18 October 2008

What Sins Should We (Not) Confess?

The Concordian Sisters have raised a good question concerning the propriety and benefit of a woman confessing sexual sins to her pastor. Because they asked for a pastoral response, and because it is a good question to begin with, I offer some thoughts-out-loud on the matter.

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.

12 comments:

Rev. Myles R. Schultz said...

"...but before God we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts." LSC "What sins should we confess?" under the 5 Chief Part.

There has been more than one couple I've known to have received freedom from guilt to live stronger marriages after private confession which has led to confessing one to another followed by forgivenss. "God only knows..." how many others have found the same forgiveness.

Rebekah said...

Thank you, Father Rick. I really appreciate both your counsel and your willingness to address the topic.

Susan said...

#1. When anything is off-limits in the confessional (whether it's a sin you "oughtn't" confess, or from fear of a pastor who doesn't quite understand the seal is actually a seal), the ramifications go further than anybody would expect. For one thing, one must measure the words carefully, avoiding certain topics and giving them wide enough berth that it could very well be that other sins, too, are not confessed. Second thing, when a penitent "holds back" a sin and does not verbalize it, that just puts a huge club in the hand of Satan and invites him to beat you with it; "See, THAT sin isn't forgiven; that one is too much to tell the pastor about."

#2. The pastor is called to be Christ's ears and Christ's voice. It may be difficult for him to hear confession of sexual sins. It also may be difficult for him to hear confession of wife abuse, or embezzlement, or a parishioner who hates him, or any number of other things. It may be difficult for him to hear confession of "little" sins (like impatience or anger or depression) when the person continues to come back time after time after time, still sinning, and then the pastor is tempted to find a "solution" in something other than the absolution. This is where, as Rick said, the pastor needs his own father-confessor. And he also needs the fervent prayers of his parishioners.

#3. I seldom disagree with Rolf; I hold him in high esteem. But in this instance, I disagree. From whence comes the power to amend one's sinful life? Advice from a godly Christian woman? Counsel from the Word of God regarding His law and how one should live? Those are both good things. They are critically necessary. But both are grounded in the law. The Holy Absolution found in private confession WILL begin to change the heart. It will create a new heart and a new mind. The gospel will have a power to "make new" that far surpasses any efforts on my part.

Peter reminds us often that we cannot expect one shot at private confession to undo years and years of struggle against sin. He often says that 20 years of marital difficulty or 30 years of besetting sin is not going to be [poof] undone by going to confession once. It may take 10 or 20 years of going to confession. But it will work. Few know this because it's something that can only be known [gasp] experientially,... by actually making a regular practice of private confession for a long time. But for those who have done so, they know the joys and they know the power of that sacrament.

#4. And now, to be really shocking... I'm going to suggest that the dangers Pr Preus foresees are a transgression of the Second Table, whereas the solution he proposes is a transgression against the First Table (particularly the 2nd & 3rd commandments). Sexual sin and sexual temptation are grievous, and the pastor's sexual sin would result in his defrocking and the muzzling of the gospel from his lips. But I fear that it is too easy for us to minimize the sin against the First Table which happens when we limit where the comfort of the absolution can be spoken to a broken and contrite sinner.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

I post the following at the request of Pastor Rolf Preus, as he does not have a blogger account and this blog does not allow "anonymous" comments:


Erich Heidenreich has been kind enough to share with me comments posted in response to these paragraphs in a paper I gave this past June:

“But a deaconess can be a tremendous benefit to the church specifically in serving women in a way that a pastor cannot. 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 do. 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 respondents have interpreted my words to say that I do not believe that a woman should confess her sexual sins to her pastor. I did not say that. After saying that private confession and absolution is a great blessing I added that there are matters that a woman should not discuss with a man who isn’t her husband. I was not equating confessing with discussing. In fact, I was attempting to distinguish between them. It is one thing to confess. It is another to discuss. All Christians should feel free to confess to their pastor all of their sins, especially those they know and feel in their hearts, and that includes women who suffer the guilt from having committed sexual sins. We confess our sins and God forgives us our sins through the voice of his minister. Confessing and discussing are quite distinct, in my view. Confession may entail further discussion. It may not. As I said, there are some matters that are inappropriate for a woman to discuss with a man who is not her husband. This is not to say that a woman may not confess her sexual sins to her pastor and receive absolution from him as from God himself. It is to say that in certain circumstances one Christian woman can give to another Christian woman the kind of counsel that a man either cannot or should not give. The “mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” may be offered by women to women.

I thank Erich for posting this for me.

Pr. Rolf Preus

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you very much, Dr. Heidenrich, for sharing these further comments and clarifications from Pastor Preus. Please convey my thanks to him, as well, as I do not have any contact information for him.

I agree with the points that Pastor Preus has here offered in clarification of his original comments. Perhaps it would be helpful, since his words have been shared publicly, to provide this clarification within the context of his essay. With due respect, the distinction that he intended and has here explained was not clearly made in its original context. I understand how easy it is for that to happen, as my words are also sometimes heard or interpreted other than I intend. In this case, after saying that "discussing" certain things is inappropriate, it is then said that the "confessing" of sexual sins has led to sinning. So the distinction between "discussing" and "confessing" appears blurred, and the impression is given that the confessing of sexual sins is "simply inappropriate."

In any case, I am grateful for the clarification, and I rejoice in the further comments from Pastor Preus.

