Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Clarifying the Principle of Confession
The LDS practice of male Church leaders holding interviews with youth has been in the news this week, prompting a statement by the Church in an attempt to give a rationale for this practice and to clarify how these interviews should be conducted.1 With the Me Too movement gaining momentum across the nation, uncomfortable questions inevitably arise about male authority figures meeting privately with youth, especially young women, and discussing personal sexual matters.2
Anyone who can remember these priesthood interviews from their own youth will likely remember how awkward and embarrassing the experience can be. Part of the awkwardness, I believe, results from a misunderstanding and, consequently, an overapplication of the principle of confession in the Church. Because of this situation, there is, I believe, a high degree of unnecessary guilt that our young people bear. So let’s consider the principle of confession and how it should work in the Church.
The Why of Confession
Before we can understand the ins and outs of confessing sins, we must address the question of why we are supposed to confess. What purpose is served by confession? We confess all sins to the Lord because we have broken his commandments and must acknowledge our accountability before him. In essence, it is impossible to ask for forgiveness for a particular sin without admitting that we have sinned. We confess because we are acknowledging a sin and are asking the Lord to forgive us. He is the one who grants forgiveness through his Atonement. He paid the penalty that we would otherwise suffer. What he requires instead is that we confess our sins to him and forsake them, so that his Atonement and his forgiveness can become effective in our lives. This is the basic rationale in Mormonism for repentance and forgiveness, which involves confession.
The Who of Confession
When our sin injures another individual, we are to confess to that person also. Why? Because we must at least try to set things right with the individual we have injured. We may not be able to restore what we have either damaged or stolen, but we are required to acknowledge to that person our fault and ask for forgiveness so that our relationship with that person is one of harmony and peace and good feeling. The injured individual may refuse to forgive us, but if we have confessed, attempted restitution, and sought that person’s forgiveness, we have done all the Lord requires.
In some instances, our sin may be of a nature that either reflects badly on the Church— because our bad behavior taints the Church in some way—or that places our membership or standing in the Church in jeopardy. The Church, for instance, has an obligation to not fill its ranks with adulterers or murderers or thieves. Certain morally reprehensible behaviors disqualify us for either membership or full fellowship in the Church. Because these behaviors place in jeopardy our standing in the Church, they must be confessed to a priesthood leader, generally a bishop. It is then up to the bishop to discern what action is to be taken, not only to cleanse the Church, but also to help the sinner reform his or her life. Sometimes a severe penalty, such as excommunication, is the only way to satisfy both of these goals. In other instances, a restriction on certain privileges of membership—such as partaking of the sacrament or giving public prayers or speeches—is sufficient. Then, when the priesthood leader has determined that our repentance is sufficient, restrictions will be lifted or membership restored.
President Marion G. Romney, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, explained these principles in the October 1980 general conference:
As to the nature of repentance, the Lord has said, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43).
There doesn’t seem to be much uncertainty about the meaning of forsake. However, the requirement to confess is not so universally understood. As a matter of fact, there is considerable confusion in the world about the confessing of sins, and a lot of false doctrine. By way of an assist in clearing up the confusion, I repeat some comments heretofore made on this subject.
We are to confess all our sins to the Lord. For transgressions which are wholly personal, affecting none but ourselves and the Lord, confession to ourselves and him would seem to be sufficient.
As a matter of fact, no good can come from confessing to anyone else. President Brigham Young once said, “Keep your follies that do not concern others to yourselves, and keep your private wickedness as still as possible; hide it from the eyes of the public gaze as far as you can” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941, 158).
For misconduct which affects another, confession should also be made to the offended one and his forgiveness sought.
Finally, where one’s transgressions are of such a nature as would, unrepented of, put in jeopardy his right to membership or fellowship in the Church of Christ, full and effective confession requires confession by the repentant sinner to his bishop or other proper presiding Church officer—not that the Church officer could forgive him the sin (for this power rests in the Lord himself and those only to whom he specifically delegates the power), but rather that the Church, acting through its duly appointed officers (the power is not in the officer but in the Church), might with full knowledge of the facts take such action with respect to Church discipline as the circumstances require and merit.
