So many Christians in America today believe the Bible alone is the sole infallible source of authority for Christian life and practice. Many of these same Christians will then say that certain practices within the Orthodox Church are not “biblical”. The Church’s sacrament of Confession is one such thing that Protestants often question and reject, because they mistakenly think it is not supported by Scripture. However, in this post, we explore what the Bible really says about the Holy Mystery of Confession. Let’s dive in!
The Bible says the Apostles could forgive sins
The prevailing understanding of confession in Western Christianity is that we only have to confess our sins directly to God. In other words, no one needs to confess to a priest or anyone else, because God alone can forgive sins. Unfortunately, the Bible itself does not support this view!
In fact, in the Gospel of John we see the God-Man Jesus Christ appearing to His disciples after His resurrection. He says to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:22-23). This act of giving them the Holy Spirit and the ability to forgive and retain sins fulfills a promise He made to them twice before (Matt. 16:19 and Matt. 18:18). In these two verses, the Lord tells His disciples that whatever they bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. This is Christ giving them the power to forgive sins.
The titles bishop and presbyter/priest come from the New Testament Greek words for “overseer” and “elder”. See 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
It is important to note that the ability to forgive sins didn’t end with the Apostles. They passed on their apostolic “gift of God” through the “laying on of hands” (2 Timothy 1:6) – the holy mystery of ordination – to bishops and presbyters (priests) whom they ordained to lead the churches they planted all over the world during their missionary travels. Repeating this mystery over generations has kept alive an unbroken chain of bishops and priests in the Church. This continuum of leadership started by the Apostles carries on their ministry, including the forgiveness of sins, to this day.
The Bible says we should confess our sins to one another
Secondly, the Bible does not say that confession occurs privately, just between ourselves and God. Instead, we see this: “Confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). This seems pretty straightforward. But if we should confess to one another, why do we only confess to a priest?
During the first three centuries of the Church’s life, faithful Christians suffered persecution and had to worship underground in closed, private gatherings. Any Christian who fell into sin after baptism confessed his or her sins aloud in front of the congregation, which stood as witnesses of their repentance. Afterward, the penitent received counsel, correction, and forgiveness at the hands of the bishop or priest leading the congregation.
After the Roman empire decriminalized Christianity in the fourth century, the Church could hold worship services in public. Droves of newcomers and strangers showed up out of curiosity. So, to avoid the holy mystery of confession becoming an occasion for gossip or a public spectacle in front of non-Orthodox Christians, the Church had bishops or priest serve as one-on-one witnesses to confessions, standing in for the congregation. During the confession, the priest will say: “Behold, My Spiritual Child, Christ stands invisibly here receiving your confession. […] Do not be afraid to tell all that you have done, so that you may receive forgiveness from our Lord Jesus Christ. […] I am only the witness, bearing testimony before Him of all that you shall say.” The Church continues this practice of confessing in the presence of a priest to this day.
The Bible says we receive forgiveness of sins as part of the Church, not on our own
Lastly, the Bible clearly tells us that confession and forgiveness of sins are part of the Church; we do not receive forgiveness on our own apart from her. Where does the Bible tell us this? In 1 Corinthians, Saint Paul tells us that the Church is not merely a building, a man-made institution or a group of likeminded people. The Church is the very Body of Christ – the way He is still present, living and active in the world, continuing His work of salvation and sanctification of mankind. The Church is how we come into contact with the Lord Jesus Christ.
While Protestants may insist that this is meant metaphorically, the Bible disagrees. In the book of Acts, when Christ appears to Saul, He asks him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? […] I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:4-5). He didn’t say Saul was persecuting His Church or His followers, but Christ Himself. And this He said after having ascended to heaven years before and was obviously out of Saul’s reach. He said this because the Church literally is His Body. Thus, no one can bypass the Church if they hope to reach Christ.
Because the Church is Christ’s Body, her holy mysteries are not the “works of men”, as some Protestants dismiss them. They are the works of Christ Himself, the great High Priest, Shepherd, and Bishop of the Church. And Christ accomplishes them through the eyes, ears, mouths, and hands of her bishops and priests, ordained to guide and nurture the members of His Body on earth.
Confession is biblical!
It is clear what the Bible says about confession: it is indeed biblical! We should not doubt its legitimacy or deprive ourselves of God’s forgiveness by holding back from confession. As Scripture says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This is the true teaching of Scripture, which the Orthodox Church has preserved by God’s grace for nearly 2,000 years now.
In closing, take care not to be “carried away by various and strange doctrines” (Hebrews 13:9). If someone else (or your own mind) tells you that the practices of the Orthodox Church are not in accord with Scripture, do not naively accept whatever they claim. Instead, test their claims to see if they truly are of God. For the Scripture warns us that “untaught and unstable people twist” the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16). If you do not know how to test them, ask your priest for help!
Keep Reading: What Does It Mean To Repent? >>