Orthodox Repentance and Confessing to a Priest

It is common amongst modern Christians today to believe that our sins do not affect others within the body of Christ unless we directly interact with them when sinning, as if the change – or lack there of – in our spiritual state does not have a negative consequence on the rest of the Church. As Bishop Kallistos says, “There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ (Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, April 1999 / third lecture by Bishop Kallistos).”

Because we are living beings amongst the rest of creation; that is, because nearly everything we do has an affect on someone else, we must begin to realize that our sin is not private. Every choice we make, from the stores we choose to shop at to the words we choose to speak, our actions create environments. When we chose to act sinfully we begin to create environments of pain and suffering. And unless we live secluded lives, away from any interaction with people at all, then these painful environments begin to infect people.

Because sin has always been a public matter, the early Church confessed their sins publically, within the assembly of worship. For a variety of practical reasons, the Church stopped confessing amongst the entire congregation, choosing to confess primarily before the pastor of their particular church. The pastor is able to make the matter much more discrete yet still “public” in that the confessor is confessing their sin to someone that represents the Church. Counsel can be given to the confessor and people who are from the “outside” (or even within the church) are not able to spread gossip around the community, as the priest is forbidden to reveal any confessed sins to anyone.

The arrangement of the Orthodox confession is not like that or Roman Catholicism. The Romans have a screen between the priest and the confessor, but in Orthodoxy the priest and the confessor stand or kneel before a representation of God such as an icon or Cross, many times in front of the iconostasis, visible to others but not within distance of actually hearing the confession. This arrangement, with the both of them before the representation of God, demonstrates the fact that in Orthodoxy, confession is to God, but alongside the witness of the priest. This can be best illustrated in the Russian tradition of the Church, where the priest says to the penitent at the beginning:

“Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly receiving your confession. Do not be ashamed and do not fear, and do not withhold anything from me; but without doubt tell all you have done and receive forgiveness from the Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, His holy image is before us, and I am only a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all things which you say to me. But if you conceal anything from me, you shall have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest having come to the physician, you depart unhealed.”

Confession is one of the sacraments in the Orthodox Church. A sacrament is a means in which God personally gives grace to the individual Christian. In Confession, grace is given to the Christian in the way of forgiveness. This does not make Christ’s forgiveness on the Cross ineffectual; on the contrary, it actually makes it effectual. The work of forgiveness has indeed already been done on the Cross, but like all Christian traditions teach, there must be repentance for this to become a reality within the Christian’s life. In fact, the word “repentance” is synonymous for “confession” within the Orthodox faith. As we repent of our sin we draw closer to Christ and become more like him and the image that he originally created us in. The Greek word for repentance in the New Testament is metanoia, which translates “change of mind and heart”, or, “change of consciousness”. In order to confess our sins, especially to another Christian, we must embrace humility, and humility is the very key to sanctification in Christ, a changed psyche.

In the Orthodox faith there are various avenues to embrace humility, to conquer the flesh! Admitting that we need each other within this journey of crucifying the flesh and taking up the “divine nature,” as St. Peter calls it, is an important aspect of the faith. When we embrace repentance, we must consider this. God gave us His Church, guided by His ministers so that we can have a life of repentance and help one another on this journey of repentance. Many modern traditions teach that there is no need for a priest to intercede for the confessing Christian. In fact, most go as far as stating that there is no need for any type of public confession and that the confession that we do in our personal prayer to God is sufficient and will absolve us and heal us of our sins. There are multiple problems with this teaching. The first is that we see public confession in the Holy Scriptures:   

 “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Matthew 3:6

“And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” Mark 1:5

“Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.” Acts 19:18

“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” 1 Timothy 6:12

“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

We also see that other first century documents of the Church verify that these Scriptures indeed mean what the Orthodox Church says they mean, and that this tradition of confession practiced within the first century was passed down through the centuries to follow:
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.” (Didache 4:14,14:1 — A.D.70)

“You shall judge righteously. You shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify those that contend by bringing them together. You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light.” (Letter of Barnabas 19 — A.D. 74)

“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ.” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 — A.D. 110)

“[A filial method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, “I said, to the Lord, I will accuse myself of my iniquity.” ” (Homilies in Leviticus 2:4 — A.D. 248)

“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles.” (Rules Briefly Treated 288 — A.D. 374)

“Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding: but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21-23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven.” (The Priesthood 3:5 — A.D. 387)

“For those to whom [the right of binding and loosing] has been given, it is plain that either both are allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to priests only.” (Ambrose of Milan, Penance 1:1 — A.D. 388)

The notion that confessing our sin in a public manner is not necessary is quite a harmful teaching; this teaching is in fact heterodox. To withhold confessing our sin to the Church is to harbor our sin within our personal psyche. There is no liberty, as liberty is given to us when we confess our sins to another. There is no easing of the conscience when we harbor those sins amongst ourselves. One of the very reasons why Saint James calls us to “confess our sins to one another” is because we live amongst one another and we are connected to one another in so very many ways.

When we confess to a priest, we ultimately confess that we have sinned against God’s Church. If you were to cause some sort of catastrophe within a company, who would you go to apologize to? The owner or person who represents the owner of the company! In one sense, this is what you are doing when you confess your sins to a priest. You are confessing to him that you have sinned against the “company” of the faithful. You are confessing to the one that represents the owner of the kingdom; that is, God the Almighty! The priest holds this authority to be able to grant a pardon or not to grant a pardon. We can see this in Matthew 16:18,19, that the keys of the kingdom were given to the apostles and that decisions that are made in this Church are made for heaven also (binding and loosing). If a Christian cannot humble themselves to ask the representative of the Church for forgiveness, then how could they possibly be repentive? It is as if every man that refuses to confess to the Church, creates his own church by insisting on only confessing to himself. In fact, with this type of philosophy a man could just start his own church whenever he is wrong and does not want to repent. He could make up his own doctrine and ethical standard as time moves along. This is essentially what is happening within the western Churches. The number of fragmented Bible organizations continues to grow every day because of this.

God’s grace is accessed through the Logos of God, through the very Word of God. The Church has been given the authority to assemble (declare letters to be a part of the Logos or not) and to bind and loose sins according to this Logos, this revelation of Christ. The Holy Scripture contains the basis for all moral law and this is what we confess, our breaking of the moral law of God. How can one confess breaking the law of God if they do not even believe in the Church that sets the standard of this morality to be broken in the first place? It is the Church that set forth ethical standards and it is the Church that one needs to confess to when breaking these standards. Repentance is a family exercise! We repent with the help of the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit operates through each other for the sake of each other.