The Minister of Confession
From the September 2001 Messenger
For many months now, this space has been devoted to a discussion of the sacrament of confession. We have looked at it from various points of view. In this final installment, we will consider this most important question: "Who administers the sacrament of confession?"
The apparent answer is of course "the priest." After all, the priest is the one to whom we make the confession, right? He is the one who gives us absolution. He is the one who offers us words of counsel or imposes a penance, correct? If this was your answer and you did not immediately qualify it, you would flunk your course in Orthodox sacramental theology.
The traditional Roman Catholic theology of the priesthood emphasized that at ordination, God gives a new priest the "power" to effect the sacraments. Thus, for instance, in the case of the eucharist, the priest receives the "power" to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In the case of confession, the priest is granted the authority to forgive sins. This is based on the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John: "Whoever's sins you remit, they are remitted to them, and whoever's sins you retain, they are retained" (John 20:23). Certainly, this verse seems to demonstrate the very thing that Roman Catholic theology asserts: that Christ has delegated the authority to forgive sins (first to the apostles, and through them to their successors, priests and bishops).
The Orthodox Church views this matter in a different way. Listen to the exhortations the priest says to the penitent in the Greek text of the confession service. Before the penitent makes his confession, "My brother, inasmuch as you have come to God and to me, be not ashamed, for you speak NOT TO ME, BUT TO GOD, before whom you stand." And then after the penitent has made his confession, "My spiritual child, who has confessed to my humble self, I, humble and a sinner, have NOT power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone . . ." and then the text goes on to quote John 20:23 (Emphasis mine).
This shows that the Orthodox Church does not view the priest as the minister of confession. The confession is made TO GOD, and GOD alone grants forgiveness. If this is true, then what is the role of the priest?
In the Orthodox view, it is God who effects all the sacraments through Christ in the Holy Spirit. In fact, Christ exercises his ministry to the Church through the ministry of the priesthood. Thus, Christ rules the church and exercises his teaching ministry through the bishops. He presides at the eucharist through the celebrant of the Liturgy. He absolves and remits sins through the absolution of the priest. He joins the couple through the blessing of the priest in marriage. In every case, it is not the priest exercising an autonomous power he has received from God, but Christ exercising his ministry through the priest. It is a critical difference. The priest is but the visible icon of Christ who works invisibly in his Church.
In confession, this means we are acknowledging our sins to God, not to the priest. One does not "confess to the priest." One confesses to God in the presence of the priest. "Why go to confession at all, then?" some may ask. "Why not just confess to God in private?" While we have discussed this previously, in this context, the answer is "because Christ exercises his power of forgiveness through the ministry of the priest." Because He has formed the Church as Christ's body, God interacts with us through the words, actions, physical things, and living touch of others, not alone in isolation from others.
It is Christ himself, then, that is the minister of confession. This fact is all-important for how we approach the sacrament. We are to approach it in a Christ-centered way. Things such as the person of our priest, what he is going to think, whether he is going to forgive us, should not be our primary concerns. When we approach confession, we are headed to an encounter with Jesus Christ, and our hearts and minds should be oriented toward that.