Round Table: Confession
In 1996, the independent Scottish band Belle & Sebastian released their second full-length album, If You’re Feeling Sinister. More than twenty years later, Sinister is still revered as one of the greatest albums of the 90’s—ranking alongside notable alternative rock acts such as Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and Nirvana. While the aforementioned bands were known for their use of heavily distorted electric guitars, Belle and Sebastian crafted a gentler tone, reminiscent of 60’s era folk-rock acts like Simon & Garfunkel. The title-track to Sinister tells the story of Hilary, a spiritual seeker with admittedly unusual tastes in life. “She was into S&M and Bible studies; not everyone’s cup of tea she would admit to me,” sings Stuart Murdoch in the second verse. In her quest for meaning, “Hilary went to the Catholic Church because she wanted information.” There she met “the vicar, or whatever” who “took her to one side and gave her confirmation.” The chorus of the song enters, a few lines later, as a response to Hilary’s encounter with an ordained clergyman: “But if you’re feeling sinister, go off and see a minister; he’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever.”
This song, while possibly offensive to some Christian listeners, voices important cultural critiques regarding religion—suspicion of ordained clergy, disdain for ritual, and antipathy toward religious institutions. Yet it is also clear that Hilary needs to talk to someone about her sexuality and spiritual confusion. If not the minister, then who? The paradox of desiring confession while being equally skeptical raises important theological questions for Christians. Is there value in confessing sins to an ordained minister? Is confession a sacrament? What do the scriptures say about confession? In short, the question is: “What is the place of confession in the Christian life?”
In the spirit of Christian charity, we have asked our regular authors and contributors to weigh in on this question from their own personal perspectives and from the standpoint of their Christian traditions.
John Ehrett, Lutheran
In the simplest sense, confession—sorrow over sin, leading to repentance—should be a core feature of every Christian’s private spiritual life. Similarly important, however, is corporate confession in the context of worship. The Penitential Rite—common to Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism—is spoken by the whole congregation at the start of the liturgy: “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
What I find particularly striking about this ancient language is its breathtaking scope. Not only are we called to account for our thought lives and our individual acts, but we are also judged on the basis of our omissions. Spiritual sloth is just as culpable as more obvious vices. In light of such a high standard, no one can comfortably say well, I haven’t done anything particularly terrible—what do I have to confess?
This language also powerfully captures the nature of sin—failure to love God and failure to love one’s neighbor. If recent writing and podcasting is any indication, a good deal of millennials’ discomfort with orthodox Christian concepts stems from a misunderstanding of this doctrine. In the contemporary imagination, “sin” is conceived only as failure to comply with the diktats of a cosmic monarch, the violation of one arbitrary law or another. But this is error. Rather, on the traditional view, sin is the failure to live rightly before God and with one another. And in that spirit, the traditional Penitential Rite properly conceives of sin as a violation of divine, transcendent order—of, one might say, natural law.
Fr. Wesley Walker, Anglican
Confession is the act where a Christian acknowledges their sin before God, asks for his forgiveness, and repents (turns away from those sins). It may be one of the most misunderstood Sacraments. Protestant articulations of it vary from denomination to denomination, though the classically Reformed traditions—Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians—maintained it in some form. Why is confession important? Why is it unfortunate that many modern communities of faith are leaving these prayers behind?
In Anglicanism, there are two types of confession: corporate and auricular. Corporate confession and absolution occur after the reading of Scripture, preaching of the homily, and the recitation of the Nicene Creed because we believe God speaks through the proclamation of the Gospel to penetrate our hearts and convict us of any sin that may be in our lives. Auricular Confession occurs privately and is absolutely sealed. Upon leaving the room, the priest cannot discuss what occurred in the confessional. In this context, the priest may prescribe acts of penance. These should be doled out with the presupposition that sin doesn’t just hurt the individual committing the sin. Often, there is a social component to our depravity that hurts others. If a man cheats on his wife, he didn’t just hurt himself but also his wife; when a drunk driver hits another car, he hurts another person. Acts of penance vary but always serve as a means of reconciliation among people, a way of restoring peace and harmony within community.
