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  Why Don't Protestants Do Confession?

"Why don't Protestants do confession?" This question stems from a discussion of James 5.16 which reads, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." So, it's a commandment, why don't protestant churches practice it?

It's clear the early church practiced confession. What's unclear is in what form it took place. However, only a few hundred years had passed before the Church institutionalized this commandment and the act of confession, as we know it from the Roman Catholic Church, was being practiced. Confession consisted of at least an annual visit with a parish priest, the confession of personal sins, followed by prayer, absolution, and penance. This form of confession was universally practiced in the Church until the 1500s when Martin Luther rebelled against the Roman church.

Confession was dispensed with by the reformers for a number of reasons. First, the theologians of the Reformation asserted that no one other than God could grant absolution (forgiveness) of sins and for a mere mortal (priest) to do so was blasphemous. Second, in the medieval years the Church was struck with financial hardships and began to offer indulgences in addition to confession (sums of money or other signs of wealth given to the church to insure the forgiveness of certain sins). This practice was abused by both the church and the wealthy and was repudiated by the reformers. Finally, the practice of confession was synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, so in an effort to divorce itself from identification with her the reformers abolished the custom.

But the reformers' action was tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Confession remains a commandment and it serves, even today, a sound purpose. By eliminating confession to one another we lose accountability. In an age where everyone's a victim and no one seems responsible for their actions, this lack of accountability simply exacerbates the problem.

Further, we miss out on opportunities to find release from guilt. Repenting and asking God for forgiveness when we have done wrong results in divine forgiveness. But God's forgiveness is only half the battle -- forgiving ourselves is certainly more difficult. Many are those who live with guilt-ridden consciences because they cannot find relief within themselves, even after seeking Divine forgiveness. How happy are those able to confess their sins not only to God, but to a spiritual advisor who can speak the words promised by God, "You have been forgiven."

For many, however, a simple pronouncement is not enough. These folk know God promises forgiveness, but their own guilt lingers. In our society of crime and punishment the absolution of guilt is often inextricably linked to an act of contrition or punishment. And so the provision for penance was early adopted by the Church, not to earn God's forgiveness -- that can't be done -- but to reassure the psyche of the penitent. In any event, by abolishing confession in our churches we deprive many people the opportunity to be free from their guilt feelings.

In some churches the act of confession has been reinstated in one manner or another. In the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches a community act of confession is often a part of the worship service. This may be a responsive reading or a litany during the service followed by a minister's assurance of pardon in the name of God. This act of confession allows for some introspection, but also hinders those who carry specific guilt to be freed from their feelings.

Twelve-step groups (AA, OA, NA, etc.) offer the opportunity for confession in steps four and five and acts of reconciliation in steps seven, eight, and nine. The rise in the popularity of these groups not only signals a willingness to admit our brokeness, but to seek opportunities to be freed of the baggage of our pasts, including guilt. There is a lesson here for the church.

There is an old saying, "Confession is good for the soul." Certainly the act of confession leaves us vulnerable, but every act of faith involves risk. But to abolish the act of confession from our churches is perhaps to embrace the greater risk of living lives beneath the baggage of guilt.

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