by Joshua Theilen
The past several months have brought forward a slew of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against some of the most popular and powerful men in America. Movie producers, journalists, politicians and even pastors have all come under fire for sins they committed and good deeds they left undone.
The response from these accused men generally comes in one of two forms: apology or denial. Those who have denied allegations deserve to be investigated and either convicted or acquitted. But what are we to do with the ones who issue apologies? These men have admitted their guilt. They really did the awful things they were accused of doing. They say they’re sorry. So now what?
The public apology has become the preferred method of dealing with these sins. This sounds good in theory, but it’s worth looking at what these carefully worded statements really say. Harvey Weinstein, the man whose sexual sins broke open the #MeToo dam and let loose the floodwaters of accusation, offered an apology that was filled with excuses, promises to do better, and threats against both the NRA and President Trump.
Of course, I would not expect Weinstein, who is nominally Jewish and has no apparent connection to Jesus Christ or a Christian church, to know how to confess his sins, or to understand what repentance really is. I would expect more, however, from a Christian pastor.
Andy Savage is an Evangelical pastor at a Tennessee megachurch. Twenty years ago, he allegedly used his position as a youth pastor to assault a teenage young woman — a woman who this January went public, exposing her unhealed spiritual wounds to the world. When the news broke, Savage dutifully read an apology statement to his congregation and received a standing ovation for doing so. You can watch a report about Savage’s apology here. He does a little better than Weinstein, but not much. Something is still missing. What is it? What is it that’s missing from these men and their “apologies”?
I believe the word we are searching for here is “repentance.” Repentance is at the core of Christianity. John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2), our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 4:17) and the Apostles (Mark 6:12, Acts 2:38) all exhorted sinners to repent. Savage’s apology, however, shows that even Christians can fail to understand what this means in practice.
According to the Book of Concord, repentance has two parts: contrition and faith. Contrition “is genuine terror of a conscience that feels God’s wrath against sin and is sorry that it has sinned” (Apol. XII, 29). Faith is the conviction “that because of Christ their sins are freely forgiven” (Apol. XII, 35). In addition to this, the Reformers say, “if someone wants to call fruits worthy of penitence and an improvement of the whole life and character a third part, we shall not object” (Apol. XII, 28).
Repentance is not simply feeling bad that I have sinned and saying “I’m sorry.” It is terror in the face of God’s wrath, holding fast to Jesus in faith and living a new life.
In his statement, Harvey Weinstein does not sound repentant so much as hopeful that people will accept him when he makes his inevitable return. There’s more annoyance than terror in his tone.
As for Savage’s statement: It is not my place to judge Savage’s heart and determine whether or not he truly repented 20 years ago. Yet his actions, and the actions of the churches that have hired him, still leave much to be desired. Consider: Savage did not even take an extended leave of absence between positions in the church once his sin was revealed. After he was quietly fired, he quickly moved to another church and has continued on ever since as if nothing had happened. Nothing really changed.
In the meantime, his victim, Jules Woodson, carried with her the terrible weight of his sin against her. If you watch the video of her interview with CBS, you can hear the immensity of this burden in her voice.
Savage and his fellow pastors want to emphasize that this all happened 20 years ago. But that is exactly what makes this scenario so grievous: for 20 years Andy Savage as gone on about his life with few repercussions. Woodson, however, has born a heavy weight. His sin against her has continued to mount year after year, and he does not seem concerned in the least.
Repentance means terror over sin and faith in Jesus. That faith then bears itself out in love for God and neighbor, especially for the ones we have sinned against. Repentance is not a quick apology so that we can go back to what we were before. It is life altering, making it impossible to be the same person afterward.
What might true repentance look like in the lives of Weinstein and Savage? I can’t say exactly, but I can make my best guess.
If Weinstein were repentant he would simply confess his sin, admit his guilt and accept the full consequences of his actions, which would probably include a complete end to his career in show business. There would be no comeback. None would be needed. He would be a new man, forgiven and free from the life he formerly lived. Fame and fortune would be an insignificant sacrifice by comparison.
Savage, having admitted his guilt publicly to his congregation, would resign from the ministry. His actions have made it obvious that he is not “above reproach” (I Tim. 3:2). Can a man be confronted with sin decades after the fact and be forgiven? Certainly. Thanks be to God! There is, however, no statute of limitations on the consequences of iniquity, especially for pastors, who the Bible tells us will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). He can rest full of faith that Jesus has forgiven him and made him new, but this does not mean that he should continue to serve as a pastor.
When we repent, we respond to our sin with grief over the damage it has done to others and the condemnation that we justly deserve. Then we do the only thing we can: receive the pardon of Christ and “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
Jesus has paid for our guilt and cleansed us from sin. He frees us from our former life of sin. He frees us from the need to save face. He makes all things new.
Rev. Joshua Theilen is the executive director of Camp CILCA in Central Illinois.