"Privilege and Confidentiality: The Righteous Use of Shared Information," Counsel of Chalcedon, Vol. 14, No. 9, (Nov.93), Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
Privilege and Confidentiality
by Pastor Randy Booth
From time to time many Christians and ministers find themselves in the difficult situation where they possess information that was given to them confidentially and yet they cannot use that information in any constructive way. It seems that if a person prefaces their remarks with a statement such as “This is confidential and it cannot leave this room” or, “Don’t tell anyone I told you this,” then no matter what follows those statements it is presumed that we are morally bound to keep them secret. How can we promise to keep secret that which we do not yet know? Such unconditional commitments must be avoided if we are to be faithful to Christ. Pastors may especially find themselves in this situation and therefore must make it clear what limitations apply to these situations. In our day, “confidentiality” and “privilege” is one of the sacred cows of professional ethics. However, as is always the case for Christians, we must ask the ultimate question concerning this and all other issues— “What does the Bible say about the matter?” This is our only rule of faith and life, and we must therefore turn to it in determining what it teaches concerning privilege and confidentiality. Does this practice stem from scriptural teaching, and if so, what are its limitations? Or, does our modern view of this subject spring from other sources such as tradition or humanistic thought? The Scriptures certainly speak to this subject, as they do to all others. Our personal and ministerial policy must therefore be based solidly upon a correct theological understanding of what the Bible requires and prohibits in this matter. Scripture does not use the terms “privilege” or “confidentiality,” but it does speak of secrecy, gossip and slander. These ideas involve private information and its proper and improper uses. Secrecy, for example, can either be good or evil. We are to give alms and to pray in secret (Matt. 6:4), which the Father sees in secret (Matt. 6:6); this is a good use of secrecy. Yet Scripture speaks more often of a secrecy designed to conceal evil. There are those who “strike their neighbor in secret” (Deut. 27:24); there is the “secret counsel of evildoers” (Ps. 64:2); or, “our secret sins” (Ps. 90:8); we also read of “secret slander” (Ps. 101:5); it speaks of those “who devour the oppressed in secret” (Hab. 3:14); men were “secretly induced” to falsely testify against Stephen (Acts 6:11); or, false teachers “secretly introduce destructive heresies” (II Pet. 2:1). Related to the idea of secrecy is that which is hidden or dark. Scripture tells us that, “men love the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, lest his deed should be exposed” (Jo. 3:19-20). We can see then, that much secrecy is used for the bad purpose of covering up evil.
There are certainly many times when we should hold information about another person and keep it to ourselves. Intimate relationships are built upon our trusting others with information that could be used to hurt us or others. As will become evident from the directives of Scripture, it is the righteous or unrighteous use of that information that is to be the determining factor in whether or not private information is revealed. The question must be asked, “What is the purpose for revealing sensitive information? Is it to promote righteousness, justice or peace? Or, is it a matter of carelessness, insensitivity or maliciousness?” The Bible demands the former and prohibits the latter.
Gossip and slander involve the unrighteous use of true or false information concerning another person. Gossip falls into two categories. First, gossip may be idle talk, which is careless and insensitive information that is spread to those who have no real need to know it. It is a way of letting others know that we know what is going on. This is the work of busybodies who have nothing better to do than mind other people’s business (I Tim. 5:13). Or, gossip may be as simple as a careless friend allowing sensitive information to slip out during a casual conversation.
The second type of gossip is the malicious gossip (I Tim. 3:11). This person has a clear, though often thinly disguised, purpose of harming the person they are talking about. It may very well be that what they are saying about the person is true. However, rather than speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), they are out to inflict wounds and do damage (Prov. 17:9).
A third, and more dangerous type of person the Bible calls a slanderer. The slanderer adds a new dimension to the gossip’s destructive work in that he is willing to pervert the truth and lie against the person he is speaking about. God promises to destroy the slanderer (Ps. 101:5); he is a “perverse man who spreads strife” (Prov. 16:28); it is an “evil thing” that proceeds “from within” (Mk. 7:23). The slanderer may be guilty of slander due to ignorance or misinformation about the person who they are speaking about. They have heard one version of the story and that’s enough for them; they are prepared to pass the information along. The slanderer may embellish a story to make it a bit more dramatic and interesting for the listener. Or, the slanderer may deliberately calculate to spread a lie and do serious damage to the name and reputation of his enemy.
There is no question that the Bible forbids all forms of gossip and slander. As believers we are commanded to set such conduct aside (Eph. 4:31; I Pet. 2:1). We are told not to even associate with those who conduct themselves in this way (Prov. 20:19). Therefore, as we proceed with our discussion of this subject of privilege and confidentiality, there can be no doubt that these unrighteous uses of intimate information are never allowed by God. Leviticus 19:17 tells us that “you may surely reprove your neighbor, but you shall not incur sin because of him.” No doubt, much of this unrighteous talk is disguised as righteous concern. However, we must be discerning in these matters and evaluate the motives of ourselves and others.
The concept of privilege and confidentiality, as we have come to know it today, is not a product of biblical thinking. Instead, these concepts stem from the false doctrine surrounding the necessity of a priest to intercede for our sins. This false doctrine produced the Roman Catholic Confessional where sinners were to regularly go to confess their sins. After the sinner confessed his sins to the priest, the priest could then intercede in behalf the sinner and actually forgive their sins. The position of the priest, as one who would hear the confessions of sinners, was held to be sacred.
