Does the Bible Call for Confession to a Priest?

June 27, 2018

I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin

(Psalm 38:18)

The Confession (1838), by Giuseppe Molteni

Confessing sins to the clergy is a practice in some Christian denominations. Disclosures made by the penitents to a priest are to remain a secret with the priest to be buried with him in the grave. Maybe, this was the case in the early days of Christianity when pious people who walked in the fear of God manned the clergy. But times have changed. We now live in an age of unscrupulousness that has turned spirituality into a lucrative venture of chicanery and an instrument of exploitation of the gullible. No wonder, it has apparently dawned on the clergy that it is sitting on a goldmine in the form of intimate secrets shared by the unsuspecting faithful who pour their hearts out to them in the confessionals.   

In a case reported in the media the other day, some priests from a Church in Kerala have reportedly been sexually exploiting a married woman by blackmailing her. The priests have been threatening her of exposing the disclosures she had made in the confessional about her illicit relationships. It is true that only very few such cases are being reported. But it does not necessarily mean that what has now come to light is just an aberration. Most cases go unreported because of the associated stigma. The Church is often quite powerful, both financially and politically. It has to protect its glittering exterior to stay so. Even in reported cases, the Church pulls strings or pays ransoms to hush up the matter.  

‘Does the Bible demand confession to a priest?’ Christian denominations in which the practice is prevalent would say that the scripture clearly calls for it. But those against it contest such claims. No doubt, both sides quote the scripture in support of their conflicting stands. But that should not surprise anyone, for in the Bible we encounter instances of even the Devil quoting scripture to buttress his case! This post seeks to examine the claims of scriptural base to the practice of confession to priests.

Even those supporting the practice admit that there is no explicit verse in the Bible saying that the faithful must seek remission by confessing their transgressions to a priest. But, they claim that its “signature” can be discovered throughout the scripture. According to them, it started right in the beginning in the Garden of Eden in which God had put up the first parents, Adam and Eve. As the story goes, they disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. Their sin revealed their nudity to them. When they “…heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” Adam and Eve were frightened of God because they had sinned. It is important to note that sin causes fear.

God is an all-knowing (omniscient) being. God knew what the first couple had done. He knew the place where they were hiding. But God wanted them to come out and confess their sin. So He called out for them. When they presented themselves before God, He sought an explanation. The show ran exactly the way parents summon their erring children. God asked, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”  And they confessed their sin to God. This is the first confession recorded in the Bible. God accepted their confession and clothed the naked couple with garments made out of animal skin. The protagonists of ‘confession to the clergy’ cite this as the first scriptural basis for the practice. They claim that the clergy is the representatives of God endowed with divine powers to pardon sins!

But the truth is that God did not wipe out the sin of Adam and Eve in spite of their confession!  God evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden saying, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  Had God  forgiven the sins of Adam and Eve, the Christian doctrine of ‘Original Sin’ (or ‘Ancestral Sin’) would have fallen flat on its face!  And there would have been no need for Jesus, the Son of God, to shed his blood on the cross!   

If a confession made directly to the Almighty God did not help in the cleaning up of sin, how can an earthly priest accomplish it? The point is that actions have their consequences. No confessions would kill those consequences. In other words, every deed (‘Karma’) has its corresponding consequence. It is the law of nature. It is apparently logical and scientific. Christian theology does not accept the operation of the doctrine of ‘Karma’.  But, the Bible is replete with references to the consequences of actions. (e.g. God “will repay each person according to what they have done”, (Romans 2:6) “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7)).  The fig leaf of confession does not nullify the consequences of sins. If it did, Adam and Eve would have been still living in the Garden of Eden!

Another scripture reference the apologists of confession to priests cite is from the Epistle to Hebrew. It says, “Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins”, (Hebrew 5:1). It is argued that. “God the Son, allows men to participate in His role as the one mediator between God and man, to reconcile man to God. In essence, God utilizes the man’s faculties, his body, his voice, etc., to become present personally to the sinner. A good example of this can be found in 2 Samuel 12, when, after King David had sinned, taking Bathsheba into his bed and plotting the murder of her husband, God sent Nathan to hear the confession of David and to give to him penance … Clearly, God allowed Nathan, a man, to be used in this fashion, to hear the confession of David and to draw him to repentance, giving him penance, yet we wouldn’t say that David only confessed to the man, but, rather, to God through the man!” (www.catholichack.com/confession-in-the-bible/)

However, the advocates of confessions to priests conveniently ignore the next two verses. About the High Priest it says, “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people”, (Hebrew 5:2-3). Let us remember that his confession did not save King David from the consequences of his sins. The child born out of his illicit relationship died. His daughter was raped by her stepbrother. His son was killed by another son. He had to run for dear life for fear of being killed by his own son. His kingdom fell into civil war and anarchy… His son was murdered by his military chief who was his partner in the plot to kill the husband of Bathsheba. The son of the woman whose husband he killed by trickery became king … (Read my post, ‘The Karma of King David’ for more details)

Another ‘even more explicit Old Testament example’ the apologists cite is Leviticus chapter 4 & 5. And it says, ‘the sinner would meet the Priest at the door of the tent [or Temple], who would give them the knife to slit the throat of the animal while he would capture the blood in order to pour it out on the Alter of God. The Priest was responsible for ensuring the ritual was performed according to the Law… The sinners had to confess their sins to the Priest who made sure the appropriate sacrifice was being made for the offense committed. [Author: This is not the correct position. The appropriateness of the sacrifices was not determined based on the gravity of the sin but on the status of the sinner offering the sacrifice.] So confession to a Priest is nothing new…’ (www.catholichack.com/confession-in-the-bible/). Now, doesn’t it all sound like some ancient savage ritual incorporated into Hebrew monotheism by Moses (or others), who had feared that people accustomed to such horrible rituals would run away from Jehovah? In fact, the Israelites repeatedly returned to Baal worshiping. It is pathetic that in the 21st century, people really wish to cite this as a scriptural reference justifying confessions to the clergy!

