Confession in the early church

I know that the three"big" sins (apostasy, murder and adultery ) were confessed but are those the only sins that were confessed? How come nowadays we’re encouraged to confess all sins?

I don’t know where this idea of the “big three” sins comes from. I have never heard that only “big” sins were confessed in the Early Church.

How come nowadays we’re encouraged to confess all sins?

Strictly speaking, only mortal (big) sins need to be confessed. Venial sins won’t condemn us. But we cannot actually know if any particular sin is venial or mortal. So it’s best to just confess everything.

from the several threads IVe read on these forums, I’ve learned that only very grave sins were confessed (it wasn’t just those three sins but those were the most mentioned examples) and that absolution was only given once. I guess what I was trying to ask was: when did the practice of confessing all sins (mortal and venial) frequently first become common? And also why was absolution only given once in the early church? What would happen the someone if they committed mortal sin after already receiving absolution? Would they just keep it to themselves? Sorry for all the questions BTW I’m just curious…

Probably when auricular confession became prevalent. In the early Church, people stood up and announced their sins during Mass. Can you imagine? So it would not be practical for everyone to confess all their sins which would likely be venial only. That could take all day. I could probably go on for 45 minutes.

And also why was absolution only given once in the early church?

The Early Church was rather stingy with absolution. You could have a second chance, but, for a serious offense, would often be refused a third (even on your deathbed). And penances were crazy - sometimes lasting for ten years! Maybe longer.

I guess they thought that ongoing absolution-on-demand with light penances would lead to an increase in sinful behavior. Maybe they were right.


I. The Early Church’s Practice of Oral Confession

*Do not come to prayer with a guilty conscience." Epistle of Barnabas, 19:12 (A.D. 74).

“In church confess your sins, and do not come to your prayer with a guilt conscience. Such is the Way of Life…On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure." Didache, 4:14,14:1 (c. A.D. 90).

“Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness[of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop.” Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyraeans, 9 (c. A.D. 110).

“Moreover, that this Marcus compounds philters and love-potions, in order to insult the persons of some of these women, if not of all, those of them who have returned to the Church of God–a thing which frequently occurs–have acknowledged, confessing, too, that they have been defiled by him, and that they were filled with a burning passion towards him. A sad example of this occurred in the case of a certain Asiatic, one of our deacons, who had received him (Marcus) into his house. His wife, a woman of remarkable beauty, fell a victim both in mind and body to this magician, and, for a long time, travelled about with him. At last, when, with no small difficulty, the brethren had converted her, she spent her whole time in the exercise of public confession, weeping over and lamenting the defilement which she had received from this magician.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:13 (A.D. 180).

“Such are the words and deeds by which, in our own district of the Rhone, they have deluded many women, who have their consciences seared as with a hot iron. Some of them, indeed, make a public confession of their sins; but others of them are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of [attaining to] the life of God, have, some of them, apostatized altogether; while others hesitate between the two courses, and incur that which is implied in the proverb, ‘neither without nor within;’ possessing this as the fruit from the seed of the children of knowledge.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:13 (A.D. 180).

“Father who knowest the hearts of all grant upon this Thy servant whom Thou hast chosen for the episcopate to feed Thy holy flock and serve as Thine high priest, that he may minister blamelessly by night and day, that he may unceasingly behold and appropriate Thy countenance and offer to Thee the gifts of Thy holy Church. And that by the high priestly Spirit he may have authority to forgive sins…” Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 3 (A.D. 215).

“The Pontifex Maximus–that is, the bishop of bishops–issues an edict: ‘I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.’” Tertullian, Modesty, 1 (A.D. 220).

“In addition to these there is also a seventh, albeit hard and laborious: the remission of sins through penance…when he does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord.” Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, 2:4 (A.D. 248).*

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