On August 3rd, 2021, Phil Miglioratti published an article entitled "My Confession About Confession". He has asked me to comment on it and post my comments on this forum. Because of the length of my comments, I decided it was best for me to write an article in response to his. At present his article can be read here: http://discipleshipnetwork.ning.com/forum/topics/reimaginedisiplesh...
As I see it, my response does not oppose what Phil has said. I agree with him that the Bible teaches that Christians should confess their sins to God and to one another. I neither oppose nor discourage these practices.
However, if I am not mistaken, the Bible says nothing about how Christians should confess their sins to one another, nor does it specify which sins should be confessed to one another, nor to whom they should be confessed other than "one another" (James 5:16). These questions call for wisdom and care.
Because God, through the authors of the Scriptures, directs us to confess our sins to one another, great blessing can come from the confession of sin. However, as with other good things, there is the potential for great harm if it is done foolishly and carelessly. Thus I endorse this practice with caution and warning.
As to which sins should be confessed and to whom they should be confessed: I think that when one commits a sin against another person, it may be fitting to confess it to that person, and to ask for forgiveness. Similarly, when one commits a sin against multiple people, it may be fitting to confess it to each of them, and to ask for forgiveness from each of them.
I also think that there are times when confession to people indirectly yet obviously affected by a sin is called for. For example, if a pastor commits adultery, I think he should confess this sin before his congregation, and apologize and ask for forgiveness not only for the sin but for all of its adverse consequences for the congregation (such as disappointment and discouragement).
Some Christians believe that we should not only confess our sins to other Christians in these two circumstances, but in general: that is, to Christians who are neither directly affected nor indirectly yet obviously affected. For example: confessing to other Christians that one has been thinking evil thoughts. I am not opposed to this. However, if one would do it, one must decide: how, which, and to whom?
The contrite confession of a sin is holy and precious (Psalm 34:18; Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15; Isaiah 66:2). Thus the following teaching of the Lord Jesus pertains to it:
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
One might say that no Christian is a dog or a swine, but I believe that, at the least, Christians can be doglike and swinelike, and behave like dogs and swine. I do not believe that every Christian is fit to hear every confession of sin. Hence I believe that if one would confess sins in general, one should exercise wisdom and circumspection (Ephesians 5:15), as there are potentials for misunderstanding, misapplication, and hypocrisy.
For example: a man confesses before his church that he struggles with lust. From what I have heard, lust is a very common sin among Christians in America nowadays (and not just among males). Although this sin is not excusable, it is quite understandable considering how sexualized American popular culture is (a man may easily encounter literally dozens of temptations to lust every day without looking for them). Yet upon hearing this confession, the rest of the congregation reacts as if he alone among them is tempted to lust. Not only that, but they treat him as if he is a sexual pervert and potential predator. Even men who do not struggle with lust, but simply give into the temptation without a second thought, treat this man as if is mentally ill and inferior. (Of course, not all congregations would react this way—but I think some would.)
The potential for a problem is even greater if it is a pastor who confesses to struggling with lust. To some, it may seem neither surprising nor remarkable for a man, whether he be a pastor or not, to say that he struggles with this temptation, and they might have nothing but empathy and compassion for him. However, I don't expect everyone in a church would—especially adults who dislike the pastor, and especially children and youth. As word of his confession gets around, I wouldn't be surprised if youth and even children in the church think that whenever the pastor sees women and girls, he looks at them with lust--and maybe even think that he is a sexual pervert and potential predator. (Again, not all congregations would react this way—but I think some would.)
We Christians in America live in a time and in a place in which certain Christian are slandered by other Christians who hate them for what one might call "political reasons", e.g. for whom they voted or for whom they refused to vote. Imagine what that slander would be if its object confessed personal sin in public, e.g. if a man who was known for his dislike of a certain politician because he tells many lies were to confess to his congregation that he had told a lie. I think that in congregations in which that politician was very popular—even regarded idolatrously—the man would be derided: possibly only mentally (within the minds of others), but possibly vocally behind his back. Some would think things like: "I knew that guy was no good ever since I heard him call my president a liar. Now he himself admits to being a liar. What a hypocrite!".
I see the greatest potential danger for pastors. A faithful pastor of knowledge, wisdom, and integrity will say and do things which will displease all sorts of people in his congregation as he consistently upholds God's standards. Mature Christians will love him for this, but not all Christians are mature. Some will become irked and displeased with him, but may tolerate him if he seems to them to be irreproachable. I believe, though, that if he confessed to certain sins to the congregation, and most of the members of the congregation were spiritually immature, their reaction could literally end his career. They could use these sins as a means to get revenge on him for his words and acts of integrity which have irked and displeased them over the years. They could think and say such things as:
- "Who is he to talk about how it's a sin to be dishonest? He's admitted to being dishonest himself!"
- "Who is he to preach a sermon rebuking those who use pornography? Since he struggles with lust, there must be times that he lusts. I bet he lusts after women in the congregation. At least I don't do that—even if I do use pornography."
- "Now that I know that he struggles with covetousness, I see all his admonitions to be generous toward God in a whole new light. Of course he wants us to be generous toward God: the more money the church gets, the higher his salary will be. Since he's covetous, the best thing for me to do is to give less to the church. That would be like putting him on a diet for his own good."
- "I admit I'm not perfect, but at least I've never committed a sin like the pastor admits he has committed. As far as I'm concerned, I don't have to listen to anything he says about morality."
- "I thought he was a good man, but apparently he isn't. Maybe we should get another pastor—one who is a man of character."
To avoid such problems, one might follow the practice of confessing sins only in small groups, and not before a congregation, with the understanding that all confessions would be kept confidential. I see four potential problems with this practice.
The first and most obvious one is the potential for gossip, which Phil mentioned in passing in his article.
A second potential problem is that a confidential confession could be used to harm. For example, let's say that the pastor and elders of a church regularly confess their sins confidentially among themselves for years. All goes well, until one day they have a disagreement among them so serious that it threatens to split their church. Then a sin which one of the elders confessed three years ago suddenly, somehow, becomes an item of gossip in the church, thus discrediting him in the eyes of the congregation. Perhaps he is so humiliated and angered by this that he leaves the church—which is what whoever started the gossip wanted.
A third potential problem is that a confession could be used for blackmail. I doubt blackmail would be used in a blatant manner, such as elders explicitly threatening a pastor that if he doesn't go along with one of their decisions they will expose one of the sins he has confessed to them. I do think, though, that a threat could be implied, and rationalized in the minds of those who make it. For example: "Pastor, although we think this sin the lead elder committed is deplorable, we also think it should not be made public. If you do make it public, then we think it only fair if we were to tell the congregation about how you once committed the same sin"—when, in fact, there is good reason for the elder's sin to be made public, and there is no good reason for the pastor's sin to be made public, because it isn't really the same. (For example: the lead elder just committed adultery, and the pastor committed adultery at a time before he became a Christian.)
A fourth potential problem is that there may be times when one or more members of the group have a valid reason for not keeping a confession confidential. For example, a case in which a person admits to doing something for which another person has been wrongly blamed. For example: "It wasn't that kid who broke the window: it was me". (There is a solution to this potential problem: having a more prudent policy than that of simply keeping all confessions confidential.)
To conclude, I present five proverbs which pertain to the keeping of secrets:
A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.
A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends.
The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.
—Proverbs 18:8 and 26:22
He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.
Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.