Is the concept of privacy and discretion dead even among Christians?

Is the concept of privacy and discretion dead even among Christians? March 19, 2014

This week there has been another stirring in the Christian blogosphere. A sometimes controversial church leader wrote a letter which he wanted to remain private to his congregation. One of his critics obtained a copy of that letter and leaked it onto the Internet.  I was aware of this, and like some other bloggers and official journalists, I requested the church to confirm whether the letter was genuine, and asked for their permission to share the correspondence on my blog.

The church declined.

They also stated they did not want the letter to be circulated online.  I must admit that I did tell them I thought that was a mistake, but I chose to respect their decision anyway.

What happened next surprised me.

Several major Christian news outfits covered the letter. And so did many respected Christian bloggers.

By now you probably know exactly what I am talking about, but I ask you not to reveal that in the comments section below. Lets keep to the specific questions that I pose in this article.

The letter did not contain any scandalous revelations that have a true “public interest.” It was a pastoral letter. I confess that I did read it. But, without the consent of the author, I did not feel I should share it.

Am I old fashioned on this point?

Is the concept of privacy and discretion  now dead even among Christians?

How would you feel if someone posted one of your own private emails to the internet and then everyone else started sharing it?

Jesus tells us  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12).

What does “gossip” mean in a modern context?

What are the boundaries of what it is acceptable for someone to blog about concerning a public figure?

Obviously there is a place for calling out serious sin, or for correcting false teaching. But posting this private letter did not do either of those things.

How reasonable is it for a pastor of a large church to expect the members of that church not to share personal correspondence online?

Should we, who are not members of that church,  expect the church to communicate major decisions with the rest of us?

Is it wiser for the pastor of a large church to simply release any correspondence intended for members to the public simultaneously?

One thing is for sure, every one of us needs to be very aware that whatever we write in an email, or any other document, can today with a click of a button be shared online.  It may not be morally right.  But it is a reality.

I urge you to consider carefully how you phrase everything you write.  Imagine that what you say is being cc’d to your harshest critic, to a hostile blogger, and to a lawyer who is trying to construct a case against you.

And don’t think that simply having a conversation is safe. It is the simplest thing in the world to record a conversation then post it online. In many countries it is illegal to do so without the other persons consent. But, in the time it takes to involve law enforcement, the damage could be done.

When Jesus said, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3), he was referring not to an age of modern technology and the time of wikileaks.

He was talking about the time of judgement.  His judgement.

There are very few times when it is appropriate to share in public something that happened in private.

Rather than creating a lynch mob online for every single perceived fault, there are many things that we should leave to that Day to be revealed.

This is not an excuse for covering up major sin.

This is not a denial of the importance of real accountability for church leaders within the context of their local church, and whatever denomination or network of churches they are part of.

This is not a repudiation of Matthew 18, which is meant to occur within the context of a local church. The point here is that when a believer has sinned repeatedly, and has refused correction privately, then with one or two others, that the church should be informed, and discipline should result. We have no business parading other people’s sins outside this context, and to do so is indeed gossip.

I do feel that it is increasingly vital for churches to have some kind of affiliation with other churches, and for pastors to genuinely be held to account.  Perhaps the failures of many of these organisations to provide a proper process for grievances to be dealt with has contributed to the current idea that the Internet community should decide in a form of mob rule.

But who made you and I judge, jury, and executioner over the entire World?



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  • Gary Ware

    Adrian these are interesting and constructive points.
    As you’ve observed modern media and social media challenge boundaries.
    My mind boggles at the thought of a private and personal communication with 10,000 plus people.
    But more personally in a day when (for instance even here in Australia) folk will come along and tell a pastor they’re listening to pod casts, reading books and the like.
    People pick them up because they have best seller status, or because they’re popular and they commend them for the church to use or find personal expression traits of the person who produced them attractive.
    What are we to do when the person who produced them has recognised aspects of the material to be counter productive. (To say the least)
    I read your points above as advocating a caution and care about what is publicly said or written.
    Social media is giving rise to a tendency for people to put their first thought or reaction in the public sphere. I hope really soon this tendency will moderate with a sense of responsibility.
    If folk want to live as public figures I don’t see how they can avoid having any problems pertaining to their public lives dealt with in public.
    Thanks again for a thought provoking post.
    If you think this reply strays from what you’re looking for in this post please don’t publish it. I have no interest in feeding frenzies.

    • Not at all, Gary. I think you have highlighted exactly some of my own dilemmas when thinking about things like this. I do tend to make a distinction between “major” sins and “minor” sins, and between sin and teaching I disagree with. I’ve never had a problem with people correcting what they see as errors in teaching, but sometimes even that can stray into an undue rejection of the PERSON who has taught, rather than their ideas…for example assuming that anyone who teaches different doctrine to oneself must be a charlatan, or a deliberate deceiver, is very dangerous ground, that many fall into.

  • Marie Wikle

    i love this – and bottom line is we should respect the privacy of others – and thank you for doing so! if the author makes it public, that is one thing – but if not… – a little respect isn’t all that hard.

    thanks for standing up and speaking the truth – even when it isn’t popular in this very social society.


  • Jon Stewart

    I too read it. The article I read leaves the impression that the letter was posted on the church’s public website. So I just went and looked again to find that you have to be a member of the church to access that site. So yes I concur. His privacy and his church’s privacy have been violated. Sad! The article I read and a later “update,” a part that I breezed over carelessly, reveals that the guy outing this letter is actually a regular critic of the confessor. Which makes it more sad because I doubt he had access, implying that an insider leaked it to him.

    I always find discussing other people’s confessions as a case (personally) of the pot painting the kettle black. I’m still not comfortable with some of his other “takes” on things but I was encouraged by his repentance. Glory to God!

