Gender, Apologies and the Bible

In 2010, psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross published research based on reported behaviour among Canadian university students (age 18 to 44) which suggests that on average, women apologize more than men.

Not only did women document more apologies, but women also reported committing more offenses than men reported. And when presented with imaginary and recalled offenses, men rated the offenses as less severe than women did.

These findings echo some older work by the linguist Janet Holmes, who concludes, among other things, that

  • Women offer most apologies to female friends whereas men apologize most to socially distant women and
  • Though the most frequent response for both sexes is to accept apologies,
    men reject apologies more than women do and women accept them proportionately more than men do.

In interpreting her findings, Holmes writes that,

Women may regard explicit apologies for offences as more important in maintaining relationships than men do …

Men avoid apologies where possible, using them only in cases where they judge they are likely to cause greater offence by the omission of an apology.

Between female friends, apologies appear to play an important part in the normal face-attention required of such a relationship.

Between men apologies may be much more dispensable; indeed an appropriate signal of friendship may be to omit an apology.

But hold on a minute. We need to be careful about making too much of the limited work on gender and apologies, not least in assuming that this means that women are by nature more relational than men. Instead, what will likely lead us to a more mature level of investigation is exploring how cultural beliefs and attitudes inform and affect when and why we apologise*.

But first, the Bible.

The Bible is a highly relational text. We all know that, right? This is clear from the very beginning, where we meet the first male-female relationship and the intimacy they enjoyed with their Creator. Even after our first parents violated that perfect intimacy by listening to the words of the serpent rather than the Creator, God continued to communicate His love, care and guaranteed inheritance through numerous metaphors of family.

The Hebrew words for family reveal this God-gifted connection: “bet ab” (pronounced bayit av) means, literally, “father’s house.” It represents a family line (Gen 18:19) as well as the house itself (Job 8:15). And the other Hebrew word, “mishpahhah,” meaning clan or family comes from the root “shaphahh,” meaning “to join.” This word’s meaning extended to strangers or sojourners. Any outsider who committed allegiance to God could join the father’s house (Think Rahab, Ruth, etc.).

Shenandoah Mural

In the New Testament, the importance of family shifted from a focus on the lineage from a human ancestor to lineage from God. As Jesus said, “Call no man your father upon the earth. For one is your Father, which is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). Jesus’s words direct our attention away from the earthly father and towards its counterpart in heaven: a lineage from “God the Father.”

Without straying into idolatry of the family, then, the people of God are guided through the Bible’s story to see the purpose of human relationship:
To give witness to the gracious love of God.
And ultimately, to draw people to a saving relationship with God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, thereby building the larger family of God which knows no ethnic, no economic, no gender divide. As Jesus teaches us, our prayers reflect our adoption into this family. We say “Our Father” because God loves and cares for us (Rom. 1:7).

A Christian apology, then, as repentance put into words, is about the restoration of family relationship, founded on love, for God is Love (1 John 4:7-8). We are to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other, that we may be healed (James 5:16). This healing mirrors the restored relationship we have with God our Father. On earth as in heaven.

This takes me back to the research I mentioned at the beginning, the limited but noteworthy evidence that women apologize more frequently than men, that women report committing more offenses than men, and these out of a greater concern for relationship. And it calls me to reflect on one significant reason why that might be.

Men of course have a wide range of personality traits and characteristics, influenced by all manner of factors. And there are multiple cultural masculinities that vary according to time period, geographical context, upbringing, etc. There are many men with humble hearts who are quick to apologize and quick to forgive.

But nevertheless, in many parts of the world, we have come to value a certain way of being a man that views other human beings not in terms of relationship but in terms of assets and competition. Maleness is increasingly depicted as power and control, as achievement, as winning, as frontiersmanship. We can see this reflected in some of the research findings above, which suggests that men tend to apologize most towards women they have limited relationship with, from whom they have less to lose.

And connected to all this is the idea of the ideal man as stoic, repressing virtually all emotions (except anger). This distorted way of thinking about masculinity holds hands with a positivist view of the world, where reason and logic, largely depicted as male qualities, form the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. This in turn encourages, even teaches men to withhold apologies unless certain “acceptable” evidence, offered in a certain “reasoned” way, is fully provided. And all under very specific circumstances, according to specific procedures, all in the context of a broken relationship and a hurting human being.

These powerful cultural factors lead many men, and also in some cases women, to severely underdevelop their own ability not only to acknowledge and communicate their own feelings … but also to develop empathy towards and respond lovingly to the feelings of others. It focuses their attention towards cold arguments, towards the gaining and giving of battleground, rather than towards their fellow human beings.

All this affects relationships. And all this is by no means just theoretical. I have witnessed, experienced and participated in these destructive apology dynamics numerous times in my life and in the life of my friends and family.

Given that evidence exists that women tend to be more sensitive to relationship repair than men,
given the cultural norms that discourage men from prioritizing relationship,
the Apostle Paul’s example is as important as ever.

Wherever the church meets, wherever there are decisions being made, wherever there are men, there must be women. Not only because of the significance and necessity of woman as an eschatological symbol of the church’s union with Christ. But because from the beginning of the world, men and women have needed one another. And in this broken world, we need one another more than ever.

For “in the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Pexels.com

*For more on what we know about apologies, I suggest A. J. Meier’s article “Apologies: what do we know?” as a first read.

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