So the Scripture says, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” And so some evangelical churches have counseled their congregants, specifically their male congregants, hound dogs that they are, to find someone they trust to hold them accountable.
For what, you may ask? Not the two sets of books, one for the elders and one for the IRS that doesn’t include the $75,000 per annum spent on repairing drum kits.
For their miserable sins, of course. The purpose is quite a serious one. Given the individualistic nature of so much of evangelical Christianity, and also the sheer size of even mini-megachurches, having someone to confide in, even confess to, is a way of building safeguards against wandering off the straight and narrow of sanctification into the gutter of unspeakable naughtiness.
This short piece, which I found over at the Christian Post, is very telling:
I don’t remember any time I told an outright lie to my partners, but I was certainly deceptive:
- I would sugar-coat stories of recently committed sins with well-rehearsed words of humility and self-attrition.
- I would play the “elapsed time game” with my partners, strategically placing a week or so between the sin and the confession. This was my way of building up some track record of good behavior so my sin would seem insignificant.
- I would give surface answers to questions about my sin, revealing only enough information to soothe my conscience. I would avoid talking about more subtle sins like lustful fantasies and motives.
- I would have more than one accountability partner at a time so I could “rotate” my confessions. Each person was really only getting part of the overall story of how bad my sin had become.
I once asked Father Neuhaus if, during his years as a Lutheran pastor, he had encouraged his parishioners to make use of personal confession (a practice never abandoned by Lutherans, although it’s a well-kept secret in many congregations). He said “Constantly.” I asked how many availed themselves of it. “Almost none” was his reply.
Confession to a minister just doesn’t compute to Protestants, even to those who never formally abandoned the practice, like Anglicans and Lutherans. Isn’t that one of those “phony” sacraments we happily abandoned at the Reformation, along with relics, penance, and flying buttresses? What do we need with a merely human mediator, when we have the one and only mediator between man and God, Jesus? And do I have to confess every errant thought? Are we to start making distinctions between venial and mortal sins? And why is it called a whimple?
The questions never end, and so the practice never begins.
Luther, for one, retained private confession because
in it consciences afflicted and crushed by the terrors of sin lay themselves bare and receive consolation which they could not acquire in public preaching. We want to open up confession as a port and refuge for those whose consciences the devil holds enmeshed in his snares and whom he completely bewitches and torments in such a way that they cannot free or extricate themselves and feel and see nothing else but that they must perish. For there is no other greater misery in this life than the pains and perplexities of a heart that is destitute of guidance and solace.
I have a high regard for private confession, for here God’s word and absolution are spoken privately and individually to each believer for the forgiveness of his sins, and as often as he desires it he may have recourse to it for this forgiveness, and also for comfort, counsel, and guidance. Thus it is a precious, useful thing for souls, as long as no one is driven to it with laws and commandments but sinners are left free to make use of it, each according to his own need, when and where he wishes; just as we are free to obtain counsel and comfort, guidance and instruction when and where our need or our inclination moves us. And as long as one is not forced to enumerate all sins but only those which oppress him most grievously.
Please note that Luther insisted that private confession remain strictly
…voluntary and that the pope’s tyranny should cease. As a result we are now rid of his coercion and set free from the intolerable load and burden that he laid upon Christendom. As we all know from experience, there had been no rule so burdensome as the one that forced everyone to go to Confession on pain of committing the most serious of mortal sins. That law also placed on consciences the heavy burden and torture of having to list all kinds of sin, so that no one was ever able to confess perfectly enough. The worst was that no one taught or even knew what Confession might be or what help and comfort it could give. Instead, it was turned into sheer terror and a hellish torture that one had to go through even if one detested Confession more than anything. These three oppressive things have now been lifted, and we have been granted the right to go to Confession freely, under no pressure of coercion or fear; also, we are released from the torture of needing to list all sins in detail; besides this we have the advantage of knowing how to make a beneficial use of Confession for the comfort and strengthening of our consciences.
When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian.
Now for those of you unfortunates who are not Lutheran, I would say that picking out an “accountability partner” is a dicey bit of business. This is something quite different from what Luther called confessing to a Christian brother, which is a means of unburdening oneself and receiving the peace that passes understanding. The accountability business, at least as far as I can tell, also entails a kind of disciplining, or discipling, of the person being held accountable: by bringing sins into the light, one presumably will receive direction and counsel so as to avoid further occasions for that sin.
There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But while the writer of the “confession” in the Christian Post article describes one sort of problem — not being completely truthful with the person meant to keep you honest — another problem I can imagine is when the layman holding you accountable self-ordains, that is, begins acting like your pastor, with the power to discipline truly and even excommunicate. Or humiliate. (See the problem one poor soul had at Mark Driscoll’s church.)
In all my years in the LCMS, from childhood into my late teens, I never once, not once, heard a pastor or chaplain encourage us to make use of private confession. Not in Sunday school. Not during Confirmation classes. Not in church during Lent. Not during religion classes in high school. Not during chapel every Wednesday. Never. And it was a pretty sober and sound Lutheran congregation I grew up in. We had two litiurgies: Matins and Holy Communion, which alternated Sunday to Sunday. We had kneelers. We had traditional hymns. We received Communion wine from a common cup and the Host on the tongue, not like the hippies in the Vatican II Catholic Church with the standing and the palming. We had soporific sermons. Breathing was discouraged lest that damn charismatic renewal break out.
But private confession? Never.
I considered an accountability partner when I was a member of an evangelical church. I actually auditioned several people I thought would be empathetic and indulgent, especially in regard to crimes committed across state lines involving circus folk and large limes. Those who didn’t suffer petit mal seizures from the court sketches I produced insisted that I was more in need of an exorcist.
Now that’s too Catholic.
For those of you who wonder whether I practice private confession today, fortunately, I do not sin, and therefore I would only be going through the motions. Now before someone says, “He who says he is without sin is a liar,” let me admit that I do in fact lie, and lie regularly. So I’m caught in a kind of vicious circle. Or a Mobius strip. Or a non sequitur. You know, one of those things that once you’re in you can’t get out. Like an episode of Extreme Couponing. Which I’m confessing to everyone now.
So get off my back.