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Tell the truth or keep a confidence — part 2

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Tell the truth or keep a confidence — part 2

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 second 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.

Read the first post by clicking here.

Withholding information is often essential

I do not give out my bank account details to anyone who asks.

A mother who has been sexually assaulted will not describe the details to her six-year-old.

When I was part of a team managing a registered sex offender in the community, I did not disclose the offence to anyone who did not need to know.

A picture containing person, eyes, close, staring Description automatically generated

But these choices are not always so easy. Kathryn Mannix, in her excellent book ‘With the End in Mind: how to live and die well,’ describes a terminally ill patient who was in denial about their impending death. For both the family and the clinicians there was the dilemma: “Is complying with the denial telling lies, or respecting the person’s choice.” (Mannix, p.75).

The imperative to withhold personal information — confidentiality

When is it a virtue and when is it a vice to withhold information? And what are the dynamics that make withholding a vice or a virtue? These considerations cover the sort of practical moral decisions every one of us has to make at least once a month if not daily. Scripture is not silent on these dilemmas.

A Biblical foundation for the imperative of confidentiality

More than law, history or prophets, the wisdom literature addresses the ethics of personal character and community most explicitly (Brown, 1996, p4). Schooled as we are in the Enlightenment’s fascination with autonomy and self-reliance, we can too easily read Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes as primers for wise individual living. We miss the communal focus of this literature.

An accurate reading of Proverbs soon dispels this mistake. We encounter a father instructing his son, warning against the waywardness of gangs and promiscuity (Proverbs 1-7). Then ‘Woman Wisdom’ (Witherington, 1994, p.31) takes up the theme and rebukes the general populace of the city (Proverbs 8-9). There is a sense that something immensely valuable is at risk of being swept away if the community fails to live according to the virtues of wisdom (Brown, 1996, pp.21-35).

Brown argues that the core virtues promoted in Proverbs are communal — “doing what is right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1:3b). This triplet of values stands in the middle of the programmatic opening of the book which is in a chiastic form.

A chiasm is a poetic structure used in Hebrew poetry but not often in English poetry. It’s a rhyming of ideas/thoughts/themes, rather than word endings. And it is in a concentric structure meaning that the main focus and emphasis is on the middle thought or theme.

Brown sees just such a concentric structure in Proverbs 1:2a through to 1:7. The outermost circle describes the intellectual virtues of knowledge and wisdom acquired through instruction. This instruction comes in this instance through the written wisdom of sages. Wise understanding is displayed in behaviour — the outworked instrumental virtues of prudence, wise dealings, and discretion (1:3a and 1:4-5). The layers of this ethical onion are governed by the moral virtues of righteousness, justice, and equity (ESV) — a communal ethos which values what is right and just and fair (Brown, 1996, pp.24-25).

This chiastic or concentric structure looks like this when laid out (using ESV text):

A: To know wisdom and instruction [comprehensive intellectual values — 2a]

B: To understand words of insight [literary expression of wisdom — 2b]

C: To receive instruction in wise dealing [instrumental virtue — 3a]

D: In righteousness, justice and equity [moral, communal virtues — 3b]

C: To give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance [instrumental virtues — 4-5

B: To understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles [literary expressions of wisdom — 6]

A: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction [comprehensive, intellectual virtues — 7] (Brown, 1996, p.25)

These three communal virtues appear again in Proverbs 2:9 as values which are the distinguishing mark of “every good path”.

‘Path’ is a motif for community since paths are formed by many feet going the same way (Brown, 1996, p.34).

The instrumental virtues keep the community in the “straight paths” and guard it from “dark ways”, “crooked paths”, (Proverbs 2:13-15), and waywardness (Proverbs 2:16). Discretion, or confidentiality, is an instrumental virtue that preserves the community.

One of the distinctive markers in the worldview developed in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and in Proverbs especially, is the act-consequence worldview (Witherington, 1994, p.26), otherwise labelled the deed-outcome worldview (Goldsworthy, 2000, pp.435-436).

This is to say that Proverbs frequently reinforces the idea that you reap what you sow.

The sages largely represent this act-consequence/deed-outcome worldview to be true within our own lifetimes. They had positive regard for creation and truly believed that the fundamental order of everything was moral and thus good actions are rewarded and bad ones punished (Witherington, 1994, p.112).

