Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
In the last article we noted that the diaconate is an office of authority. Before treating other aspects of the nature of the diaconate, we add this appendix to the subject of authority, in which we will show that authority requires confidentiality on the part of officebearers.
Of the need for confidentiality in the work we must all be reminded regularly. The pastor (or the vice-president of the council in the absence of a pastor) does well to remind the officebearers of this need at the annual council organizational meeting. If comments on the subject of confidentiality can be legitimately supported by the text on which the installation sermon is based, the pastor should take advantage of this opportunity to remind the officebearers of this need. Such a reminder in the presence of the congregation will show the people that the officebearers take this matter seriously. Concrete occasions might also arise at which further reminders are appropriate — for example, when the consistory, diaconate, or council is dealing with a particularly confidential matter, or when (as does happen, sadly) confidentiality has been breached, and the officebearers must deal with the consequences. The purpose of this article is also to remind us of the need for confidentiality in our work.
At least three reasons come to mind why the officebearers must maintain confidentiality in doing their work.
The first reason is simple and practical: the people will not trust their officebearers who do not keep quiet about confidential matters. Certainly this is true if the people need help with a matter which they wish to be kept confidential. It might be guilt which they experience because of a private, secret sin; or perhaps the matter involves their relationship to another person, and they do not want that other person to know they sought advice; or, it could be a financial matter for which they seek help. Because these are very personal, and sometimes awkward, matters, the people do not quickly turn to their officebearers for advice and help. And they will not come for help at all if they cannot trust their pastor, elder, or deacon, to keep the matter confidential. Even if the matter is not so personal and awkward, the people will not trust an officebearer who unnecessarily repeats what he has been told to anyone who will hear.
The second reason is rooted in the law of God: keeping such matters confidential guards one against violation of the ninth commandment. Literally forbidding the child of God to bear false witness, the ninth commandment implies that we must not backbite, slander, judge, or join in condemning any man rashly or unheard. It requires positively that the child of God resolve to “defend and promote, as much as I am able, the honor and good character of my neighbor” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 43). The Westminster Larger Catechism explains this commandment as requiring us to have, among other things, ” … a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; … a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, …” (Answer 144). Specifically indicated as being forbidden by this commandment, in addition to other sins, are “talebearing,” “whispering,” and “unnecessary discovering of infirmities” (Answer 145). Clearly, this commandment regulates what we say about whom, what we say to whom, and how we say it. It is sin to speak even that which is true, when not done in love and for edification (Eph. 4:15). But we quickly commit this sin when we gossip. Gossip, after all, is only a small step removed from backbiting.
Other passages of Scripture also exhort us to holiness and wisdom in regard to what we say. “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: … I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:16). “A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter” (Prov. 11:13). “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends” (Prov. 17:9). Let this be part of our blamelessness (a qualification of elders and deacons,I Tim. 3:2, 10), that we keep confidences!
The third reason is rooted in our authority to hold office. God gives authority to men whom He has called to office and equipped for the work. This means that authority is particular—God gives one man authority to do the work of the special offices, and withholds such authority from another man. But then we must not “share” too quickly with others that which belongs to the work of our office.
Now I am certainly not suggesting that our consistories and diaconates be tight-lipped about everything. It is well to let the people of the congregation know as much as they can and may about what work is being done. This promotes trust—the people can see that the officebearers are faithful in doing their work. This guards against a proud notion on the part of the officebearers that they are the privileged possessors of top-secret information, which no others may have. It is for this reason that the deacons and/or council should release financial reports regularly, and report to the congregation on other aspects of their work and decisions. It is certainly no violation of their authority, but a manifestation of their love and care for the congregation, that our officebearers do these things.
However, some aspects of the work of the office are confidential; of these aspects we are speaking now. To know about such matters, and to do the work required by them, officebearers have authority, and others do not. Therefore, no officebearer should speak to one who is not an officebearer about such matters. At such time as the congregation needs to know about these matters, the consistory and/or the diaconate, as a body, may and must inform the people. But then the information is given officially,and not leaked out by any officebearer who had no business speaking about such matters. To “leak out” such matters unofficially and in breaking of confidence is a violation of one’s God-given authority.
While the officebearer must be on constant guard against violating this rule of confidentiality, the threat seems greater in certain instances.
