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Is Confidentiality Christian? Should you keep a friend’s sin secret?

Last Updated: November 3, 2020

Rick Thomas
Rick Thomas

Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking.  In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and in 1991 he earned a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with a MA in Counseling from The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a  Fellow with Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).

Luke Gilkerson, blog manager at Covenant Eyes, often receives questions about the issue of confidentiality. Here are a few examples he shared with me:

1. When I’m an accountability partner for someone else, what is the place of confidentiality when it comes to knowing their confessions and secret sins?

2. Is it good to pledge confidentiality to your partner or have an expectation of it?

3. Does confidentiality have value in the context of confession?

4. Are there instances where accountability partners should tell others about a transgression they are privy to, even if the guilty party is against it?

5. What biblical principles guide us in the issue of confidentiality?

The blind side

The word confidentiality is not a Bible word. It’s a word which has been brought into Christian thought. It is important for us to know this because our faith is built and rests upon words (John 17:17).

We must be careful regarding our word selections and how we use them. For example, theologians have stood at the door of the Word of God for centuries to make sure we understand His Word correctly. They knew the only way we could have faith in God was by His Word (Romans 10:17). Historical theologians have lived and died protecting God’s Word from theological error (2 Timothy 4:6-7). Theological precision has always been a big deal for the Christian.

One of the interesting developments in the past 100 years is how the Christian community has not been as vigilant regarding sanctification precision. While we can be exacting on parsing the Greek (and we should be meticulous), we can be sloppy when it comes to thinking about sanctification.

Sanctification is the outflow or the application of our theology. Do you see the two key points to sanctification—theology and application? Knowledge (theology) alone can make one arrogant (1 Corinthians 8:1). The right application of theology can make one wise (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The call of God is to not only be a stickler about theology, but to be just as picky about how we apply our theology. There is an unsuspecting blind side to our sanctification which must be guarded just as fiercely as our theological prowess.

If you are not as exacting in how you think about sanctification, then you’re on the road to being a devil—a person who is familiar with the Bible, but does not accurately apply the Bible (Genesis 3:1).

On being confidential

The word confidential should be sidelined from our vocabulary. I realize this is easier said than done, but it’s still necessary. Confidentiality is the world’s approach to problem solving, not the Bible’s approach.

Christians are not to think this way.

These questions listed above were born out of a story which was sent to him about a pastor who had a secret porn addiction. The pastor’s accountability partner knew about his porn problem. Eventually the pastor was terminated for other reasons: the elder board did not know about his porn problem. The recently fired pastor began looking for another ministry job.

His accountability partner appealed to him to come clean with the churches who were interviewing him. The wannabe pastor refused, hence these questions about the nature and breadth of confidentiality.

These questions are intriguing to me because I have been thinking about this subject for a while now. Over the past few years there have been several high-profile cases regarding sexual abuse. Recently Jack Schaap (Skop), pastor of a mega church in Hammond, IN, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for having sex with a 16-year old girl he was counseling. Penn State University is recovering from their sex scandal, as well as the Roman Catholic Church.

I have written extensively on these matters:

One of the more interesting things which has come from this is what has been called the silence of the Reformed—the evangelical community has an imposed a gag rule where we are told not to talk about these matters.

At some point non-involvement becomes sinful.

Paul gave the Corinthian church a public rebuke for keeping silent about sexual sin (1 Corinthians 5:12). He then warned them about how their lack of appropriate confrontation leads to even greater public scrutiny and judgment (1 Corinthians 6:1).

When offenses are in play, we should be thinking more about redemption than confidentiality. If you don’t think this way then sin, like cancer, will continue to spread until the whole body is affected (1 Corinthians 5:6).

Reframing the word

This gets to the heart of the questions surrounding the cultural idea of confidentiality. The first thing I would do regarding confidentiality is run the word through the hermeneutical spiral in order to clean it up biblically.

The Bible does not talk about confidentiality the way it is generally understood and applied by our culture, but the Bible has a lot to say about communication. The word communication comes from the word community or the Greek word koinonia.

The word koinonia means fellowship, community, or participation which means how we are to relate to each other in the body of Christ. An expected implication of our fellowship is communication. The primary way we have relational fellowship with each other is by how we talk to and about each other.

Koinonia is moving in the direction of unity, transparency, honesty, integrity, vulnerability, trust, and redemption. Confidentiality does not have Biblical moorings and, thus, can be applied in unbiblical ways, which the above story about the pastor indicates. Confidentiality can imply secrets, hiddenness, fear, distrust, and deception.

The Bible gives us better words which teach us how to build community through communication. Here are a few examples. As you read these words, be impressed with how the Bible teaches us to govern our tongues:

  • Discretion
  • Building Up
  • Fitting Speech
  • Gossip
  • Slander
  • Back-biting
  • Unwholesome Speech
  • Soft Answer
  • Slow to Speak
  • Rash Words
  • Judicious
  • Confession
  • Love
  • Godly Speech
  • Wise Words

There are many more words about communication in the Bible which either encourage or convict us about how we talk to and about each other. Here are a few verses, not to mention James 3:1-18.

