Confidentiality within a Christian worldview is a biblical anomaly. What I mean is that it’s a cultural idea that has crept into a Christian way of thinking about relationships.
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An anomaly is something that deviates from an expected norm. Confidentiality in our world deviates from the expected “Christian norm,” which begs the question: What is our expected standard?
Our standard is more challenging and more comprehensive than confidentiality. For example, Christians don’t gossip, slander, backbite, or devour one another (Ephesians 4:29; Galatians 5:15; James 3:1-18).
The expected norm is that Christians seek to build each other up, or what the Bible calls edification (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We use self-control and discretion regarding how we talk about others (Proverbs 12:18).
Ironically, the Bible does not speak specifically to the confidentiality concerns of counseling. The reason for this is because counseling is not a Christian-historic norm. Historically, discipleship in the context of the local church is the biblical approach to helping others. Christian counseling has in some ways supplanted the biblical norm of discipleship in the framework of the local church, which is part of why we have the confidentiality concept.
Because of this, the culturally-informed practice of confidentiality has become the expected norm, even in the local church. It is surprising that many Christians are more aware of cultural expectations and believe in them than biblical instruction. It’s like the theory of evolution supplanting biblical creationism.
In the spirit of accommodation, Christian counselors have taken the term confidentiality and fitted it with a more biblical definition. What we have in our Informed Consent Form at The Counseling Solutions Group, Inc. is generally how most Christian counselors explain their understanding and practice of confidentiality:
Information disclosed in counseling sessions will be held confidential only as the counselor believes the Bible or the State requires. Absolute confidentiality is not scriptural. In certain circumstances, the Bible requires the disclosure of certain facts to selected others (Matthew 18:15-20).
If your church leadership should inquire, we will disclose to them only that information that we believe is necessary for them to effectively and biblically fulfill their responsibility to shepherd you. However, your counselor will inform you, if possible, of such decisions beforehand.
The Biblical Norm
The Bible does not have to accommodate cultural expectations because it has something better. It uses biblical language that is clear, to the point, unarguable, and it releases Christians to be free in how they share their problems with other believers.
Here is a short list of biblical categories that safeguard any person from being sinned against by the improper use of the tongue: gossip, slander, unwholesome speech, biting and devouring, whisperers, and malice. These few are just a sampling–there are more categories than these.
In James, we have an entire chapter devoted to the tongue (James 3:1-18). There are at least 19 verses in Proverbs that talk about the tongue, which does not count a word search on the mouth, lips, and speech in that practical book (Proverbs 15:2; 17:4; 18:21; 21:23).
The Bible has radical anti-cultural ideas about how we use our tongues. What it offers is far better than what confidentiality provides. Our greatest restriction to tongue misuse is sin. To talk improperly about another person would transgress the expected speech patterns of the Bible, which holds Christians to a higher law. God is clear about how we communicate with others.
A Funny Story
I rarely share information about a counselee with my wife. Part of my responsibility is to protect her from certain things, and some of the things that I hear in counseling would not edify her. I do not want her to know the gory details of people’s lives. It does not serve her, and there is no sound reason to share this kind of information with her.
My wife trusts me, and quite frankly, we have other things to talk about than the messiness of people’s lives. I’m not interested in talking about it, and she’s not interested in hearing about it. And we don’t watch TMZ or Entertainment Tonight. Our garbage meter can only take so much before our souls grow weary.
A few years ago a woman walked up to Lucia and said, “Hi, I’m Rick’s ten o’clock on Tuesday mornings.” The lady assumed Lucia knew all about her life. The truth was that Lucia had no idea who she was or anything about her life. I told Lucia that she should have rolled her eyes and said something like, “Oh my word. So you are that woman. My, my, my,” and then walked away, shaking her head.
There are times when my counselees will treat my wife oddly because they think she knows personal details about them. That’s not how it works in our home. Christ is the one we prefer to discuss. Typically, if we feel the need to talk about personal failure, we talk about our own, not other individuals.
Relational or Legal Community
Confidentiality is more of a legal term that our culture uses to impose a strict methodology regarding how they talk to or about each other. I get that. The “world” does not have Christ, so they are compelled to harness themselves with rigid standards. It is a fear-based approach to communication that restricts an authentic community.
If you reduce communication to legal solutions, you will not progress in relationships because of the self-imposed regulations. But the Bible is about transformation rather than squelching discussions (or relationships).