Goldsworthy argues that this creation-order wisdom is developed through a close observation of creation and not merely from direct revelation from God. This ‘creation theology’ has some truth even if it is derived only from observation, since it describes what happens mostly when we take a certain course of action. Diligence will normally lead to prosperity (though not always as we shall see later). In summary, this moral worldview developed by the sages is based on creation theology. Thus, whereas the law simply forbids adultery, Proverbs 5 reasons against adultery from the empirical experience of the disorder it brings (Goldsworthy, 1983, p.418).

Confidentiality is a communal virtue

What Proverbs teaches about discretion, that is keeping confidences, must be understood within the purpose of preserving community and in the context of the deed-outcome mindset. The statement “Gossips betray a confidence, but the trustworthy keep a secret,” (Proverbs 11:13), follows on from the statements “with their mouths the godless destroy their neighbours, but through knowledge the righteous escape. When the righteous prosper the city rejoices…” (Proverbs 11:9-10a); and “Those who have no sense deride their neighbours, but those who have understanding hold their tongues.” (Proverbs 11:12). The sages set out the pragmatic outworking of the instrumental virtues of discretion and prudence, reminding readers what is at stake — the health of the community.

Right back in Proverbs 3, the father calls his son to “preserve sound judgement and discretion” (Proverbs 3:21). Why? Because “They [i.e. these qualities] will be life for you…then you will go on your way in safety…your sleep will be sweet…no fear of sudden disaster…the LORD will be at your side.” (Abridged from Proverbs 3:22-26).

At its best creation theology trains us to recognise and cooperate with the act-consequence reality of the creation order.

Out of that secure place in God’s creation flow disciplines that preserve the community — disciplines of doing good to your neighbour and not speaking in such a way as to betray your neighbour’s trust in you (Proverbs 3:27-31).

It is equally true today that non-contracted, communal groups (such as families, or clubs, or churches) are just a short step away from calamity. Healthy families, clubs, businesses, institutions, and churches are not accidental. Mutual trust, goodwill and support are the product of the exercise of the instrumental virtues. So, in pursuit of a theology that works for everyday life we need to define confidentiality well.

Defining what it means to break or keep a confidence

As community develops people disclose their thoughts and feelings to those they have learned to trust. Proximity means that there is increasing knowledge of each other through observation as well as by conversation. Knowledge of personal information about another introduces the dynamic of confidentiality into relationships.

Where relationships are formed in a non-contracted, communal setting, the ethics of confidentiality are unspoken, and may not be identical among all community members.

Some years back I had the experience of receiving complaints about the church from two couples within the space of a week.

(1) The first couple said they were sure that several people must have heard through the grapevine about the trial they were facing and so they were disappointed that nobody had initiated supportive contact — in other words they assumed and desired that others had spoken about them and their trial behind their backs. This breach of confidence had not, in fact, occurred! But they saw no merit in this, on the contrary, their experience had weakened their trust in the care of the church.

(2) The second couple were warning me that people in the church did not seem to know about confidentiality. They had informed selected people in the church about the trial they were facing. Subsequently, several other people who had not been selected to receive the information, spoke or prayed with them in such a way as to reveal that they were acquainted with the details of their situation — which aroused in that couple a sense of betrayal. Their experience had weakened their trust in the discretion of the church.

The contrasting expectations of these two couples illustrate how difficult it can be to work out what it means to keep confidences in the non-contracted, communal setting. Community members must learn to make clear whether a disclosure is to be kept secret or to be passed on!

There is also a responsibility on listeners or observers to show discretion.

This requires an assessment of how secret the information is that has been received (Proverbs 11:13). A Jesuit priest, Biestek, writes about the ethics of confidentiality in the contracted, communal setting of social work, and supplies a helpful definition to assist in this assessment. Clark writes that Biestek, “the best known moralist in social work, formulated what are still widely regarded as key principles in the casework relationship.” (Clark, 2000, p.70).

Biestek defined what he called the ‘natural secret’ — information which if disclosed would “defame, injure, or unjustly sadden the person” (Biestek, 1961, p.123). The obligation to keep such information secret binds all people, in Biestek’s view, founded on a “man’s natural right to his reputation” (Biestek, 1961, p.124). This implies that listeners in a non-contracted, communal setting are free to pass on any information that would not damage another’s reputation unless they have been asked to keep the information secret.