  • Proverbs 10:29
  • Proverbs 12:18
  • Proverbs 13:17
  • Proverbs 15:1,2
  • Proverbs 16:23
  • Proverbs 17:27
  • Proverbs 25:11-15
  • Matthew 12:37
  • Ephesians 4:15
  • Ephesians 4:25
  • Ephesians 5:22-33
  • James 1:5
  • James 1:19
  • 1 Peter 3:1-9

Five questions – One answer

Let’s take the case of the secretive pastor. He likes the word confidentiality because he wants to keep his sin hidden from his friends, hence the five questions mentioned at the top of this post. All five of these questions are answered with one passage of Scripture.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

Remember, the goal is not confidentiality, but community. This happens in proportion to us being built up in the unity of the faith (Ephesians 4:13-16). Every Christian should be asking, “How can I have better community within the body of Christ?” Not “Will my friend keep my secrets confidential?”

These are two different questions. One is motivated by faith with a desire for unity while the other is motivated by fear with a desire to keep secrets. The humble person has nothing to hide and is always pushing toward greater unity in the body of Christ.

Christ came to give us biblical koinonia. His desire is to reverse the curse. Adam put on figs leaves to cover his fear, guilt, and shame (Genesis 3:7-10). Christ is leading us to a life where there is no more fear, guilt, or shame (Romans 8:1).

We do not want to mimic Adam. We want to follow Christ (Ephesians 5:1). We do this through confession—agreeing with Him about our true condition and repenting—turning away from our sins. This is how we experience koinonia.

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:6-10)

Will you love your brother?

There will be times when a brother or sister in Christ will sin. When this happens, there is a process for assisting them back to God. The first step in this process is personal confession to God.

If the person will confess his sins to God, he can receive instantaneous forgiveness and freedom from his sin. However, if he is caught in sin which he can’t or won’t extricate himself from, he may need external restoration from those who are in community with him (Galatians 6:1-2).

This is where Matthew 18:15-17 comes into play. If a person is not willing to clean up his act or cannot clean up his act, then the Lord has called His children to engage the erring brother for His glory and the brother’s good.

This is why I never make a pledge with anyone to keep things confidential. If someone were to appeal to me to keep what they are about to say confidential, I let them know I can’t make that pledge.

I do not know what they are going to tell me and I cannot bind my conscience by saying I will do something and then find out later I can’t do it. I am not a gossip or a slanderer, but I am also commanded by Scripture not to let an erring brother or sister continue in sin.

This is the whole point of Matthew 18:15-17. The accountability partner of the caught pastor should let the pastor know he is going to let the elder board know about the pastor’s addiction to porn.

The Lord executed His Son because of our sin (Isaiah 53:10). The Lord takes sin seriously. For us to hide sin is to mock the death of Christ. I’m not talking about slander or gossip. I’m talking about acting redemptively on the behalf of a person who refuses to act redemptively for himself.

The down side

If a brother is in sin and the community of faith does not act upon what they know, then the community of faith is culpable to some degree. The church needs to wake up regarding sexual sins and addictions.

Think about it this way: would you want a secret porn addict pastoring your children? Would you want to hire a porn addict to lead and shepherd your church?

Let’s take the above questions and re-think them with community (communication) in mind, rather than confidentiality:

1. When I’m an accountability partner for someone else, what is the place of confidentiality and knowing their confessions and secret sins?

When I’m an accountability partner with someone who has secret sins, I need grace-filled courage to let him know I will do everything within my biblical rights to motivate him to be honest with God and others, even if it means letting others know about his problem should he refuse to repent?

2. Is it good to pledge confidentiality to your partner or have an expectation of it?

I am going to let my friend know that I will love him to the end. I will let him know I will use the utmost discretion and stewardship regarding what he tells me. I will also let him know my love for him may mean I “hurt” him if he continues to choose a life of unrepentant sin. I will not hide his sin. I love him too much.

3. Does confidentiality have value in the context of confession?

Discretion has value. Wisdom has value. Slandering or gossiping does not have value. But because I love him I will not keep his sins secret if he chooses not to repent. If he truly loves me, he will not hold me to an unbiblical standard. He will want me to get all the appropriate help necessary so he can be free.

4. Are there instances where accountability partners should tell others about a transgression they are privy to, even if the guilty party is against it?

I have no choice but to ask others to become involved with my brother who refuses to repent. Not to do this would be like watching a guy bleed to death in front of me and not act on it. This is not biblical love. This would be biblical hate. Matthew 18:15-17 is my guide. 1 Corinthians 6:1 is my warning—if I do not do this for him, then the sin he wants me to hide may become more public than he ever imagined.

5. What biblical principles guide us in this?

The Gospel is about redemption and rescue. I want to emulate my Lord and be redemptive in the lives of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though I am bound to never sin against a person with my words, I am also bound to use my words in the fullest redemptive means possible, even if it hurts my brother or sister.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/daquellamanera/

This article also appears on RickThomas.net: “My friend wants me to keep his sin secret. What should I do?

  • Comments on: Is Confidentiality Christian? Should you keep a friend’s sin secret?
    1. Nathaniel Chapman

      So, the question did Jesus do that? I mean I do agree to some degree,
      But the context of the Corinthians is that there was prostitution as part of the church. So of course you would have to address it to the church. Which leads us to another question. Who is the church? Surely, the church of today doesn’t meet the standards of trust they had for each other in the apostolic times. Have you sold your possessions and given to each that has need? What about John 8:7? Jesus didn’t go tell everyone about Mary’s sin or the sins of those who accused her. You can’t reach someone without trust and caring. That’s why I believe
      most won’t tell people their strongholds, because they don’t trust. That
      has to be earned.
      In Christ
      N H Chapman

    2. I have a question. If somebody is doing something like taking medication when I have learned that medication is bad for the brain (Peter Breggin), should I make a “covenant” with their nephew that I should tell no one about it?

      • I’m not sure I understand the nephew part of the question. What does this mean?

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