When should we confess sins publicly?
I have to constantly decide this for myself and for those who ask me about a certain situation. You have to come up with some kind of guideline.
My guideline is that the repentance should be roughly as broad as the effect of the sin.
In other words, if I got really angry at you right now, said something ugly, and then was convicted ten minutes later and said, "Bob, I am so sorry. What an awful thing to say," I don't think I need to go to any group outside of us and talk about it. It was just you and me. Nobody heard about it. Bang, it's over.
Now, it is helpful for me to say in general terms in a small group or among our church staff, "You know, yesterday I was just so mouthy with a friend of mine. I had to repent." That is me sharing my weakness.
But as for confession, I think the principle is that the extent of the confession should match the extent of the sin.
That's not always easy to judge. If you commit adultery it may ripple out in a lot of ways—more than you think—and you may have a lot of tracks to cover. Basically, that means that a public sin or a public consequence of sin is going to need public confession and repentance.
But most of our sins are against particular people, and sometimes we may be tempted to resort to public confession because it's easier to talk in general publicly than it is to talk specific personally. To go to a person, look them right in the eye, and say, "I did you wrong. Would you forgive me?" is harder than saying at small group the next night, "I stole from somebody" or "I was ugly to somebody."
So I think proportion is what we're after. The proportion of public repentance should be in proportion to the publicity of a sin or a sin's effect.