A Tale of Two Sinners and Their Confessions

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

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.

Update II – I have posted a retraction of my comments directed at Mars Hill and a clarification here.

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:

How the Confession of My Sins Kept me in the Church Part II

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

9 Comments

  1. Robin says:

    Do you think that in the church settings such as the one mentioned above, there are many people marinating in similar sins but unable to confess for fear of what happened to Andrew? To me, that would be the most torturous; knowing you have sin, wanting desperately to be forgiven, but have to pretend because you couldn’t bear to have Andrew’s story be your story as well. In some ways, it was probably a bit of a relief to have confessed it. In Andrew’s case you probably feel hurt and anger but what are these other poor souls going through? In all seriousness, if it persisted long enough I could see suicidal tendencies.
    Doesn’t Dr. Rosenbladt say in the Gospel for those Broken by the Church that you get to the point to where you are totally beside yourself because no matter what happens, your damned anyway. I think you should send a copy of Gospel for those Broken by the Church to every member at MH!!

    • Pat K says:

      I think that right now. tens of thousands who have seen this whole thing have covenanted with themselves NEVER to confess their sins to a pastor or fellow Christian ever again. Who can blame them?

  2. It strikes me that the Roman doctrine of Satisfaction is alive and well in many Reformed churches.

  3. jtk says:

    David, a man after God’s own heart, committed WHAT SINS?!?!

    Paul, who wrote about half of the New Testament was guilty of WHAT?!?!

    ahhh perspective….

  4. Observer says:

    There is no way I would ever confess my sins to the pastor or elders in my church. I have been on the leadership team and have heard confidential information (that I assume were for the ears of that one person and not for the entire leadership of the church) that I felt I had NO right to hear. It was just plain wrong (in my estimation), but they didn’t seem to think anything was wrong because we were all on the leadership team.

    • Pat K says:

      In the Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions, the pastors are sworn by a solemn oath to keep the seal of the Confessional and NEVER divulge your sins to another person. This is a really big deal in these circles, and if they break this confidence they will be kicked out of the ministry. I know this is small comfort to those who have been hurt , or people like yourself who have witnessed gross pastoral malpractice on a regular basis. What a tragedy…. Situations like the one you describe ensure that Christians remain cut off from having the Gospel personally applied to them and the assurance of of God’s forgiveness, and certainly will result in people leaving the faith. Note that I am NOT saying they are actually cut of from God’s forgiveness, but from the great assurance that comes from having it applied to their particular personal situation. Some things are harder to believe on your own or when presented generally. May the Lord have mercy on us.

  5. ryan says:

    Frustrating. Troubling. Disconcerting. Sad. Frightening. I will freely admit that I underwent my own church discipline in 2000 at Overlake Christian Church and this story horrifyingly reminds me my own account, with much pain and trembling, even 12 years later. My heart BREAKS for Andrew. My flesh CRAWLS at reading this article. We are to be Jesus with skin on. We are to faithfully administer God’s GRACE in its various forms. Legalistic tarring and feathering of God’s chosen people, His royal priesthood, His holy nation, does NOT result in better community or better growth. It results in an impoverished church, a beleaguered sense of trust in God and the body of Christ, and cultivates a climate of fear-based worship where God’s children are walking on eggshells. I can only imagine what Andrew must feel right now. Andrew, I love you in Jesus’ Name. You are repentant, you have repented, and you are forgiven. I do not know you, I have never met you, but you are LOVED IN JESUS’ NAME. I am deeply proud of you for bringing your sin into the light, and for bringing Mars Hill’s leadership’s sin into the light as well. Knowing church discipline all too well, I can freely also admit that one sin that cost me my position of leadership, my community at the church, my connection to the body of Christ there, etc., also eventually lead to an even greater sin which cost me my freedom and sent me to prison. I do not blame my actions on the church or the leadership, but I will indefatigably say that there is an inexorable tie between the church discipline / excommunication I received from Overlake Christian Church, and my eventual crime. Do I wish I could take back my crime? Yes. But I also wish with all my heart that I could take back the church discipline I received, and replace it with something restorative like a warm hug. Alas, warm hugs are not mentioned in Scripture for those undergoing church discipline. And such a legalistic, grace-lacking approaches only send us further down the drain, with no hope of compassionate restoration. Wash your hands of us if you will, you beloved megachurches, and in the process so subsequently condemn yourselves as unloving, uncompassionate, and unbiblical. Jesus loves me the same that he does me, and that is my Amen, because truthfully I’d rather ALWAYS be the guy beating his chest, saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner” than be you.

    • truth says:

      First of all sin must be repented of by all of us without exception. Secondly if anyone in your life is so squishy soft as to ignore the mandate to “expose the deeds of darkness” than they are in league with satan not with the truth of the word of God and they are helping you damn your own soul…should you really be seeking to be hugged when your sin has so greatly offended God who is perfectly Holy and that you have so obviously offended and hurt the one(s) for whom you were forced into a prison sentence over??? It would be like saying…”I can’t follow Christ and His truth because people are being mean to me and asking me to tell the truth about my sin (confess) and further abandon my lies (turn and repent) which I have loved with all my life!” It reminds me of a story that a man who said he was seeking to get out of a homosexual lifestyle and the pastor said “We don’t accept fags at our church!” and so this man leaves and says he couldn’t possibly follow Christ because of this offensive pastor and what he had said to him in his greatest time of need. So I make this argument – Has God’s absolute truth changed in this circumstance? No-He and His truth are “the same yesterday, today and forever.” So then this man who is seeking to “escape the condemnation” of his own sin is not really interested in following Christ as Savior and His complete exposure of this man’s sin but rather have someone console him in his sin rather than call him out of it by the truth of the Word of God….You will indeed perish if you do not acknowledge your sin and repent of it and it will continue to destroy your soul and sear your conscience until you are unable to acknowledge your sin…Repent and be saved…if you don’t think your sin is sin then you don’t need a Savior and you have made Christ into nothing and He won’t be made into nothing even in your eyes…

  6. Robin says:

    Truth, if a young man who was convicted of his homosexuality brought that to light to a pastor, why would that pastor say no ‘fags’ are allowed in our church? Why wouldn’t he first talk about our sinful condition (which obviously this young man was aware of or he wouldn’t want to get out of that lifestyle) then give him the gospel? i.e. tell him about forgiveness found in Christ? Why would you ever turn a sinner away from church? Isn’t that where they need to be if your church is proclaiming the law and the gospel?

    One last thing… why would a pastor use the word ‘fag’ toward someone?

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