Online confessional booths?

There is a “future” dimension, though, to that Ancient-Future worship phenomenon that some of us just-ancient worshippers might find problematic:

For the most part, though, young evangelicals aren’t just reviving ancient traditions. They are stamping them with their own updated brand.

Confession — a staple of Catholicism — is appearing in different formats.Thousands of people, for example, have posted anonymous online confessions on church-run Web sites like mysecret.tv, and ivescrewedup.com. Those posting have confided feelings of guilt over abortions or their homosexuality, while others have confessed to extramarital affairs, stealing, eating disorders, addictions — even murder.

“We do believe there is value in confessing our sins to each other,” said Bobby Gruenewald, pastor at Lifechurch.tv, an Oklahoma-based megachurch that runs mysecret.tv, which has received 7,500 confessions since it started in 2006. Ministers and volunteers pray over the confessions as they come in. “This process may be a more modern way of people discovering the value of that tradition.”

Now, my first reaction is to dismiss this sort of thing. But while my first reaction may be correct, I wonder if we could think through this a little bit in search of ways that maybe the church CAN use the new technology to advance its ancient agendas.

The problem with on-line confession as described on these open web sites is that they are divorced from true pastoral care and from a congregation that exercises, through its pastor, the Office of the Keys. And yet notice that these sites are, in fact, run by churches. What if a congregation had a closed, pass-word protected site that included an online confessional booth, as it were. Members of the congregation could confess the sins that trouble them to their pastor, who could then absolve them.

I ask, especially you pastors and theologians, would that be valid? If not, would a confession over telephone lines or a video-feed be valid? What would be necessary to make an online confession valid? Could the confession be anonymous, or would the sinner have to identify himself? (Weren’t the old confessionals in churches, with their separate doors and screens, trying to promote anonymity?) Could this high-tech practice help coax reluctant sinners into the extraordinarily beneficial practice of confessing their sins and receiving Christ’s forgiveness from their pastor and perhaps be a bridge to recovering the best practice of the in-person rite? Or is another kind of “real presence” necessary;namely, the real presence of sinner and pastor together in an actual, not virtual, church?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • Paul

    Email is already being used for pastoral conversations with parishoners; but it has it’s limits. While the Word may be delivered in a general way, the nature of the indicative – operative absolution — like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper — must be “delivered” in that extremely personal, targeted, concrete way or you’re simply back to the general absolution and the precious gift of private confession and absolution is lost.

    So if we’re talking about how God forgives “all sinners” then that’s one thing. But if we’re talking about how God forgives even me in my very specific, personal situation, then a God “out there” doesn’t do what a God who has come “down here” or “to me” can do. Even after private absolution, the penitent is directed to go quickly to the Sacrament. God knows me in the most particular way — and loves and forgives me nevertheless.

  • Paul

    Email is already being used for pastoral conversations with parishoners; but it has it’s limits. While the Word may be delivered in a general way, the nature of the indicative – operative absolution — like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper — must be “delivered” in that extremely personal, targeted, concrete way or you’re simply back to the general absolution and the precious gift of private confession and absolution is lost.

    So if we’re talking about how God forgives “all sinners” then that’s one thing. But if we’re talking about how God forgives even me in my very specific, personal situation, then a God “out there” doesn’t do what a God who has come “down here” or “to me” can do. Even after private absolution, the penitent is directed to go quickly to the Sacrament. God knows me in the most particular way — and loves and forgives me nevertheless.

  • Bror Erickson

    I think I already spend too much time on the computer. I have my problems with cyberconfession. emails back and forth are great and a modern form of letters of Spiritual Counsel. there has always been need for that sort of thing. I don’t know password protecting a confession site may help with some of the abuses that we hashed out last time this topic came up.
    I think we have to be careful to say that forgiveness can’t be delivered over the internet, over a site, or by Email. It most certainly can be. I do think something though may be missing. not that feelings are everything, but I don’t think I would like it as much as I do when I am face to face with my father confessor. And the FBI is pretty good at accessing information that goes out on the web. That is a huge problem with cyberconfession in my mind. So it may work for those sins that aren’t quite crimes, but if you broke any laws, you might want to stay away from the internet, and go the old fashioned rout.

