Are we commanded to confess to ecclesiastical authorities without witnesses?

This is probably going to stir the pot a bit, but I want to bring it up anyway.

Back in November ’07, I came across a blog article called, “Which Sins Do You Confess To The Bishop?” Most of the comments followed the presupposition that there were certain sins that members were required to confess to their bishop on their own, in order to obtain forgiveness from the Lord. My comments (which you can read on that page, beginning with comment #33) were based upon a reading of the scripture (D&C 42) that showed no concrete command to the church to confess to their ecclesiastical authorities if no witnesses were testifying against them (or if no inquiry was made.)

The general rule, as I read it, is to confess to the person who has been offended, and to God, but in cases of denial and impenitence, witnesses could bring a sinner to the ecclesiastical authority and testify of his or her sin and unrepentant state, thus requiring him or her to confess and repent in order to avoid a judgment by the ecclesiastical authority. This keeps the church clean of unrepentant sinners.

There is only so much that can be said in a comments section and I wrote my understanding about as briefly as I could. In postings back and forth, I finally decided that I would take up D&C 42 and fully analyze it, expounding it according to my understanding. I have, since then, read and re-read it, but I have yet to begin writing my analysis and exposition.

I expect most LDS to think I am wrong in my estimation of this scripture. I expect that even what4anarchy may disagree with me. We have been taught from the time we are baptized and even before (for those who were brought up in the church) that some sins must be confessed to the bishop, even if there are no witnesses or inquiries made. But that does not mean that such teaching is entirely scriptural.

The purpose of this post is to invite discussion from visitors. Open your scriptures and show me, if you wish, where it is written that we must confess our sins to the ecclesiastical authorities when there are no witnesses or when there are no inquiries made. Or, put another way, is there anywhere in the scriptures that states that in order to receive forgiveness of sins, we must confess to our ecclesiastical authorities in cases in which there are not two or more persons witnessing against us?

This is not to argue with others over points of doctrine, but to view the scriptural basis other LDS use for voluntary, “witness-less” and “inquiry-less” confessions to bishops. By this I mean that an individual commits a sin and feels it is necessary to confess to his bishop in order to receive forgiveness from the Lord. I will post a follow-up article explaining what I understand D&C 42 to say in this regard.

Next Repentance article: The law governing confession

Previous Repentance article: Daily repentance

Complete List of Articles authored by LDS Anarchist



  1. I have often questioned this practice. I guess I just don’t fully understand the need to let him know when the Lord knows and I know because I have already expressed my regret, sorrow and desire to be free from – in the words of Nephi – “the sins which do so easily beset me”. I guess the Bishop can give us counsel of how to overcome certain sinful behaviors, but I still don’t understand how a mere mortal helps us receive forgiveness.

  2. A question for you. I am intrigued by this and am not disputing your evaluation of the scriptures mentioned. But what I’m wondering is if more modern revelation by a prophet would override this? For example, has a prophet in the last 100 years or so said that we need to confess to Church authorities, thereby making it a requirement?

    I don’t know if that’s the case, except that S. Kimball talks about it in his book the “Miracle of Forgiveness”, but I think that was written before he was the head of the Church.

    I just found your site, so forgive the lateness of this question.


  3. You may also want to review the next post, The law governing confession.

    The First Presidency can officially interpret scripture and has done so on but few occasions. (For example, they interpreted “hot drinks” to mean “tea and coffee” and they interpreted “interest” to mean “income.” ) But for the scriptures mentioned in the follow-up post (The law governing confession), they have not officially interpreted it.

    A single prophet or apostle or any other leader cannot officially interpret scripture for the church. Only the First Presidency can, with all three of their signatures attached to the interpretation. So, even if President Kimball had written that book as president of the church, it would still be just his opinion, except for the direct quotes of scripture found in that book.

    The general consensus of virtually all leaders and members alike is that confession of certain sins to an ecclesiastical authority even without witnesses or inquiry is required. We are all taught this from every quarter. However, there is nothing scriptural about it. It is simply the general belief of the membership. This extra-scriptural doctrine is frequently taught from the pulpit, without correction by the sitting ecclesiastical authorities, so it is understandable that everyone believes this.

    This is also typical behavior of the people of the Lord: adding things on their own to His commandments and revelations. During the time of Jesus, there were many additional requirements added to the law of Moses by the Jews, which Jesus did not comply with, as these were inventions of men and not given by revelation from God. The Lord allows His people the freedom to go beyond the mark, if that is what they choose.

    If new revelation were to come forth and be presented to the membership for canonization and accepted by vote as binding upon them, and such revelation indicated the need to confess without witnesses or inquiry, then yes, that would override what I wrote in these articles. But to my knowledge, that hasn’t happened, yet.

    Thanks for the visit and comment.

