Most, if not all, members of the clergy have experienced the following: a man with whom I was conversing discovered that I am a pastor and immediately began telling me about his recent (and current) wrongdoings along with the ways he was trying to fix them.
To be honest, there are times the mention of my vocation will inadvertently cause a conversation to shut down. For a variety of reasons, many people are weary or skeptical concerning those in ministry. On other occasions my pastoral role has unearthed a natural spring of flowing confession from inside the fellow conversant.
What is it about talking to a minister that evokes the "confession reflex"? For reasons that I will discuss in a moment, many of us have been trained to share spiritual things with spiritual leaders. Members of the clergy provide us with a person who is believed to be highly spiritual, capable of wise counsel, and obligated to keep our secrets. We want to share such things. We need to share such things. Carrying a "deep, dark secret" is like maintaining a multifaceted lie. Fear of the truth being discovered eats away at our consciences and it feels so good to finally tell someone. Confession seems to release a pressure valve whether or not we follow the receiver's counsel.
Nearly everyone knows the feeling of suppressing something about which we feel guilty. It is similar to a balloon that keeps filling up with air inside our chest. Sometimes we can push the thoughts and feelings of guilt away in order to relieve the pressure through ignorance. Eventually, however, the tightness and pressure become unbearable. After awhile, that thing and all of its implications are impossible to ignore. We need to confess. Confession is cathartic and liberating. But is the role of a clergy member truly a necessary piece of this practice?
The idea that priests, pastors and ministers have a special connection with God goes all the way back to Moses' presentation of the Hebrew Torah. According to the Law, the authentic practice of faith had to include a mediator between God and people because of human transgressions. The priests and Levites who maintained the Temple and the synagogues functioned in such a role until the fall of Herod's temple in AD 70. For orthodox Jews today, such roles still exist in the Jewish community.
When Christian churches began to develop in the first century, the role of the mediator rested on the shoulders of one person.
Paul, a former Jewish leader who converted to Christianity and eventually wrote the majority of the New Testament, articulates the role of the "one mediator" in 1 Timothy 2:5-6: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people."
For the most part, the churches of the first three centuries were teaching men, women, and children that they could now relate to God personally because of the mediating role of Jesus. Priests, pastors and ministers were still important for spiritual leadership of the people, but their role as mediators was no longer valid. In other words, the priesthood remained effective for communicating about God but was no longer necessary for communicating with God.
When the Middle Ages began, however, the clergy in many Christian churches began to function as mediators once again. From an early age, most people within the churches were taught to practice confession regularly and always in front of a member of the clergy. Consider some sample questions that a 7-year-old boy might have been asked during a medieval confession:
Have you believed in magic?
Have you loved your father or mother more than God?
Have you failed to kneel on both knees or to remove your hat during communion?
Have you cut wood, made bird traps, skipped mass and sermon, or danced on Sundays and holidays?
Have you stolen pen or paper from friends; berries, apples, nuts, and cheese from your mother?
Sometimes the priest would slip in a nonsensical question just to make sure the child was paying attention:
Have you stoned chickens or ducks?
Did you kill the emperor with a double bladed ax?
Did you steal money from a rat in Frankfurt?
While practicing confession according to such principles probably provides some relief to the confessor, it lacks a volitional component. When one views confession as some sort of ritual that requires a member of the clergy, the practice loses its personal nature. This type of confession subverts the privilege of communicating directly with God, which is made possible through the finality of the "one Mediator."
It also strips away the experience of confession to others who are outside of the clergy. The first century church leader James, who was believed to be Jesus' half-brother, wrote these words in the New Testament: "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective" (James 5:16, TNIV).
Sometimes, we need to confess directly to others because they are involved. Other times, we need to confess to others just because they are there and willing. If confession truly is like a reflex; if confession is something that our hearts, minds and bodies desperately need to release; it stands to reason that it is physically unhealthy to hold it in.
-Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and Teaching Pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.
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