Ultimately, it must be remembered that the penitent is not confessing their sins to the priest. Rather, they are confessing their sins directly to God. The priest is not the one who grants forgiveness to the sinner; God does through his minister.
There are two main things accomplished through the confession. First, it rights our relationship with God. Scripture very clearly tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9; RSV). In the Lord’s Prayer, which is meant as a prayer (and a model for prayer) for Jesus’ disciples, we are told to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Secondly, we confess our sins and pass the peace in the context of our community as a way of countering the social effects of sin. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus instructs his followers, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
One of the things that separates Anglicans from Roman Catholics is that we do not require one to participate in the sacrament of confession before Communion or at all. As Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says, “We are free to confess our sins to God alone without the hearing of a priest; and if we do this in sincerity God’s forgiveness is sure. But our Church has no less insisted that we are free to confess in the sacramental way if we so desire and ask absolution from the priest… The light of absolution will penetrate the entire self.” Confession is a beautiful gift that Christ has given his Church. Take advantage of it and receive the light of absolution.
Fr. Ted Bobosh, Orthodox
Confession of sins (verbalizing one’s sins to a fellow Christian) certainly makes sense within the community of Christians, the Body of Christ, based on the ancient rubric that, “One Christian is no Christian.” When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ — we become part of His Body. One can only be Christian as a member of the Body of Christ — so being “a” Christian always means being in relationship to others in the Body. As such, one’s own sins, struggles and temptations affect the entire Body and are the concern of the entire Body because we share a common life in Christ. We all are supposed to live in the unity of the faith that we might all be one (John 17). Being a Christian by nature means being part of the organic Body — one has both a relationship to and responsibility for that Body and all others in it. As an integral part of the Body, everything I do relates to the Body of Christ. Confession is thus natural as part of the ties that bind us together in love and for maintaining the unity of the Body and the bond of peace.
In the Body not all members have the same function — not all are eyes or feet or ears. Some members of the Body have a special charism to deal with sin and confession. They are involved in the healing ministry of the Body. We go to them to help become healed of our spiritual illnesses. They help us remove all the obstacles in our life that prevent Christ from healing us or making us whole. Their ministry is a ministry of love for others.
Hearing confessions is a healing ministry. Confession itself teaches us humility — to understand our self as belonging to the Body and being in relationship to other members of the Body. We are not our own; we were bought with a price. Confession as a tool of healing helps us overcome that sin of pride, which in an extremely individualistic culture makes us think we become fully human only when asserting our self. But self-love is the true opposite of love (far more so than, say, anger). Self-love is geared toward the self and cuts us off from others, whereas love is always geared toward the other(s). Love gears us toward the Body of believers. We do not become a full human being by becoming more independent, or isolated and alienated from all others, but rather we become fully human only in relationship to others – only in love, which is what God created us to do in order to be like Him. For God as Trinity is naturally a relational being. We maintain ourselves in the divine life, by confessing our sins, asking and offering forgiveness. Confession restores us to communion with all in the Body of Christ. In confession we aim to set aside all things that prevent our union with Christ in His Body.
(Father Ted is a guest author for this round table. His personal blog can be found here.)
Jarrett Dickey, House Church
One of the greatest developments of the Methodist Revival was John Wesley’s use of small group structures for the purpose of Christian discipleship and growth. The networks of societies, class meetings, and bands he formed were instrumental in revitalizing a stale and lifeless Church of England. In Wesley’s 1744 edition of rules for the bands, he gives the following instruction regarding confession of sins at the regular meeting: “To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting” (Outler, 180). Two rules later, Wesley elaborates, saying, “To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins and temptations.” My point in citing Wesley’s instructions for religious bands, which are essentially what we would label as “small groups” in today’s church language, is to illustrate the way that confession has changed due to the emergence of evangelical Christianity.
