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Tell the truth or keep a confidence — part 1

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Tell the truth or keep a confidence — part 1

Tell the truth, or keep a confidence?

Is it always an unequivocal good to tell the truth? Is it always beneficial to keep something confidential, even secret? The Bible contains a lot of wisdom on these questions. And an ethic about when, and when not, to share information — especially personal information — could really help our parliament and our royal family, and, dare I say, you and me also.

This is the first of a series of posts exploring the ethics and practice of confidentiality and truth-telling in the Christian community in the light of Scripture — especially the Biblical wisdom tradition. The principles are applicable, of course, in many other contexts such as clubs, families, schools, places of work, villages, blocks of flats, etc. The wisdom of Scripture, inspired as it is by the Creator, is true for all human beings everywhere.

Gossip destroys reputations

I am chatting with a church leader who lets slip some news about another church leader who has recently stepped down from leading a church. This now former church leader is well-known, highly regarded, and a published author. Through mutual friends I heard that a fresh calling had motivated this person to move on from that church — yet now I am furnished with an alternate narrative. I am told this leader was forced out because their leadership style had been identified as too controlling.

Which narrative am I to believe? I am inclined to believe the better account because I respect this person greatly and used to work with them. Yet there is a part of me that wants to believe the negative account (disaster porn strikes again?).

What has happened here has to do with the knotty question of when to disclose information, and when to withhold. Maybe the church preferred to give only a partly true account of why this person left their role leading the church? Maybe one of the main reasons why they stepped down was withheld from the public eye out of kindness, or respect, or cowardice, or potential legal jeopardy. Or maybe others have put a negative slant on the episode out of jealousy, a grudge, mischief, etc. Or maybe Chinese whispers have done their worst. It’s said that rumour is halfway round the world before truth has got his boots on.

Very likely, the positive narrative is the truest one. But even if not, are we really going to fall back on NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) written or otherwise? Will HR govern these processes entirely? I am quite sure that good practice in HR should be followed, but I venture that Scripture offers us a whole lot of wisdom to help.


This and follow-on posts will explore theological and practical perspectives on the personal and communal practice of confidentiality and truth-telling. The first post sets out the ethical concerns. The theology of God’s truthfulness and omniscience is summarised to underpin the Christian community’s approach to communication and information.

All the posts, taken together, are an ethical study exploring the themes of confidentiality and truthfulness found in the Bible — especially the wisdom literature — and suggests that these notions should be displayed and modelled in the community that Scripture creates — God’s new humanity, aka the church.

The series also explores what Biblical qualifications preserve these ideals from damaging the community. Pastoral applications are suggested throughout these sections of the paper. A brief interaction with social work literature points to the value of building ethics about information on a foundation of communal virtues.

The rationale for this study is a concern that the body of Christ should not lack the wisdom to respect confidentiality or the courage to embrace truth-telling. The series of posts explores the creative tension between these imperatives. This ethical guidance is also beneficial in family life, workplaces, educational institutions, indeed in any community where human beings relate.

The concluding observations (in later posts) propose an ethic about confidentiality and truth-telling that is not based on duties or rights but on virtues and motives shaped and examined in the context of the community of God’s people.

A final section sets out some practical disciplines that emerge in Scripture that will likely be evident in a healthy community of faith in Christ.

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The issue of confidentiality in everyday life

Relationships between people of different sex, race, sexual orientation, age, and ability are increasingly regulated by law. The controlling document of the Christian faith (the Bible) emphasises virtues like seeking the best for others, forgiveness, and respect, so faith communities should excel in these areas. The Scripture also identifies and attacks evils such as the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, the abuse of power and trade, hypocrisy, superiority, and the careless tolerance of injustice. In other words, the revelation of God’s call to humankind is both truthful about, and relevant to, the everyday life of human beings.

In Britain the ethics of confidentiality have been brought to renewed prominence by a series of laws. The Data Protection Act 1998 came into force from 1 March 2000. The Act sought to define what data is and to set out obligations and rights. (Data Protection Act 1998, Section 1). The fundamental effect of the Act was to establish rights for data subjects (individuals identifiable from personal data) — a right to know who is processing personal data about you and for what purpose that data is being obtained, held or disclosed. The 1998 Act also gave individuals the right to see the personal data held about them; to have inaccurate data corrected; and to have compensation if incorrect data causes damage or distress. (Data Protection Act 1998, Sections 7-15). This Act was supplemented by the 2018 implementation of the EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), and then a whole new Data Protection Act 2018.