  • Bror Erickson

    I think I already spend too much time on the computer. I have my problems with cyberconfession. emails back and forth are great and a modern form of letters of Spiritual Counsel. there has always been need for that sort of thing. I don’t know password protecting a confession site may help with some of the abuses that we hashed out last time this topic came up.
    I think we have to be careful to say that forgiveness can’t be delivered over the internet, over a site, or by Email. It most certainly can be. I do think something though may be missing. not that feelings are everything, but I don’t think I would like it as much as I do when I am face to face with my father confessor. And the FBI is pretty good at accessing information that goes out on the web. That is a huge problem with cyberconfession in my mind. So it may work for those sins that aren’t quite crimes, but if you broke any laws, you might want to stay away from the internet, and go the old fashioned rout.

  • fw

    the gospel=Jesus crucified for us=forgiveness. I note the passage that says they “pray over” confessions as they come in. They need to FORGIVE those penetents.

    Any announcement of forgiveness is valid. The point is that the penitent trusts in that forgiveness offered.

    My own personal experience is that it is very hard to come out of the darkness into the light. to give up on “anonymous” and “general” confession.

    My own experience also confirms to me that whenever I trust Jesus enough to confess my sins and let Jesus deal with my shame (to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ…) , amazing things happen and I get to know the exact opposite of what I fear in confessing to another flawed human who is my pastor.

  • fw

    the gospel=Jesus crucified for us=forgiveness. I note the passage that says they “pray over” confessions as they come in. They need to FORGIVE those penetents.

    Any announcement of forgiveness is valid. The point is that the penitent trusts in that forgiveness offered.

    My own personal experience is that it is very hard to come out of the darkness into the light. to give up on “anonymous” and “general” confession.

    My own experience also confirms to me that whenever I trust Jesus enough to confess my sins and let Jesus deal with my shame (to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ…) , amazing things happen and I get to know the exact opposite of what I fear in confessing to another flawed human who is my pastor.

  • fw

    #5 correction…
    The point is that the penitent cling to that forgiveness offered and hold God to His word.

    the feeling of trust or faith may be totally absent. This is not at all unusual!

    Let every man (including ones self) be a liar and confess such.

    But God is faithful and true. He has sealed His promise with His own suffering and death.

    He is dead earnest you might say.

    and His words of forgiveness are for everyone without a single exception.

  • fw

    #5 correction…
    The point is that the penitent cling to that forgiveness offered and hold God to His word.

    the feeling of trust or faith may be totally absent. This is not at all unusual!

    Let every man (including ones self) be a liar and confess such.

    But God is faithful and true. He has sealed His promise with His own suffering and death.

    He is dead earnest you might say.

    and His words of forgiveness are for everyone without a single exception.

  • fw

    sorry. one more comment…..

    we are SO like our first parents:

    we go into hiding.
    We try to cover our sinful nakedness in ways that only bring further discomfort.

    God is still the same:

    He calls to us. By name. He seeks us out tenderly and gently with a soft and inviting and fatherly voice. He doesn´t force us or shame us. He does not require us to be ashamed or to even repent. He puts up with our tired excuses and deep denial.

    He clothes us and makes us comfortable at the cost of blood being shed. He forgives us and covers or sins. there is no sinner-as-object-lesson here.

    He tells us the truth. Even if THAT is not so comfortable. There are consequence that can only be endured in blood stained clothing.

    Confession is a simply a continuation of the same conversation that God first had with our first mother and father.

  • fw

    sorry. one more comment…..

    we are SO like our first parents:

    we go into hiding.
    We try to cover our sinful nakedness in ways that only bring further discomfort.

    God is still the same:

    He calls to us. By name. He seeks us out tenderly and gently with a soft and inviting and fatherly voice. He doesn´t force us or shame us. He does not require us to be ashamed or to even repent. He puts up with our tired excuses and deep denial.

    He clothes us and makes us comfortable at the cost of blood being shed. He forgives us and covers or sins. there is no sinner-as-object-lesson here.

    He tells us the truth. Even if THAT is not so comfortable. There are consequence that can only be endured in blood stained clothing.

    Confession is a simply a continuation of the same conversation that God first had with our first mother and father.

