|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Essays about Orthodoxy|
Confession in the ancient Church
By fr. Anthony AlevizopoulosSource: “Handbook on heresies and para-Christian groups” (3rd Edition, Athens, 1994).
Protestantism has always accused the Church for implementing the Sacrament of Confession. Apparently –according to their view- confession is inappropriate, firstly because people do not have the authority to forgive sins, and secondly, because the first Christian Church –again according to their view- did not implement it. However, events and proofs show us the exact opposite, as we shall see in this article.
It will be beneficial to all of us, to examine a small and concise overview of this matter, as outlined by father Anthony Alevizopoulos.
Holy Confession was a rite that was familiar, even during the times of the Old Testament :
Leviticus 5: 5-6
5 When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned 6 and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.
Numbers 5: 5-7
5 The LORD said to Moses, 6 "Say to the Israelites: 'When a man or woman wrongs another in any way [b] and so is unfaithful to the LORD, that person is guilty 7 and must confess the sin he has committed. He must make full restitution for his wrong, add one fifth to it and give it all to the person he has wronged.
13 He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.
This was the reason that the crowds swarmed to John the Baptist and confessed their sins, after which, he would “certify” their repentance, through baptism :
Matthew 3: 5-6
5People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Mark 1: 4-5
4And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
This rite was also continued by the Christian Church :
18Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds.
This resulted in the forgiveness of sins by the Apostles, in conformance with the promise of the Lord that He would give the apostles this authority :
Matthew 16: 19
19”I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven."
18"I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.
This promise was fulfilled, after Christ was resurrected. Naturally, this forgiveness of sins did not lie in the apostles’ powers, but “in the blood” of the Lord :
John 20: 21-23
21Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
1 John 1:7
7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
During the Sacrament of Confession, the priest intercedes as an instrument, a servant of Christ, and the steward of God’s sacraments :
1 Corinthians 4:1
1So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the sacraments of God.
7Since an overseer (=bishop) is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless, not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.
1 John 1 1:9
9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 2:2
2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
During the time of the ancient Church, confession took place in public, in the sacred congregations of the faithful, which were naturally attended by the priesthood, but also by the bishop who was the one empowered to give absolution.
“All who repent are forgiven by the Lord, provided they repent in a unity of God and in a convention of a bishop”, as Saint Ignatius had characteristically specified. (Ignatius of Philadelphia 8,1), while in his work “Teaching”, he urges : “Confess your trespasses in the presence of the Church, and do not come to prayers with a mischievous conscience: this is the path of life” (Teaching 4,14).
Saint Cyprianus stresses that a sinner is re-accepted into the ecclesiastic community – in other words, in the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist - “by the laying on of the hands of the bishop and the priesthood”, after first having confessed his sins (Cyprianus, epistle 16,2); furthermore, Holy Communion is not administered to anyone, “unless the bishop and the priesthood have previously placed their hands on that person” (epistle 18,2), as “the absolution that is given through a priest is pleasing to God” (De lapsis 29).
Origen looks upon it as a natural follow-up; i.e., that it is “in accordance with the practice of the One who established the sacrament of priesthood within the Church, for the ministers and the priests of the Church to similarly undertake the sins of the people and -in emulation of the Master- to grant them the absolution of their sins” (Origen, On Leviticus, Homily 3)
Basil the Great refers to confession during the Apostolic Church, (Acts 19:18 - Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds) and concludes that : “it is necessary to confess our sins to those who have been entrusted with the stewardship of God’s Sacraments” (1 Corinthians 4:1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the sacraments of God), because the first Christians used to confess to the Apostles, who also baptized everyone. (Basil the Great, Conditions, 288)
John the Chrysostom says of the priesthood: “Even though they inhabit and still walk the earth, they have nevertheless undertaken the supervision of celestial affairs, with an authority that God did not give, either to the angels or to the archangels. He indeed never said to the angels “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven”; yet the binding of priests reaches the very soul, and it traverses the heavens, and everything that the priests enact below, God authorizes from above. The Master upholds the decision of the servants. Did He not give them full celestial authority? He said to them: Whosever’s sins you may withhold, they shall be withheld” (Chrysostom, On Priesthood, Homily 3,5).As we can see, the Orthodox Church continues -to this day- the proto-Christian tradition of confession in the presence of a spiritual father.
Translation by A.N.
Article published in English on: 3-3-2006.
Last update: 3-3-2006.