Every pastor has dealt with sin in the body of Christ, and every pastor longs for an effective, sure-fire way to help believers turn from their sin and pursue righteousness (1 Tim 6.11; 2 Tim 2.22). One way which has gained popularity in recent years is public confession, where people stand in front of a small group, or perhaps a congregation of hundreds, and ‘bare their sin’ for all to see (“I cheated on my wife,” “I embezzled from my employer,” “I’m addicted to drugs – or porn, or alcohol,” etc.).
Psychologically, this can help promote behavior modification, as Alcoholics Anonymous has shown. The humorous depiction of this method in Finding Nemo is memorable:
Bruce: Hello. My name is Bruce.
Anchor, Chum: Hello, Bruce.
Bruce: It has been three weeks since my last fish, on my honor, or may I be chopped up and made into soup. [Anchor and Chum applaud]
Chum: You’re an inspiration to us all!
But as we find out in the movie – and often in real life as well, it’s one thing for Bruce to confess his ‘sin’ of eating fish, but giving up eating fish is another thing! Churches, like Dallas-based Watermark, and ministries like Open Hearts, aggressively promote public confession. When coupled with a support group, this can help people (whether Christians or not) to reverse a destructive course in their lives. But does this have anything to do with authentic spiritual life, or fellowship with God, or pursuing righteousness, or is it just another humanistic method for us to ‘fix’ ourselves (like a whole host of counseling and psychological approaches)?
Some years ago, I visited a Church of Christ that aggressively practiced their Arminian beliefs. If a member stopped attending church, he was ‘falling away’ from the Lord, and in danger of losing his salvation. On the Sunday morning I attended, a young man who hadn’t attended church for some months and had been informed by the church that he was in danger of losing his salvation, came to repent. As a condition for full reinstatement, he stood in front of the congregation and confessed his ‘sin,’ and said he was ready to return to the fold. It was an embarrassing and humbling event, and I couldn’t help thinking that whatever spiritual issues he was dealing with in his life were still unresolved.
I spent a couple of years as a youth pastor in a church which historically confused repentance of sin and going forward after a service with ‘getting saved.’ The result was pitiful confusion, both sad and humorous. Young people, under the conviction of sin at the end of a service, would go forward publicly in confession and repentance for sin, tearfully asking God for forgiveness, and leave with renewed hope that they were now really saved. But too often, they would repeat this act over and over, as they (inevitably) continued to fight with sin.
Now, public confession of sin, whether to ‘maintain’ one’s salvation, prove that one is really saved, or show that ‘I really mean business in dealing with persistent, besetting sin in my life.’ has become faddish in contemporary evangelical Christendom.
There is a danger of confession becoming a pious work, a source of pride. I confess my sins. Do you? Suddenly the far greater sin of pride raises its ugly – if often overlooked – head: “I am so open and honest about my sin! What about you?” The act of confessing is an emotional catharsis which offsets the sinful act itself. We experience cleansing by the act of confessing, not through the blood of Christ. Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who promoted public confession, recognized the dangers inherent in it. In his book Life Together, he writes:
For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious, and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil.
Perhaps the most common verse cited by those promoting ‘public confession’ in the evangelical church is James 5.16a, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” This verse, however, is stretched beyond its proper application by too many today. Dave Anderson (Triumph Through Trials: The Epistle of James, Grace Theology Press, 2013, p237), in reference to this verse, writes:
I tend to think this verse is misapplied today. I see no virtue in standing before a congregation and dumping dirty laundry on them. Our confessions should almost always be to the Lord. The only exceptions I see are when I have hurt another human. Then I go to that person alone.
The promise in 1 John 1.9 is expressly addressing confession to the Lord: “If we confess our sins (not to a small group or congregation, but to the Lord), He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The Roman Catholic church has made confession into a redemptive act – going to a priest, who absolves the penitent sinner of guilt, perhaps also prescribing some meritorious works (say five ‘Hail Mary’s’ and three ‘Our Father’s’). But as every Christian should know, this does nothing to absolve the true guilt of sin! Neither does the ‘Protestant’ public confession resolve this! Sin is sin (whether or not it is public, or hurts another person) because it is against God. Anything that diminishes that fact (by inviting confession to a priest, or a group of people) must surely undermine the deepest, personal, and spiritual aspect of confession.
I cannot find a single instance where public confession (before the whole church) is taught in the New Testament. Even (especially) in Corinth, where the sins were public, Paul never even intimates at a public confession. An openly sinning member is not called to public repentance; he is put out of the fellowship of the church until he stops practicing his sin. Those who have taken each other to court are instructed to stop doing this. Those who had engaged in sexual sin (which was rampant in Corinth) are exhorted to “flee immorality,” but no church confession is called for. The problems within churches, from interpersonal squabbles to abandonment of sound doctrine to the love of money, and on and on, provided a multitude of opportunities for early church leaders to call for believers to ‘come clean’ in public, but they do not. Why?
Perhaps it is because the act of doing so itself impinges on the pristine spiritual intimacy which truly thrives only when it takes root in the hidden places of the heart. Let us beware, lest we – in our desire to help others find victory over sin, end up instead supplanting the Spirit’s unique role in cleansing hearts and lives, with an act of human piety.
Where does true victory come from? Romans 8 declares that it is in the confidence alone that ‘God is for us’ (31), that God will, with Christ, ‘give us all things’ (32), that we are justified and no longer face condemnation (33-34a), that Christ ‘intercedes for us’ (34b), and that ‘nothing can separate us from the love of Christ’ (35, 38-39). As a result, ‘we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us’ (37). No gimmicks, no choreographed public confessions. Just the truth of who we are in Christ, and what He has done for us.