Well. The references so far were from the Old Testament, which is essentially the Jewish sacred book. But the supporters of the practice have many references from the New Testament too to cite. Since we have only limited space here, I will mention only two such references. One comes from John 20 that describes the appearance of resurrected Jesus to disciples assembled in a room the doors of which were shut. Jesus “breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”, (John 20:22-23).

The implication is that Jesus sent his disciples to carry on his mission of reconciliation. How are the twelve to perform this mission? Through the authority vested in them to forgive or retain sins. Now, how are the twelve to decide whether to forgive or retain any sins, unless those sins are confessed to them? Just like the Priest, who received the sinner at the door of the Tabernacle in Leviticus, the Apostles had to hear the confession first.  

Yes. The verse says that the disciples were granted the authority to forgive or retain sins. But we are not sure that the ten people chosen by Jesus as his disciples alone were present in the room when Jesus gave this authority. (Out of the Twelve, Judas had hanged himself to death and Thomas was not present.) It is quite possible that there were others including some women who stayed with Jesus through the ordeal of crucifixion after his chosen (male) disciples had all fled. (Gospel writer John claims he was there at the base of the cross. He also claims that he was the ‘Beloved disciple of Jesus’. But only he says so in the Gospel attributed to him.)

Let us assume that Jesus had given the authority to forgive or retain sins only to the ten disciples present in the room. Does it mean Apostle Thomas, who was absent, had no authority? That would put us St Thomas Christians of Kerala in a tricky spot!  If the authority was granted only to the Apostles, how can the clergy claim that authority? Of course, they claim apostolic succession. But, I am not aware of Jesus speaking of any plan of apostolic succession. In fact Jesus did not apparently envisage Christianity as an outfit outside Judaism…

Ecclesiastic hierarchy is something that  later Christian leaders created to enforce priestly grip over the faithful. The reality could be that the clergy simply arrogated such authorities to itself in order to serve its own selfish motives. And the history of the Christian faith is replete with the tragic consequences of this feature of sinful men claiming infallibility and divine authority, and exercising it in diabolical ways!  

Finally, another reference usually cited comes from James. It says, “Is any 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 sick man, 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 man has great power in its effects” (James 5:14–16).

Who were the elders? There is no mention of ordained priests in the Acts of the Apostles. The scripture available to the first Christians was only the Old Testament. They read from it or from the Epistles from the Apostles.  There were no churches or worship services, as we know today. There was no Holy Eucharist. Christians came together in a convenient home, sang hymns, prayed, discussed and ate together. Elders were simply senior people who provided leadership to the assembly. But, the word came to be translated as ‘Priests’.

Thus, the elders James mentions were lay people. Christianity was a new movement. There was no New Testament. Very few people had a clear idea of what the Jesus movement was. So, knowledgeable people were chosen locally or deputed from other places.  Moreover, the verse says, that ‘the prayer of faith will save the sick man’. The prayer of faith is not the sole prerogative of either the elders of first century or the clergy of today. And it says, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. It does not say confess to the ‘elder’. “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects”. Is the priest the only righteous guy among Christians?  How many righteous priests can we get today?

Let me conclude. The Gospel says this about the death of Jesus on the cross. “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He yielded up His spirit. At that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:50-51).  Only the high priest was permitted to pass beyond this veil once each year to enter into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple. He performed a sacrifice there in atonement to his own sins and the sins of all of Israel. The veil had kept ordinary believers away from the divine presence.  With the veil ripped apart, everyone has been given direct access to God. It rendered the intercession of the priest defunct.

But priesthood continued in Christianity since the Church needed it to hold onto its power by enforcing its dominance over the god-fearing (or the devil-fearing) believers.  Perhaps, Christians do not need priests. The institutionalized Church alone needs them. For the Bible says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy”, (1 Peter 2:9-10).  

Perhaps, the institutionalized church has been the tragedy of the Christian faith. From the start, it has been looking for ways to keep the faithful enslaved to the so-called ecclesiastical authority. It told the faithful what to believe.  It decided what truth is and what heresy is. The truth of the church does not set the faithful free. The church kept the sword of ‘excommunication’ hanging over the head of the faithful. It stole the freedom of Christians to think freely or express their views freely. Over-protection is an offshoot of fear. Why does the church fear? Remember, Adam and Eve were frightened because they had sinned. And sin causes fear. The church has to confess its own sins first and come out of its fears. And it is heartening to see glimpses of honesty in the present Pope. Then, the rot has been continuing for two millennia. It is well set and hardened. And the clergy has been enjoying its powers, perks and privileges for far too long to give up. And the Pope has his compulsions…


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  1. “Perhaps, the institutionalized church has been the tragedy of the Christian faith. ” I fully agree with the statement. It should have been a movement not the institutution.

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