The question was raised in response to an essay by the Reverend Rolf Preus on the roles and relationships of men and women within the home and family and in the life of the Church. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking presentation, which is worth reading for the sake of discussion and debate, even if one does not finally agree with all of its positions and proposals. In any event, the particular question at hand pertains to one specific point, concerning which Pastor Preus has offered this counsel:
While private confession and absolution is a great blessing to the church, there are matters that are simply inappropriate for a woman to discuss with a man who is not her husband. God only knows how many pastor / parishioner relationships that began with a woman confessing her sexual sins to her pastor were concluded by the two of them sinning sexually together.
A woman can speak from within herself to another woman in a way a man cannot. No, this is not the ministry of the word, but it is a blessing from God. A woman can listen, understand, and give woman to woman counsel that no pastor can give.
The Concordian Sisters have asked whether this counsel is good and right. Should a woman, with respect to her sexual sins, be deprived of the opportunity to avail herself of Confession and Absolution from her pastor? The question is not whether she must confess her sexual sins in the context of that means of grace, but whether she may do so. Is she free to confess those sins that she knows and feels in her heart, in order to receive the Absolution, that is forgiveness, from her pastor as from God Himself? Or does propriety demand that she forego that particular benefit and comfort of the Gospel?
I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Pastor Preus, and more than once have I appreciated and benefitted from his faithful confession of the Word of God. There can be no question of his conscientious integrity, his knowledge of the Scriptures, his commitment to the Lutheran Confessions, and the legitimacy of his concerns. It is surely true that a pastor must be scrupulous in his conduct and above reproach; that he must avoid even the appearance of impropriety; and that he must, by all means, flee temptation of every kind. Without a doubt, these things must be kept in mind, and adhered to in practice, as the pastor goes about serving the women of the flock entrusted to his care.
All of that having been said, sincerely and with due respect, I find myself unable to agree with Pastor Preus in regards to his comments and counsel on this point. I welcome the correction and instruction of my fathers in Christ if I am the one who is mistaken here, but I am presently troubled by the suggestion that a woman should not confess certain sins to her pastor. [Note: Please see the helpful clarification from Pastor Preus, posted in the comments.] The Concordian Sisters, already in raising the question, have articulated several of the most compelling reasons for my own disagreement. I likewise concur with Pastor Heath Curtis in the comments he has offered there. Along with those good points, allow me to offer some additional considerations that have come to mind as I've been contemplating a pastoral response to the question at hand.
First of all, it bothers me the way that Pastor Preus has staged his counsel. He writes that "God only knows how many pastor / parishioner relationships that began with a woman confessing her sexual sins to her pastor were concluded by the two of them sinning sexually together." Yet, by this very remark, he implies that rather a lot of these sinful situations have arisen as a result of Confession and Absolution. Since "God only knows," we should not presume to know; nor should we cast such broad aspersions against nameless neighbors near and far. It raises unfounded and unnecessary doubts and suspicions concerning every pastor, the pastoral office, the practice of Individual Confession, and sincere penitents in search of the forgiveness of sins.
Warning against the confession of sexual sins has several unfortunate consequences. On the one hand, it stigmatizes sexual sin as more serious and threatening than any other sin; yet, at the same time, it suggests that sexual sin need not (and should not) be dealt with in the deliberate and serious way that Christians are given to deal with their sins. I agree that sexual sins and temptations have a peculiar power and destructiveness about them, but not beyond the power of the Gospel to grant healing with the free and full forgiveness of Christ. Indeed, precisely because sexual sins and temptations can be so perverse, pervasive and persistent, all the more reason for them to be addressed through contrition and repentance, self-examination, confession and, most important, Holy Absolution. The listening, understanding and counsel of another woman, whether a deaconess or simply a faithful sister in Christ, may indeed be very helpful and appropriate, but these are not the same thing as the pastoral care of Holy Absolution.
Pastor Preus acknowledges that the Christian care of another woman is not the Ministry of the Word, and this point underscores another problematic aspect of his counsel. It suggests that the Ministry of the Word and Holy Absolution are not of such a significant benefit as to be worth seeking out. They are deemed more risky than helpful. But that implication has ramifications far beyond the particular case of sexual sins. It contributes to a misunderstanding of Individual Confession and Absolution, and it increases prejudice against the practice. If it is so dangerous to confess one sort of sin, then it surely must be dangerous to confess anything at all. Thus, what ought to be viewed as the sweet comfort of the Gospel is viewed, instead, with mistrust and apprehension.
