“One who goes about as a talebearer (rakiyl, “slanderer”) reveals secrets, but one who is faithful in spirit conceals a matter.” – Proverbs 11:13
“Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” – Luke 12:1-3
Remember Wikileaks? All sorts of unflattering revelations came out about the governments of America, China and other countries through the leaked communications that they published. These were the same people who didn’t want their own criminal records leaked (it’s none of our business what sex crimes they have committed), nor their medical records (it’s none of our business what STD’s they have). One would think that if total transparency is good for the state, it’s good for the enemies of the state.
There are all sorts of areas that we either prefer or sometimes insist be kept confidential: how much money we make, how much we owe, our medical problems, our addictions, molestation, same-sex desire. We expect privacy in our bathrooms and bedrooms.
“There is a time to keep silent, and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7). Today, we might translate: there is a time for confidentiality, and a time for full disclosure.
But where to draw the line is not always clear. Churches, COM’s, and presbytery executives must reckon with issues about what should be kept confidential, and what should be public information.
The need to know is one helpful way to determine what kinds of information ought to be kept confidential. If a parishioner wishes the details of their illness or surgery to be kept confidential, no one else needs to know. The public has a right to see Obama’s college records (which remain nuclear secrets), but had no need to see the divorce records of his opponent Jack Ryan in the race for U.S. Senate in Illinois, records which were forcibly unsealed over the objections of both Ryan and his ex-wife.
There is a difference between holy secrets and dirty secrets. When information is tightly controlled, it is often accountability that is being avoided. Confidentiality is an absolute necessity in order for people to feel free to confess their sins and secret struggles in an atmosphere of trust. But it must not become an excuse to protect the continuation of sexual or domestic abuse. Confidentiality may help guarantee people’s willingness to express their opinions freely. But it does not give an EP the right to trash someone in a reference check without sufficient cause.
COMs declare much of their business to be confidential. Yet sometimes it is forgotten that a COM acts on behalf of the presbytery for the presbytery’s convenience, and that therefore the presbytery has a right to know business that it would otherwise be doing as a committee of the whole. So when candidates for a position are examined, for example, the whole presbytery deserves to know the candidate’s views, and to know why candidates were approved or not approved.
An evangelical pastor was recently chosen by a search committee for a position. The COM said that the pastor’s nearly 30 years’ experience was “not enough experience” for a 200-member church. The pastor was not even granted a COM interview, although there were no reasons to treat the candidate as toxic. Whatever the real reason for rejecting this particular candidate (theological prejudice? danger of schism?), concealing the truth in such a case under a cloak of “confidentiality” does not help build trust or confidence in any presbytery.
On the other hand, when charges of misconduct are made against a church leader, a tight lid of confidentiality is in order until the facts are determined sufficiently for formal charges to be made. Marital conflict is much easier to heal when it is not aired in public. If a person is recovering from an addiction, most of us don’t need to know unless their problem threatens our safety or threatens their job performance.
I have mixed feelings about our mandatory reporting laws for certain crimes. While I agree with the urgency of reporting those who are an imminent threat of harm to others, ironically, by this policy, we also guarantee that no one who secretly struggles with urges to domestic violence or attraction to children will ever call out for help to overcome their problem. I don’t know how to fix that.
In his underground seminary, Bonhoeffer rejected much of the kind of confidentiality practiced in our churches. He writes in his book, “Life Together”:
“But to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when it is seeking to create mischief.” (92) “We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity. Why should we be afraid of one another, since both of us have only God to fear?” (106)
Bonhoeffer puts his finger on the ultimate issue: we only have God to fear. In the day of which Jesus speaks when our secrets shall be broadcast from the housetops, we will no longer have any need to hide those secrets. No longer will we need to worry about what other humans think. Nor will we need to fear God, if we have placed our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That day will bring freedom for those who have suffered in silence, and will blow the cover off of those who have been hiding from a judgment they thought they could escape.
I certainly don’t claim to have figured this issue out. I am sure there are angles that I have overlooked. If so, I will be happy to stand corrected.
Tom Hobson of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor, has degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Concordia (Ph.D.) He is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill.