A Question I Was Asked:

Should We Confess Our Sins to a Priest?

I have a very sincere Catholic uncle who says we should confess our sins to a Roman Catholic priest because of the following:

Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:21-23).

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, first let us look at the slightly wider context here. Let us take it back a few verses:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20).

Okay, so after clearly identifying Himself, Jesus reveals some of the first instructions regarding how the first disciples should run the very early church.

There is no question that Jesus gave the very first disciples the authority to exercise spiritual jurisdiction over the first converts to Christianity. Why? Because a certain respectful order was going to be necessary and, as Paul wrote, 'God is not the author of confusion' (1 Corinthians 14:33). In fact, to see the importance of order among the early Christians, it is very helpful to read 1 Corinthians 14 in its entirety. So discipline and control of a congregation whilst the first teachings were being delivered and explained was essential. Later on, however, the completed Bible canon, including the full New Testament, became available and some emphases could change. Christians could increasingly be expected to behave as a people led by God's Holy Spirit, and leaders should certainly not exercise jurisdiction in the Gentile manner (Matthew 20:25-28)!

Catholicism certainly believes that their system of priests should take confession from lay members, however, elsewhere Peter rejects the principle of an ongoing priesthood, upholding the teaching of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:1-10). Indeed, an entire New Testament book, the Book of Hebrews, clearly shows that the day of a priesthood ordained by God has now passed. See Hebrews 4:14-16, although the entire Book of Hebrews should be consulted on this point for any wanting to 'go deep' on this topic.

Therefore most Protestants have believed (and continue to believe) that the tighter control of a congregation by the first elders was only necessary until the completion of the Bible canon, although elders should continue to lead the churches. Specifically regarding confession, James certainly believed that all congregation members could be involved in confessing sins to each other (James 5:16), although he was undoubtedly talking about having a general attitude of repentance, but James never writes anything like, 'ensure you regularly confess your sins to your elders.' Neither do Peter or Paul ever state any such thing. Again, Paul gave quite detailed instructions to Timothy (in First and Second Timothy) regarding how churches should be run but he never states any thing about a 'priesthood,' nor the need for the brothers and sisters in Christ to regularly confess their sins to priests of such a priesthood. Indeed the New Testament teaches that we can now confess our sins directly to God, rather than needing to offer sacrifices to a Levite temple priest, as under the old covenant:

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5 NIV).

I have no doubt that this man is utterly sincere but I don't see it as established from Holy Scripture that we should now have a priesthood who should be involved in taking confessions from lay members (instead of those lay members confessing directly to God), and I cannot see that anything in John 20, or for that matter anywhere else in the New Testament, establishes this. As I often say, notice how the early church, and 'church fathers' (who lived much closer to the period of the ministry of Jesus and the first Apostles than we do), understood these things and it will be found that they had no system of priests, only of elders. A little later, two such men, Augustine and Cyprian, thought it a good idea to re-establish a sort of priesthood and Catholicism was to later follow their path, however, this was a few hundred years later. It remains the case that the highly prolific New Testament contributor, Paul the Apostle, never passed on any instructions for the sort of clerical system which one finds within the Catholic tradition. Whilst this could be said to be arguing from silence, it nevertheless remains the case that it would seem astonishing that the New Testament writers omitted this point, that is, if this point is of the importance which Catholicism teaches.

Robin A. Brace. February 1st, 2015.