Confidentiality, Gossip, and Openness in the Body of Christ
Dennis McCallum, Conrad Hilario, Bret McCallum
God calls on Christians to disclose their problems to one another (Galatians 6:2; James 5:16). But is it ever right to discuss another’s problem with a third party? What about leadership teams that need to decide what to do with a member? What about a lay counselor who needs help discerning a tough situation? What about a friend who knows something serious about another friend, but the other friend won’t agree to disclose the problem? What about a friend who says, “I’ve got something to share, but you have to promise not to tell anyone,” or “By the way, what I told you was in confidence”?
The Biblical Position
Like so many issues, when viewing things under grace we are not given black and white prescriptions on exactly how to handle each situation. The Bible lays out key principles, the biggest being love. The best way to love someone is not one-size fits all. Believers are supposed to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading while growing in their own discernment. As they grow in discernment, they will develop an ability to sense what the most loving stance is to take in each situation.
On the one hand, Scripture speaks strongly against gossip.
- Proverbs 20:19 - “…do not associate with a gossip.” (See also Proverbs 11:13a; 16:27,28; 17:9b)
- Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:20 – Both differentiate gossip from slander and condemn it as the result of a depraved mind, unfitting for Christians.
- 1 Timothy 5:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:11 – Both condemn “busybodies” who “speak about things not proper to mention.”
Likewise, some passages defend the idea of confidentiality.
- Proverbs 11:13 – “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.”
- Proverbs. 17:9a - “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.”
- Proverbs 20:19 – “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip.”
- Proverbs 25:9-10 - “…don’t reveal the secret of another, lest he who hears it reproach you, and the evil report about you not pass away.”
- Matthew 18:15 - “If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private…” This implies the desirability of resolving the matter one on one.
We have all seen the wreckage that gossip can cause: feelings hurt, trust destroyed, relationships ruined – and above all, an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. People feel reluctant to open up out of fear people will broadcast it. Also, people may not open up about serious problems, or may sanitize their versions of those problems unless we can offer them the safety of confidentiality.
Merely avoiding gossip isn’t enough. While the Scripture above shows a value for confidentiality between friends, the following passages signal a scriptural value for transparency.
Take, for example, disciplinary cases involving objective and damaging sin.
- Matthew 18:16, 17 – The same passage that recommends resolving it in private commands making it public if necessary.
- Galatians 6:1 – It must be a public matter if someone was “caught in sin.”
- 1 Timothy 5:20 – Paul tells Timothy that an elder who “continues in sin” should be rebuked “in the presence of all.”
We may conclude from passages like these that we do not have the right to insist that other Christians cover up our sins. Other passages indicate that discussing others’ sins may be necessary for the healthy working of the local church.
Some features of biblical leadership imply the need for a degree of open communication:
- Passages that speak of corporate leadership (1 Peter 5:1ff) imply telling each other about matters that affect the health of the church. How can they shepherd the flock if they do not have access to knowledge about the sheep?
Note: We must maintain a high value for confidentiality even if we’re conferring with a co-leader. We should be able to trust that the sensitive information we’re discussing will not spread beyond the confines of that conversation.
- See the examples of “Chloe’s people” (1 Corinthians 1:11), Paul’s discussion of Peter’s sin (Galatians 2), and Paul’s discussion of Demas’ defection (2 Timothy 4:10).
- The need for care with sensitive information may be one of the reasons for the high character qualifications of leaders (“not double-tongued”). We need to trust them to handle this kind of knowledge responsibly.
- Passages requiring that leaders be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1) imply that Christians should come forward if they know that leader or would-be leader is under reproach.
The metaphors of the church as a body and a family argue powerfully for the openness of Christians both with one another and about one another:
- The members are affected by those in need (1 Corinthians 12:26). They should help those in need (Romans 12:15), but they cannot help if they do not know of the need.
- The “one another passages” (Galatians 6:2; James 5:16) are in the plural. We should not only see them in the individual sense (i.e. counselor/client 1:1 session), but also as a family helping each other.
This concept of conferral grates against our culture’s value of autonomous individualism. Western culture stresses the “right of individual privacy” at the expense of the individual’s responsibility to community. People rarely share their problems with one another. When people venture to open up about their struggles, it’s almost exclusively in a client/counselor setting where confidentiality is strictly enforced.
