14 October 2008

Absolution, but not absolutely Absolution

While private confession and absolution is a great blessing to the church, there are matters that are simply inappropriate for a woman to discuss with a man who is not her husband. God only knows how many pastor / parishioner relationships that began with a woman confessing her sexual sins to her pastor were concluded by the two of them sinning sexually together.

A woman can speak from within herself to another
woman in a way a man cannot. No, this is not the ministry of the word, but it is a blessing from God. A woman can listen, understand, and give woman to woman counsel that no pastor can give.

Hmmm re: this quotation from Pastor Rolf Preus which was part of a longer essay posted to Lutherans and Procreation by Dr Heidenreich.

Our Lord established Holy Absolution to forgive sins and thereb
y comfort broken and contrite hearts. The fact is that women sin sexually. With all due respect to the Father in Christ whose words I'm considering, are women to be denied the comfort of Holy Absolution of these sins on the basis of inappropriateness? This seems particularly cruel since sexual sin often causes great personal shame and as a result can be uniquely painful to confess. But it is precisely that shame which drives penitents to endure the pain of confessing it.

The Catechism: "But before the confessor we should confess those sins alone which we know and feel in our hearts." The Smalcald Articles: "But the enumeration of sins ought to be free to every one, as to what he wishes to enumerate or not to enumerate" (3 VIII:2, e
mphasis added). I don't see an allowance here for awkward social situations, (arguably) excessive propriety, or potential temptations to the confessor or penitent.

What's a girl to do? The wicket sticket, but doesn't every child of God have a baptismal birthright to Holy Absolution of any and all sins that torture his or her soul? This means I'm not going to just have a chat about it with some nice church lady and pretend it's taken care of. "Not ministry of the
Word," then what's the point if what a woman needs is the Word of Absolution? I want all my sins loosed in heaven, darn it. And to prohibit women from confessing sexual failings to pastors stigmatizes these sins even more, inflating their natural shame.

What about glossing over, using euphemisms ("indiscretion," eg), confessing very generally under the umbrella of the sixth commandment? Eh . . . ok, but in my experience with confession, sometimes I need to get a whole story out and hear that the rotten thing I did, and the manipulative way I did it, and even the obliquely related catty thought I had while I was doing it are forgiven. Does a woman have to forgo this costly comfort when a specific sexual sin has br
oken her? Furthermore, there is always a temptation to euphemize and thus mitigate when making confession. My black and evil heart doesn't need an excuse to gloss over any sin rather than facing it head-on, as speaking it in plain words requires.

The peril: too perilous?

And what about those temptations? Hearing confessions is indeed risky business. Then again, so are many responsibilities of the stewards of the mysteries of God. Handling our Lord's holy Body and precious Blood, for example, or exorcising the unregenerate who would be baptized, puts pastors in spiritually vulnerable positions. Shepherds are like that. They expose themselves to danger to protect their sheep. Perhaps the danger could be minimized with some simple ground rules: don't socialize with anyone who poses temptation, don't hear confessions in hot tubs, keep your vestments on (especially that cincture). If a particular person is (unwittingly) a problem for a particular pastor, maybe he could find a priestmanly way to entrust her spiritual care to a colleague down the road. And obviously a "penitent" who is behaving provocatively is unrepentant. I believe the system has a correction built into it for this scenario.

Maybe one of the Blackbirds or another pastoral type could take this up. I would really appreciate it. If any of you Reverend Bloggers are so inclined, email us or drop a heads up in the comments when you get around to it and we'll link back to your post.


Blogversary said...

Excellent thoughts and questions raised. I too look forward to a response.

Marie M said...

While I definitely seen the point of your post, I must say that I am...jealous??? of you women who have private confession and absolution about anything! I've grown up a Confessional (albeit low-church) Lutheran (or so I thought), and I think my Pastor would be very uncomfortable with me or any member confessing ANY sin (much less a sexual one!) in his office. I long for that comfort, that I seem to need moreso that corporate absolution! Maybe it's time for church shopping?

MooreMama said...

My feeling is that if a provacative sin/sinner/confession is enough to get a Pastor ...um... out of his vestments, there are probably other, previous issues at work. Perhaps they should be chased down and remedied before suggesting that women, as a whole, should be made to feel that they need to censor their confessions.
We (at least I) have to be able to trust that good, Godly men (such as our Husbands, pastors or not) are quite capeable of resisting such temptations and keeping their heads, hearts, and other body parts where they belong.

