“Do you have anything you’d like to confess to me before we begin?” An acquaintance who was hoping to become an Orthodox priest had invited us over for dinner, and was now standing in his living room in full Sunday morning regalia, preparing to lead 6 of us in a worship service.
Bill and I have visited churches of all kinds, but this was one of the most unusual. Though we’d known a couple of people over the years who attended ethnic (Greek, Romanian) Orthodox churches, and we’ve benefitted greatly from using the daily devotional materials produced by Father Patrick Reardon of the Antiochan Orthodox Church, this stream of of Christian practice wasn’t too terribly familiar to us. (Most of us in the West are far more familiar with Catholicism.)
This guy had turned a section of his apartment’s living room into an altar, complete with icons and all the elements of a church. After we had dinner, he donned his vestments, lit the incense, and we gamely followed along as he prepared to lead us in a full worship service. The whole thing was an interesting but odd experience for us. We liked him, but it was our only visit to his apartment cathedral.
But his question about confession bounced around in my head for a long time. Most of our church attendance up to that point had been in non-denominational and Messianic Jewish congregations. We knew something about liturgy as a result of the latter, but had never had someone who’d offered to hear our confessions. We turned him down that evening.
Later, I wondered if he was going to invite us one at a time into the bathroom to share our dirty laundry in private.
James’s letter instructs us in the context of community to pray and celebrate together, trusting our physical needs to our spiritual shepherds. That trust is an expression of faith in our Healer. James then adds this imperative statement to that string of instructions: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (vs. 16) Confession puts us in right standing with God and with our brothers and sisters.
Sacramental, liturgical churches typically have a time of corporate confession during worship. In addition, Catholic and some Lutheran and Anglican congregations have rites and spaces (that thankfully, usually aren’t in a bathroom) where individuals can confess their sin to a priest or pastor. These leaders are fellow sinners, but in their office, they function as listener, interceder and prophetic voice when a congregant brings a confession to them.
Low-church Evangelicals don’t really have an alternative. We may borrow some form of formal corporate confession to use in our worship services, and oh do we love the before-and-after stories where someone confesses Christ as Lord in their life. A few people may bring a biggie to a pastor, but most pastors I know don’t make a habit out of hearing congregants confessions. We’re all priests, so in theory this should mean that anyone at church could hear my confession. The idea supports those words in James 5:16, but in practice, this isn’t at all how it works. Most of the time, we Evangelicals are encouraged to take our sin to Jesus and leave out the middleman. And let us not forget that confessing our sins can to others can sometimes have disastrous consequences in the form of gossip or worse. It’s excruciating to tell someone else we’ve screwed up.
But Scripture tells us that the “middleman”, others in our community, may be the conduit of God’s healing to us. While David could cry out for mercy for his sin in Psalm 51, the whole nation of Israel confessed their sin to one another and to God in Nehemiah 9. Sometimes the only thing that breaks through our shame and the power of sin and shame is the act of speaking the words to another person who can preach the gospel to us, not with an expository three-point sermon, but by praying with us and directing us afresh to the only One who can pronounce us forgiven.
If you attend a church where formal confession is not a regular part of your congregational life, who do you go to when you have a sin you wish to confess to another person? Or do you just pray it through yourself? Does this practice reflect the intent of the instruction given us in James 5?
Note: I touched briefly on the topic of confession earlier this year in this post.