“If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven;
if you do not forgive them,
they are not forgiven.”
Over the past couple years I have become increasingly convinced that, beyond corporate worship and edification, the primary function of “church” is that of being a healing community. Church as a healing community is a group where Christ’s Body is truly evident in varied spiritual gifts, emotional support, shared resources, prayer and confession. A church as a healing community is one of the places where the “loving others” of the great commandment is made manifest.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the sacramental duty of confession in the Body. I also suspect that confession is not an issue of much importance to most evangelicals. My background is both a bit Lutheran and a bit Roman Catholic, and I can recall one of my sanctimonious Lutheran sunday school teachers saying, “We don’t confess our sins to a priest, but directly to God.” The implication was that those ignorant Catholics needed the intervention of a priest to get God’s ear, but that we evangelical Lutherans (at least since the Reformation) had a direct line.
However, consider this: Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Why is it that it is often easier to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to a holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession to God, whether we have not been confessing our sin to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. . . Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.”
Many weeks I attend a Celebrate Recovery (CR) meeting. The first hour is devoted to breaking bread and socializing for those who wish to participate; the second hour is worship, followed by either a teaching or a testimony. The third hour is small groups divided by gender and issue. I attend the men’s codependency group. But I could just as easily attend the men’s anger or sex addiction groups.
I began attending CR about two and a half years ago. I initially went out of curiosity. I knew CR had something to do with addictions, and I though it might be a resource to refer clients to as a supplement to individual sessions. However, I was immediately captured by the program, especially the worship– intense, real and not entertainment driven. Also, after just a few sessions, I could see healing occurring in the small group sharing. I have conducted hundreds of sessions of group therapy in my professional career and what happens in CR is not group therapy; it’s far better because Christ is present and healing occurs thru confession. It makes real the dictum of James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
In CR and other 12-step small groups the facilitators are strictly there to remind participants of the group guidelines–they are not trained therapists. They do not need to be. Each participant is free to share their thoughts on their own issues but are not permitted to “play therapist” and comment on another’s. The sharing is often very raw and intense and is in effect “confession.”
In addition to the thursday night small sharing groups, I completed an eight month long weekly step-study with seven brothers from CR. The focus there was even more intense than the small groups. Once again, I saw healing occurring thru confession. Of course, it goes without saying, that the members pray for each other both at the meeting and during the week.
Over the past two years I’ve been part of a couple small fellowships that meet in homes. These home church groups are sometimes referred to as “organic” churches or “simple” churches. These groups usually consists of 10-15 adults and a few kids. The format mirrors CR; we have food and fellowship followed by worship, discussion and prayer. Typically, home churches have no identified leader and everyone is expected to participate per 1st Cor. 14:26: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” During the discussion people can share whatever is on their heart. Sometimes they share a teaching or a scripture the Holy Spirit has given them, but at other times they may just talk about what is going on in their sometimes very messy and painful lives. Once again, it approaches confession and once again I see healing occurring.
I think of the story in John 11 of Jesus restoring Lazarus as an outline for how we participate with the Lord in healing. Jesus says, “Lazarus, come forth.”–but He asks the disciples (us) to roll away the stone and unbind Lazarus from his shrouds. Ultimately, it is Jesus who heals, restores and forgives, but I think He invites our participation in this, particularly thru the healing found in confession and forgiveness. The verse from John which prefaces this blog seems to validate this point. Also, confession and forgiveness is clearly an integral precursor to the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Again, I will reiterate my thought that how I have come to view and value “church” over the past few years is very much in its ability to function as a healing community. The long quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer earlier in this blog is from his book Life Together. This brief but deeply moving book is the blueprint for authentic Christian community and confession and forgiveness is an integral part of that community.