The Western church has largely adopted our culture’s view of confidentiality. The Christian church has unintentionally taught most of its members to live on an island in the name of avoiding gossip and “upholding confidentiality.” Not only do churches implicitly discourage people to be open with each other, they encourage those with whom they have shared their problem to maintain strict confidentiality.
This insistence upon strict confidentiality has resulted in both a lack of community and a host of church cover ups. We all have seen horrible reproach come to the Western church due to cover-ups and lack of transparency. News headlines regularly expose church leaders for telling members to keep silent when the members should’ve conferred with an objective third party. The result is something every bit as ugly as a church riddled by gossip: no true community, no church discipline and people wrestling with their sin problems alone.
Gossip vs. Conferral
The above passages do not contradict one another. It’s a tension within which Christians needs to live. It’s best to keep what someone confessed to yourself most of the time. But there are times when you should bring it to the attention of others. Consider these passages which extol conferral.
- Proverbs 1:5 ‘A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel.’
- Proverbs 13:10 ‘…wisdom is with those who seek counsel.’
- Proverbs 15:22 ‘Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.’
Sometimes it can be misleading to hear only one side. The Bible encourages us to seek further consultation. Failing to confer on important matters is a common error in discernment.
- Proverbs 18:17 ‘The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.’
You may need to ask yourself a few questions to determine if you’re conferring or gossiping.
- Will the person with whom you are conferring be able to give you wise counsel?
- Is the driving force concern or curiosity?
- Are you seeking help or are you broadcasting someone’s lurid secrets to get a response from people?
- Are we actually looking for input or are we simply venting frustration?
The Bible condemns and prohibits gossip. Yet, it commends conferral for the sake of building up fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
|Motivated by the desire to help the person and the body of Christ||Lack of concern or even the desire to hurt the person and exalt self|
|Confers only with responsible people who can help||Talks to whomever they please without regard for its effect on them|
|Confers only about live issues||Talks past, dead, purely personal issues|
|Done in addition to talking to the person if needed||Done instead of talking to the person if needed|
|Carefully explains the context of the problem to the conferee||Neglects or distorts the context of the problem|
|Promotes more trust, openness, and less gossip in the body of Christ||Promotes fear of openness and more gossip in the body of Christ|
|Discourages sharing when it's irrelevant to or interferes with loving others||Pressures other people to tell for the pleasure of being "in the know"|
|Respects the limits of "need-to-know" information||Feels entitled to know everything|
When Considering Conferral vs. Remaining Silent
Christians should relate to each other on the basis of responsible trust. If you trust another brother or sister enough to confide in him or her, you should also trust that person to use that information responsibly. However, you should also demonstrate trustworthiness by maintaining confidentiality when someone shares embarrassing personal details that are neither harmful to the person nor sinful.
When ministering, we often have to determine whether to confer or remain silent. There are no strict rules, but here are some helpful guidelines for deciding.
- Does your silence injure another person or the witness of the body of Christ?
Many issues are of such a purely personal nature (masturbation) or have taken place so long ago (sex life as an unbeliever) that there’s no good reason to share it with others. Show them acceptance and let them share this with others as they get to know them.
But we should seek conferral on other issues directly affecting another party (adulterer’s spouse) or the witness of the body of Christ (brother swindling in business, youth worker who lusts for kids). We do not want to enter into a “conspiracy of silence” in the area of serious sin, which hurts others and the witness of Christ.
What is the person’s role in the church?
Those with more authority bear more responsibility and accountability. We need to handle a deacon or elder who fell into gross moral sin differently than a new Christian. Elders and deacons bear responsibility in the Body of Christ whereas younger believers do not.
New believers may need instruction or biblical persuasion. Or they may have stumbled while attempting to gain victory over their sin. It’s best to encourage young believers to share with those closest to them (i.e. their spouses, friends, roommates, etc.).
Depending on the seriousness of the sin, you may need to insist they confess to a close family member; otherwise, you will have to tell that person. In the case of minors, this would include a parent; in the case of married people, a spouse. Take for example a married person confessing an extra-marital affair, or a student sharing that s/he has been cutting themselves. These illustrate some of circumstances that require you to inform family members if the confessor refuses to share with them.
