Bonhoeffer and the practice of confession

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, true fellowship requires that we must not only live together as believers but also ‘as the undevout, as sinners’.[1]  Lynette, at ZD, recently described a Church where we fail to see ourselves as a hospital but rather focus on projecting sainthood.  Additionally, Scott’s excellent post on worthiness and repentance has outlined very clearly why we are in the position Lynette discussed. In the comments of Lynette’s post, Kristine shared a beautiful post articulating the emotional necessity of being able to avoid the intensely raw suffering of others in our community while recognising that there are moments when grief and pain need to rupture the procedural fabric of our Worship services.  These ruptures are very often difficult to respond to.  Over the summer I read a wonderful account of a teacher who tried to develop classes where children could share difficult experiences and at the same time I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  These two texts have helped me see that confession is still a form of spiritual practice but that confessing in private, to people other than our close friends, is one way of extending a particular conception of repentance.

Karen Gallas is a teacher/researcher who used ‘sharing time’ (a form of ‘show and tell’) to explore how children composed oral texts about home, community and family.  Gallas recognised that ‘sharing time’ was laden with legitimated codes of speech which shaped how the children spoke.  Although ‘sharing time’ primarily served to facilitate appropriation of these legitimated codes, she also observed that there were instances when this appropriation moved in more than one direction.

Jiana was a ‘tall and skinny, six year old African-American girl’ who lived in a shelter across from the school and whose father was in jail for drug related incidents.  When Jiana first came to the class she was functioning at a pre-kindergarten level.  Gallas allowed the children to manage sharing time themselves although each child had a designated day of the week to share a story or object.  Jiana always wanted to share. Gallas remembers that she initially found Jiana’s presentations ‘terribly painful to witness’ and yet after ‘three interminable months’ something altered.  Jiana’s linguistic performance became more confident.  During one week in particular Jiana began to speak about her family in some detail; she spoke about cocaine, drug programs and separation in the family.  Gallas worried that this was ‘not appropriate for the classroom’ but also felt that it was not her place to ‘stop a discussion’.  The children responded with serious questions and Jiana answered them with authority.  Jiana’s stories, both fantasy and real-life, slowly began to shape the codes of language that were available within the classroom.  Although some initially resisted, eventually they came to enjoy this new form of ‘sharing time’.  Gallas observed that the children helped Jiana appropriate legitimated speech but Jiana also expanded the discursive repertoires of the other children beyond solely dominant forms.  There was a reciprocity here that was more fundamental that spoken dialogue; rather there was, according to Gallas, a transformation of the group.

Gallas’ research raises questions regarding how our religious idiom facilitates certain types of experience and seeks to exclude others.  There are those testimonies or comments, arising from life experiences, that are ‘terribly painful to witness’.  They are awkwardly constructed and fail to conform to Mormonism’s legitimated codes of speech. This post is not intended to condemn those who feel discomfort with these alternative forms of speech: there is a very real sense in which these forms of speech are in fact inappropriate or are, in many ways, just unintelligible within a specific context.  Gallas’ experience indicates that her privileged position (as the only person in that room who could close down that conversation) allowed her to make a personal choice to facilitate this form of sharing.  Most of us are rarely in such positions at Church.  As such, in a room full of people who are unprepared for this kind of rupture, it is very difficult to nurture illegitimate (or alternative) codes of speech.  Yet, because I believe this type of multi-directional appropriation of linguistic codes is something that might facilitate retention, whilst engendering empathy and affection, I would like to see this type of openness in our congregations.

However, rather than public confession, which resists the current idiom of our Sunday meetings,  we can follow Dietrich Bonhoeffer in creating spaces where repentance and confession are practiced and where this form linguistic reciprocity can be enacted.  Bonhoeffer, in his wonderful book ‘Life Together’, argues that confession is a necessary part of a community that wants Christ to be the central component of their Christian fellowship.  However, Bonhoeffer’s confession-practice is quite different from that currently practiced in Mormonism.  He suggests that we should confess our sins privately to another member of the community and not necessarily an ecclesiastical leader; to seek their help, inspiration and guidance as a fellow disciple of Christ.  We should avoid public confession and should practice confidentiality, but the very act of sharing our sins will bring Christ into that relationship and reconfigure the idiom which currently governs that interaction.

Although in many cases we can do very little to shape the linguistic codes of our worship services, there is much that we can do to change the codes of our individual relationships with others.  Private confession between individuals might be one way through which we can fellowship ‘as sinners’ and begin to see worthiness, as Scott observed, ‘as an aspiration or desire–something we strive for, like perfection.’


