“Honestly, I didn’t want to join a Bible study,” the young mother admitted to the group. “I didn’t want to be around perfect people with perfect lives…Then I found you weirdos!”
I think it is comforting to know you’re in a “hospital for the sick, not a social club for saints.”
A “thick” Christian community should strive for authenticity, which means being open about your sinfulness and need for God’s grace. In other words, normal church life should be the opposite of hypocritical.
But how open should you be about specific sins? Some people think we should publicly confess them and quote this passage for proof:
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (James 5:14-16 nasb).
“Confess your sins to one another,” James wrote. Here is another of those NT “one another” commands that describe the normal church life.
But before you start telling everyone about the awful things you’ve done, did James mean for this to be a general principle? Should we publicly confess our sins to one another in church?
R. T. Kendall warned against misusing this command:
“This verse has become a proof text for certain group therapy meetings and encounter groups where they share with one another. This so-called sharing your weaknesses with one another is supposed to be therapeutic, and it might be. But what is not said perhaps as often as it should be is that sharing your weaknesses with each other can be dynamite, the worst thing in the world. Because if another person discovers a weakness that you’ve got, especially if it should be sexual, you play into each other’s pathology and something can happen that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t done this” (Kendall, The Way of Wisdom, p. 303).
Yes, Christians should confess their sins to God (1 John 1:9). But that is not what James is talking about here. His command takes place in the specific context of asking the elders to pray for your healing.
If you’re sick, you can call for the elders of the church to anoint you with oil and pray for your recovery. And if they pray the prayer of faith (as opposed to asking in doubt, cf. Jas 1:6-7), you’ll be healed and forgiven your sins (but don’t neglect God’s sovereignty here, too!).
That is not to say that all sickness is due to sin—it’s not (cf. Job; John 9:2-3). But some can be (cf. 1 Cor 11:30). And if you believe your sickness is the result of sins in your life, you should confess them. To whom? Presumably, you should confess to the elders whom you called for prayer.
James is not giving us the general principle that you should always and everywhere publicly confess your sins but is providing guidance about how elders can care for the physical and spiritual needs of the people in their assembly. The truth is the church really is a spiritual hospital, and we have the privilege of serving under the Great Physician.