- What concrete thing do you want to confer about?
You should be clear on what and why – and you should confer with those who can help. If you can’t answer these questions clearly, you probably need to give it more thought before conferring.
- Is this a matter that should remain between friends or spouses? Or is it something that’s damaging or sinful?
We enjoy true intimacy when we feel the freedom to be real about our lives. If believers can never tell each other something in confidence, we may be working against our goal of true community and deep friendships. We must work to create an atmosphere in friendships and marriages where people aren’t afraid to share.
- Is conferral the only option?
Have you considered gently encouraging the person who told you information to open up to others instead of you choosing to do so for them? Have you considered asking them if it is okay to confer? Is it urgent, or can you allow more time for the person to open up to others? Is it ever appropriate to refer them to a trustworthy professional Christian counselor (who maintains confidentiality)? The professional may be in the best position to help them process painful personal matters.
- What is your own tendency in this area?
Are you prone to gossip? Do you find yourself sharing stories in a public setting as a form of one-upmanship? Do people come to you with gossip or with shocking stories of people’s sin?
On the other hand, are you obsessed with secrecy? Are you unwilling to confer even though you’re confused about what to do with something someone told you? Are you closed-off and unwilling to share your struggles with people?
How should I handle "Don't tell anyone"?
We should be wary of blindly agreeing to keep someone’s secret ahead of time. We should tell them that we will handle the information responsibly. If it is a confession of a sin, we should evaluate if it is serious or damaging enough to warrant conferral. As we stated earlier, we can consider encouraging them to open up to more people.
If they call for secrecy after disclosing something sinful or potentially harmful to themselves/others, state that you did not understand it in that light.
If it’s a clear case of them wanting to hide their sin, call on them to come out in the light and show them relevant scripture. When others have a right to know (the spouse of an adulterer), give them the opportunity to confess first, but ascertain that they did do so.
If it’s a burden they’re asking you to bear, assure them that you will not take it lightly. But you should challenge them to consider if others can help.
How much detail should we give if we choose to confer?
Confer without using someone’s name when possible. Limit adding extraneous details that won’t aid the understanding of the person with whom you’re conferring.
Conclusion: Two Attitudes to Resist
- We should vigorously resist gossip in the body of Christ.
We should learn to judge our own flesh before we gossip and we should apologize when we do it. Cultivate constructive concern for the other person. Learn to ask yourself, “Why do I want to talk to others about this person’s situation?” We should also be careful to avoid passive participation when others are gossiping. Proverbs 17:4 ‘An evildoer listens to wicked lips; a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.’
We should admonish those engaging in gossip. We shouldn’t do this with a self-righteous attitude. After all, who of us can say we have never engaged in gossip? If you discern that someone may be gossiping, you can ask, “Why are you telling me this?” or “Have you confronted them about this issue?” or “What would you like me to do with this information?” or “Is this the right venue to be talking about this?”
- We should resist just as vigorously the unqualified “right to secrecy” attitude described above.
The Bible teaches that it is wrong to participate in hiding certain damaging sin. Proverbs 10:18 “Hiding hatred makes you a liar…” Does your insistence upon a “right to secrecy” come from a desire to hide your sin? Is it due to your own insecurity?
Paul freely told others about his worst sins and the whole church seemed to know about Peter’s embarrassing denial of Christ. We should view the insistence upon keeping sin a secret as a sign of spiritual immaturity.
The person who says “I am open with God, but not with other Christians” fools himself. Openness with God involves openness with other Christians, since God ministers to us through His Body.
Cultivate “community openness” as an essential aspect of Body-life (1 John 1:7; Galatians 6:2; James 5:16). We should be moving toward openness with each other, trusting that our brothers and sisters love us and will help us.
To use gossip as an excuse for not being open is throwing out the baby out with the bath water.
We should confront and discourage gossip, but we should also practice, model, and encourage openness. Openness is one of the key reasons for the vitality that we enjoy in this fellowship!! We should be willing to pay the price of dealing with gossip as it occurs in order to cultivate an atmosphere of community openness in the body of Christ.