In my last post, I wrote about pronoun selection when confessing one’s sins. I gave my rationale for using first person pronouns rather than second or third. Confessions should be “I” statements, not “you” statements. But what is the distinction between first person singular and first person plural? When should I confess “my” sins, and when should I confess “our” sins?
When I was a choir director in my previous life (before seminary), there was an ongoing debate in the choir about corporate prayers of confession. During worship, the prayer often had a line that went something like, “We have not been an obedient church, we have not done your will, we have broken your law, etc.” One bass in particular was upset every time we prayed this prayer because, as he put it, “I never did any of that stuff!”
One of the altos would inevitably chime in, “I’m not upset by that; I get upset because, when we confess together, I never get a chance to confess my own sins, only our group sins.”
And then a soprano would say something amusing like, “Well, I never sin so I don’t have anything to say, anyway” and then the whole choir would think that was just so funny and all start laughing and I would work to get everyone refocused on the actual choir rehearsal. (We were nothing if not predictable.)
The question at hand is this: When to say “I’m sorry” and when to say “we’re sorry”? Maybe the answer has something to do with the specificity of the sin. If I say, “We have failed to be an obedient church,” that is different from saying, “We have gone down to the gambling boat and blown $500 at the poker table.” The general confession leaves room for individuals to supply their own specifics; the more particular confession may very well exclude some people. But then what does it mean to live together as the body of Christ? If one member of the body gambles, is it not proper to say that “we” as the body of Christ have sinned? Of course that is true to a certain extent. When one part of the body hurts, the entire body suffers. So, on the other hand, it is right and good to be specific in our corporate confession, even if certain individuals do not feel the confession applies specifically to them.
But a bigger problem arises when the sin I am confessing on behalf of the group is not perceived to be a sin at all by some individuals in the group. More so than just feeling the confession doesn’t apply, they believe that the confession need not be confessed at all. (This is the core of the conflict over homosexuality: one group believes it to be a sin, another group believes it is not.) In such cases, a body comprised of a diverse group of individuals would do well to dwell in the abundance of God’s grace and allow space for each person to confess before God by couching corporate prayers in more general language.
Err on the side of grace, I say. Rather than haggle together over what is or is not a sin, perhaps we can come to an understanding that all sin is at its core some version of idolatry – that commandment number one is, “There is one God and only one.” And the good news is that, whenever we forget that, God’s grace is there to remind us again and again. Every prayer of confession is therefore some variation of, "Oops, sorry. We forgot that you were God."