Lay absolution

In the comments to my previous post, the question arose as to whether laypeople were permitted to share the gospel “neighbour to neighbour”, given Luther’s insistence that the ministry of the Word should be reserved to those who are duly called.

The answer must be an emphatic “yes”. There is a crucial difference between the public ministry of the Word, and the sharing of the gospel by individual Christians in a personal/social setting. Dan has a great post in which he illustrates this with the analogy of a school physics teacher:

Could I teach high school physics? Probably, but I am not in the “office” of the physics teacher. It would be reasonable for me to look at someone’s homework and offer suggestions, but you would have no business asking me to teach you an entire high school physics course. No accredited school would take your credit from my course.

In the Babylonian Captivity (see previous posts 1 | 2), Luther goes even further, by arguing that lay Christians are able to absolve one another. He attacks the practice of reserving certain “secret” sins as ones which only a bishop or the pope can absolve, arguing that:

In the first place, Christ speaks in Matthew 18:15-17 of public sins and says that if our brother hears us, when we tell him his fault, we have saved the soul of our brother … How much more will it be true of secret sins, that they are forgiven if one brother freely makes confession to another? (pp.213f.)

Luther bases this partly on Christ’s word that “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19), arguing that:

the brother who lays his secret sins before his brother and craves pardon, certainly agrees with his brother on earth, in the truth which is Christ. (p.214)

So he continues:

Hence, I have no doubt but that every one is absolved from his secret sins when he has made confession, privately before any brother, either of his own accord or after being rebuked, and has sought pardon and amended his ways … For Christ has given to every one of his believers the power to absolve even open sins. (p.214)

Luther calls on the church authorities of his time (this is before his excommunication by the pope) to:

…permit all brothers and sisters most freely to hear the confession of secret sins, so that the sinner may make his sins known to whomever he will and seek pardon and comfort, that is, the word of Christ, by the mouth of his neighbour.

That said, Luther clearly regarded it as the norm that a Christian would seek absolution from their pastor (see, for example, the Small Catechism). I assume this is partly for the sake of good order – in particular to avoid laypeople setting themselves up as “freelance confessors” – and partly for the increased assurance we enjoy from hearing the word of God’s forgiveness pronounced to us by one who is not only our fellow believer, but a “called and ordained servant of Christ”, bearing the specific promise that “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven” (John 20:22-23).

But if any of us is speaking to someone who is troubled in their conscience and needs to hear afresh the promise of God’s forgiveness, then we should not be afraid to declare that promise to them in the most direct terms; and those of us who hear that promise from the lips of our brother or sister should not be afraid to receive it as “the word of comfort spoken by God himself” (p.212).

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3 Responses to Lay absolution

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    I once got to ask Dr. Ken Korby, one who did a lot to restore private confession and absolution to Lutheran practice, whether the pastor’s absolution offered anything that the layman’s absolution did not. He liked to enumerate, so he said, “Two things. No! Three things: The pastor forgives on behalf of the whole congregation. The pastor is under the seal of the confessional. He may not tell your story abroad. And the pastor is practiced in forgetting.” He did hold that laymen could absolve, though. This is one of those many cases where God gives us gifts in different forms, and we don’t want to make them all identical with each other. As with Word and Sacrament in general, the same forgiveness is offered richly. But we may find our needs drive us to one or the other way of receiving it.

    The point about the pastor forgiving on behalf of the congregation is interesting. I think it means something like once the pastor has absolved someone, it is not up to a layman to decide, “Well, I think he should have been made to stew in it some more. So as far as I’m concerned, he’s unabsolved.” I don’t want to affirm the opposite of how this goes when we absolve each other. But how it works when the pastor absolves is clearer.

    Korby also had some interesting psychological observations here, which had to do with being listened to. When the pastor hears confession, he is in the stead of Christ, and the layman can learn that he or she is heard. As Korby said, “How are people going to believe that God hears their prayers if they have never been listened to?” When he said that, I knew I had heard some words of wisdom worth pondering again and again over many years.

    The layman’s absolution will have its own advantages. (Presence in more places is one. Greater familiarity with the one being absolved could be another. Though lesser familiarity could be an advantage, too. Just of another sort.)

  2. CPA says:

    Rick,
    Great comments from Dr. Korby. Before Chris Jones jumps in, I’d like to say that THIS point is well reflected in the confessions which illustrates it using an absolutely paradigmatic story from Augustine.

    Once in the time before Constantine there were two men on a boat, who had been exiled from Rome to Sardinia for the crime of being Christian. One was a catechumen, the other a baptised lay Christian who had lapsed into a serious sin. The boat looked like it was about to sink. In this desperate situation, each one needed something: the catechumen needed to be baptized, while the baptized Christian needed to be absolved.

    So the baptized Christian baptized the catechumen, and then the catechumen heard his confession and absolved him. Both were then ready to die with a clear conscience before God.

    The ship didn’t sink, the men survived and the bishop to whom they told this anxiously recognized both the baptism and the absolution as valid.

    Keep this story in mind and you pretty much can’t go wrong in the theology of baptism and confession.

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