Update: A friend on staff at Mars Hill reached out to me following the publication of this post. In light of our discussion I am disabling the links to the story in question and will be publishing a retraction and clarification this evening.
A prominent Pastor from a very large church is embroiled in controversy. A member of his congregation fell into sin and soon after confessed it. What follows is a freaking train wreck. ‘Church discipline’ was clumsily attempted and soon grew out of control. The young man was forced to confess the same sin numerous times to different people and groups of people over the period of a month. He was forced to dig up his past sins and confess those too. The young man ends up leaving the church after he confessed and repented multiple times. The church excommunicates him anyway and publishes a letter instructing other church members in techniques to shun the young man should they run into him on the street or at a party.
No, really, they actually did that. You can read part 1 of his story here. Part 2 is here.
In addition, I wish that this was the only situation of it’s type that I know of. Unfortunately it is not
I went through a similar situation, but with a dramatically different outcome. Below is a post I wrote about it a couple of years ago:
Back in March of this year I put up part I of this post and talked a bit about corporate confession and absolution and how its regular practice helped anchor me in the church. There is a second part to this story and it deals with private confession and absolution.
This will probably come as a shock to many of our readers, but the Lutherans retained the use of private confession, (as in “going to confession” in front of a priest or Pastor) and many faithful pastors still regularly hear the confessions of their flock and pronounce Christ’s forgiveness in absolution. Article XI of the Augsburg Confession says:
Article XI: Of Confession.
1] Of Confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession 2] an enumeration of all sins is not necessary. For it is impossible according to the Psalm: Who can understand his errors? Ps. 19:10
In Article XI of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession it says:
It is well known that we have so elucidated and extolled [that we have preached, written, and taught in a, manner so Christian, correct, and pure] the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys that many distressed consciences have derived consolation from our doctrine; after they heard that it is the command of God, nay, rather the very voice of the Gospel, that we should believe the absolution, and regard it as certain that the remission of sins is freely granted us for Christ’s sake; and that we should believe that by this faith we are truly reconciled to God [as though we heard a voice from heaven]. This belief has encouraged many godly minds…”
The enumeration of sins is done away with (the idea that only the sins you confess are forgiven) and likewise the assigning of works of penance is also excluded. The Lutherans have preserved a very Gospel centered version, stripped of any vestige of works righteousness.
Individual confession and absolution has almost entirely disappeared in modern protestantism and is unheard of in Evangelicalism. But is the individual confession of sins really so shocking?
Type the word “confession” into any search engine and see how many sites come up where people can confess all the bad things they have done, often without any reference to Christ or even God. The confession of sins seems to be almost a basic need for anyone with a conscience.
Our forefathers in the faith wisely understood this and sought to preserve a venue where the Gospel could be applied to individual sinners and their sin. During the Reformation, and for some time after, no one could partake of the Lord’s Supper unless they went to Confession first and were absolved. Things aren’t near so strict today, but most Lutheran Pastors will offer private confession if asked.
Many years ago, long after I had become a Christian, and years after I had joined the Lutheran Church, I suffered some major life setbacks and loss that I did not see coming and was ill prepared for. I never thought I would find myself in that position, and my reaction was, putting it delicately, not constructive. I fought to hold on to my faith and my reason, but just ended up watching them slip away. What was a young man who found himself single,and without family close by, living near the beach in Southern California to do? To embrace the types of dissipation common to young men in my situation and geographical area was the answer I settled on. I call these the ‘Dark Years.’ (Doesn’t scripture say something about what your hand finds to do, do it with all your might?) Things went from really bad to a lot worse.
I was attending church sporadically, and my pastor was teaching on the subject of individual Confession. I was hesitant to go. Another friend who is a pastor urged me to go, and when I protested that my sin was really bad, he rebuked me for having such pride in my sin, thinking that it was too great to be forgiven, and thinking that my Pastor hadn’t heard equal or worse many times before.
