When a private apology is not enough

“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”  “Why are you telling me this?  Get out there and confess to those you hurt.”

Some repentance is cheap, some apologies all too easy.

A deacon pitched a royal fit in a church business meeting.  I’ve long since forgotten the issue.  Afterward, a visitor came to me and said, “I belong to Such-and-such church.  If one of our members spoke to the pastor the way that man did you, the church would have risen up in arms.  But your people sat there and took it.  That is alarming.”

I suppose they sat there quietly because they’d seen it happen so often. Anyway…

A few days later that deacon came to my office and apologized.

Don’t miss this: The damage he did was very public; his apology was in private.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Another time, in my second year of that pastorate, a man came by the office to apologize.  “I opposed you right from the first,” he said, “and criticized you to a lot of people.”  That surprised me.  He certainly gave no evidence in our frequent dealings that he was undercutting me in private.  “I know now,” he said, “that the problem was me and not you.  I have this problem with authority.”

“I want you to forgive me,” he said.

His sins were all over the place, throughout the congregation.  His repentance was private and in the secrecy of my office.

What’s wrong with this?

The confession and repentance should be as public as the sin was.

I was the director of missions trying to help a church where the pastor had done a vile thing and would be leaving.  At one point, he said, “I don’t know what right you have to talk to me this way, after what you’ve done.” I was stunned.

What have I done? I asked.

“You had that affair and confessed it to the deacons and it split the church, that’s what.”

I said, “Listen to me closely.  The pastor before me did that.  I came in a year and a half later to pick up the pieces and help the church to heal.”

He said, “Then I was advised wrongly.”

“What I want to know,” I said, “is who told you this.  Because they are spreading a lie and it should be stopped.”

He told me.  It was his former pastor who had moved from our city to another state some six or eight years earlier.  The church secretary had his number and I phoned him.

“Did you say this?” I asked.  There was quiet on his end of the line.

I went on.  “My friend, I’m the guy who came in here after the church was torn apart.  I had half the congregation and all the debt and went through hell for several years dealing with disgruntled, angry church members.  And now you’re telling people that I’m the one who tore it up?”

He mumbled an apology.

I said, “I want you to go back and tell everyone you told that to, that you were passing on an untruth.  Own up to this.”

He said, “I didn’t tell anyone else.  I assure you, Brother Joe.  I told no one else.”

But he lied.

My journal for those years records a time when my next door neighbor stood in his front yard cursing me because my trees were shedding on his driveway.  It wasn’t profanity he used, but obscenities.  And in the course of his tirade, he said something about “you committing adultery and tearing up that church!”

I had recorded what he said in my journal that night, but it never dawned on me what he was really saying, accusing me of being the culprit who had done all the damage at our church.  Not until five or six years later when the other incident above took place did it occur to me that my next door neighbor and that gossiping pastor were boyhood friends.  And the only way I knew that was when the neighbor died, that pastor did his funeral.  So, putting two and two together, it’s obvious that preacher told the lie to more than that one brother.

It’s not for me to judge.  In case anyone wonders, I forgive these people and ask the Lord to show them the same mercy I want to receive from Him.  “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy,” said our Lord, and I am taking that to the bank (Matthew 5:7).

What I am saying here is a word for the Lord’s disciples who take their discipleship seriously.  With all the others this will hardly make a dent in their hardened hearts.

Over the years, I have known a few believers who stood before the church to confess and ask for the forgiveness of their brethren.  One told of a gambling problem and another an addiction to pornography.  In neither case was the sin done “before the people” as such, but both men wanted to take a drastic step of repentance and to publicly seek the forgiveness and support of the Lord’s people.  I’m confident to this day they will say it was a good thing.  The congregation responded with love, just as we should have expected them to do.

Last evening I read in my journal from a quarter of a century ago of the time I walked into the choir room just before the worship service, in time to hear one woman say to another, “I did not get a single thing out of that Sunday School lesson.”  She was referring to the auditorium class my wife and I team-taught.  As soon as she became aware I had entered the room, she shut up and moved away.  The interesting thing about this is…

That woman had the reputation as being a spiritual giant among some of our members. She wasn’t, and I had too many stories to back that up.  But they went on believing that she was another saint based on her self-righteous tales, her dogmatic views on every heretic (from the Pope on down), and her classes on prophecy in which she held all the answers to all the mysteries of the ages.

She never once apologized for her snarky attitude throughout my entire tenure there (and it was many years).

But suppose she had.

Suppose she came to me and said tearfully, “The Lord has convicted me of my sin against you and against Him, and I want you to forgive me.”   That would not have been sufficient.

What she needed was not to say so many ‘Hail Mary’s’ (she was a former Catholic and had a vendetta against that church) but to go before everyone who had ever heard her–starting with the congregation itself–and confess to her gossiping and backbiting and ask for their forgiveness.  And thereafter to do two things:  a) To ask the forgiveness of every person she had ever known and b) never to do that again.

The funny thing is that had she done so, had she gone public in her humility and confession, the congregation would have elevated her to the saintly status which she was already claiming for herself. But this time it would have been valid.

Nothing is so lovely and so welcome and so healing in a church as for a member to go before the congregation and admit to his/her destructive behavior and ask for forgiveness.

I’ve known revivals to break out as a result of that.  Maybe that’s why our arch-enemy is dead-set against it ever happening again.




5 thoughts on “When a private apology is not enough

  1. Agree with the public apology/confession approach…but often wonder how it may affect new or “weak believers” who may be in the congregation when the public confession is made.

    • My thoughts, Doug, is that it would affect them a lot better than the damage of his/her poor actions (whether gossip or otherwise) of which he is repenting. And would tell the new believer that this church is about grace. Just my thoughts.

  2. Thank you Pastor.
    I am a believer in a different country, New Zealand, and find your insights most helpful and encouraging in spite of potential cultural differences.

    Please continue to speak freely as you give words of life and wisdom.

    Thanks again.

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