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Counseling and Confidentiality

Truth in Love 164

The Bible places limits on the confidentiality we can promise to our counselees.

Jul 23, 2018

Heath Lambert: This week on the podcast, we are tackling one of your questions, and to help us think the matter through is the Operations Director for ACBC, Sean Perron. Sean, welcome to the podcast. 

Sean Perron: We want to tackle a question that has been asked repeatedly since you became the Executive Director, which is about confidentiality and counseling. What is the role that confidentiality plays when you are interacting and doing counseling ministry locally as a biblical counselor?

Heath Lambert: Confidentiality and biblical counseling is an important reality for us to talk about for a couple of different reasons, number one because of the nature of the way confidentiality is considered in secular counseling. In secular counseling, confidentiality is at a premium. It is almost sacrosanct. I mean, this is, “You do not ever divulge any information about a counseling conversation except in certain and very limited and very extreme situations.” Most of that is required requirements by law and that kind of thing.

In biblical counseling, I would say it this way: When we’re doing biblical counseling, confidentiality is not at a premium. It is important, it is often valuable, but it’s not the most important reality. To explain that, I’d want to explain a tension in the Bible between gossip and the necessity for disclosure. 

If you think about a passage like 1 Timothy 5:13, it’s talking about people, and it says at the same time, “They also learn to be idle as they go around from house to house and not merely idle but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention,” and so in the Bible there is concern that you would be a gossip, that you would say things that you ought not to say. We don’t want to be in violation of the command not to gossip. We don’t want to be the people that the Apostle Paul here speaks of who talk about things that are not proper to mention. There is information that we can be in possession of that’s not proper to talk about with other people. Counselors definitely are in possession of loads of information that it’s just not proper to share.

What we would say in the biblical counseling world is that, when it comes to our counseling conversations, our desire is to keep that information, that personal information that you’re talking about in counseling, as private as possible. But as true as that is and as much as we want to honor that principle that we not gossip and talk about things that we ought not to mention, there is another principle in the Bible, and that has to do with the necessity of disclosure. There is a requirement in the Bible that some information must be shared.

One of the easiest passages to talk about in this regard is Matthew 18:15-20 and it says, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private. If he listens to you, you’ve won your brother.” This is talking about a situation where I have information about a brother. I am aware that he has sinned, I have that knowledge, and I don’t want to gossip. I don’t want to talk about things that it’s not proper to mention, and so what I do in that context is I go to him and I talked with him about it, just the two of us. If he listens, that’s great. The matter has been handled in a very tight circle of information.

But Jesus doesn’t stop at verse 15. He says, “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every fact may be confirmed.” So what Jesus does there is He urges a widening of the circle of disclosure. He says, hey, you tried to keep the matter in a tight circle of disclosure so it’s just you and the offending party, but since that person has not listened, now you need to disclose that information to a few more people for the purpose of confirming every matter by two or three witnesses. I think the confirmation here is the two or three witnesses go and they confirm that what you’re doing really is sinful, and they also confirm that there is a certain process outlined by Jesus here that’s being followed. 

You’ve got an expansion of disclosure. More people know than knew before because of the resistance of the person to change. But Jesus doesn’t stop there either. He says in verse 17, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” And so Jesus says after you’ve taken a small group of people and let them be in on this matter, if that person doesn’t listen, now you disclose the matter even more broadly and tell it to the whole church. You’ve got Jesus saying there is a time and a place for disclosure, for other people to be brought in to help with a matter.

What I would say is that in biblical counseling, confidentiality is not at a premium because helping people is at a premium. Our favorite way to help people is by letting their personal information remain as private as possible. Sometimes helping people requires the disclosure of more information to more people than we would otherwise want to do, but helping them requires that disclosure.

Jesus here is talking about personal sin and the disclosure of that personal sin to the church when the person is unrepentant, but there’s other matters where we would need to disclose information. For example, the command in Romans 13 that we submit to the governing authorities means that we would want to disclose any information to the governing authorities about, say, abuse. If someone is being abused, most people are required to disclose that information to the authorities, and so following the law and helping the weak would require disclosure. 