Individual Confession and Absolution, far from increasing the threat of further or greater sin, provides not only tremendous comfort but also the strongest sort of help against the assaults of the devil, the world and the sinful flesh. It is to make use of the living and active Word of God, the sharp two-edged sword of the Spirit, both the Law and the Gospel, which crucifies the flesh with its sinful lusts and desires and raises the penitent to newness of life in Christ Jesus. Here is the best defense and the strongest offense against every shameful vice. Not only in the case of sexual sin, but no less so in such a case. Naming the sin for what it is, and putting it to death with the Law of God, and then receiving the life-giving medicine of the Gospel, which is the forgiveness of sins in the Name of Christ, that goes to the heart of the matter and provides the only real remedy, the only true and lasting help.
I do not claim that repentance and forgiveness are only to be found in Individual Confession and Absolution. The Gospel is proclaimed and bestowed in numerous other ways, by other means of grace, and so the point here is not to argue that Individual Confession and Absolution is necessary. It is, however, useful and beneficial, meet, right and salutary. It is freely given to be freely received in faith, because it is a means of the Gospel and not a requirement of the Law. It is neither commanded nor forbidden, and that is precisely to the point. It should not be forbidden, nor should it be withheld, from the repentant sinner who desires forgiveness and the special comfort of the Absolution. The forgiveness of sins may be heard and received wherever the Gospel is preached and administered, but there is a unique blessing and benefit in the practice of Individual Confession and Absolution. Nowhere else is the Gospel brought to bear more personally and precisely. Nowhere else is there quite the same opportunity for pastoral care and pastoral counsel, by which the penitent is guided with the Word of God and guarded against temptations.
Let us take to heart the special gifts of the Spirit that God bestows upon and with the Office of the Holy Ministry. Luther, Melanchthon and Chemnitz all confess the strength and benefits accompanying the pastoral office; deriving not only from the training and preparation received in the course of studies and practice, but in and with the divine call and ordination. Of course, no pastor is infallible, nor should any man proceed as though he were. We who are called and ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry are men of flesh and blood, and we must necessarily guard our hearts and actions. Yet, we are confident in Christ, who has called us to this Office and provides us with His gracious gifts for the sake of His people. We should not shy away from doing what He has given us to do, but rely upon His Word and exercise faithfully our stewardship of His Mysteries. The Office does make a difference.
There is also a great benefit to be found in the ritual form of Individual Confession and Absolution. The objective structure of the rite, the steady guidance it provides, and its clear connections to the entire liturgical life of the Church, all lend protection against trivialization, temptation and abuse. Although it is absolutely private with respect to confidentiality, and altogether personal in its bestowal of the Gospel, it is a public rite and ceremony of the Church. Accordingly, it follows the order provided in the Church's service books, it is administered within the sanctuary of the Church, and the pastor is fully vested. It is not a private encounter with the person of the pastor, but a liturgical encounter with a pastor of the Church. I would agree that confessions of sexual sin outside of this objective liturgical context, as for example in conversations with the pastor in his study or in the parishioner's home, should be avoided; or the "conversation" should be pointedly moved into the sanctuary and taken up in the rite of Confession and Absolution.
It is most helpful if the penitent already has an established discipline and practice of Individual Confession. Then there is already in place a well-defined pastor/parishioner relationship, one that is normed by the Word of God, by the regular exercise of the Law and the Gospel. That would be good and right for every Christian, irrespective of the need for any confession of sexual sins. Self-examination and confession are primary ways in which a Christian uses the Law of God unto repentance, to guard his heart and guide his steps, and ultimately to be turned again and again to the Gospel of Christ. The regular practice of Individual Confession and Absolution enlivens the Christian through the forgiveness of sins; strengthens and supports the Christian in the avoidance of false belief, despair and other great shame and vice; and prepares the Christian to deal with the struggles of temptation and the daily fall into sin that pervades our life on earth.
What is good for all the people of God, is good also for the pastor, and all the more important for the pastor. No man should be hearing confession if he is not making confession to his own father confessor with some regularity. He needs the discipline of self-examination and confession to guard his own heart, to maintain the genuine humility of repentance and the proper fear of God, and to become a faithful and merciful pastor of the people in the administration of Christ's gifts. He needs, too, the enlivening grace of the Gospel, the forgiveness of his sins, the strengthening and support of his faith in Christ, against temptations of every kind, whether of lust or pride or despair or any other evil. Encouraging every pastor to be availing himself of Individual Confession and Absolution with a father in Christ offers a better protection against the danger of sexual sin than advising against the confession of sexual sins by the women of his flock.