The priest vowed not to reveal any information that came by way of the confessional. This is known as the “seal of the confessional” and must not be violated. He heard the confession of the sinner as a representative of God, but as a man he forgot what he heard as soon as he left the confessional. How else could sinners be encouraged to come to confession?
Laws were passed that protected the priests, and kept others, including government officials, from being able to demand that the priests reveal information gained via the confessional. This was a privileged position that the priest held with regard to his parishioners that could not be violated. This concept of privileged information was later extended to protect others such as physicians and attorneys. Confidentiality laws now go beyond the idea of a person being protected from forced disclosure of information to actually forbidding a person from disclosing certain information. Even though an attorney may have received a confession from his client concerning his guilt in a crime, that attorney may not reveal that information without risk of being sued for a breach of confidence. Truth is held at bay in the interest of privilege— winning the case is more important than justice.
The argument is often put forth that without privilege and confidentiality people would be reluctant to come forward and disclose matters of an intimate nature. They could never go to confession, could never seek personal or legal counsel and could never get the help they need for fear of public exposure. Biblically, our confession is to be made directly to God (I John 1:9) and He already knows our secrets (Ps. 44:21). The confessional is not needed. Legally, the innocent have no fear of the truth coming out, only those who have something to hide. Those seeking counsel, presumably are coming to gain help in solving a problem. As long as they are moving to solve that problem there would be no need for a counselor to reveal intimate information. However, for those with evil intent, the idea of confidentiality can become a convenient cover for their unrighteous motives. They may want to discuss a problem that they have no intention of working to resolve. Or, they want to pass on information about someone else, thus poisoning the well against them, while maintaining their anonymity and avoiding any real involvement or responsibility in solving the problem. They may disguise it as “concern” for the other person, but they are not concerned enough to run any personal risk of getting hurt; “Let me tell you this, but don’t tell anyone I told you.” They want you to know, but they don’t want anyone to know how you know. They want you to have information that you cannot really use to help anyone. We may not agree to such evil.
If, by not promising absolute confidentiality, this means that some people will not come “for help”, this may be good. People who are really interested in help and righteousness and justice will not hesitate to come, they have nothing to fear. Those who want to continue to hide their deeds will no doubt remain reluctant. We may not be conspirators in the hiding of evil. Ephesians 5:11 instructs us, “And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” In an article in the Journal of Pastoral Practice, Larry Spalink said: “In fact, it seems that for most counselees who are serious about solving their problems, confidentiality is not an issue; they’ll take help no matter what the cost. But still, this argument is answered by another remnant of sacramentalism, i.e., the conviction that one needs only a minimal sorrow for sin for the sacrament to be effective. A person need not be so sorry for his sin that he must sacrifice his pride for effective counseling to occur. This is a sacramentarian attitude; it has no biblical warrant. But it has found its way into the counseling theory and practice of the great majority of counselors.”1 Our primary commitment must be to truth, justice and righteousness, even when it may cause some personal pain. We must seek a biblical policy that places the emphasis on reconciliation and peace, rather than secrecy. In light of these teachings on this issue, I would propose the following as guidelines for a more biblical policy regarding the use of private information. These guidelines may be adapted for personal or institutional use:
1. All forms of gossip and slander are not permitted. I shall not gossip or slander anyone myself, nor shall I receive gossip or slander from another party.
2. I will not agree to unconditionally maintain information in confidence since to do so would possibly require me to disobey other commands of Christ.
3. Pastors, counselors and other involved parties must be free to consult with others (e.g., other ministers or counselors), when necessary, in order to gain insight and help in resolving problems.
4. If a person chooses to involve other persons in a discussion of a matter, all parties involved are free to discuss the matter among themselves in the interest of the truth and a just resolution to the problem. This will facilitate greater accuracy of information and help hold down rumors and gossip.
5. If I receive information that may prove harmful to the person giving the information or harmful to others, it is my moral obligation to reveal or use that information in order to prevent such harmful or unjust affects. Examples of such situations are these:
a. A person reveals plans to commit suicide.
b. A person indicates that they plan to commit a crime or an immoral act such as theft, adultery, abortion, deceit, etc.
c. Information you possess will clear an innocent party or convict a guilty party.
6. If I receive information from a third party regarding the sin, conflict; or other problem of another person, I may find it necessary to reveal the source of my information to the troubled party in order to provide godly help for that person.
7. In cases involving a judicial action, (e.g., church court, civil or criminal court), I may find it necessary to reveal private information in order to facilitate a righteous and just judgment in the matter.
8. In matters where I am the recipient of accusations, I may find it necessary, in order to facilitate a just judgment, to reveal private information about another person.
9. The above circumstances may apply to information that is received in formal or informal counseling sessions, letters, notes, phone or private conversations.
The idea the we may never talk about another person, under any circumstances is a false and unbiblical notion. We may not gossip about or slander another person, but we may discuss that person and matters pertaining to them when we are genuinely seeking to obtain the truth in order to bring about a just and righteous resolution to a problem. We must remain silent where Scripture permits silence, but we must likewise speak up when faithfulness to Scripture requires such revelation.
1 Larry Spalink, “Warning: This Office Bugged By the Holy Spirit,” The Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol.3, No.3, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979, pp. 58-59.