The first is while visiting with other believing saints, and talking church-talk. Now church-talk is a wonderful subject for a living room or coffee table discussion—if it is good church-talk, and does not violate the ninth commandment! When the subject of discussion is doctrine and theology, Scripture passages, decisions of consistories, classes, and synods, worship, and news about fellow saints which enables us to rejoice and sorrow with them, bearing their burdens, and when all this discussion is carried out in a loving, brotherly spirit, this is good. Let us do more of it! But when the subject of the church-talk is church gossip, and is not carried out in brotherly love, this is bad. At this point the officebearer must be careful what he says, how he contributes, and how much. He ought to set an example by teaching others to avoid gossip and idle talk. And he certainly ought not give detailed explanation of how the consistory finally arrived at its decision, who did and said what in the meeting, and the like.
The second situation, not so different from the first, is when having private discussions with another member of the church. This person may be interested for legitimate reasons in knowing more—perhaps he would like to protest a decision of a consistory, and needs to know what he is dealing with. Or perhaps the officebearer and another person are very close friends, who share much of their lives, who agree on many viewpoints, who seek advice from each other. It seems to be a situation in which the elder or deacon can let his guard down a little. And then he falls! Too much slips out! The officebearer must remember that he must not speak more than he is allowed; he must keep confidences. The person who has a legitimate interest in knowing more may ask the consistory, diaconate, or council as a body for this information. The close friend must remember that friends help friends do what is right.
The third situation, not so different from the second, and perhaps the most dangerous for many officebearers, is in private conversation with one’s wife. Perhaps you have come home right after the meeting, still wound up; and to unwind, you tell it all. Or perhaps, three days after the meeting, your wife can tell that something has been bothering you; so she asks you about it, and you tell her, to try to put it behind you. Or you tell her that you will be going away that evening (on a call regarding a confidential matter—discipline or benevolence, for example), and feel obligated to tell her also where you are going, and why.
Perhaps you ask the question, what may we tell our wives? The answer cannot be given in such a way as to cover every situation. Other questions must be asked, to help determine the answer to this question. Some of these other questions, but not necessarily an exhaustive list, are the following: Will this knowledge help her in any way, or not? Is she capable of knowing, and not gossiping about it? Is there already a perception of a man and/or his wife, that they speak too freely about what goes on in the consistory/council/deacons meetings?
But I am dealing with the question, what must we not tell our wives? And one answer is that we must not tell our wives everything; we must not inform them of confidential matters such as discipline or benevolence cases any more than we may speak to any other member of the congregation about such cases. This is not a matter of dealing with the pressures such cases put on us individually; this is not a matter of having a wife that can herself keep quiet about these things; this is a matter of our authority.
Caution must be exercised not only in what we tell our wives with our own mouths, but in what we allow them to learn in other ways. I have in mind the fact that some men might ask their wives to do some “secretarial” work, typing reports, letters, or minutes. And such an arrangement might seem to be justified: this will save the elder or deacon precious time; he cannot type anyway; and she can keep confidence. But when it comes to confidential matters, none of these arguments outweighs this one: she has no business knowing, because she does not possess the authority of the special office. Better that the minutes and reports are then handwritten (carefully, please, so we can read them!); better that another way be found in which she can save her husband time; better that her ability to keep confidence not be put to the test, than that the officebearer break the rule of confidence himself!
So, fellow officebearers in the church, let us guard against the temptation to abuse our authority in this way.
The effects of such breaches of confidence can never be reversed. Trust, once lost, is very difficult to regain. And one great danger of telling others what they ought not know is that this knowledge will affect their view of those involved, and how they treat them. This will happen subconsciously, if not consciously. But it will be noticed by others, particularly by the one involved, if they suspect the officebearer has told his wife.
How can we guard against such breaches of confidence? Practically, one way would be to “unwind” with other officebearers who already know of the situation, and who must also keep the same confidences which we must keep. This also has its dangers (speaking sinfully of others, or speaking in a wrong spirit), but it is a safeguard against the other. Another way would be to remember our authority and seek to use it responsibly in the service of God. Thirdly, we can always bring our needs and concerns and frustrations to God in prayer, seeking from Him wisdom to help us deal with them. And finally, this requires power, which can be found in Christ whom we serve, to control our tongues. For “if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2). And one who is able to bridle the whole body is one who is eminently qualified, by God’s grace, to hold office in the church of Christ.