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What Does the Bible Say About...Confession?

Is Orthodox confession the same as Catholic confession? Are there any Orthodox churches that do not do confession?


I am not an expert on either the Orthodox or the Catholic doctrines. I will give you the results of my research.

There do appear to be differences between Orthodox and Catholic confession. There are some similarities. Both groups trace priestly confession back to confession before the whole church in the first and second centuries of the church, but say that priestly confession replaced that for convenience reasons. Both consider confession to be a sacrament, and therefore there would be few Orthodox congregations that did not practice confession. Both agree that an individual can confess directly to God, although the Catholics generally allow that only for minor sins and the Orthodox consider that less effective than oral confession to another person.

I did notice two things that appear to be significant differences between the two. The first is that Catholic confession is “to a priest” while Orthodox is “in the presence of a priest.” That may seem a minor difference, but is actually quite significant. Confessing “to” a priest puts the priest in the place of God, while confessing “in the presence of” the priest puts him in the place of the congregation. Thus a Catholic priest claims the power to forgive or not, while the Orthodox priest acts more as a witness of the prayer of repentance and God’s forgiveness. Orthodox priests say they are there to give support and advice. They are there because a person who confesses to another is more likely to try to overcome the sin than one who confesses just to God. But most don’t claim any right to forgive sins, as the Catholics do.

The second difference is that Orthodox confession appears to be accompanied solely by prayer, while Catholic confession is accompanied by penance. This also goes back to the idea of one standing in God’s place while the other stands in the place of the congregation. If the Orthodox priest is not assigning a penance he is not claiming to grant forgiveness or mete out punishment. Instead of punishment he is providing support.