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Biblical Counseling and Confidentiality

Truth in Love 293

We want to keep counseling matters confidential, but there are certain issues where the Bible makes clear that we cannot hold absolute confidentiality.

Jan 11, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today I am overjoyed to have Tim Pasma with us. Tim is a pastor at La Rue Baptist Church in La Rue, Ohio. He has been there for 35 years. Tim, people like you’re my heroes to know that you’ve gone to a place and served and shepherded and ministered the Word of God for a long period of time. Brother, I appreciate you and your service there. He’s an ACBC board member—so in a sense, he’s my boss. And so I appreciate him for that as well. Now, he’s been a faithful ACBC member for many years a faithful brother in the Lord. He is married to Becca. They have six children and 13 grandchildren. 

I’m really excited to talk about this topic of biblical counseling and confidentiality. Often people have sort of a misconception about confidentiality. I think today in our discussion, it will help for people to hear how we think about this idea of confidentiality in the counseling room. It’s important that we not be slanderous and tale bearers, but it’s also important that we measure what’s been entrusted to us wisely according to the Scripture. We’re going to start this time today, Tim, if we can, using a scenario. That will help to get people’s minds flowing out of the abstract world of talking about possible scenarios, and hypotheticals, and that sort of thing, really into the counseling room. 

What do we do as a counselor when a 16 year-old-boy in the youth group comes up and says something like, “Man, I need to tell you something, but you have to promise, you’ve got to promise that you will not tell anybody else.” Or somebody else says to you in the counseling room, “What am I going to tell what I’m going to tell you is very very difficult. Will you please not mention this to anyone?” So the question from that is, Tim, first of all, what in the world do we do? And do we in biblical counseling believe in strict confidentiality? 

Tim Pasma: Well, actually, Dale, we don’t because the Bible doesn’t talk about absolute confidentiality, which may surprise a lot of people. The Bible does not tell us about absolute confidentiality. And what’s really funny is that people don’t think about looking to the Bible to find the answer to that question: What is confidentiality? And is it absolute? It’s interesting to me that everybody just assumes it without ever looking at the Bible, which is again part of what we believe—the Bible is sufficient for counseling. So, let’s see what it has to say about confidentiality. Most people don’t even think that.

Dale Johnson: That’s an important caution because as pastors, as church leaders and even lay people in the church who have a reputation in the church that they’re trustworthy or they give wise counsel, we hear questions just like this all the time. When you talk about absolute confidentiality, what do you mean when you when you say absolute confidentiality? 

Tim Pasma: Well, the idea is that whatever is said in the counseling room doesn’t go outside the counseling room, that no one else will ever hear of that again. That we just cannot say anything to anybody about anything that’s said there. 

Dale Johnson: And that’s a misconception even in the secular world. Some people say, “Well, you biblical counselors, you’re not like the secular world. They’re more professional and they have absolute confidentiality.” That’s actually a false statement. Not that we’re comparing ourselves to them, but that’s a misconception that’s out there. I think it’s important the way you described that. We have to measure what we do in practice according to Scripture, and the Bible does not give us permission to maintain a level of absolute confidentiality. 

Then the question is, what in the world do we do? Why, then, do so many Bible-believing evangelical Christians accept this idea if it’s something that’s unbiblical?

Tim Pasma: Well, historically I think maybe this has come to us through the Catholic Church, which has had a tremendous influence, of course, on Western culture. Our culture has imbibed that. I think that’s where it may have come from. If you look at the catechism of the Catholic Church, which is published in 1994, you’ll find it there defined very clearly as keeping absolute secrecy. It admits of no exceptions so forth. I think that’s had a major influence on us and it’s part of our culture. Sadly, Christians accept so much of what our culture says uncritically, without thinking biblically. Without asking, “What does the Bible say about this?” We conform to the world to a certain degree and we need to get the Bible speaking to us on this issue. 

Dale Johnson: That’s right and historically, as you mentioned, I’ve heard people describe it as the clergy clause or the clergy umbrella—where in the Catholic system of confessions, there was absolute confidentiality if someone came and confessed some sort of sin. That idea then bleeds over, but as you mentioned it’s an unbiblical idea. We have to be cautious and careful as to how far we take that. If we’re nuancing this idea of absolute confidentiality, what does confidentiality look like as the Bible defines and describes? 

Tim Pasma: I think it really good place to start is Matthew 18, which many of us know as the church discipline passage or the reconciliation passage that Jesus told us. He says if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. Now notice, Jesus commands confidentiality there. You don’t go to your pastor and say, “Hey, my brothers is doing this kind of stuff. You need to take care of it.” Jesus says if, for example, there’s a break in your relationship, you go take care of it. You can ask your pastor for help in that, certainly, but you’re the one. You don’t go to prayer meeting and say, “We’re at odds. This guy’s doing this.” You go and show him his fault just between the two of you. Jesus actually commands confidentiality.

However, if he does not listen, then what? Go and get one or two others, which is to say, now I expand the circle. The confidentiality is now not as close, if you will. Now, it involves at least two two or three others. Now it’s at least three others. Jesus says you’ve got to expand the circle a bit. Now again, if it’s taken care of at that level no one else needs to know, right? But if it’s not, what do we do? Then we go tell it to the church. Now, we don’t tell everybody in town. By the way, being the pastor of a small town church, this is really part of our life. We don’t go tell anybody in town about it, and if they don’t listen to the church there’s one more step, you put them out. 