Many historians of the Christian tradition argue that the emergence of Methodism marks the beginning of evangelicalism. Confession is one of the ancient traditions of the church that appears, on the surface, to have been entirely abandoned by the evangelical movement. However, I think this is an inadequate understanding of the role of confession within evangelical Christianity.
Evangelicals are naturally inclined toward spiritual practices explicitly taught in Scripture and confession certainly fits this description. James 5:6 instructs believers to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” In evangelicalism, there are two forms of confession that seem especially central: (1) The confession of the believer directly to God and (2) confession within the context of small groups and accountability groups. In regards to the first form of confession, evangelicalism places a strong emphasis on the individual’s direct and personal encounter with God. If Christian spirituality is anything other than intimately knowing and being known by God, what good is it? Yet this personal focus runs the risk of becoming individualistic, subjective, and narcissistic. Confession in the context of small groups, then, brings some semblance of balance. In these settings, believers are reminded that their individual standing before God only exists within the community of the faithful.
My point, then, in this response is not to negate or discount the sacrament of confession and the importance of confessing sins to an ordained priest. Far from it, in fact. An ecumenical view of confession would acknowledge the validity of multiple forms of confession—individual, corporate, small group, and sacramental. Rather, my intent is to show that, due to the influence of evangelical churches, the location of confession has shifted from the confessional booth to the small group meeting. In large part, this evolution is indebted to the ministry of John Wesley as cited above. For me, there are two strengths to this evolution of confession. One, in a small group, confession happens in the context of mutual relationship rather than in a context where there are clear imbalances of power (clergy/laity). Two, a small group practice of confession makes the sacrament of confession more egalitarian in nature. Any believer can function as God’s priest and as a sign of God’s presence. Any believer can be a mouthpiece for God’s forgiveness and grace. And, by sharing our struggles and temptations with one another, we are reminded that we journey as a community toward our final home with God.
Ben Winter, Roman Catholic
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:9
These words are forever imprinted upon my mind. Growing up in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I heard them every Sunday. They are words of comfort. They are words that dedicate hearts to worship and praise. They are words that hold us accountable. Most importantly, they express the act of repentance that is so necessary for salvation. As I wrote nearly four years ago:
When we confess our sins—whether in an assembly, before a priest, to friends and family members, or privately—we are doing something. We are acting. We are acknowledging failure and brokenness and we are resolving to amend, to heal relations with God and neighbor. When we repent, the goal is growth in grace. Repentance enables us to stop destructive behavior and start building up the kingdom of God in ourselves, in others, and in the world.
The Sacrament of Confession is the Christian’s practical avenue for fostering a real, lived relationship with Christ (the head) and the Church (his body). Confession is all about restoring harmony to the world—beginning with individuals and branching outward to universal reconciliation. If we visualize this process in the broadest possible terms, there’s a sense in which motive matters more than medium. Anyone can admit they’re wrong and resolve to turn from sin. No matter the circumstances, God is always offering grace and humans can always open their hearts. Confession, viewed through this wide-angle lens, is happening whenever a person resolves to break down barriers separating them from Love.
All this being said, I was missing something quite important when—despite being technically allowed to do so as a Lutheran—I was never given the opportunity to confess directly to a minister. There is something immensely powerful about confronting your failures in the presence of another individual. The sense of personal responsibility in this act is far more palpable than it is in corporate confession as a mandatory part of one’s liturgy. When I acknowledge my brokenness to a representative of the Church, within the very walls of a church, it reminds me that I am called to rebuild what has been fractured, to renew the promise of my baptism, and to worthily partake of Christ’s true body and blood. All of this happens in the same place.
The Roman Catholic practice of conversion, confession, reconciliation, and penance is a life-changing activity. It provides a frame of reference for my actions. It unites me with other members of my parish and with our priests. It inspires me to avoid sin and pursue sanctity. It reminds me of the effect that even my secret sins have on the living network of saints that is Christ’s body. While I do not see confession as a “make-or-break” point of division among Christians (and certainly not between Catholics and Orthodox), I do sincerely wish that all would come to experience the fullness of this sacrament.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.