Confidentiality, however, is not merely a corporate or commercial issue. The compartmentalisation of what we know about our friends is an important life skill. Friendships are affected by the keeping of confidences and the telling of what is true. Determining when it is ethically right to withhold or to disclose personal information is complex.

The challenge of truth-telling in everyday life

Perjury laws require truth-telling when under oath in a court of law with severe sanctions against those who lie to the court. Libel laws establish the opportunity of redress when anybody tells lies in writing about a third party — but such recourse is really only available to the wealthy (Coad 2006). Governments have been less keen to legislate against lying, and reluctant to allow freedom of information. There is a worthy tradition of civil servants exposing questionable government actions — so-called whistle-blowers. This breaking of confidence can be successfully justified in the courts using the public interest defence — although this rarely saves the whistle-blower’s career, and often does not protect them from prosecution either.

With respect to their personal data citizens want confidentiality. However, when the safety of children is in view the principle of truth-telling is set against the principle of confidentiality. The child’s right to safety is set above the adult’s right to confidentiality. Thus, child protection policies require organisations to report credible allegations of abuse to the relevant statutory authorities and not to investigate them internally. (Pearson 2003, p.16).

The Christian minister who receives such a disclosure agonises about confidentiality and truth-telling. A child who makes an allegation of abuse may plead with you not to tell anyone. Every hour of delay draws the minister into complicity with the alleged crime. The general principle is that children do not lie about such things (Pearson 2003, pp.7-8), however, the author has had an adult confess that she invented accounts of sexual molestation when she was a teenager — never really tested as nobody was caught (obviously!).

Allegations of sexual abuse by parents in church should be reported to the authorities, and never dealt with internally. The latter practice of closing down information disclosure by dealing with matters internally has been a major failing identified by reports into child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and also several mega-churches. It is very much to our shame as God’s church that cover-up has been too often our go-to strategy.

Nevertheless, in the author’s experience going to the statutory agencies is also liable to unhoped for outcomes. I phoned Social Services with specific concerns about one family. The next day I was contacted by a member of that family to ask me, ‘how dare I report them?’ Social Services had quite literally phoned them and named me as their informant.

In another case I was consulted on, a teenage girl repeatedly alleged in pastoral counselling sessions that her father was sexually abusing her. These allegations were reported to the police but when the child refused to make a formal statement concerning the allegations revealed in pastoral counselling—the police dropped the case. The pastoral difficulties that ensued were considerable because of the impact on the father who was a long-standing and involved member of the church. Much to his credit this father stuck with the church community — most of whom were unaware of the allegation — and has continued to serve for several decades with integrity and no hint of wrongdoing. He displayed amazing grace in accepting the investigation and not blaming me or others for making those reports to the police.

This is all to say that for human beings who don’t fully and finally know what is true, disclosure or truth-telling can have painful consequences.

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The contrast between contracted and non-contracted relationships

Whereas the church community usually involves many informal relationships, in wider society human relations are increasingly professionalised and prescribed.

An example of the latter is a free and confidential debt advice service run by members of a church where I served for many years. It was a service offered to anyone regardless of their religious affiliation, background, gender, sexual orientation, racial origin, citizenship, etc. The service was licensed by the Office of Fair Trading and offered by members of that church. The users are almost always strangers to the trained volunteer money advisers. After the initial consultation each client, who has no previous relationship with the church members, is invited to sign up to the mutual obligations and expectations of the full debt advice service. In summary we can say that this service is offered in a contracted, non-communal setting (this concept came out of a tutorial conversation with Jenny Rolph of Bangor University in Wales).

This contrasts with the formal and informal care within the church family which is given and received between people who already know each other and will continue to meet each other frequently. No written contract sets out the mutual obligations of this pastoral care service. It is offered in a non-contracted, communal setting. The same would be true in families — from the royal family down to the most complicated blended family you can imagine.

Contracted, non-communal relationships appear to be displacing non-contracted, communal relationships as society fragments through geographical mobility, the breakdown of the traditional family and urbanisation. In contracted, non-communal settings it is more common to have the boundaries and expectations of the relationship prescribed. Most of the literature written on the subject of the ethics of information is produced for people in that setting. These posts aim to draw conclusions about the ethics of confidentiality and truth-telling that are workable in the non-contracted, communal setting of local churches. But these ethics would apply equally in other non-contracted, communal settings such as a family, a book club, a coffee morning, the members of a cycling club or walking group, etc.