I salved my tortured conscience for awhile with the idea that I didn’t need any man to hear my sins, but could confess to God. That didn’t work too well. For one thing my conscience was on fire, and my feeble pleas for forgiveness did nothing to quench those flames. Furthermore, I had lost the ability to ‘control’ my sins, so even when I begged for forgiveness, it seemed that my prayers were bouncing off a stone wall. Many times I would pray for forgiveness and get up off my knees to immediately rush headlong into my favorite sins. The whole mess was taking a toll.
Finally, I gave in and showed up at the Church on a Saturday during the hours my Pastor had scheduled to hear confession.
He was all business. He had me turn to page 310 in Lutheran Worship (also known as the Blue Hymnal) and we followed the service for individual confession. He didn’t seem shocked at my sins. I regurgitated all my sins and hatefulness and at the end of it all he placed his hands on my head and said “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I forgive you all of your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” For the first time in a long while a flicker of hope appeared.
I would like to be able to say that all my sins immediately went away and that Confession worked like magic. But that is not what happened. Actually, things got worse before they got better. I went to Confession two or three times a month, sometimes more. I tried to attend church more regularly, and since we have communion every week, partook of the Lord’s Supper every time I went. I would try to attend Evening Prayer on Wednesday nights. At one point I had missed both worship and confession for a couple weeks. Pastor asked me where I had been and I told him I had not been in any kind of condition to be in church. He looked me right in the eye and said “If you can drive safely, come. You need to be here.” That was some of the most godly advice I have ever received. (I took him up on those words a couple of times. You should have seen the look on the faces of the ushers and those in the back pews. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was beyond caring what anyone thought.)
As the oil of forgiveness and hope soaked into my wounds, some of my sins fell away quickly, others faded away over weeks and months, and some still remain. The weekly rhythm of confession and absolution, the application of the Gospel to me, in my sin, slowly started to rebuild my faith and hope. To see and hear the Gospel incarnated every week in my Pastor literally gave me my life back. If I had not been able to hear God’s forgiveness for me week after week, month after month, I would have given up attending worship and taking the Lord’s Supper a long time ago. The discouragement and defeat would have been too much to bear.
Those days were a long time ago. Looking back, it almost seems like another life. Man, those were some hard days. Thank God for the gift of His Word and faithful pastors who can bring it.
I know many people will scoff at the idea of confessing your sins to a pastor, and even more people vehemently reject the idea that a man can speak forgiveness to people in the stead and by the command of Jesus. Hey, even many Lutherans reject these teachings. (Shows they don’t even know their own doctrine and heritage.) That’s unfortunate.
Romans 2:4 says that its God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, and I think the Church and the world could use some strongly focused Gospel these days. There are lots of people that are aching to hear God’s forgiveness in Christ. Confession is a great tool for pastoral ministry and a magnificent gift from Christ to His bride. My advice to anyone who finds themselves trapped in a sin is to find a pastor that will hear your confession. It saved my life and faith, it can do the same for yours.
In light of the two situations outlined above, I have a few observations.
1. Many churches that consider discipline a ‘mark’ of the church have systems in place for discipline that have more in common with business or psychological counseling that they do with scripture.
2. Attempts at church discipline that do not take into account the history of how the church has dealt with this in the past usually end up doing a very poor job at ‘reinventing the wheel’ so to speak.
3. Jesus set the bar pretty low when it comes to confession and repentance. Matt 18:21-22 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” What is our justification for making guys like Andrew confess and repent multiple times in front of multiple groups and individuals?
4. Schemes for church discipline such as those at Mars Hill and elsewhere belie an over dependence on ‘programs’ and systems to effect actual change in a believer.
5. Andrew’s excommunication seems to have more to do with him not continuing to ingratiate himself to the church leadership than a lack of confession and repentance.
As a side note, I have seen and heard of discipline being exercised in Lutheran churches, and it is a fearsome and humbling thing, but its an entirely different than what happened to Andrew. The people involved were truly unrepentant and continuing in flagrant public sins that publicly and continually shamed the church in the community.By Pat K