One having forsaken his sins and, by proper confession, cleared his conduct with the Lord, with the people he has offended, and with the Church of Jesus Christ, where necessary, may with full confidence seek the Lord’s forgiveness and go forth in newness of life, relying upon the merits of Christ.3
This explanation by President Romney is particularly significant because at the time it was given he was serving as a counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball, whose book The Miracle of Forgiveness took a hard-line approach to sin, creating what many feel was an excessive amount of guilt among Church members and cultivating a culture of confession in the Church that may have gone beyond the logical bounds articulated by President Romney. Interestingly, President Kimball’s son Ed suggests that his father later had some regrets about his earlier approach to the topic of sin: “The Miracle of Forgiveness set a demanding standard, and Spencer later seemed to wish he had adopted a gentler tone. In 1977 he invited Lyle Ward, the former bishop of his home ward, . . . to his office. . . . Coming to a bookshelf holding the many translations of The Miracle of Forgiveness, he paused and pulled a copy out to the edge of the shelf, saying, ‘Sometimes I think I might have been a little too strong about some of the things I wrote in this book.’”4
Both the now obsolete Church Handbook of Instructions and the new Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops appear not only to support what President Romney taught but to also give further guidance. The Handbook judiciously avoids any specifics, except in the case of what it calls “serious transgression, which should be confessed to priesthood authority and which it defines as “a deliberate and major offense against morality. It includes (but is not limited to) attempted murder, rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, intentional serious physical injury of others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, theft, embezzlement, sale of illegal drugs, fraud, perjury, and false swearing” (p. 56).
What all of these specific transgressions have in common is that they involve serious sins that harm others. Sins that President Romney defines as “wholly personal, affecting none but ourselves and the Lord,” are not included among this category of transgressions.
What this suggests is that while a bishop may, for example, inquire as to our worthiness to receive a temple recommend, many of the specific sins he asks about in the temple recommend interview would not need to be confessed to him in order to receive forgiveness from the Lord. The Handbook also is very specific about certain transgressions that do not warrant the convening of a disciplinary council. Specifically mentioned are failure to comply with the Word of Wisdom, struggles with pornography or self-abuse (masturbation), and transgressions that “consist of omissions, such as failure to pay tithing, inactivity in the Church, or inattention to Church duties.” The obvious question here is why bishops need to inquire about sins that do not need to be confessed to a priesthood leader, even in temple recommend interviews. Simply asking if a person feels qualified to enter the temple should suffice. Following Brigham Young’s advice, if our sins do not affect others, they should be kept between ourselves and the Lord: “Keep your follies that do not concern others to yourselves, and keep your private wickedness as still as possible.”
Young also said this: “I do not want to know anything about the sins of this people, at least no more than I am obliged to. If persons lose confidence in themselves, it takes away the strength, faith and confidence that others have in them; it leaves a space that we call weakness. If you have committed a sin that no other person on the earth knows of, and which harms no other one, you have done a wrong and sinned against your God, but keep that within your own bosom, and seek to God and confess there, and get pardon for your sin.”5 On another occasion, Young repeated the same sentiment: “And if you have sinned against your God, or against yourselves, confess to God, and keep the matter to yourselves, for I do not want to know anything about it.”6
In spite of this very clear and reasonable advice, many bishops and stake presidents appear to be inclined to inquire into these personal types of sins and require a confession. Obviously, there is a bit of confusion here between Church practice and Church doctrine, but much of this is cultural and has taken on a life of its own, without regard to scripture or doctrine or reason.
Reducing Excessive Guilt
It seems that the logical course to take in this regard is to teach more carefully and completely the principle of confession—including the reasons for confession, which sins need to be confessed to priesthood authority, and what to do about personal, private sins that do not affect others or the Church. More thorough teaching and fewer interrogations would reduce unnecessary and excessive guilt among both youth and adults in the Church, would prevent uncomfortable prying by priesthood leaders, and would likely lead to less stress and better mental and spiritual health among Church members. I can see this approach also resulting in a drastic change to temple recommend interviews. Rather than a list of questions that feels more like an interrogation, a bishop could simply explain the behavioral and spiritual standards expected of temple attenders, ask if the member feels qualified, and leave it at that. In other words, if you’ve slipped up and had a cup of coffee in the past six months, confessed to the Lord and asked forgiveness, there is no need to mention this lapse to a priesthood leader in a temple recommend interview.
1. See “Statement from the LDS Church on Bishops’ Interviews,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 12, 2017, http://www.sltrib.com/religion/local/2017/12/12/statement-from-the-lds-church-on-mormon-bishops-interviews/.
2. See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Some Parents and Therapists Say Mormon Bishops’ Interviews with Children about Sexual Matters Are ‘Intrusive, Inappropriate,’” Salt Lake Tribune, December 12, 2017, http://www.sltrib.com/religion/local/2017/12/12/all-the-buzz-about-sexual-harassment-has-some-mormons-wondering-if-bishops-interviews-go-too-far-and-need-reform/.
3. Marion G. Romney, “Repentance,” Ensign, November 1980, 48.
4. Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride—Working Draft (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2005), chapter 8, page 1, from the CD included with the hardcover book published by Deseret Book.
5. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 4:79 (November 9, 1856).
6. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 8:362 (March 10, 1860).