“Therefore 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 (NIV)
The majority of Protestant Christianity affirms the priesthood of all believers, whereby we may freely go to our brothers and sisters to discuss, and ideally confess, our sins to them and ask them for their prayers and accountability in turning away from those things to aid in our walk with Christ. I find that to be a very good, noble, and appropriate response to the teachings of verses like James 5:16. However, if you’re like me, you may not always have success in the application of this approach.
Early on in my Christian walk I discovered it wasn’t easy to find a “brother” who was easy to approach, willing and compassionate enough to listen to my heart and struggles, and strong enough in their faith to counsel me, pray for me, and keep me accountable. I either encountered men who were uncomfortable with me talking about my sin, were too busy doing “ministry” to stop and listen to me, or were so aggressive in their counseling approach (i.e. “you need to deal with that sin”, etc.) that I became less and less likely to share my sin; preferring to confess privately.
The Catholic and Orthodox faiths have a beautiful means by which believers may confess their sins and find release from their guilty consciences through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The premise of this Sacrament is not that the faithful are either looking to a man for forgiveness or are trying to earn God’s forgiveness through righteous acts (i.e. Acts of Penance). Rather, that the ordained minister, acting on the commission that Jesus gave to his apostles in John 20: 21-23, declares to the confessor the forgiveness that has already been purchased by Christ.
There are a couple benefits to this approach. First, I don’t need to spend weeks, months, or years getting to know a brother to determine if I could trust him enough to share my sins. Rather, I just need to know what time Confession is held at the local church. Second, I don’t need to know the minister or even look at him when I’m confessing. Rather, this could be done in complete privacy, in a spirit of prayer, reverence, and confidentiality. Sure, I could just go and pray by myself. God would hear me and, if I’m truly repentant, forgive and restore me to fellowship with him. But that doesn’t get at the heart of James 5:16. There’s power in the spoken confession. I just wish the reformers hadn’t thrown the baby out with the bath water on this one.