“When a pastor commits a sexual sin does he need to confess it to the entire church?”

This question was asked during my Psalms class last week as we were discussing Psalm 51.  According to the heading, the psalm was written after David committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Psalm 51
To the choirmaster, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.

While the whole class suddenly engaged actively in the discussion, the student’s question felt particularly relevant personally since at my church they announced on the previous Sunday that a member of the staff was being released due to an incident of sexual sin.

Students commented that specific sins are rarely confessed publically in church contexts.  The rare exception to this pattern is sexual sin.  I wondered if we made it a more common practice to confess “smaller” sins to each other as Scripture commands (James 5:16), if there would be less “bigger” sins to confess.

I also noted to the class that while we don’t know all the details, we do know David confessed his sin to Nathan (2 Sam. 12:13) and he also wrote down his confession in the form of Psalm 51.

We are unsure of who may have read the psalm while he was alive, but David’s confession has been read rather widely over the course of the past 3000 years.  And Scripture has no qualms narrating in detail the story of David’s adultery, deception and murder (2 Sam. 11).  The Bible itself models openness and honesty about sin since none of the“heroes” of Scripture (except Jesus) comes out looking completely pure: Abraham lied about his wife, twice (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18); Moses committed murder (Exo. 2:12); Elijah was suicidal (1 Kgs. 19:4); Peter denied Jesus, thrice (Mark 14:66-72).

So, when it comes to sin, pastors and all church leaders need to be open, honest and specific about sins.  I think pastors should confess not just sexual sins, but other sins.  When pastors tell real life stories, their congregations need to hear about failures, struggles and sins.

In Psalm 51, David provides a model of confession:

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

3For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

4Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment…

While the psalm itself is vague about the details, speaking generically of “transgressions”, “iniquity” and “sin”, the heading makes it clear what the context of the sin was.  The vagueness of the language of the psalm invites the reader of the psalm to “fill in the blanks” with their own sins.  If David spoke of adultery and murder, those of us who haven’t committed those crimes, at least not yet (although see Matt. 5:22, 28), might find it difficult to identify with the words of the psalm.

The important thing to remember when it comes to confession is that as big as our sins are, God’s mercy and steadfast love are bigger.  David begins the psalm not with his sin, but God’s mercy.

Our reluctance to confess sins as openly and honestly as David communicates that we don’t believe God’s mercy can really wash and cleanse us.  As political and spiritual leader of the nation, David could have easily rationalized keeping his sin secret.  But his cover-up of the initial sin of adultery led to more sin—deception and murder.

As David confesses, his divinely cleansed heart (Psa. 51:10), allowed him to go on to teach other transgressors God’s ways so that they could return to God (Psa. 51:13).  May we follow David’s example, not in sinning, but in confessing and teaching other sinners.

Where do you see confessing in the church?