’s pastor; I have read your writing for several years, and I am confident that you are a thoughtful and devoted follower of Christ. However, you were much too kind and circumspect in your Overture 43 analysis.
    Overture 43 on its face uses satanic reasoning. How so? It asks us to confess and repent of undefined sins. I’m supposed to put aside my “cultural preferences” such as exactly what? I’m against honor killings, female genital mutilation, family honor (Asian culture), and lynching. Are these “cultural preferences?” Or is the Overture referring to the American practice of switching the fork and knife between hands before we cut meat as opposed to the European practice of not switching the fork and knife? What in the Hell are they talking about? What is a “minority culture” and what is a “majority culture.” What is “culture?” I’m super smart and I’ve wracked my brain around a useful definition of “culture” for years. Undefined terms are a mark of the Left as is accusing others of sin while the accuser stays clean like a whitewashed sepulcher.
    Oh, and since previous PCA church leaders were racists, why would I believe the current crop of PCA leaders is any better? I won’t comment on confessing other’s sin, except that any such exercise should start by confessing one’s own sins, which they did not do. If I have to choose, I will choose a racist leader over a prideful one.
    As for confronting racism, the PCA is decades behind American culture. Racism among whites ceased to be a “thing” sometime in the late 1980s/early 1990s. America is awash in interracial couples in real life, television, and the tabloids. Barak Obama received 45% of the white vote in 2008. The last American racists in positions of power are Leftists.
    To be kind to the 861 fools, Leftists have subjected them to an unending campaign of propaganda and disinformation. They probably think “white privilege,” and “systematic racial injustice” is true. Sigh. Last fall, in class a Michigan State professor taught my own son that he was a racist. How does one fight such institutional evil? I don’t know, but I do know we need to oppose them with counter analysis at every turn; and that Overture 43 should be overturned and replaced by a careful non-Marxist document.
    Regarding TGC, racist Leftists like Russell Moore, Collin Hansen, and Darrin Patrick spread lies, propaganda, and disinformation. They are part of the problem and they have the blood of the innocent on their hands. I suggest forming a team to write thoughtful rebuttals to each racist and/or Leftist TGC submission.
    In Christ,
    Eric J. Kjos

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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