  1. Great post.

    As to Bonhoeffer’s point about privately confessing to another member of the community, rather than (or not necessarily to) an ecclesiastical leader, one thing to consider is that in the Mormon context, the Bishop is actually just “another member of the community” because of our lay priesthood and leadership structure at the local level. Looked at in this way, we are already doing this through our process of confession to the Bishop.

    In Bonhoeffer’s circumstances, an ecclesisatical leader is more literally separated out from the community because of the professional clergy, so such an affirmative statement is necessary to bring it back into the lay community.

  2. Thanks for your comment John. Your raise an interesting issue concerning the differences between Lutheran Churches (or I suppose any Church with a professional clergy) and Mormonism. Bonhoeffer also argues that people should not all seek out one person to whom they confess their sins but rather that confession should be shared with those whom we might not ordinarily seek out for guidance. Confession, therefore, in LDS community does function similarly to Churches with a professional clergy because although Mormons are different, the Bishop is still the designated ‘judge’. It is the Bishop who, on behalf of the Church, administers Church discipline, for example. Therefore our clear hierarchy still organises our confession practice in a particular way which, I suspect, works against this trend toward this ‘fellowship as sinners’. Certainly, Mormonism’s confession practice is more horizontal than other denominations but unless our practice can become even more horizontal then I do not think this fellowship of sinners will be experienced as widely as it might.

  3. A vicar friend of mine never takes confession from his own parishioners. They see another vicar. He doesn’t think it’s healthy to confess to someone with whom you will frequently associate.

  4. Ronan, I’d be interested to hear his reasons why. I can appreciate that there are potentially unhealthy consequences of this kind of thing but I am also optimistic about the ways in which it could shape our religious experience positively.

  5. I’ve been working with the Addiction Recovery program for several years (three and a half as a group leader), and have found it a valuable place to share feelings and experiences that may be considered inappropriate for more general meetings. This sharing has enabled healing for many, partially because participants find and feel a kinship with others who are struggling with the same problems. I would like to see more openness in our general meetings as well–not at the same level as the AR program, but enough that Church members feel less alone in their personal challenges. (Many newcomers are surprised to find that participants in the AR program aren’t “those people,” but rather well-respected members of the ward. At my first meeting, I saw more than one former/current EQ president.)

  6. One HUGE problem I have with confessing is that I don’t know what to confess. One Bishop will say that you shouldn’t take the sacrament or be disfellowshipped and another one is saying “get out of my office, come back when you have real problems!!” Elder Cecil O. Samuelson of the 70 said the same thing with visits to the Bishops in one ward differs from what advice you get in another
    “At least two of you in attendance have mentioned to me the frustration that occurs when you have felt it necessary to deny a temple recommend to one of these young people only to see them a few weeks later in the temple with a recommend issued from another unit. This ought not to be. We know that you who work with this highly mobile group of young people carry a tremendous load. We also know, and hope you know as well, that we have policies and procedures established for our use that would not make such an unfortunate occurrence possible. Please make the necessary calls and follow the essential procedures to see that we avoid these kinds of errors”.,%202008/holy-habits-and-righteous-routines

    ALL of which I just have said screw it, I will determine my own worthiness and won’t lie to the Bishop or anything!

  7. ^^aka Rebecca J^^ :)

    Back when I wrote this post about the wisdom of a man interviewing his potential son-in-law about possible issues with pornography, my husband made the comment (to me, not on the blog) that while he didn’t think an “interview” in the “worthiness-test” sense would be appropriate, he felt that it would be very helpful to men if they could talk to each other openly about their struggles with that issue. But I think we are all discouraged from talking honestly with each other about our sins; to an extent we are officially discouraged, but beyond that, there is internal and cultural pressure to protect our “worthiness” status, or at least the appearance of it. I don’t think we want a church where everyone feels free to get up and talk about their porn problems (or their adultery problems, or their fornication problems, or whatever) because that might not be particularly pleasant (although it would certainly make church more interesting), but I like what you said about changing the codes of our individual relationships with others, especially “the very act of sharing our sins will bring Christ into that relationship and reconfigure the idiom which currently governs that interaction.” Great post, Aaron.

  8. Good post, Aaron R.. I’m one that really appreciates those occasional

    “testimonies or comments, arising from life experiences, that are ‘terribly painful to witness’. They are awkwardly constructed and fail to conform to Mormonism’s legitimated codes of speech.”

    I feel I’ve witnessed something akin to Jiana’s story in my own ward, multiple times, but to a lesser degree, and to me it’s Mormonism at its best.

    I also think members do share their struggles with each other rather than their bishop, as long as they feel they have real friends and that their struggles are within the realm of the socially pardonable. At least, this seems pretty common in my ward. Of course, the socially unpardonable would probably include anything that a) would land you in jail, b) threaten your membership status, or c) porn. Poor bishops.

