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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

31 May 2006

The Seal of the Confessional

Q: What is the seal of confessional?

Sins ForgivenA: The “seal of the confessional” is a guarantee that sins confessed to a minister of the Gospel will never be divulged at any other place. Most pastors extend this confidentiality to anything else said in their presence. Of course, this may occasionally set a pastor at odds with the law of the land, which in some cases mandates that certain suspected or confessed crimes must be reported by those who discover the truth. Many of us have seen news items or read or viewed fictional books and movies in which clergy members are jailed because they refuse to violate either formal oath or an implied unbreakable trust relationship.

Some churches have special vows taken by their pastors. This may be, for some, the primary reason why they do not speak of privately confessed sins elsewhere. There’s also a practical dimension, since few people would seek counsel from someone with a wagging tongue. In the Lutheran Church, this seal involves not only an oath but also a proper understanding of the Gospel: Once a sin is confessed and forgiven, God forgets about it completely. In His eyes, there is no sin. Thus, His servants the pastors likewise cannot divulge or hold against someone that which doesn’t exist. For a fuller understanding of Confession and Absolution, you might also want to read Confession and Forgiveness by God through Man.

Of course, all Christians should consider their responsibility to their neighbors when it comes to holding on to private information and be very careful in making any decision to pass it on. Gossip brings harm to others and no true honor to ourselves when we share it — regardless of whether or not we’ve been pledged to secrecy by a friend, taken a formal oath as pastors, or just overheard a harmful bit of information in passing. No one wants his embarrassing, painful, or damaging secrets exposed by his confessor — nor by the friend he trusted.

Peter reminds all people, both clergy and lay, to “keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)” Silence usually provides the greatest covering, allowing us to show the deepest love. Regarding friendship, Proverbs 17:9 provides a special caution: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”

If anyone seeks a simple guide for dealing with confidential information, I recommend saying nothing in all circumstances unless keeping one’s mouth closed will certainly bring great harm to another. Especially in matters of sins confessed and forgiven, remember that silence is more than “golden” — it’s the Gospel!

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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