Confidentiality and truth-telling in the light of God’s knowledge and veracity

Willimon describes ‘the right to privacy’ as a concept inherited from the European Enlightenment which classified all aspects of life as private or public (2002, pp. 106-107). All facts allocated to the private or personal square are thus constituted as my possessions and start to be understood as belonging to me, or stolen from me (Biestek 1961, p.123). This ‘right to privacy’ notion is not equivalent to the Biblical teaching on confidentiality. In Scripture the concept of privacy is conditioned by a larger truth, the truth of who God is — especially his knowledge and veracity.

The truthfulness of God

Salvation is understood as a restoration “to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

The gracious initiative of election has, as its aim, “that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20). Jesus told Pilate that “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37).

Old and New Testaments make plain that “the LORD is the true God” (Jeremiah 10:10a).

The Bible does not suggest that there is somewhere a written definition of truth that some standards body uses to validate God (Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 443). Instead, Scripture simply declares that God is truth. It describes a complete correspondence between God’s being and his expression of himself through words and actions. He cannot lie or be duplicitous — that is to say that God cannot speak contrary to what he thinks nor act contrary to what he wills to happen (Bavinck, 1977, pp. 199-202).

“God is not a human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?” (Numbers 23:19).

God is unable to think, speak or act contrary to his own being or nature. Hence the Apostle Paul can affirm, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13). The Biblical call to truthful speech is the call to be like the God who has called us to himself. We are not to be false witnesses (Exodus 20:16), but rather to be true witnesses (Acts 1:8).

Since God is utterly truthful the Scripture calls human beings to stop lying and to speak the truth. But the Scripture also enjoins us to keep confidences.

The next two posts will explore these two imperatives in turn. Further posts will consider the way the Bible qualifies both these imperatives and suggest practice that can be applied to all of the non-contracted, communal settings where we must navigate complex human relations.

This Biblical wisdom is not easy to follow. Across the world, from royal families to your own family this wisdom could make a difference. Indeed, this wisdom would be transformative applied to government ministers, business leaders, institutional leaders, and for children at school.

But, most of all, I see that I also need the courage to diligently follow the ethics that I have found in Scripture. Since studying this in 2006 I have numerous occasions to apply these ethical habits myself, and I have not always lived up to what I teach!

In the next post I open up the wisdom of the Bible about withholding information.


Scripture quotations taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, TODAY’S NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright © 2004 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, a division of Hodder Headline Ltd. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked ESV are from the anglicized edition of The Holy Bible, English Standard VersionTM published by HarperCollins Publishers copyright © 2001, 2002 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Banks, S (2001), Ethics and Values in Social Work 2nd edition, Basingstoke, Palgrave

Bavinck, H (1977), The Doctrine of God, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust

Biestek, F (1961), The Casework Relationship, London, George Allen & Unwin

Blakeley, C (2005), Leadership and Relationship, my own lecture notes taken on 27 April 2005

Brown, W (1996), Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Brueggemann, W (1983), In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press

Carson, D (1991), The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), Leicester, Apollos

Clark, C (2000), Social Work Ethics, Basingstoke, Palgrave

Coad, J (2006), media lawyer with Swan Turton Solicitors, lecture on libel and privacy litigation, my own notes taken on 24 January 2006

Data Protection Act 1998, print version London, The Stationery Office Ltd., full text at {examined 9 February 2006}

Eliot, T (1963), Collected Poems 1909-1962, London, Faber and Faber

Fee, G & Stuart D (1983), How to Read the Bible for all It’s Worth, London, Scripture Union

Goldsworthy, G (2000) The Goldsworthy Trilogy: Gospel and Kingdom, Gospel and Wisdom, The Gospel in Revelation, Carlisle, Paternoster Press

Griffiths, P (2004), Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Brazos Press

Hauerwas, S & Willimon, W (1999), The Truth About God: the Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville, Tennessee, Abingdon Press

Moo, D (2000), The Letter of James, Leicester, Apollos

Pearson, D (2003), Guidance to Churches: A Working Manual for Child Protection and Safe Practice 10th Edition, Swanley, Churches Child Protection Advisory Service

Thomas, V (1999), Future Leader, Carlisle, Paternoster Press

Unger, F & White Jr., W (1980), Nelson’s Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words, Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson Publishers

White, J & Blue, K (1985), Healing the Wounded: the costly love of church discipline, Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press

Willimon, W (2002), Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Nashville, Tennessee, Abingdon Press

Witherington, B (1994), Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom, Minneapolis, Fortress Press


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