Many churches want us to share our lives together. There is nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, there is a lot to be said for it (depending exactly what you mean). One way of doing encouraging this is to encourage each other to share about the sins we are struggling with in our community groups (or whatever you happen to call yours).
Often, James 5:16 is cited as the proof-text for doing this: ‘confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.’ So we encourage people to share their sins in community. We suggest we will pray for each other, specifically for the sins we’re battling, in our home groups. This, we reckon, is fulfilling James’ call on us to confess our sin.
But I’m just not convinced that is what James is asking us to do here. I do not think these verses are encouraging us to publicly confess all of our sin to everyone. For one thing, I just don’t see where that would end. I mean, I am so sinful, where do I even begin in a general, cathartic sin confession session? And if we’re all aiming to do that, I just struggle to see that meeting ever ending!
I am also not sure how helpful this is intended to be for new believers. On one level, I can see how knowing that other, older believers still struggle with sin too can be encouraging inasmuch as it helps you see you aren’t alone. But, I can also see that hearing an older believer splurging their sin publicly might have some detrimental effects too. I’m just not convinced this is the sort of thing James had in mind. Sometimes it might be right and wise to keep quiet, and confess our sin to the Lord when it is a matter between us and him.
But, of course, James is telling us to actually do something. I don’t think his comment is something we should just brush aside. I’m just not convinced that he had some sort of group counselling session in mind where we blurt out all the ways we are sinning to a room full of people. Something else seems to be going on.
Leaving aside the particularly contentious aspect of healing (one for another day perhaps), the context speaks to a sick person going to his elders for prayer. James notes that through prayer, in faith, if the person has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Whatever else is going on here, it seems clear that confessing sin to the Lord in prayer will lead to forgiveness from the Lord. That leads James to suggest that, in a similar way, we ought to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, so that we may be healed. If the first confession of sin is to the Lord for forgiveness, the second confession of sin to each other must presumably be for forgiveness from those we have sinned against too.
Given that, I do not think James is giving us a blueprint for splurging every known sin to everybody in our church. I am not convinced he is suggesting we do that in a small group setting either. Instead, I think he is talking about confessing our sins to those we have sinned against. That is to say, if I have sinned against you, I should own my sin and seek your forgiveness. This seems to be the confession of sin he is talking about. I do not think he is talking about getting us all to unload all of our sin on whoever might be ready and willing to listen. This is about confessing our specific sins against other believers to those particular people we have sinned against.
Of course, that doesn’t mean if we want prayer for specific sins we are battling we shouldn’t seek it. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have trusted folks who might pray with us about things we are seeking to battle. But it is to say that we don’t have to do that. We have an advocate with the Father in Jesus. There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. We don’t need others to do that for us. We might feel their help to battle particular sins is helpful, and we should be able to seek that help in the church, but the public meetings of the church in front of all and sundry might not be the best place to access that sort of help and support.
The fact is, we have to balance our public meetings with what is helpful to a group of people. It is not an individualistic therapy session. If you need counselling or support in your battle against particular sins, there should certainly be means of accessing that support in the church. I am just not convinced the home group or prayer meeting is necessarily the place for it nor the forum in which the Bible would demand us to share it.