  4. Brigham Young, 10 March 1860:—“I believe in coming out and being plain and honest with that which should be made public, and in keeping to yourselves that which should be kept. If you have your weaknesses, keep them hid from your brethren as much as you can. You never hear me ask the people to tell their follies. But when we ask the brethren, as we frequently do, to speak in sacrament meetings, we wish them, if they have injured their neighbours, to confess their wrongs; but do not tell about your nonsensical conduct that nobody knows of but yourselves. Tell to the public that which belongs to the public. If you have sinned against the people, confess to them. If you have sinned against a family or a neighbourhood, go to them and confess. If you have sinned against your Ward, confess to your Ward. If you have sinned against one individual, take that person by yourselves and make your confession to him. And if you have sinned against your God, or against yourselves, confess to God, and keep the matter to yourselves, for I do not want to know anything about it. . . . Keep your follies that do not concern others to yourselves, and keep your private wickedness as still as possible; hide it from the eyes of the public gaze as far as you can, and make the people believe that you are filled with the wisdom of God. I wish to say this upon this particular point in regard to people’s confessing. We wish to see people honestly confess as they should and what they should.” (In Journal of Discourses, vol. 8 [Liverpool: George Q. Cannon, 1861], p. 362.)

    Brigham Young, 9 November 1856:—“Confess your faults to the individuals that you ought to confess them to, and proclaim them not on the house tops. Be careful that you wrong not yourselves. Do you not know that if a good person is guilty of committing a crime he thinks that everybody knows it, and is ready to confess here, and there, and everywhere he has an opportunity? I do not want to know anything about the sins of this people, at least no more than I am obliged to. If persons lose confidence in themselves, it takes away the strength, faith and confidence that others have in them; it leaves a space that we call weakness. If you have committed a sin that no other person on the earth knows of, and which harms no other one, you have done a wrong and sinned against your God, but keep that within your own bosom, and seek to God and confess there, and get pardon for your sin. If children have sinned against their parents, or husbands against their wives, or wives against their husbands, let them confess their faults one to another and forgive each other, and there let the confession stop; and then let them ask pardon from their God. Confess your sins to whoever you have sinned against, and let it stop there. If you have committed a sin against the community, confess to them. If you have sinned in your family, confess there. Confess your sins, iniquities, and follies, where that confession belongs, and learn to classify your actions. Suppose that the people were to get up here and confess their sins, it would destroy many innocent persons. Does Texas know about it? No, nor you about one another, if you will be wise and confess your wrongs where they ought to be confessed, and keep the knowledge of them from every person it ought to be kept from. In this way you will have strength against the enemy, who would otherwise buffet you and say, ‘Here is your wickedness made manifest,’ and would overcome you and destroy all the confidence you have in yourselves and in your God. If the Lord has confidence in you, preserve it, and take a course to produce more.” (In Journal of Discourses, vol. 4 [Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1857], pp. 78–79.)

    Brigham Young, 4 January 1852:—“Some men who have been ordained unto the Priesthood and [who] are very high in authority, will take the name of God in vain, and swear by this and that. Do such persons suppose that the Church can forgive that sin? If you do, your hope is vain. They can never forgive that sin! No man can do it. None but God alone [can forgive that sin], and it never will be forgiven, until He does it. . . . If you sin against God and take the name of God in vain, if you get forgiveness, it will have to be forgiven by Him and not from man. . . . If you take the name of God in vain, I will not forgive it, for I cannot. . . . If you blaspheme the name of God, don’t ask this people to forgive you, for they cannot do it. You may ask them to pray [to] God to [have Him] forgive you. . . . Now brethren, if you sin against God, go to God to get forgiveness. . . . If you sin against your brother, go to him to get forgiveness. Ask forgiveness at the hands of the innocent. If you sin against your family, your parents, your husband, your wife, [or] your children, seek forgiveness at their hands. But what is done in secret, should be forgiven in secret and go no further, that sins may be hid. But if sins are committed openly, they should ask forgiveness and be forgiven openly. These are true principles and let them be remembered forever.” (Teachings of President Brigham Young; vol. 3 [Salt Lake City, Utah: Collier’s Publishing Co., October 1987]; pp. 6–7, 8, 9.)

  5. John, that’s amazing.

    First of all, the subject of this thread was something that had never entered my head. Second, John’s quotes were a bit mind-blowing. I’ll read the other article to see if I can wrap my head around this idea.

  6. Here is a non-cached version that often appears as an incoming link to this blog:

    Which sins do you confess to the bishop?

    I’m going to change the link that is dead in the OP. It looks like Nine Moons changed their URL’s from the title of the post — to just a number, i.e.

    was changed to

  7. Thanks. Your link looks much “prettier” and is much shorter than mine, anyway. 🙂

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