  9. Thanks for your comments.

    Anon, thanks for sharing your experience here.

    whizzbang, certainly there are differences. My own sensibility here is that we should frame confession and sin differently. Confession is a means of seeking support and bringing Christ into our efforts to change through another person. Confession need not only be for those sins which are deemed ‘serious’ by institution but also involves those that are serious to the individual. In short, although I understand why an overburdened Bishop might say ‘come back when you have some real problems’ I think that misses the point that the problem us real for that individual. However, with that said, part of the purpose of this post is to move away from Bishop-centric confession.

    madhousewife, LOL. I agree, although I think public confession can be a very powerful thing I agree that discussing specific details of some of those is not helpful to the community. My sense that is that we need to take steps in which we learn to be more open with each other about sins and perhaps not just the ‘weaknesses’. I am still working on how we can do this because it is so sensitive.

    Martin, that sounds good. I wonder whether other socially unpardonable sins could be included, like doubt or envy or pride. These are profoundly personal and can be deeply hurtful. We are very good at hiding them.

  10. re. 7 and 9: I for one do wish we could hear about peoples “porn problems (or their adultery problems, or their fornication problems, or whatever)” in public or private settings, depending on what the sinner finds to be most helpful. If it’s hard for the rest of us to listen to, tough…that’s part of bearing one another’s burdens. Further, it would help if we could put our “serious” sins on equal footing with the less visible but perhaps eqully damaging “doubt or envy or pride.” Parsing which sins are too serious for or requiring public or private confession seems unproductive…they’re all just different brands of imperfection.

  11. RJ, thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps in the abstract that might work well but I fear that there are times when people struggle to let people repent. Sometimes people refuse to allow them to move beyond the past sins and this can be very damaging to a person’s change of heart. In this view then, my suggestions reflect particular assumptions about what we might be currently capable of members of the Church.

  12. I’m actually with RJ, although of course Aaron’s right that it isn’t something church membership is capable of. Considering what we believe about the purpose of life on earth, it seems bizarre to me that there’s such incredible pressure to keep our mistakes hidden. I don’t intend offense to anyone, but to be blunt, I think it’s selfish to consider our own discomfort in hearing about others’ problems over the sinner’s need to share and be shared with. (I wanted to have “sinner” in scare quotes there, but it looked weird with the apostrophe.)

    Every time the 12-step groups get brought up a lot in conversations like this, I think about how I wish there were something like that for members who don’t happen to have those particular problems, but would benefit just as much from a support group where they could truly be honest about their struggles.

  13. Aaron, wonderful post. I can’t help but wonder if the notion of confessing or discussing problems with someone you don’t associate with on a personal, regular basis is a western idea. I think Mormons in particular are taught not to confess sins (unless to the Bishop–even if they are long ago) or discuss personal problems, family problems or marriage problems with others unless it is the Bishop or a paid therapist. It seems to me of more benefit to talk to a close friend.

  14. AnonForThis says:

    Typing with my thumbs; please forgive any mistakes. Also forgive my anonymity; persistent online identities, etc.

    I live in a singles’ ward, and ever since I was old enough to notice, I’ve experienced feelings of same-gender attraction. I’ve spoken to several bishops about this, and my parents, and one or two really good friends from the internet, but never anyone else who I know face-to-face. I only tell this story because it brings up a question related to this discussion: who would (could, should) I tell?

    I’m not going to tell my home teacher or EQP, because I need to protect my fund of social “worthiness” capital; even though I know this isn’t strictly a worthiness issue, I’m not convinced they would know. I’m not going to tell any of my male friends, because what if they think I’m propositioning them or something? I’m not going to tell a female friend, because a) i’d feel weird about it and b) I fear I’d lose “dateabiliity” capital among a substantial portion of the ward. Maybe this is a question of my not having extremely close friends in the ward, but I think the issue is deeper than just that.

    To sum: The social logistics of exactly who you can talk to about certain things are nontrivial.

  15. mmiles, interesting point. My own sense of this is that confessing to someone in your congregation means that they are probably not completely anonymous and that this might potentially change that relationship in such a way that in becomes a form of fellowship.

    AnonForThis, your situation raises a particular challenge that I would need to think about more seriously, but it seems to me that you have already in some ways confessed. Bonhoeffer suggests that the physical presence of another can be a source of comfort in that process. I guess my post is not intended to be so prescriptive that it answers who you could/should tell, but rather to raise the possibility that confession is one way of experiencing this fellowship of the undevout. I am not even advocating that all our sins should be confessed. Thanks for your comment.

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