Scott said...

Typo alert Paragraph 5.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for the heads up on the typo! It's been corrected now.

Steven said...

I have a somewhat tangential question.

You wrote:
No man should be hearing confession if he is not making confession to his own father confessor with some regularity.

What do you do if your pastor does not regularly receive private Absolution? Should you ask him? Should you find another pastor to hear your confession and absolve you?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

It is quite true that no man should be hearing confession who is not going to confession, himself, with some regularity. However, this is a burden upon the office, not upon the penitents who seek the word of absolution from their pastor. Penitents surely do benefit from the pastoral care they receive from a pastor who is seeking and receiving spiritual care from his own father in Christ. But the people of God are served, in any case, by the same Lord Jesus Christ, through the office that He has established.

We pastors need to teach and admonish one another, encourage and support one another in doing what we ought to be doing; not only in hearing confession, but in finding a father confessor and availing ourselves of that means of grace. Pastors can also learn from the good example of their parishioners, and be prompted to seek opportunity for confession and absolution when their members are seeking the same from them.

In any case, my basic rule of thumb is that no rules should be made that make it harder for a person to go to confession. It is already hard enough to begin with, especially if a person hasn't yet established the discipline and regular practice of it. For too long (far, far too long), people have not been catechized in the theology and practice of Individual Confession and Absolution, so there needs to be every encouragement and assistance toward discovering the blessing and benefit of that practice, and not any hindrance or discouragement. There are ideals and so forth to be preferred, but the most important thing is to confess and receive the Absolution. Frankly, there is no way to grow in the understanding, practice and benefit of Confession and Absolution without simply doing it. That goes for pastors and penitents alike, in my opninion.

A person should go to his or her own pastor for Individual Confession and Absolution. He is the one whom God has called and sent to speak the Word of Christ and to work His works in His Name in that same place where the parishioner also hears the preaching of the Gospel and receives the body and blood of Christ. Asking a pastor who has not had a regular practice of Individual Confession and Absolution (for himself or others) may be difficult in many ways, but it is the right thing to do.

If the pastor is preaching faithfully the Law and the Gospel, then there is no reason not to ask him to hear confession, as well. I don't mean that he has to be a "great" preacher, but a faithful preacher. Asking him to hear confession and pronounce absolution, in order to fulfill God's will, is really nothing else than asking him to preach the Law and the Gospel to an individual member of his own congregation. He is already doing basically this very thing, though he may not think of it in these terms, when he preaches and administers the Holy Communion to the shut-ins. I'm not saying it's exactly the same thing, but it's analogous.

If a pastor is not preaching faithfully -- and by that I mean that he is consistently failing to preach the Law and the Gospel (whether he is preaching false doctrine or no doctrine at all) -- then I would not suggest going to him for confession and absolution. In such a case, the parishioner should first of all speak to the pastor concerning his preaching, asking him to set forth the Word of God, fulfilled and centered in Christ Jesus. If that continues to be lacking, then the parishioner should look for a new pastor for both preaching and confession. But of course I am speaking in broad and general terms, and each situation should be considered with humility and care in the fear of the Lord.

My main point is to say that, even if a pastor is not doing everything he ought to be doing (I'm not sure that any pastor is doing so in every way all the time), so long as he is not unfaithful in his preaching, then his parishioners should go to him as their pastor for confession and absolution. The primary benchmark for evaluating any pastor's faithfulness is his preaching; and if he is preaching the Law and the Gospel in his sermons, then he may be expected to do so in the confessional, as well, even if he lacks the eloquence and finesse that only come with experience.

Sad to say, it is perhaps even more difficult for many pastors to find a father confessor than it is for a parishioner to begin going to his own pastor for confession. Yet, it is incumbent upon every pastor to preach and teach the benefits of Individual Confession and Absolution, to encourage the people and provide opportunity for them to receive this means of grace, and so also to actually hear confession and speak absolution for any and all who ask. Therefore, since no man ought to be hearing confession who is not going to confession with some regularity, it is incumbent upon every pastor to avail himself of a father confessor.

Fraser Pearce said...

Thanks for this helpful post.

Steven said...

Your answer is very helpful and encouraging. I have another question. Should a parishioner ask his pastor if the pastor is going to confession regularly?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Steven, my apologies for being so slow in responding to your good question. I've been busy enough lately that I simply haven't been able to keep up with everything, and blogging frankly has to take a backseat to the duties of my office and several vocations.

It seems perfectly legitimate, to me, that a Christian should be able to inquire of his or her pastor whether he is regularly going to Confession and Absolution. Of course, I cannot necessarily picture every sort of circumstance that might exist, so perhaps there are times when such a question would be inappropriate, or when a pastor might decline to answer. In general, though, it seems to me that a pastor ought to be setting an example for the flock; the Apostles admonish us, both pastors and parishioners alike, to that very thing. By the nature of the case, the people of God to whom the pastor preaches will not be aware of whether or not he is going to Confession, unless he tells them so. In fact, I have found that it is helpful and encouraging to the dear people of my flock, to know that I also practice what I preach to them; that I examine myself and confess my own sins before my pastor.

It seems to me that a pastor may also be helped and encouraged by the good example of his members, if, in seeking absolution for themselves, they gently inquire of him whether he, also, is able to practice what we believe, teach and confess concerning the fifth chief part of the Christian faith and life.