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Pastor, Writer, Contemplative

Making Confession Work: A Response to Mike Foster’s “Why I Don’t Believe in Christian Accountability”

This past Sunday I gave a talk on the subject of “Confession” within the Protestant Christian church. I don’t like talking about this subject. I don’t choose to speak on it. But as we were closing out our discussion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together, it was unavoidable; there it was, his last chapter, “Confession & Communion.”

The journey that followed was like a scalpel on the heart of how we, as Western evangelicals, do “holiness” and “church” today (not to mention my own heart). Now I did not approach confession from the perspective of screaming calls for “repentance!” as I experienced in some circles past. While beneficial, in the long run I found those holiness movements too oppressing, too dominating, too repetitious, and too one-dimensional.

On the other hand, I didn’t offer olive branches for leniency, that your b’ness is your b’ness and that as long as you’re walking with Jesus, we’ll leave you be. No; because here’s the thing. As pastor of my church, I can’t do that. The junk has to come out. Not just for your own sake, but for the sake of the larger church community:

“On the other hand, there is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not inflict injury upon the whole fellowship. An element of sickness gets into the body; perhaps nobody knows where it comes from or in what member it has lodged, but the body is infected. This is the proper metaphor for the Christian community. We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence. Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or to its destruction. This is no mere theory; it is spiritual reality. And the Christian community has often experienced its effects with disturbing clarity, sometimes destructively and sometimes fortunately.” – Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p.89.

So what did I talk about?

I talked about an order of confession; namely, the office of hearing confession. To illustrate what I mean, I used a very instructive example from the movie Saving Private Ryan:

Private Jackson: Sir… I have an opinion on this matter.
Captain Miller: Well, by all means, share it with the squad.
Private Jackson: Well, from my way of thinking, sir, this entire mission is a serious misallocation of valuable military resources.
Captain Miller: Yeah. Go on.
Private Jackson: Well, it seems to me, sir, that God gave me a special gift, made me a fine instrument of warfare.
Captain Miller: Reiben, pay attention. Now, this is the way to gripe. Continue, Jackson.
Private Jackson: Well, what I mean by that, sir, is… if you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir… pack your bags, fellas, war’s over. Amen.
Private Reiben: Oh, that’s brilliant, bumpkin. Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?
Captain Miller: I don’t gripe to *you*, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.

What I meant by this illustration is that griping for the sake of griping can be harmful – even subverting – especially during a wartime setting. Similarly, confession just for the sake of confession can be just as harmful. Last I checked, more confession didn’t make anyone more holier or more chaste; rather the key is confessing to the right person. And the care pattern that is followed up afterwards.

If we make confession the end in itself, it becomes what Eugene Peterson calls “bra and panty voyeurism,” or exhibitionism. (And for that matter, for those that like those disciplining holiness movements – sadomasochism.) The point is not to confess as the end in itself; nor is it the expectation of some kind of divine spanking to occur that will discipline us back on to the straight and narrow. That doesn’t seem to do it either. I think the point is how we are confronted deep in our souls by our own brokenness, how we are subsequently cared for by the right people (hence, confessions go UP), and restored towards greater and greater holiness, in the words of Bonhoeffer, “victory after victory.”

It seems others are also recognizing the brokenness of confession today:

Mike Foster writes a post titled, “Why I Don’t Believe in Christian Accountability.”

Mike Breen’s Response is a wonderful and insightful look into accountability and its connection with Christian formation.

FWIW, my response is just the latest of many, and I’m not sure if I contribute anything unique to the convo. But if I may summarize:

  • Protestant churches need some kind of order restored to confession. Disorderly confession stumbles rather than edifies (an idea I should probably elaborate more, perhaps in comments below).
  • I think we could benefit from some kind of “chain of confession” (hence the Private Ryan reference above) – in other words, restoring the office of hearing confession.
  • And that doesn’t mean saying 3 Hail Marys and you’re off the hook. I am convinced that there is a connection and a deep link between the act of hearing confession and spiritual direction.
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