Methinks that Dr Heidenreich isn't giving pastors, in general, the credit that they deserve.

And to imply that I should take my confessions to a girlfriend if they're too steamy for church?!? If I could have my girlfriends forgive my deepest, darkest, most sinful sins, what do I need church for anyway?

Pr. H. R. said...

I know Fr. Rolf to be a faithful, thoughtful, and experienced pastor, so I take seriously his warning concerning temptations stemming from the confessional. But I'm afraid that I'll have to disagree that some sins are inappropriate to confess. The pastor is there as the ears and mouth of Christ: that's his job, like it or lump it.

There are several steps that wise pastors take to ensure that they are not being led into temptation regarding counseling to or hearing the confessions of the fairer sex.

* In short, the rule of thumb for wise pastors is: in so far as possible, don't be alone with a female parishioner. This protects from the appearance of wrongdoing as well as from temptations. Of course, there are cases where being alone is required - further steps are taken in regard to those situations, to wit:

* Confessions are to be made in the sanctuary, with the pastor vested, at posted times or by appointment. This is a liturgical encounter: not a personal encounter. After the confession, the pastor goes back to the sacristy to unvest while the penitent leaves. There's nothing more to say after "Go in Peace." If a counseling session is desired by the penitent, s/he can call the next day to schedule it. Of course, this should be explained to penitents before the confession. If during a counseling session the discussion moves to confession, then the meeting ends and pastor and penitent go to the sanctuary for the rite.

* Counseling meetings with female parishioners take place during normal business hours in the pastor's office when folks are in and out of the wider church office. If a meeting cannot be had at such times, I will meet with female parishioners in the evening it the parsonage's sitting room while my wife is at home. Single pastors may have to think about other arrangements for folks who can't meet during normal hours - directly before or after church, in the church, on Sunday, for example. It's a pity our celibate pastors don't get elderly housemaids to live in the rectory like Romanists priests. . .

*Pastoral counseling must not be open ended. A specific problem needs to be identified and the sessions are limited to that problem, solution-focused, limited to 45 minutes, and end after 6-8 sessions. This is a professional encounter, not a personal encounter. It's not two friends talking.

There's a lot of good information out there about solution-focused pastoral counseling and I count these basic guidelines for pastoral counseling one of the few good things I learned in my practical courses at the seminary. Our job isn't to fix mental health problems, nor to be a buddy, rather it's to forgive folks and give them sage advice from the Word of God about putting the faith into practice. If you can't accomplish that in six to eight meetings, then the problem is probably a mental health issue that a pastor is simply not equipped nor called to handle. At that point, the pastor needs to end the sessions and refer to a psychological counselor.

*A final piece of advice from another wise old pastor I know: in the face of sexual temptation, run, don't walk the other way. A story was told to me about about a former pastor at my vicarage congregation - sometime back in the 40's or 50's. Evidently a parishioner had taken a shine to him - well, she came into his office one day and started undressing(!). He calmly got up, opened up the door and said to his secretary, "Mrs. Shickelgrüber, could you please call my wife, there's a matter I'd like to discuss with her. . ."


Pr. H. R. said...

Marie M,

Time for church shopping? Don't let your pastor off that easy! He took a vow in his ordination "never to divulge the sins" confessed to him and he teaches the 5th chief part of the catechism about confession: so call him up and tell him you want to schedule an appointment for private confession and absolution. He and others who might be inexperienced in the matter can read more about it here:

Plus, the rite's right there in the hymnal (in either LW or LSB) - so you can't hardly screw it up.


Gauntlets said...


Pam said...

Can we not depart fron the context of the point Pr. Preus was making? He was referring to a deaconess as, among other things, a fellow woman to whom other women could come with issues that would be perhaps be less comfortable to take to a man/pastor. He did not say, don't go to your pastor, go to your girlfriends instead. A deaconess would not be the same as a "girlfriend." Being, at the same time, a fellow woman, a deaconess would be able to "listen, understand, give counsel that no pastor can give."

