Apology and Forgiveness Under the Shadow of the Law

by | Jun 26, 2015 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help (Ps. 146:3).

I am a servant of Los Ranchos and a representative of the Presbyterian Church (USA). So perhaps you’ll understand when I say that June has placed great demands on this pastor’s heart. June began with news that one of our minister members lost his job in Louisville without explanation.[2] It is ending with news that another of our minister members lost her friend in in the Charleston murders.[3]

I know too few details about the first to offer anything intelligent, and I doubt I can offer much that is new to the national discussion about the second. But I find myself wondering if there is a common thread between the two.

We live in the shadow of the law. [4] But we make a dreadful mistake if we put our hope in it.

In a previous presbytery I dealt with a case of sexual misconduct on the part of one of our minister members. The specifics of the case made it unusually grievous even among sexual misconduct cases. Procedurally, we were out of our depth. Relational complexities led to infighting and paralysis. So we waited, frozen in place, until the criminal process concluded.


The Happy Box! by Karen Robinson

As a result, we did not reach out effectively to the victims’ families. We checked the boxes in our response policy, but our actions came a day late and a dollar short. They deserved better.

The minister eventually chose to renounce jurisdiction rather than stand trial. When the time came for the presbytery to record the minister’s choice and remove him from the rolls, family members of the victims attended.

As an officer of the presbytery, I faced a dilemma. They were understandably aggrieved. They had suffered badly on account of the minister’s crimes, and our engagement with them had left them frustrated.

If I admitted our failure, would they respond with a lawsuit? I kept thinking of the words of my driver’s training instructor: “In a collision, never admit wrong. The other party will use it as evidence against you.” On the other hand, I dearly wanted to acknowledge our failure to them and ask their forgiveness. I hoped that doing so would bring a small word of healing into their agony.

So what did I do as an officer of the presbytery? I apologized for our common shortcomings. I apologized for the ways I personally had dropped the ball. I asked the family to forgive us—to forgive me.

They did. The executive presbyter, who was sitting with the victims’ family members during the meeting, later told me that one of them had said quietly, “We forgive you.”

This side of the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1), we will always live under the shadow of the law. It hovers over our actions. It reminds us, “If you do that, this could happen.” As long as we live under the law’s shadow, the best apologies will carry a terrible risk.

But a good apology, however risky, can do something that the law can never do. It can heal a wounded relationship.


By Brandon Lewis/Juse One

So, too, can forgiveness. We glimpsed forgiveness’s power once again last week when the family members of the Charleston Nine showed the world that they would not let an act of hate define them. They declared, in the words of the Rev. Novel Goff, that “no weapon fashioned against [them would] prosper” (see Is. 54:17).

In that moment, the families reminded me of Elizabeth Elliot and of the Amish community after the 2007 shooting at Nickel Mines. The Mother Emanuel families rocketed onto my short list of role models of faith.

I do not know the pain of those whose loved ones died at the hands of one who “almost” repented. I do not know whether I would be willing to forgive if I faced similar pain. And I certainly don’t approve of turning such extraordinary mercy into a “requirement for those enduring the realities of black death in America.”

But I find in their words a remarkable reminder that we find our hope not in the power of the law, but in the grace of Christ. The law can declare guilt and impose punishment, but it cannot restore life or reconcile relationships. Risky apologies can. God-breathed forgiveness can.

All of which gets me thinking about the Presbyterian Mission Agency and its four employees. The entire affair, of necessity, happened in the shadow of the law. But I hope that the actors did not place their trust in it.

I do not know why the PMA Board voted not to release the findings of the independent investigator. But I dearly hope that, if the Board did so upon the recommendation of legal counsel, it did not let that recommendation have the only word. Sometimes the best course of action is also a legally risky course of action. I hope that the Board carefully considered what actions would heal the relationship between the Agency and the church at large.


Abstract Cross by Rachel Pregnall

Neither do I know the particular circumstances of the two employees who filed lawsuits against the Agency. But I dearly hope that, if they did so on advice of attorneys, they did not listen to that advice alone. Sometimes the best course of action is also a legally inadvisable course of action. I hope that they considered what would be best, not only for their reputations and their careers, but also for their relationships with God and the restoration of Christ’s body.

I repeat: I do not know enough to issue an informed judgment. I have not walked in these people’s shoes, and have no right to sit in judgment at all. God have mercy on me if I hold others to a standard by which I turn out to be unwilling to live.

This, however, I will declare with some certainty: We live under the shadow of the law. But that does not mean we are to be ruled by it.


[1] Web-savvy readers will notice that I have linked this column to several articles in the “blogosphere.” I do not endorse them all in their entirety. But I have found them all challenging and edifying. I offer them for your further reading.

[2] Regular readers may remember my report on January 22, 2015. On June 1, the Presbyterian Mission Agency announced that the four employees under investigation, including our own Craig Williams, were “no longer working” for the PMA. As of this writing, the PMA Board has indicated that it will not release the results of the independent investigation. Two of the employees have filed lawsuits against the Agency; the other two have issued statements (here and here).

[3] Chineta Goodjoin’s seminary classmate and bridesmaid Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was one of the nine killed during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 16, 2015.

[4] By “the law” here, I do not mean the theological opposite of grace. I mean it in the quite ordinary sense of the American legal system.