Gloria asks, “Pastor John, James 5:16 confuses me. It says, “Confess your sins to one another.” Is it saying that we have to confess our sins, like Catholics do, to a priest? Can you please explain what this means?”
No, I don’t think the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church to elevate a priest to the position of a uniquely suitable confessor has any roots in this text. I don’t think this text is a place you would go to get that. In fact, I don’t think there is a place in the New Testament where you can go to get that. What this text does is call us to something far more reciprocal than that — even when the elders are involved. It might be helpful to read it just so people have the context.
Call the Elders
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:14–16)
So the first thing we see there is a plurality of elders, not a priest: “Call for the elders.” If you think it is time to have the leaders of the church involved, the New Testament always thinks in terms of a plurality of elders. There isn’t any church in the New Testament that we know of that only had one. They never used the word priest for the pastors of the New Testament church. So go ahead. Call two, three, four — whatever your church provides. Call the elders, and have them pray for you.
But here is the interesting thing. After James describes that event with the elders and their prayer of faith and what will happen there, he seems to draw out an inference in verse 16. And he moves from that specific situation, it seems, to something more general and more reciprocal. He says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another.” So there is some principial thing that was going on there about the way your sins emerged in that situation, and your sins got forgiven as well as the way your body got healed.
Each Saint a Confessor
Now here is a principle I am drawing out: Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that would be happening more and more. I don’t see this text leading toward a narrowing down of a saint and a priestly confessor. I see this broadening out to the body of Christ saying, “Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.” And so I ask the question now, Why would that be? Why would mutual confession — like in a small group, or say you have a buddy that you meet for breakfast and you know you are struggling with some issue of anger or pride or lust, and you just lay your heart out for him in how you struggled yesterday — be a healing thing?
And I think there is a beautiful example of it in the Psalms — and I know there is a beautiful example of it in my experience — that David said in Psalm 32:1–3: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” So that is the condition of the non-confessing heart — the heart that is all bottled up, that never tells anybody what it is dealing with, that just hides and hides and hides away from people.
And then he says, “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:4–5).
Concentric Circles of Confession
So there is a sequence here of sinning, bottling it up, and having your bones dry up inside, and then letting it out and going public with it — in this context to God, but in the principle behind it, probably not just to God, but to the person who is sinned against or to others who could help you bear this. So one-another confessing is the principle here, and there is good warrant for why it is a healing thing.
“There are times we confess openly to everyone, and there are times we are very careful to be more discreet and confess to those who are very close to us.”
And I would very practically say you don’t have to do that to the whole church. One principle would be to confess a sin to the offended person, and that may be the place where it can simply end. If it is something that you are dealing with more generally, you can share it with your small group or to a confidant that you have. I think everybody should have, like Jesus, a beloved disciple, and a Peter, James, and John, and a twelve, and a seventy.
In other words, there are concentric circles of intimacy that we live in, and we are going to share some things with the beloved disciple, and some things with Peter, James, and John, and some things with the twelve, and so on. And God will make it plain. There are times we confess openly to everyone, and there are times we are very careful, lest we hurt anyone by our confession, to be more discreet and confess to those who are very close to us.
So my answer is no, this text doesn’t give warrant, that I can see, to the practice of treating a pastor or a priest as uniquely qualified to be the place where we go to share our confessions.