The case study of the terminally-ill patient that Kathryn Mannix tells in her book is relevant here. What will they say to ‘Sally’? She writes on pages 86-87:

“I take the family to a quiet room around the corner, where they confess to each other that they think Sally is dying, and I confirm their suspicions.

‘Do you think she realises? asks her mum, tearfully.

‘What do you think?’ I ask.

She twists a handkerchief around her fingers as she looks searchingly at her husband. He shakes his head and looks at Andy. Andy looks at the floor. There is a silence. Then Sally’s mum says, ‘She knows, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.’ The men stare at her, and I encourage her to say more.

‘Sally can’t bear it. She can’t bear the sadness. She can’t bear the fear. She can’t bear us to be sad. So she’s looking the other way. And we have to help her to keep pretending.’ She looks pointedly at her husband and says, ‘Her dad thinks we should be honest with her. But I think we’ll break her if we do that.’

Andy [Sally’s boyfriend] looks up, gazing into the middle distance somewhere, and says, ‘I agree. It’s like when I’m doing an extreme climb. Part of my mind knows that if I fall, I’ll die. But thinking about the danger will only make it more frightening, and more dangerous. I need to focus on the rock, on my grip, on my feet, on the wind, on the rope — everything except the danger. That’s what she’s doing now, focusing on everything else.’

‘Andy, that’s genius,’ I exhale with relief. He understands, and his metaphor can carry the family through this challenge. ‘It’s as though we are all supporting her to keep her focus on what will help her most, and that is staying calm. So we can be truthful’ — her mum looks startled — ‘but not with the whole truth.’

To explain further, I suggest that they can truthfully tell her how much they love her, how proud of her they are, what memories from her life so far they treasure, what kindnesses of hers they have appreciated. These are all parts of the Last Messages that we observe around many deathbeds, and yet they are not Goodbye.

‘And if she wants to talk about a future we cannot see,’ I continue, ‘then we will simply encourage her. She has names for her unborn children’ — her mum sobs loudly, and is consoled by a gently patted shoulder, which is all her husband can reach — ‘and plans for future holidays. If they help her not to look at reality, then we will just allow her to choose where to focus. Can we all support that?’

Everyone nods. We head back to Sally’s room.

Mannix argues, correctly in my opinion, that since Sally has so little time left, the psychological process of coming out of denial cannot be achieved in time before her death, so should not be attempted.

A person wearing a mask Description automatically generated with low confidence

Where there are no secrets there can be no gossip.

Betraying a confidence can be defined as the disclosure of a secret without the prior and informed consent of the person who told you the secret. God names this sin gossip. Those who wish to build up the community in love must learn to establish what level of confidentiality is expected with regard to each disclosure they receive.

In Scripture gossip is banned and confidentiality is obligated

The programmatic opening passage of Proverbs is developed in a structured way through the opening nine chapters. The next twenty-two chapters lack an overarching structure but appear to be a random collection of brief instructions and proverbs. Brown suggests to readers that the themes set out in the first nine chapters provide a grid through which to make sense of what follows (Brown, 1996, p.45), chapters in which the sages drive home their opening themes in practical detail.

The wisdom literature aims at the transformation of people, just like all the other genres of Biblical literature. However, it is in the nature of the sapiental tradition to approach this task tangentially. Direct instruction is less prominent. Instead astute observations, often couched in metaphor, are used to draw the reader into the perception of the creation-order — a process which can be identified as the principle aim of the wisdom writers (Witherington, 1994, pp.26 and 382). This method is used in Proverbs to develop virtues in the reader, not least the virtue of discretion — the just handling of information.

Do not gossip

The sages warn us directly against the sinful desire to hear gossip. In addition, lessons from observation are used to win us away from gossip. The destructive appeal of secrets is exposed using metaphor:

“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.” (Proverbs 18:8, 26:22).

Avoid gossips

The sages advise us to avoid anyone who talks too much (Proverbs 20:19); experience teaches that gossips are magnets for gossip. Proverbs commends those who talk little (Proverbs 11:12); people who talk a lot are in danger of causing and feeding quarrels (Proverbs 26:20), since they lack discretion. The sixty odd sayings about wise speech in the Solomonic sayings show that it is a major theme (Witherington, 1994, p.30).

