Dear 100 Hour Board,
Why do we need to confess sins to a bishop? If a woman feels uncomfortable sharing information with a man (particularly if it’s sexual in nature) why can’t she share details with the RS President? Ultimately Being dependent on a man (Priesthood holder) for salvation (I mean confessing sins, not when a woman doesn’t find a spouse in this life) seems to make woman feel weaker or less capable and needy, according to some. Is confessional to a Bishop necessary?
-My Name Here
The following involves a lot of opinion on something I struggle with as well. Anne's answer below is an excellent explanation. I just thought I would add a few things that I feel.
Confession is part of the repentance process, and the bishop is a steward over the members in his ward. There are some sins that require you to seek the guidance of your bishop because of his Priesthood authority, and because there are some things that require further disciplinary action. However, it's not the bishop that's forgiving you of your sins, it's God. Your bishop is just helping you do the things you need to do to access the Atonement and be forgiven.
I won't beat around the bush, a lot of this concept has bothered me my whole life. My understanding of the Gospel relies really heavily on a personal relationship with Christ and Heavenly Father, so I've always felt like my repentance process was between me and God... And it is. Also, my home-ward bishop honestly terrified me. He was a kind and righteous man, but he made me uncomfortable and I never wanted to talk to him unless I HAD to, like for interviews and whatnot. I never did anything that would cause me to need to go in and talk to him about disciplinary actions or any 12-step program business. But I also had a young women's leader that liked to teach that we should go to him for basically everything. This isn't true - not only would he be super backed up, but you wouldn't learn to repent and improve on your own, which is important.
I went and looked it up, because when I first answered this question I was thinking along the lines of "You don't ever have to! You're responsible to God, not your bishop. You can do the repenting on your own!" Which is part true, but too general, and based on flawed logic. There are a handful of things require church disciplinary actions. Any criminal activity, continuous opposition to the church and its doctrine, subscribing to teachings of apostate groups, and other serious sins as listed in this article. What I want to point out is that these are really big issues. But what pops out to me is the word MAY. "...serious personal sin such as abortion or sexual sin, may require disciplinary action as part of the repentance process."
And that's the thing for me. It says may. I know the repentance process. It's 5 steps. You can find them anywhere. Confession is part of that process, but it doesn't specify always confessing to your bishop. So I believe that's where it comes down to the individual. When you do something and you feel guilty, but want to repent, it's my opinion that you should at least START the repentance process on your own. Pray earnestly and confess to God. If it does help you work through your process, I think talking to a close friend or parent can be beneficial, if you see fit. Coming to an understanding of your wrongdoing and being able to admit your shortcomings is important.
Also, the thing preventing you from going to the bishop shouldn't be pride... if you feel like you don't want to go but should, that's different then not feeling like you need to because you can and have accessed the Atonement on your own and felt forgiven.
Guppy and I actually were discussing this topic a while ago. You're not required to go to the bishop, because you're not forced to do anything. But there are times when you should, because not doing so falls in the category of dishonesty. If you've done something that falls under the categories listed in the Newsroom article explaining Church discipline, you should seriously acknowledge what's going on in your life and really should go talk to him. It's not going to be comfortable, but the repentance process isn't meant to be comfortable. As far as sexual sins go, if you aren't worthy to hold a temple recommend anymore, that's a matter that is going to be discussed in your interview process anyway, and the way to handle the situation is decided then. Those interviews ARE conducted with a Priesthood holder because he has the stewardship and authority to issue the recommends, and to help judge whether you're worthy to enter the temple. I'd hope you had done repenting and determined yourself worthy before you went to get your recommend in the first place, though.
I still feel very strongly that repentance is most importantly between the individual and God, and that's where you should focus. I still believe that repentance is a personal process and journey, and you don't have to involve the bishop every single time. But there is something to be said for authority and stewardship, which is a blessing more than a burden, and I don't think it's oppressive to women. Ultimately it's about personal improvement.
Anyway. This was probably very confusing and not well organized, but I hope perhaps I added some additional thoughts to your questions that help you work through how you're feeling.
Why do we need to confess sins to a bishop? If a woman feels uncomfortable sharing information with a man (particularly if it’s sexual in nature) why can’t she share details with the RS President?
This article in the New Era (written by a 70 and published in a Church magazine, so decently credible but certainly not infallible) actually discusses why a bishop and not someone else. They give three reasons that are important to me:
First, because the calling of bishop has been determined by Christ to include judgment of worthiness. This does not preclude the possibility of bishops who fail to properly act as a representative of Christ, but it does lay out what the pattern is supposed to be.
Second, because the bishop is entitled to receive revelation about ward members. The Relief Society president may have the ability to receive revelation about certain things relating to you, but it isn't clear to me that anyone other than a bishop or the individual in question has any right to revelation regarding worthiness or repentance (at least when the person in question is an adult).