We love confidentiality and value it, but as much as we love it and as much as we value it, that is placed underneath the command to obey God and His Word and is placed underneath the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. Sometimes, loving our neighbor as ourselves requires the disclosure of information.

What I would say about all of that is that when we are going to have a counseling conversation with someone, one practical takeaway from this is we need to have integrity in the things that we say. It is not right for a person who has committed to have the Bible frame their conversations, for that person to give a promise of confidentiality to someone. When someone comes up to you in just a personal conversation and they say, “I need to tell you something, but I need you to promise me you’re not going to tell anybody,” the biblical answer to that response is not, “Okay, I promise I won’t tell anybody,” because then they might tell you something that you have to tell. A better response is to say, “Hey, listen, let me tell you what, I promise you, that I’m going to be trustworthy with this information and I’m going to try to keep your information as personal and private as I can keep it.”

One thing that I have said to people when they’ve kind of bucked at that is, “Hey, look, the Bible sometimes requires me to tell other people, that might require me to tell your parents what we’re going to talk about, might require me to tell the church what we’re talking about at a certain point, might require me to tell the police at a certain point. When they bucked at that, one of the things that I’ve always said to people is, “You trusted me enough to think about handing this information off to me. Can you trust me enough to respond to it in a way that is going to help you and not hurt you?” So far, after I’ve said that to people, I’ve never had anybody tell me, “Well, I’m not going to tell you after all.” Most of the time, people say, “Okay, I’ll be willing to trust you with this information.” But what we should not do is just give a blanket guarantee of confidentiality, because we just simply don’t have biblical grounds to do that, and we might find out after making such a promise that we have to break it and then lose our integrity. 

Sean Perron: I think this is really helpful, Heath. One question to ask as a follow-up: What about the situation where there’s a counselor who is in a situation where they received information from their counselee that they believe they need to go and share with someone else, but they are terrified that their counselee will hate them for doing it. What would you say to that?

Heath Lambert: As a counselor, I would say a couple of things. First of all, I would say that the command to avoid being a gossip held in tension with the command that sometimes information needs to be disclosed is not at odds with getting advice and counsel from other people. So sometimes, we just need wisdom about how to think things through. Even in Matthew 18:15 when Jesus says, “If your brother sins, go and show him the matter just between the two of you,” there have been times before I have done Matthew 18:15 that I have had to go and talk with people that I trust about what is the best way to do this? This is also biblical. In Proverbs 15:22 it says, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.” So the command to avoid being a gossip is not at odds with the need we all have for wise and trusted advisors and counselors in our life. 

I would say, if you’re torn about the specifics of a situation (and this is always going to boil down to the details of a certain situation), if you’re torn about those, why don’t you find a wise and trusted advisor, somebody who can help you think this through, and go to them and talk to them about it. If you’re really concerned about the sensitive nature of it, you could even say to that counselor, “Hey, look, I need to talk to you about a situation, but I would rather not disclose the identity of the person who we’re talking about. Can I just described to you a situation and you tell me what you think I need to do?” and then listen to what they have to say.

If, as you think about this, as you seek the Lord in prayer about it, as you seek wisdom from other advisors and counselors, if you decide you need to disclose the information, I think you must have integrity as you do that. You need to be honest if that’s what you’re going to do. So I would not want someone that had come to me for help to find out from somebody else other than me that their information had been disclosed.

I’ve had this conversation before and it’s not been pleasant, where I said, “Hey, look, I believe I am required to share this information and I want you to know that it is my intention to tell the pastors at your church, or to tell your parents, or to call the police. It is my intention to do that, and I want to let you know that I am not at all doing it to hurt you, but I believe I am bound by the Bible. I’m bound by your best interest to get some outside help for you in this area, and I hope you will understand that my motivations are to help you and not to hurt you.”

People will be upset with you, and they can be upset with you, but what you need to do is to do the right thing and be a person of integrity as you do it. If you gave a blanket promise of confidentiality, then you should probably ask forgiveness for that. “Hey, I told you I would keep this strictly confidential, and upon further reflection, I found out that the Bible does not allow me to do that. I just have to place my first allegiance to God and His Word and not to what I said to you, but I really am sorry. What I said to you was wrong and I’m sorry and I hope you please forgive me for saying that. But now I need to go do the right thing.”