BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 6 of a multi-part BCC Grace & Truth blog series on Biblical Counseling in the Local Church. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. We asked a number of experienced biblical counselors who provide biblical counseling leadership and equipping in local churches to write on “a topic you consider important to local church biblical counseling.” We’re confident that their varied perspectives and topics will add greatly to your insight into biblical counseling in the local church.
One of the assumptions that I (Deepak Reju) was taught when I first entered the counseling world was strict confidentiality. You (as the counselor) promise never tell anyone else about the counselee’s problems. The counselee is taking the very risky step of revealing his sin to you, and he finds security in knowing that no one else will ever know his junk.
Yet, as a pastor, this created a dilemma for me. Jesus describes a situation in Matthew 18:15-17:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
One brother sins against another. The two talk about it; and it seems to not go well. The offender would not listen to his friend. The person comes back with a second friend to talk about it; and again, he refuses to listen and deal with his sin. That leaves you with one option left—“tell it to the church” (v. 17). Bring this unrepentant sinner before the church and exclude him from fellowship. Treat him like a pagan or tax collector, someone who is deliberately rebellious against God.
Strict confidentiality is not possible for Christians who practice counseling in the context of a local church. If a person is not willing to repentant of his sin, the counselor must eventually expose this sinner to the church. If we are going to follow the ethics of the Bible, it is not an option for us to conceal an unrepentant sinners’ sin. Granted, many of us (as counselors) will persevere for a long-time—exhorting, persuading, pleading with the sinner to turn. But if he or she does not, we’re left with one two options—bring a second witness (v. 16); and then bring it to the church (v. 17).
As you can see, there are limits to our confidentiality in a church setting. Pastoral counseling requires us to always fit the sinner within the context of a local church. We’re not lone-rangers in private practice; but shepherds watching over a flock of God’s sheep (1 Peter 5:1-13).
Because strict confidentiality is the expected norm in our society today, every person who comes for help needs to understand why counseling in a church is different. So my informed consent explains it like this:
Just like all of our other pastors, I cannot promise strict confidentiality. But you should assume that I am always going to use discretion with the information conveyed to me. Most of the time, I will be able to keep your information private. But, there will be times when I will have to speak to others in order to wisely discern how best to shepherd you as a member of CHBC. Examples of exceptions to confidentiality are when the counselee 1) indicates an intention to harm him or herself or someone else; 2) has recently committed sexual or physical abuse; 3) is engaging in repeated, ongoing serious immorality (e.g. adultery) that might require the involvement of the church; 4) is a minor and I believe it is in the best interest of the child to disclose information to the parent; (5) has done something that violates the law and I am required to report it; (6) is in a situation that might warrant church discipline and requires oversight of other elders, staff, or involvement of the church as a whole; or (7) if I am ordered by a court of law to release your information, I will have to comply with the law. This is not an exhaustive list of examples.
To date, I have not had anyone read this and say, “No thanks, I’ll get help elsewhere.” Most of the time, most of the information told to me by our members never has to be told to anyone else, but sadly, several times, I’ve had to pursue several of the exceptions listed above.
Confidentiality, church discipline, and trust are all important topics to think through in pastoral counseling, so if you are interested in further reading, look at Bob Kellemen’s very helpful book Equipping Counselors for the Church.
Join the Conversation
How do you address confidentiality in the local church setting?