Third, because the bishop, and not anyone else, is able to use the Church discipline process as a tool to aid repentance. Obviously nobody wants to undergo a disfellowshipment, excommunication, or other discipline, but sometimes these are an important way to help people understand what they have done and accept the Atonement to repent and change as is necessary. If we refuse to go to a bishop about something that is serious enough that Church discipline is possible, we unilaterally judge for ourselves what is an appropriate way to repent, and when we make a covenant with Christ that allows us to repent, we don't get to decide the terms under which repentance takes place.
Aside: I agree that there are a lot of things that don't require a bishop's assistance for repentance. In the case that an individual is uncomfortable talking to the bishop, they may take another person into the interview with them. I understand that this doesn't remove the discomfort some women will face of involving a man, but it can at least help assuage concerns relating to impropriety.
Ultimately Being dependent on a man (Priesthood holder) for salvation (I mean confessing sins, not when a woman doesn’t find a spouse in this life) seems to make woman feel weaker or less capable and needy, according to some.
As a doctrinal point: It's important that the dependence is not on the bishop, the dependence is on Christ, who has organized an institution in which he is represented in the repentance process by leaders including bishops (and stake presidents, etc.) Indeed, everyone who needs to repent should probably feel both weak and needy with regards to their essential need for the Atonement of Christ.
On a more personal level: I'll admit - there are things that I don't understand about the role of gender in the Gospel, and that bothers me sometimes. However, things like this bring me back to what remains one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten about spiritually troubling matters: when I spoke to a BYU professor about a controversial topic for a previous Board question, the professor basically told me that when something about the Gospel bothers us enough that we feel sick about it (as the asker of that question did), it's a good sign we don't understand that thing yet. This, to me, dovetails with the concept of faith. While God certainly doesn't want me to duck my head and ignore the issues that concern me, I think He does ask that I follow something like the following path:
- Identify a subject that troubles me (for instance "I don't understand why women in the Gospel need men to do X")
- Decide whether I believe that the fundamentals of the Church are true
- Fundamentals of the Church are things like: "Does God exist? Is Christ my Savior?" and "Did Joseph Smith restore this, His Church?" Basically, the stuff you're asked if you have a testimony about in the temple recommend interview
- If the answer to 2 is "yes," then,
- Continue to trust God and to live my life to follow the Gospel as best I can and to build up the Kingdom in the Church and,
- Trust that God's answers to the concerning issue are sufficient that this issue will not frustrate His ability to bring about my eternal joy, and
- If I consider it appropriate/fulfilling, continue to study and learn about the topic while seeking revelation so that I can better understand the thing that bothers me, while accepting that we don't get all knowledge now.
Is confessional to a Bishop necessary?
Going back to what I hit under my first section, I think that there are times when it is. There are (at least) two reasons for this: First, because the bishop is able to assist in our repentance and judge our worthiness. Second, because God has told us that we're supposed to. It may be that there are some individuals who are sufficiently self-reflective and humble that they could really regret, forsake, and change after even serious sin without assistance from a bishop, but a refusal to follow the path God has set for repentance is not, to me, indicative of a "broken heart" willing to do whatever Christ has asked. Christ is the one who atoned for our sins, and like I wrote above, we don't get to decide what "good enough" is such that we can access that Atonement. Additionally, the requirement of talking to a bishop helps those of us who would struggle to know the appropriate steps to take when dealing with difficult sins. There's a lot of places where our judgment is sufficient, but we have been asked to confess serious sins to a bishop, and I think that following commandments is an important part of learning the humility and obedience crucial to our development: it helps us when we need help, even if we may not always recognize when that is.
No matter how well we intellectually understand that the process of repentance is positive, most of us would never look forward to visiting the bishop's office to confess something or feel really comfortable doing so: however, I also acknowledge that there are some people for whom this is much more difficult (including for very personal reasons) than it is for others. I believe that Christ will help us as we strive to keep this commandment. I am glad that the Church now permits a second adult in such interviews so that those with particular concerns about a one-on-one interview with an adult male can have someone present to help address some specific concerns. However, I do think that because of the bishop's unique calling and responsibilities, he is an important part of repentance in certain situations, and not one that we can unilaterally decide to bypass.
While we depend upon Christ for our salvation, it's important to us to have someone who is able to vocally and authoritatively tell us when we've been forgiven: my understanding is that, as a judge in Israel, the bishop (or the Stake President, depending on the situation) has the right to tell you that God has accepted your efforts to repent. They can receive guidance on what needs to happen for that to be the case, because receiving that guidance is a part of their calling. When we sin, we harm our relationship with God, and Christ, our mediator, has asked us to utilize the assistance of the bishop in some of these situations. This comes with the added blessing that, particularly in situations of serious sin where Satan has a lot of ways to mess with our heads and hearts, we have someone who can tell us that they know our sacrifice has been accepted. I believe God mourns with those who suffer and struggle as they repent, and He has provided Christ to aid them as well.