Confess to God, the Priest or to One Another?

Confess to God, the Priest or to One Another?

October 18, 2023

Are we suppose to confess to God directly, or to confess to a priest or to one another as it says in the epistle of St. James? The purpose of this video is to clarify this matter from a biblical and historical perspectives.

In the Orthodox and Catholic Traditions, the mystery of confession is done in the presence of a priest. However, other denominations are quick to point out that in 1st Timothy 2:5, it says that there is only One Mediator between God and men and that Mediator is Jesus Christ. So why do we confess to a priest? Do we understand the priest to be a Mediator in that sense. Absolutely not. 1st Timothy 2 speaks about the One Mediator who has ransomed humanity. There’s only One Mediator who is capable of this and this is the God-Man Jesus Christ—Our Savior. However, if we dig deeper within the New Testament, we can see that humans are allowed to intercede for each other. In reality, we don’t have to look very far. The first verse of the same chapter where St. Paul speaks about the One Mediator, so in 1st Timothy 2, we can see that we are asked to intercede for each other. Although, this verse doesn’t speak about priesthood, at least it gives us an idea that there are other types of intercessions that are indeed acceptable. Now, moving on to the epistle of St. John, it says the following: “…the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” If we read this passage at face value, we can conclude a number of things: first, the possibility of cleansing from sin occurs through the salvific work of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. But we also have a role to play which is to confess our sins. St. John says if we claim that we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves. But if we confess them, God will grant us forgiveness of our sins. Very simple. But does this passage provide information on how to confess sins? Or to whom? No, it doesn’t. I can make an assumption that the confession is meant to be to God directly. But it is merely an assumption.

But those verses we have read together are not the only ones discussing priesthood and confession in the New Testament. In Matthew 16 and 18, Christ declares that the disciples have a certain authority to bind and to loose on earth. In Matthew 16, Christ speaks only to St. Peter. In Matthew 18, Christ speaks only to the 12 Apostles. But more importantly, in John 20, Christ does something very meaningful. In verses 22 and 23, it says the following: “And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said 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.” Here, Christ on the evening of the Day of Resurrection, He gives the Apostles the Holy Spirit. This is huge. He obviously would not give them the Holy Spirit fifty days prior to Pentecost just for the fun of it. And then He says to them, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained. He is clearly giving the apostles authority to forgive or retain sins on earth. This forgiveness or retention is dependent on the person’s genuine repentance. In addition, if you read Romans 15, verse 16 with an honest rendering from the Greek, you will discover that St. Paul clearly declares that he officiates as a priest. Unfortunately, in the New King James, this officiating is rendered as ‘ministering’, which is a vague term. But is this authority only given to those 11 or 12 Apostles at the time? Why would that be the case? Why would God give authority only to those 11 for a specific period of time and that’s it? It doesn’t seem to be logical. Specially that in Matthew 18, the authority given to the apostles is related to the authority of the Church. Was the Church to have authority only during the time of the Apostles or was God establishing the Church on earth until His second coming? And therefore this authority remains. Looking at the rest of Scripture, we quickly realize that St. Paul had that same authority. St. Paul, who was not part of the 11, excommunicates a sinner from the Church in 1st Corinthians 5 and brings him back after he was led to repentance in 2nd Corinthians 2. And that’s only one example of St. Paul’s evident authority in the New Testament. In addition, we find that St. Paul tells St. Timothy the following: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” Historically, St. Timothy was the bishop of Ephesus and a disciple of St. Paul. St. Paul is reminding him not to neglect the gift of presbytery or the priesthood (which translated eldership in the New King James Version). Some Christian denominations believe that presbytery, here, means literally an elder and not the New Testament priesthood but a quick look at Church history will provide sufficient evidence that St. Paul means priesthood. I will mention a few examples later on. For now though, let’s continue with Scripture. St. Paul, then, tells St. Timothy the following: “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people’s sins; keep yourself pure.” What does he mean by not laying down his hands hastily? He means to select and ordain bishops and deacons only after properly examining them. That is why in chapter 3 of the same epistle, St. Paul gives clear guidelines to St. Timothy on the qualifications of bishops and deacons. Here, we have a clear example of how the priesthood is meant to be passed on from generation to the next for the sake of the Church’s ministry. Another example is found in Acts 14:23, it says: “And when they had ordained them elders (meaning priests) in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” Again, the New King James Version replaced ordained with appointed, which is not as meaningful. In either case, we can argue about meaning of Greek words all day; ultimately, the life of the Church in the first centuries is what will shed light on the real meaning.

But what about the epistle of St. James? In the epistle of James it says to confess your trespasses to one another. Does that mean we ought to confess to anyone? Not exactly. First, the context of this verse is the healing of the sick through prayer and anointing with oil by the presbyter in the church. Scripture moves on to say confess your trespasses to one another. Why is that? In the early Church, confession was done publicly in the presence of the Bishop! The next quotes will clarify this matter. The first is from The Didache, a document dating back to the first century AD and attributed to the 12 Apostles. It says the following: “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . On the Lord’s Day (meaning Sunday) gather together, break bread, and give thanks (if you research you will see that this is verbiage to mean the Eucharistic Liturgy), after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.” So confession used to take place on Sundays during the Eucharistic liturgy in the Church and in the presence of the Bishop who was presiding the liturgy. Regarding public confession, St. Irenaeus, late second century, says the following about some who were not willing to confess publicly: “Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses.” Today, we sometimes find it difficult to confess to a priest but the reality is we have it easier than the Christians of the Early Church. So we can now understand why St. James speaks about confessing to one another—because confession was done publicly in the Church. The last quote will be from St. Hippolytus who was quoting the verbiage a bishop would pray as he was ordaining another bishop, he addresses God the Father as follows: “Pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles . . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest… and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command.” In the light of these 3 quotes combined, we can reconcile John 20, Epistle of James, Epistle of John and Matthew 16 and 18. We can, therefore, see a clear parallel between the mystery of confession in Scripture and in Church History. There are many other Church Fathers quotes that could be shared regarding priesthood in general or confession specifically—specially those of St. Ignatius of Antioch—but these are sufficient for now. Naturally, the mystery of confession evolved to become something that is done privately in the presence of the priest. There are also theological reasons why confession is done in the presence of a priest which Fr. Anthony alludes to in the video which we will link in the description box. In the meantime, based on this video, why should we confess to God in the presence of the priest? Simply because God said so and the Church lived so.

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