That confidentiality is not absolute because (I don’t like using the term) you have to break it if you will when a person is impenitent, when he stubborn. Note, it’s not the struggle against sin that causes that. It’s the persistent refusal to deal with that, which expands the circle. 

Dale Johnson: That’s a really important key to how we would limit our confidentiality. We looked at Matthew 18 and that’s absolutely foundational, to draw a big circle around how we should think about when issues that may breach normal confidentiality. As we look at the rest of the Scriptures is there anything else that the Bible speaks to relative to confidentiality that we need to take into account here? 

Tim Pasma: I think we need to take into account the idea of God’s love and justice, the ethic of love and justice. As a shepherd, I have to protect the sheep. What happens when a person discloses his intent to harm another person? Well, I have responsibility then to protect the sheep that God has entrusted to my care. What happens when someone confesses to abuse? Well, the one that’s been abused needs protection, and I need to be part of that. Justice is one of God’s attributes, and the government is His appointed agent to implement a measure of justice in a fallen world. We may bridle at that given our culture today, but that’s the truth. I can’t prevent the government from doing its job of seeing that justice is done. 

I love Martin Luther, when he said the church is God’s right hand and the state is God’s left hand. They both have spheres of ministry, if you will, and if someone is being hurt or abused, then the government needs to be involved. I need to break the confidentiality at that point. 

Dale Johnson: That’s exactly right, that helps us to understand. You know, it’s amazing to me, Tim, even when we talk about very practical things like this, when we start diving into it, just how much God in His kindness revealed to us in His Word about mundane life like this on our behalf. What a kindness of the Lord.

What do we do though when somebody comes to us, as we talked about in the illustration in the beginning, when they ask for absolute confidentiality? They’re trying to confide in us and they’re almost demanding that we hold this in absolute confidentiality. What do we do with stuff like that? 

Tim Pasma: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I’m sure there’s some listeners maybe you’re saying, “Yeah, there it goes you biblical counselors. You’re going to blow everybody out of the water.” No! Here’s a person who’s really struggling, and I want to help them, but I’ve got to remember that Jesus told me how to help him and He knows best. What I need to say to a person like that is say, “Listen, man I can see you’re really struggling, but you know what? You know I can’t make that promise because the Bible forbids me to make that kind of a promise. I can’t make that vow because the Bible tells me I can’t. But listen, you need to understand that I will keep this as confidential as the Bible requires, and you’ve got to trust God when He gives us the means of dealing with our problems. Someone else who can help you may have to know about this. Someone that the Bible requires needs to know about this and so listen, I can’t make that promise, but I can promise you that we will do what God says in order to really help you and we will be as confidential as the Bible requires. Jesus actually commands confidentiality. It’s not strict. But listen, let’s get to work on this.”

Dale Johnson: Just as a reminder, when we’re engaging somebody in a formal counseling situation, I would recommend always to have an informed consent, where you limit those points of confidentiality as we’ve just described some of those here, in criminal situations or in outright rebellious, sinful situations. That way the person that you’re counseling knows ahead of time and is very aware that there are limitations to confidentiality. Even in a first session, I’ll walk through some of those limits to make sure that a person understands, we’re trying to honor the Lord. This will be held in absolute confidence relative to what God commands us to hold in confidence, but there are times at which this might need to be breached. It’s good to lay that out ahead of time. 

Now, we always get these types of questions because issues that are sensitive, especially that we deal with in the counseling room, can sometimes have legal ramifications and may have criminal issues in mind. Give us an idea of what we would call legal confidentiality. 

Tim Pasma: You have to know what your state says, but for the most part legal confidentiality is conditional. You can be as confidential as you can be, but there are certain things you must report. That’s what you always have to keep in mind. You have to find out what your what your state laws are, but then I’ve got to navigate those things. One of the things that you’ve mentioned, which I think is of absolute essential importance, is informed consent. Before you start counseling, you have all of those stipulations written out and the counselee needs to sign off on that, where you list.

In the form that we use, we actually list those kinds of situations where confidentiality will have to expand the circle. We have that listed out clearly written down where they need to do that. That usually covers most of what legal systems in different states require. That will help. I like what Bob Kellemen says too, one of the ways of navigating that whole system is you need to love people like Christ. Are we going to get sued? Probably, but if we love people like Christ loves them, if we fulfill the obligation of loving them in the way we ought to, then a lot of the legal issues will be taken care of. They won’t come up. 

Dale Johnson: I think it’s an important thing to mention here, you mentioned the specifics in each state. Having a local lawyer that can help you to think through this ahead of time is going to be absolutely critical to know what those specific legal issues are and where there are limits of confidentiality as it relates to legal issues. They’re going to be most helpful to clearly define that. Because our posture is that we do want to obey what the government tells us to do, especially as they’re not asking us to sin against the commands of the Lord. 

Tim, this is really helpful as we work through, we think about confidentiality. That’s certainly our bent, we want to keep those things secret and in confidence, but there are certain areas where the Bible makes clear where we cannot hold these things in absolute confidentiality. Brother, thank you so much for contributing in this way. This is a question that so many people have. These happen in formal situations, and as you mentioned, in even in very informal situations in the church, and the Bible has answers and guides for how we’re to deal with each of those situations.