There are some things we all wish we learned years earlier than we did. For me, I wish someone had sat me down when I was in seminary and told me, "This is how to deal with the confidentiality issue."
For years I have cringed on the inside when someone walks into my office and announces, "I want you to keep this only between you and me." Or, someone will sometimes say to me, "I do not want you to tell anyone - not even your wife about this." When that happens, as it occasionally does for any pastor, red flags immediately begin to wave in my spirit. I immediately think, "What are they about to tell me - and want my pledge of absolute confidence BEFORE they tell me?"
I remember the question being addressed in one of my doctoral seminars at Gordon Conwell Seminary
. One pastor, struggling with the issue, asked the professor if it was all right for him to tell his wife about details of counseling sessions. As I mentioned, some counselees will want to draw the line that the pastor not tell his wife about their discussions.
The seminary professor, whose name I don't recall, gave an excellent - and very biblical - answer. He shared that we need to be careful to not forgot the "one-flesh" principle in the Bible. According to God's Word, a husband and wife are one flesh - that means one in not only body but in spirit and purpose. No other relationship on earth is to come between that marvelous reality of the oneness in marriage. And, therefore, no outside party ever has a right or privilege to dictate to the husband (or wife) what will or will not be shared with the other.
I witnessed a situation in a church, for example, when a mediator brought in to handle staff conflict dictated to the women on the staff that they were "not allowed" to talk with their husbands about the inner workings of the office and office politics. That advice is a clear violation of the biblical "one-flesh principle." And for the discerning Christian, such mandates by men should not be obeyed.
The one-flesh principle certainly does not mean that the pastor must tell everything to his wife from the counseling session. It is a wise pastor who learns to not come home and dump everything on his beloved wife. Some things make for a healthier and happier home when they are left at the office! And not everything needs to be shared with her. However, the fact remains that the counselee is not to decide that for the pastor. For the godly pastor, a wife who seeks the Lord will be a wise sounding board for many difficult situations he faces. Many times I have shared with my wife a delicate situation I faced in ministry and asked, "What do you think?" It is a fool who cuts himself off from that vital stream through which God may communicate and guide.
For some people, they have an idealistic or unrealistic view of the pastor or counselor. They want the one in the position of authority to act as in island, handling the situation with just them and God. However, this notion often ignores the regular emphasis in the New Testament on the role of the body of Christ - not just one person - in dealing with problems in our lives, the sins and failures of believers, and the burdens we face. The Bible is clear that the more difficult a situation, the more wise, godly counsel, prayer, and help is needed - not only from one pastor - but from a number of godly leaders.
Confidentiality is an ideal that simply cannot always be kept - nor should it always. That certainly does not give a pastor or counselor permission to have loose lips. My grandmother, a pastor's wife, once said that when a pastor dies, a lot of secrets go down in the grave with him. How true.
Pastor Sam Storms shares thoughts about confidentiality: I wish I'd known about the delusion of so-called confidentiality. Pity the man who puts his confidence in confidentiality
A pastor for almost forty years, Storms goes on to say, Be cautious and discerning about to whom you promise confidentiality, under which conditions (it's rarely if ever unconditional), and in regard to what issues and/or individuals. "Sam, you don't appear to have much trust in human nature, do you?" It's not that I don't trust human nature. I'm actually quite terrified of it! What I trust is Scripture's teaching about human nature.
(What I Wish I'd Known: Reflections on Nearly 40 Years of Pastoral Ministry
Storms is correct in saying "it's rarely if ever unconditional." For discerning pastors and counselors, we need wisdom to know when it should be kept and when it is unrealistic and unhealthy to do so.
One book I wish I had read at the beginning of my ministry is The Handbook of Church Discipline
by Jay Adams, who established The Institute for Nouthetic Studies
. To our loss, we live in a day when the idea of church discipline
is overlooked, misunderstood, and outright ignored. We live in a day when people, even Christians, emphasize their rights, their privileges, and what other people - including the church - owe them. We do not live in a day when biblical rebuke, correction, and training (2 Tim. 3:16-17) are often welcomed. However, the process of church discipline
is a biblical one in order for the church and Christians to rightly function.
It functions as a part of the process to produce righteousness in the lives of Christians and the church. It involves other godly, mature believers in the process of rebuking, correcting, and training an erring believer - so that the believer can begin again to walk in righteousness, to be restored to Christ's functioning body, and to experience the peace of God. The process of discipline is to produce peace.
In his excellent treatment of what he calls "corrective discipline," Adams addresses the issue of confidentiality. Discussing Matthew 18:15-17 and establishing the fact that, according to the Bible, corrective discipline includes involving an ever-enlarging number of persons, Adams shares the following:
The implications of this biblical requirement to seek additional help in order to reclaim an offender is that Christians must never promise absolute confidentiality to any person. Frequently it is the practice of Bible-believing Christians to give assurances of absolute confidentiality, never realizing that they are following a policy that originated in the Middle Ages and that is unbiblical and contrary to Scripture (there is not a scrap of evidence in the Bible for the practice).
Both individuals and counselors must be aware of the all-important fact that absolute confidentiality prohibits the exercise of church discipline. . . . Of even greater importance than the matter of hindering the process of church discipline and thereby depriving those parties involved of the assistance they need, including the help of Christ working through His church, is the fact that absolute confidentiality requires one to make a hasty vow. No such vow to silence should ever be made. A rash vow of this sort may put us in a bind where we are obligated to God to move the process of discipline on to a larger sphere. . . . We must never put ourselves in a position where we find it impossible to obey a biblical command.
Is it right, then, to refuse to grant any confidentiality at all? No, confidentiality is assumed in the gradual widening of the sphere of concern to other persons set forth in Matthew 18:15ff. As you read the words of our Lord in this passage, you get the impression that it is only reluctantly, when all else fails, that more and more persons may be called in.
The next bit of advice by Adams is worth the price of one entire class in seminary! I wish someone had given it to me years ago:
What then does one say when asked to keep a matter of confidence? We ought to say, "I am glad to keep confidence in the way that the Bible instructs me. That means, of course, that I shall never involve others unless God requires me to do so." In other words, we must not promise absolute confidentiality, but rather, confidentiality that is consistent with biblical requirements. No Christian can rightly ask another for more than that.
In closing, sometimes love demands that we speak and share. Sometimes love demands that we not meet the requests of others. Sometimes love demands that we not keep confidentiality. Some of our modern law even reflects that reality. When a counselor or pastor, for example, learns that a counselee has attempted suicide, that counselor under law is supposed to notify other persons. Why? In order to get them help - even if that help is unwanted. If a pastor learns that a counselee is being sexually or physically abused, that pastor is to contact other people - including the police. Why? To get that person help - even if the help seems intrusive.
And sometimes love demands that we involve other people in the Body of Christ in order to help a wayward brother or sister - with the hope that others will love them, pray for them, correct and train them, with the goal of restoration - a person walking uprightly in God's grace once again.
Be careful to not put confidence in confidentiality - but in Christ and His Word.