If you gals do not know women like this, I am sorry for you. I do, and they have helped me in that capacity, even though they are not "trained" deaconesses. Forgiveness in Christ is forgiveness, is it less valid if we are assured of it by a woman rather than a man?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

God is exceedingly rich in His grace toward us, and so gives us the Gospel in more than one way. Wherever and however He gives the Gospel, He is proclaiming and bestowing the forgiveness of sins: one and the same forgiveness that our Lord obtained by His holy and precious blood, His innocent suffering and death. However, the means of grace are not simply a smorgasbord of selections. Each has its own proper gifts and benefits to bestow, in and with the forgiving of sins.

Confession and Absolution is not commanded or required; it is free. However, it is not for that reason irrelevant or inconsequential. The benefits of pastoral care and pastoral counsel that belong uniquely to Individual Confession and Absolution are of great value. I am troubled by the suggestion that a woman should not confess sexual sins to her pastor. I'm troubled by that suggestion for a number of reasons, which I intend (in time) to post on my own blog when I can. But I'm not troubled by this suggestion as though a woman would thus be prevented from receiving the real forgiveness of her sins; that line of thinking would make of confession a law and a work of self-righteousness, instead of a merciful means of grace freely given to be freely received. No, a woman would still have available to her the Gospel in preaching and the Holy Communion, and in the confession of fellow Christians, even by those who know not the troubles that lie heavy upon her.

I agree that helpful counsel and advice can be given to a woman by a sister in Christ, whether a trained deaconess or another faithful woman. But I don't believe that such counsel and advice are equivalent to the benefit of Individual Confession and Absolution with her pastor. Thus, I do not agree that any sort of rule should be made, which would deny her that benefit.

I am opposed, in general, to any rule that would make it more difficult (or impossible) for a Christian to avail himself or herself of Individual Confession and Absolution. The problem we are faced with in this area is certainly not that people are going to Confession when they shouldn't be, but that too many people are rarely if ever going to Confession at all.

Pam said...

Pr. Stuckwisch, I have asked my husband about this, and thank you for answering my question. Do I understand that you refer to the forgiveness of Christ by a man, a pastor, in the office which is in Christ's stead, speaking specifically to that particular sin?

That of course, being something more than a friend's reassurance, generally of the forgiveness we all have through Christ?

If so, I understand. I've never had the privilege of going to private Confession/Absolution.

Rebekah said...

Thank you, Father Rick. Pam, the distinction he makes is also what I was talking about. My concern here is not about godly counsel, but Holy Absolution. The former I would only seek from a woman pertaining to sexual matters (or, more likely, not at all); the latter I can only receive from a pastor.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I just realized that I responded to this thread under the previous post by mistake. Oops. Rather than retyping all of that, those who are interested can see my further remarks on Confession and Absolution under "Ew."

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

I post the following at the request of Pastor Rolf Preus, as he does not have a blogger account and this blog does not allow "anonymous" comments:

Erich Heidenreich has been kind enough to share with me comments posted in response to these paragraphs in a paper I gave this past June:

“But a deaconess can be a tremendous benefit to the church specifically in serving women in a way that a pastor cannot. While private confession and absolution is a great blessing to the church, there are matters that are simply inappropriate for a woman to discuss with a man who is not her husband. God only knows how many pastor / parishioner relationships that began with a woman confessing her sexual sins to her pastor were concluded by the two of them sinning sexually together.

“A woman can speak from within herself to another woman in a way a man cannot do. No, this is not the ministry of the word, but it is a blessing from God. A woman can listen, understand, and give woman to woman counsel that no pastor can give.”

The respondents have interpreted my words to say that I do not believe that a woman should confess her sexual sins to her pastor. I did not say that. After saying that private confession and absolution is a great blessing I added that there are matters that a woman should not discuss with a man who isn’t her husband. I was not equating confessing with discussing. In fact, I was attempting to distinguish between them. It is one thing to confess. It is another to discuss. All Christians should feel free to confess to their pastor all of their sins, especially those they know and feel in their hearts, and that includes women who suffer the guilt from having committed sexual sins. We confess our sins and God forgives us our sins through the voice of his minister. Confessing and discussing are quite distinct, in my view. Confession may entail further discussion. It may not. As I said, there are some matters that are inappropriate for a woman to discuss with a man who is not her husband. This is not to say that a woman may not confess her sexual sins to her pastor and receive absolution from him as from God himself. It is to say that in certain circumstances one Christian woman can give to another Christian woman the kind of counsel that a man either cannot or should not give. The “mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” may be offered by women to women.

I thank Erich for posting this for me.

Pr. Rolf Preus