I have a public confession to make.
I believe the church’s practice of public confession, and all its associated rules, are simply more assumptions which have been mistakenly inferred and bound by men, not by the Bible. These manmade rules include:
- A weekly time of public confession.
- Private sins confessed before public ones
- A confession must be as public as the sin was
- Must stand for public confession
- A prayer must be offered after said period of public confession asking for the forgiveness of the people who confessed.
- You can’t take the Lord’s Supper if there is “sin on your soul” as a result of not confessing a “public sin” publicly
- If any one of these rules is violated, your sins are not forgiven. Start over until the process is completed properly.
We all know the church is big on public confession. This is a distinctive teaching that separates this church noticeably from other churches, and not just other Churches of Christ, by the way. Public confessions are a highly unique practice.
Stanton likes to refer back to Nehemiah 9 and 10 (a unique instance of a national confession of Israel) for a dubious Biblical precedent for this Sunday morning practice. But where exactly is this event referred to by first century writers, much less practiced by them? Spoiler alert—it’s not. Not even close.
Don’t get me wrong. Private confession, as the New Testament teaches, should be an important part of Christian life. It encourages humility, and restores relationships, when it is practiced between brothers and sisters who have truly offended one another. Public confession can even be a valuable thing as well, when a person’s desire for accountability leads them to expose their own weaknesses so the church body can support them in changing their ways.
But when you’ve just violated an entirely man-made rule, like the wrong color of lipstick, or not wearing nylons on Sunday…it is an unbelievable cheapening of what should be a deeply personal, and entirely optional, desire to humble yourself and expose your struggles to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Leadership hides behind the optional nature of public confession when it’s convenient (“If they have a sensitive conscience, who are we to tell them they can’t confess that?”), but denies it’s optional when defending the practice in general.
I’d like to suggest that if the church really, truly believes Nehemiah 9 and 10 are examples we’re required to emulate as a church body (and I don’t, for the sake of clarity), then the church ought to be fasting, wearing sackclock, standing as an entire assembly, reading from the Book of the Law, and confessing the collective sins of the church over the past 50+ years for a quarter of the day. And since we’re paying attention to details, and we don’t know what God might strike us dead for, don’t forget some dust on the head:
Nehemiah 9:1-3 On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.NIV
What sins has Stanton committed as a church body? How about starting with teachings imposed out of a desire for fake unity that have since been rescinded?
Things like withdrawing from people unscripturally and unjustly, publicly defaming the character of people in front of their wives (in fact, BY their wives), and children, for their private thought lives or private sexual addictions, teaching and providing moral support for the breakup of marriages, affecting generations of children who had to grow up in a split family as a result. Let’s just start with these things for now.
Look at the human cost of these collective “national sins” of Stanton. Aren’t they a little more impactful than the normal Sunday morning confessional litany of so-called sins, like speeding a little, or not wearing nylons, or failing to obey some other obscure rule in 2 Opinions Chapter 3?
The irony of Stanton’s embrace of Nehemiah 9 and 10 is stunning—absolutely stunning—when you think about it. Stanton “proves too much” in defending public confession based on these passages, because if they apply them to the church, then they don’t affect sins done privately, but public sins of the collective assembly. Say, for instance, the collective sins the church acted on “in unity,” yet in error. That is highly damning.
Rather than scrubbing history to whitewash and minimize these errors in doctrine, wouldn’t it be more consistent with Stanton’s own teaching to just admit these sins, and confess them as such? Just come clean, admit that the church taught erroneously, and sinned greatly by offending “one of these little ones” in the process. If a confession should be as public as the sin, then I think it’s reasonable that people who have left Stanton because of past offenses, and whose family lives and personal life trajectories may have been forever altered because of them, be made aware if Stanton actually repents from any of these past sins and offenses. There have been real, human costs to these sins, and they are not to be brushed off lightly.
For those of you who have been sinned against by Stanton’s unbiblical teachings and unloving practices, I encourage 100% forgiveness. For your sake, not theirs. Don’t carry around the hurt. Lay it at the cross, and let Stanton carry its burden alone. They are destroying themselves. But Stanton also needs to own up to the mess they’ve created in so many families’ lives.
Remember this oft-quoted verse?
Isaiah 9:16 – Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray. NIV
When Stanton chooses, as a church body, to lay their collective sins at the cross, they, like you, can experience true freedom in Christ. Until then, let’s pray for them to experience the love and forgiveness that the gospel is really about by seeking true reconciliation with the people they’ve hurt by their unbiblical doctrines.
What about Matthew 5?
But what about Matthew 5, you ask? Doesn’t that mandate the confession of public and private sins before we can take the Lord’s Supper, as Stanton teaches?
Matthew 5:23-24 – Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Stanton’s interpretation of this is ludicrously out of context, if you really think about it. Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount in this chapter primarily to the Pharisees, long before the Lord’s Supper was ever introduced. His point, pure and simple, is to slap the Pharisees around for thinking they could have a fine relationship with God while they are at odds with their brother.
Mind you, Jesus is not talking about one Pharisee having seen another Pharisee doing something wrong, and having to legalistically “correct” it with him chronologically prior to approaching God with an act of worship so that God will accept said act of worship. No, that’s our legalistic human minds trying to make a formula out of what is truly a matter of the heart.
This is about a broken relationship between two people. Yes, he’s setting up a principle, but it isn’t a principle imposing a regulatory chronology, but a priority of the heart. He’s saying, “how dare you think you are so righteous before God just because you’re doing all your outward acts of service correctly, while at the same time refusing to mend a broken relationship with your brother? Fix the relationship with your brother.” That’s your priority.
A deafening silence about public confession
If public confession was a weekly practice, as Stanton has made it, and it was such a central part of the first century church’s doctrines on forgiveness of sin, it is mind boggling that we don’t have a single recorded mention of a church or individual doing it. Not even in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul’s letter to that congregation telling them to accept the man who had repented of sleeping with his father’s wife. Wouldn’t that have been an ideal time to tell them to have the guy stand before the congregation and confess his sin—and ask forgiveness for it—publicly?
It’s noteworthy that the man had already shown a repentant heart without ever having come before the church publicly. The church had completely expelled the man from the assembly, per Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5, and sometime between then and his second letter, had changed his ways. The church, meanwhile, was continuing to “punish” the man by rejecting him from the group, and Paul is writing to them telling them to stop and accept him once again. He doesn’t say to have him come before the church and confess before he can take the Lord’s supper again.
Any fair reading of the New Covenant Scriptures leaves a deafening silence about any first century church practice of public confession. That’s because it was not something they did. Did someone occasionally feel a personal need to come before the congregation to confess their faults one to another? We might guess that the man in Corinth, and maybe others, did. But that would be pure speculation, upon which we’d be foolish to establish a church doctrine or practice. We simply have no historical evidence…Biblical or otherwise…for this teaching. To bind this practice on Stanton’s churches, as it has done for 45+ years, is one more example of “teachings for doctrines the commandments of men.”