  • Paul

    FW: If all of that happens within me, then why do I need the Word and Sacraments? Are they merely for the weak minded or those who do not recognize the spiritual things? I fear that this makes the Gospel only for the elite and not for those, like me, who must hear Him “call us by name” with our actual ears and pour the New Covenant or Testament in His blood into my actual mouth so that I no longer have any life apart from that which He is given me. Yes, there is a place for the general announcement of forgiveness and the ongoing conversation with our dear Father in Heaven. But there is also a “covering in His blood” which blots out my particular sins and writes my particular name in the Book of Life. “Repent and be Baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of sins!”

    And one more thing: how can their be belief without joyful obedience to the command? I fear the common “I don’t have to be Baptized by you to be saved” or “I don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian” or “Jesus forgives me whether or not I forgive others.” But wait! To forgive another is more than just to let it roll off like water from a duck; does it not also include ask for and giving forgiveness one-to-one?

  • Paul

    FW: If all of that happens within me, then why do I need the Word and Sacraments? Are they merely for the weak minded or those who do not recognize the spiritual things? I fear that this makes the Gospel only for the elite and not for those, like me, who must hear Him “call us by name” with our actual ears and pour the New Covenant or Testament in His blood into my actual mouth so that I no longer have any life apart from that which He is given me. Yes, there is a place for the general announcement of forgiveness and the ongoing conversation with our dear Father in Heaven. But there is also a “covering in His blood” which blots out my particular sins and writes my particular name in the Book of Life. “Repent and be Baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of sins!”

    And one more thing: how can their be belief without joyful obedience to the command? I fear the common “I don’t have to be Baptized by you to be saved” or “I don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian” or “Jesus forgives me whether or not I forgive others.” But wait! To forgive another is more than just to let it roll off like water from a duck; does it not also include ask for and giving forgiveness one-to-one?

  • Bror Erickson

    Paul,
    I don’t think FW is saying you can’t or shouldn’t go to your pastor for confession/absolution. I think what he is saying is forgiveness is forgiveness. And if you are afraid at that time to go to your pastor for confession absolution. Take the general it works the same. And so it does. But if you find yourself tortured by the devil, go find a pastor.

  • Bror Erickson

    Paul,
    I don’t think FW is saying you can’t or shouldn’t go to your pastor for confession/absolution. I think what he is saying is forgiveness is forgiveness. And if you are afraid at that time to go to your pastor for confession absolution. Take the general it works the same. And so it does. But if you find yourself tortured by the devil, go find a pastor.

  • fw

    #8 Paul

    Bror is right. I was apparently not clear. I make a weekly practice of recieving Holy Absolution.

    We are to seek Jesus where he tells us to find Him. Only there will we find a God who is reconciled to sinful us.

    I trust in my baptism . where God put His name on me and claimed me.

    I don´t trust my faith or repentance or anything in me.

    My baptism is where what Jesus did on the cross entered my personal existence and was applied to me personally and most certainly.

    That same forgiveness I received in my baptism, I also recieve in the holy supper, in the absolution of my pastor in private and general confession, in the sermon (if it is about Jesus crucified), in the conversation of the saints, in the holy liturgy.

    None of these things require anything in me for them to be sure and certain and FOR ME. Even if I utterly lack faith and repentance or any other quality, I can cling to those signs and believe that they truly deliver what they promise.

    I hope that is more clear….

  • fw

    #8 Paul

    Bror is right. I was apparently not clear. I make a weekly practice of recieving Holy Absolution.

    We are to seek Jesus where he tells us to find Him. Only there will we find a God who is reconciled to sinful us.

    I trust in my baptism . where God put His name on me and claimed me.

    I don´t trust my faith or repentance or anything in me.

    My baptism is where what Jesus did on the cross entered my personal existence and was applied to me personally and most certainly.

    That same forgiveness I received in my baptism, I also recieve in the holy supper, in the absolution of my pastor in private and general confession, in the sermon (if it is about Jesus crucified), in the conversation of the saints, in the holy liturgy.

    None of these things require anything in me for them to be sure and certain and FOR ME. Even if I utterly lack faith and repentance or any other quality, I can cling to those signs and believe that they truly deliver what they promise.

    I hope that is more clear….


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