The Father was so intent on helping us in our communication that He sent his Son into the messiness of our lives to change us into something that is far better than we could ever imagine. Where confidentiality truncates relationships by hindering communication, the gospel presses into our lives and teaches us how to talk openly and freely.
Confidentiality is sterile and has boundaries. The gospel is messy and untamable. If the transformative gospel is not working redemptively in your life, your conversations will only evolve to the depth and extent to which you are comfortable and safe. The purpose of the gospel pushes you beyond native thinking and acting. Here is a short list of some of those behaviors the gospel provides for Christians.
- Communication – God is a speaking God. He made you in His image, and because of the gospel, He removed all barriers, and you have the power, wisdom, and privilege to speak in ways that are similar to Him.
- Security – Because of the gospel, you experience release from being concerned about what others think or say about you. God has saved and secured you in Him. God is for you. It should not matter what others think or say about you.
- Self-Control – Because of the work of the Spirit in your life, you can refrain from the angry sins of our tongue. The culture does not have this kind of control because they are not Spirit-empowered.
- Discretion – God gives His children wisdom that is otherworldly. You can know when and how to speak. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” – Proverbs 25:11
- Gossip – The Christian is not allowed to sinfully pass on to one person the sinful information about another person when their motive is impure.
- Slander – The Christian is not permitted to discredit someone else’s reputation when their motive is impure.
- Edification – Because you have been built-up in Christ, through the gospel, you have the joyful privilege of serving your brothers and sisters through enriching encouragement.
- Kindness – You should fill your speech patterns with the hope of the gospel. A servant is always seeking ways to serve others. Kindness is an essential tool in the Christian’s toolbox (Romans 2:4).
- Confession – You have the privilege of fixing your mess-ups. If you sin against someone with your tongue, you are not stuck. You can continue to press into each other because you want to reconcile (1 John 1:8-10).
- Forgiveness – Christians overlook sinful communication because of the forgiveness they have from Christ. A forgiven individual is always ready to forgive others regardless of what that person has done. The gospel neutralizes and removes sin.
- Reconciliation – Christians can go beyond confession and forgiveness, by reconciling with each other. Sinful speech patterns do not permanently damage relationships, but merely give you the opportunity to continue relating in deeper redemptive ways.
Because you are in Christ (assuming you are), you have been given access to reconciling-relational-treasures that our culture has no access to or the ability to enjoy. You are not of the world, and as you can see, confidentiality cannot hold a candle to the possibilities that God offers through the gospel.
And there are much more ways the gospel is superior to what the world provides in the area of interpersonal communication. I have merely given you a short list. What you have to decide is whether you want to be separate from the world’s way of thinking and behaving.
Do you want to be a Christian in how you relate to others? I do admit that confidentiality is easier and less messy, but in the long run, it kills inter-relational growth.
- Confidentiality separates people from people. The gospel reconciles people to people.
- Confidentiality perpetuates a culture of fear. The gospel builds a community of trust.
- Confidentiality tempts a person to say less. The gospel frees a person to be transparent.
- Confidentiality hinders a person from the pursuit of humility. The gospel emboldens an individual in the fight against pride.
It is true that some people will always be mean and unkind. But the response to sin is not to take a cultural position or policy that negates the empowering possibilities of the Bible. To invoke cultural practices to deal with sin is unwise and unbiblical.
The Irony of Confidentiality
Have you ever talked about someone behind their back? Of course, you have. Don’t sweat it; I have too. Everybody has talked about other people without their awareness or their permission. You could not function conversationally without talking about others without their awareness.
I talk about Hollywood stars, sports figures, and family members regularly. I talk about people in my local church and other Christians who are part of the larger body of Christ, whether it is those who are dead or those who are alive. The question should not be, “Do you talk about other people?” That’s silly.
And since you can’t keep yourself from talking about people behind their backs, you should be more focused on assessing your motives for why you are talking about them.
- What is the purpose or intent of your heart when you speak about other people? Is your reason to build them up?
- What are your goal and purpose when talking about other people? Are you helping them mature in Christ?
- Do you have affection for those people that you are talking about behind their backs?
- In what way or how are you talking about other people? Is your speech about them redemptive?
If your communication about individuals does not spread the frame of God or build up the other person, the problem is not about what you say primarily, but about the motivation of your heart. If your desire is to love God and others most of all, your heart will have the appropriate governor on it that will guard your tongue.
If your motive is not about loving God and others supremely, it won’t matter if you believe in the cultural imposed standard of confidentiality or the biblically imposed standards regarding speech. You’re going to sin either way.
Also published on Medium.