Use information justly

The sages warn us that information gives power, and the pursuit of power is another motive to seek out gossip. That power is exercised by unethical and selective disclosure to others of the secret we have learned whether by observation or conversation. Such disclosures are made to harm the standing of others and thereby to elevate our own standing in a given group (see Proverbs 26:20, 25:9, 17:9, 16:28). Thus gossip is used to manipulate relationships, to separate friends and to forge new ‘friendships’ for ourselves. Indiscretion always destroys trust, and weakens the covenant community. Gossip is an unjust use of information.

In a sermon on James 3 (the clearest example of wisdom literature in the New Testament) Calvin wrote:

“…the tongue exists to reveal our hearts. Therefore let us be encouraged to use such a gift and not to soil it with our vices and deplorableness. And seeing that God has given it to us for the purpose of nurturing tender love and fraternity with each other, may we not abuse it in order to gossip and bustle about here and there, so perverting our speech as to poison ourselves against each other” (Sermons, 216 – as quoted in Hauerwas, 1999, p.119).

Trust the Lord

The call to be discrete with information is set in a broader context by occasional references to trusting the Lord. Brueggemann argues that the wisdom literature, while not devoid of what he calls ‘God-talk’, nevertheless nurtures what he calls ‘man-talk’ (1983, p.118).

A case can be made for Proverbs being an antidote to the mistaken fatalism that can develop in the religious person. “The overall emphasis of wisdom is that we do not become passively dependent when we trust the Lord” (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.418). As Christians we believe that God provides a scaffolding of revelatory truth — but he also expects us to get understanding through reflection on our own observations and experiences.

In this view the Proverbs call us to be resourceful, initiating, experimental, and confident in who we are called to be by the Lord (Brueggemann, 1983, pp. 118-119). However, in Brueggemann’s thesis God’s sovereignty and graciousness is not rejected — merely re-interpreted. Thus, we can resist gossip because we do not have to be addicted to knowledge — we can rest in the fact that there is a God who knows all things. What he has revealed is what is necessary so that we may follow him (Deuteronomy 29:29).

There is a tension present in what Brueggemann proposes — a tension that is there in the wisdom books of Scripture.

On one hand Scripture enjoins us to get wisdom, to get understanding — and on the other it warns against merely getting knowledge

So, on the one hand there is a call to close observation of the cause-and-effect nature of God’s created order — a creation that integrates the moral and physical dimensions — and which leads us to see the value of the instrumental virtues such as diligence, prudence, and discretion. This empirical observation reveals how things usually are and empowers humanity to make good choices.

However, on the other hand, there is also a theme of suspicion towards an unrestrained pursuit of knowledge, which is maybe plainest in Ecclesiastes. The warning of Qoheleth that “much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12b) is the result of his experiment with learning as a means of making sense of life (having excluded God) — an attempt which he found to be a “chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1). The sages were discovering that the deed-outcome or cause-effect worldview that the observation of creation produced was not the whole story. (The apostle Paul also warned against misplaced confidence in knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1-3) — let the academy, as well as the gossip, beware!)

Trusting in God guards us against a false pursuit of knowledge

This call to trust in the Lord guards us from an unqualified, anthropocentric understanding of the wisdom of Proverbs, in which the righteous are prudent and prosper, and the foolish are imprudent and come to no good within this life. The theocentric dimension of the wisdom literature is clearer in Job and ultimately even Ecclesiastes. As we shall see in a later post…

Job’s exemplary life did not keep him from disaster.

We need a theology and worldview that goes beyond what we learn from observing the creation-order. Thus Qoheleth seems to look beyond this life when he concludes by writing, “now all has been heard…fear God and keep his commandments…For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Eccl. 12:13-14). Whatever transpires in this life, the counter-order wisdom of Ecclesiastes and Job asserts that evil will be exposed in the next. So be warned, and guard your tongue!

A group of people playing frisbee Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Biblical qualifications of this ethic of withholding information

Wherever discretion is absolutised you also get a distortion of community.

