Searching for Sunday: Confession
Unsurprisingly, the section in Rachel Held Evans’ Searching For Sunday on confession was a more emotional one that the chapter on baptism. Confession isn’t really something we like to talk about, especially Protestants.
The Church Breakup
The most impactful section for me was when Rachel talked about her and Dan finally leaving her Evangelical church of her childhood. She talked about many of the good things about the church, especially the group that met in her house every Sunday night. But there were also many things that were causing her to move farther away from Jesus instead of closer, much of it to do with doubt and claims of absolute certainty that she’s written about in her first two books.
I’ve been through a few church breakups. In fact, I’ve been through more church breakups than dating breakups (1). Several were simply geographic. I moved from my hometown to Kingston, then to Guelph, then to Toronto, then to Hamilton, then to Kitchener. Some were very sad to say goodbye to, but it was necessary.
I’ve also had a couple of uglier church breakups. With one I basically attempted to do what Rachel and Dan did: quietly slip away. I had attended for four years, been baptized there, and had a few very close friends. In my fourth year, the last of those friends was in teacher’s college so was seldom around between placements. I went to church when she was around and when they needed me to do tech, but otherwise I struggled for motivation to go. The youth/young adult pastor who I had connected with had left to go back to school a couple of years earlier and I was struggling with the certainty in moderated versions of some of the same ideas that Rachel struggled with: penal substitution, eternal torment Hell, exclusivist perspectives on other religions, inerrancy of Scripture, etc. Eventually it was just time to move on. Even though I returned to Kingston for two more years for my M.Div., I didn’t go back once that friend had graduated. Like Rachel and Dan, the pastor contacted me afterward, but he wasn’t nearly as direct so we skirted around the fact I had disappeared. It definitely felt like a last-ditch attempt, though.
I want to move on to other ideas, so I’m not going to talk about other breakups in much detail. There was one campus group that was much more of a case of hitting my head against the wall trying to ask questions that were apparently not allowed. There was another campus group that I helped found and it felt like my children had betrayed me. There was another that was just a bad personality fit. Apparently I’m a hard person to get along with.
The Broken Church
The bigger general theme of the section is how the Church is the home for the broken. The fact that all of these breakups exist – some simply for differences, some because of genuine unChristlike harm – is a pretty good hint that the Church is far from perfect. I would agree completely with Rachel that the problem isn’t when we mess up.
The problem is when we pretend that we don’t mess up. Everyone does this, but there’s something extra bad about it because of the hypocrisy when the church does it. Sometimes we need to say things like Micah J. Murray’s simple “I don’t have my shit together.” I don’t. Neither do you. You may do a great job of hiding it, but you’ve got problems, just like me.
There is good news for those of us who realize we don’t have our shit together: we’re exactly who Jesus came to help. There isn’t a lot that Jesus can do to help us if we are strutting around pretending we don’t need anybody or anything.
That’s where confession comes in. Maybe sometimes the practice of confession is used to shame people, ripping away their sense of worth because of their faults. Done right, however, confession makes us much more human. We are reminded of who we are, including our faults, and we are assured of Jesus’ pardon no matter what we have done or will do.
Rachel makes an amazing succinct point using the story of “the woman caught in adultery” or as I think it should probably be titled instead, “the religious leaders caught in judgementalism.” How often have you heard this story and then a religious leader makes a point to emphasize that Jesus says to sin no more at the end? I’ve heard this many times to completely bypass the point of the story in order to still feel entitled to judge. The whole point is that nobody is without sin and therefore nobody can throw even a single stone, not even when it was a really clearcut rule in the law like adultery. Even when you think you are absolutely certain what God thinks about somebody, you still do not get to pick up the stones. Ever. Jesus is the only one sinless, so only he has the right to condemn, but remarkably we find that he doesn’t. Elsewhere, John says explicitly that Jesus did not come to condemn the world (3:17). Confession can be a valuable reminder of this.