It’s not unusual for someone to come to me and say, “Pastor, can I share something with you in confidence?”
My response usually surprises them: “Depends on what you tell me.”
Often, church leaders are unsure of how to handle sensitive information that is received within the church body. It’s important to make a distinction between that which should remain completely private and that which requires action and some further disclosure.
The Bible actually has a lot to say about what we would understand as someone coming to another person in confidence and disclosing a personal or moral issue. As Christians we are instructed that we are to confess to one another (Matthew 6:14; James 5:16). Questions immediately surface however, when it comes to confidentiality that may be expected. While we are often asked to “keep this confidential” there are many times we cannot promise that when we hear certain information, it won’t require a follow-up or other appropriate type of action.
1) Information disclosed about abuse, molestation, theft and vandalism typically obligates the receiver to further disclose the information to appropriate leaders who often have an obligation to disclose the same information to others including often the civil authority.
2) Moral failures, addictions and even mental disorders often require that the person receiving the information take some action. While the person may be requesting confidentiality, the sharing of the information indicates that help is needed and a resolution is desired.
The Bible also speaks about gossip and it is often gossip that is brought to us in confidence. Gossips and busybodies are to be avoided (1 Timothy 5:13). Gossip breaks up friendships (Proverbs 16:28). The word often translated as gossip is the Greek word for a whisperer, a secret slanderer, or a detractor.
However, while gossip is to be ignored, factual information that threatens the integrity of the Body of Christ is a different matter and should not be ignored. These matters involving the spiritual health of the church, the protection of the sheep from wolves and the restoration of the individual take precedence over a request for confidentiality and secrecy.
The leadership of the church has a responsibility to restore a person that is caught in a sin (Gal 6:1). However, just like a request for confidentiality, restoration is secondary to protecting the rest of the church. Protection is often accomplished through appropriate church discipline.
Pastors, and by extension other church leaders, have the responsibility for discipline within the church. Anything that compromises the integrity of the church or ultimately harms other church members or causes dissension needs to be dealt with by the church leaders from the biblical aspect of church discipline.
In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus gives us a four-step approach to dealing with these confidential and sensitive matters in the church. The first step is to confront the individual alone. Steps two through four escalate the discipline, particularly for the non-repentant.
“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him-work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. (Matt 18:15-18)
As believers and members of the Body of Christ, we are all under authority. Local church authority is a great place to start when dealing with an issue as described above. The first response should always be to encourage the offender to submit to the appropriate authority. If the person is hesitant, the church leader should let the person know that any consideration of confidentiality was presumptuous and cannot be honored because of the nature of the issue.
Ken Behr is an executive pastor at Christ Fellowship, Palm Beach Gardens, FL. [www.gochristfellowship.com]