An unqualified adherence to discretion is usually accompanied by fear and is symptomatic of a community that is oppressed. True community cannot develop where people live in fear of speaking out of turn. What safeguards does Scripture provide with respect to this virtue of discretion?

Not all secrets are worthy

Discretion involves not betraying secrets. This implies agreement with secrecy but we would be wise to avoid such a simplistic conclusion. On the one hand it is evident from Deuteronomy 29:29 that God keeps secrets. He withholds information from us — leading us to conclude that there is no universal right to know everything. On the other hand there are clearly secrets that God abominates such as the “secret arts” (occult arts?) of the Egyptian magicians (Exodus 7:11).

The Bible is not so naïve as to assume that all secrets are worthy. As the sages themselves record, “The wicked accept bribes in secret to pervert the course of justice” (Proverbs 17:23). We should have nothing to do with these fruitless deeds, rather we should expose them (Ephesians 5:11-13). White warns that confidentiality can become complicity with sin. In his view, valuing individual privacy over the good of the community is humanistic, not Christian (White, 1985, p.129). There is a limit to confidentiality — it should not be a shelter for wrong-doing!

Privacy is not absolute

A Biblical view of God’s omniscience must inevitably dispel the myth of absolute confidentiality. Those who believe in an omniscient God and final judgement cannot believe in the full privacy of information that is assumed by the atheist (Heb. 4:13). As God’s creatures we belong to him — and so does our personal data.

Community transparency

Cultures that privilege individualism are likely to emphasise privacy and confidentiality. The community ethos evident in the New Testament ‘house rules’ pictures a communal experience of openness, marked by public confession of sin and a freedom from the fear of losing reputation through the experience of grace (See James 5:16 and Moo, 2000, p.245). This ethos tempers the practice of confidentiality.

Compare and contrast with social work ethics of confidentiality

Biestek identifies confidentiality as one of the seven principles of the contracted, non-communal relationship between the client and his social worker. He understands the client to make disclosures to social workers on the assumption that the information is needed to provide help being sought, but will not go beyond those persons engaged in giving help.

“He definitely does not want to exchange his reputation for the casework help he is seeking.” (Biestek, 1961, p.121).

Biestek describes confidentiality as a basic right, necessary to protect other rights (Biestek, 1961, p.123). This right is not absolute, however, but is limited by the rights of others and of the whole community.

Furthermore, Biestek asserts that clients assume that information told to a professional will become ‘group secrets’ known to the circle of people providing that service. Biestek labels this ‘validly presumed consent’ (Biestek, 1961, p.125). This assumption is not one Clark is comfortable with (2000, p.187). Clark’s critique of the traditional social work ethic of confidentiality, however, goes far deeper. Writing some forty years after Biestek’s seminal work, Clark questions the validity of basing confidentiality on Kantian ethics. Kant’s moral philosophy regards persons as “creatures endowed with reason…beings capable of autonomous moral choices” (Clark, 2000, p.71). This demands of each of us “respect of the other’s autonomy” and produces the duty of confidentiality (Clark, 2000, p.71).

Clark argues for Proverbs 1:3 virtues in social work!

Clark suggests instead that personal information be handled according to the principles of “respect, justice, citizenship and discipline” (2000, p.189); communal virtues similar to those we find in Proverbs 1:3! In Clark’s view, an over-emphasis on confidentiality “invokes a very strong concept of privacy and concomitantly, a weak notion of citizenship in community” (2000, p.190).

Banks also criticises the individualism of the Kantian approach, and argues for a ‘radical’ ethical position on the basis that: “Human beings are social beings whose freedom is realised in society.” (2001, pp.59-60). Banks argues that Kant sees individual liberty as the basic moral principle, whereas the ‘radical’ position regards justice as the basic moral principle that should guide our use of information.

This brief survey of social work literature reveals an ethic of information that is as relevant in the communal as in the contracted setting—more on this in later posts where conclusions are drawn.

This post has considered the Biblical wisdom about withholding personal information.

The next post, the third in the series, will consider the equal and opposite imperative, the imperative to tell the truth, to impart personal information.

There is also a practical post that develops similar ethical notions about healthy community but based on two Psalms, which you can read here.


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

Blanchard, J (1984), Gathered Gold, Welwyn, Evangelical Press

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

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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