    While I agree that public figures cannot avoid having their public problems dealt with publicly, at the same time I wish the tone in cases like this was not so holier-than-thou and accusatory with a tinge of glee that “the big guy has to grovel.” It’s a case of building ourselves up at another’s expense which is not a Christian value. How to find a balance here is not simple to navigate.

  • Philip Stallings

    I fully agree with this article and its not “old fashioned,” its called obeying the Scriptures.

  • Stephen Chaffer

    When professing Christians watch the soaps, media, gossip columns they become like them–worldly and the consequences are far reaching, causing affliction to the work of the gospel–If one became a Bible reader, one would be change into the image of the Christ on earth–a perfect testimony for the Glory of our God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ–an Ambassador in the work of the Spirit.

  • John Norman

    Hopefully not. Unless we are involved personally we do not know when privacy and discretion is applied – we only know about the abuses. So perhaps things are not as bad as you fear (or maybe I’m over-optimistic).

    Personally, I try to avoid writing anything that I would not want the world to know, unless writing to a trusted friend, and I would certainly not include whole church congregations. If someone writes to a church membership I think they must expect a wider audience. Even in the pre-internet era I know such situations were shared widely (and usually inaccurately) by word of mouth. Maybe circulating the original document is better then rumour.

    I don’t know anything about the situation you mention and have no intention of searching for it, although if it came to me I would probably read it.

    I’m privileged to know the family of a celebrity but never post anything about them apart from positive news that is available anyway. It’s about trust and respect.
    What would motivate someone to break privacy or to become indiscreet? Greed or maybe a desire for revenge? I find in Christian circles gossip is justified by adding ‘just for your prayers’ to the conversation. Apparently this covers all manner of indiscreet news.
    I would be interested to know what the younger generation think of this. They seem to be more open and less concerned about sharing personal information.

  • Stuart Blessman

    Anyone is free to walk into any church, grab a bulletin, and post it online. In effect, this is not much different. And I highly doubt the leader in question was not aware the potential and likelihood of the letter “leaking”. Nor would it surprise me if it was leaked intentionally.

  • Roger Tuinstra

    I agree. You bring up a valid point and one which we Christians should think deeply about. The Internet makes it easy and fast to spread gossip even anonymously. Christians should not be a part of it.

  • Peter

    Interesting post, but honestly I am not sure there is ‘mob rule’ on the internet in this case or that there is ‘a lynch mob online for every single perceived fault’ (interesting hyperbole – can you point to specific examples?) I just don’t think this is the case in this instance. Also, I am having trouble taking your seriously if you then went ahead and read the letter – I am not saying this is hypocritical, but why would you do this if you thought it shouldn’t be posted?. Also you haven’t made it clear that you are a friend of the person concerned and their champion, but write in a style as if there is some distance between you and them (I wrote to the Church etc).

    If someone is head of a Megachurch, with the accompanying constitutional power and they relentlessly promote themselves using the media, they are placing themselves in the spotlight and it is totally unrealistic to expect privacy concerning this particular issue (If it was a small church etc I would agree with you). A church that beams the sermon of a central pastor into different satellite churches, including around 14,000 people cannot really expect privacy in relation to such a letter and the leader would have factored this in. The leader is in serious trouble having been found out on several counts. It seem fairly certain the leader met with his PR team and discussed what could be said so as to represent this matter in the best light, keeping in mind the letter would also be
    read outside of the church. The leader, with a degree in media communication
    would be figuring out the angles and use the opportunity again to promote his
    viewpoint. But more importantly, a main point, which you seemed to have
    missed totally, is that the letter is newsworthy concerning not what it says,
    but what it doesn’t say. It is a master class in damage limitation,
    given what has been revealed in the last few years.

    In this case the normal system of accountability broke down, leaving
    some very damaged or disillusioned people who had no alternative voice – why not post about them as well? Scripture isn’t just about famous powerful people, but the disenfranchised and the victims. To use the gratuitous and hideous language of the leader concerned, these are the people who were ‘shoved off and run over by the bus, such that they were in piles of bodies as the bus drove on.’ (laughter..) These are people whose faces should be ‘smashed in’ because they disagreed with the church polity (more laughter..). These are the people who were thrown out of the church through disagreeing with the leadership and their whole family ostracized. These are people who bought the book because they thought it was a number one best seller only to find the church had employed a company to use a scam to ‘rig’ the count and the writer continues to profit from it’s sales even though he denies it. These are the people who bought the books only to realize there was plagiarized content and the writer is now being promoted as a college teacher. I could go on, but you seem want to ignore all this and just focus on a leaked letter as if this is the main issue.

    • And I’m Cute, Too

      You’ve made a lot of good points here, Peter. I especially liked this one:

      “A church that beams the sermon of a central pastor into different satellite churches, including around 14,000 people cannot really expect privacy in relation to such a letter…”

      Not only that: Suppose we’re talking about a pastor that has videos of his sermons online (for free on YouTube and for purchase on his own site), and has marketed books of his own teachings to the general public. A man whose words can potentially reach hundreds or even thousands outside of his “local church”. As a result, the damage he can cause extends beyond the lives of those in his congregation.

      If such a man really feels the need to repent, he needs to do it in public, since (at the very least) he’s deceived the public. He also needs to publicly retract teachings and doctrines which have likely hurt people outside of his church, including former members. A letter of repentance to his “local church” may be a promising first step, but until he takes his penance more broadly, it’s hard to take it too seriously.

  • Peter

    Another thing to add beyond my previous comment:

    Adrian: “The Church Declined”

    It is worth pointing out that The Church in question uses gagging orders for pastors who leave on threat of loss of their contracted severance package if they don’t sign up to the gagging order. This came to light when 20 former pastors recently put their names to a letter requesting mediation with the church because they had gone through the normal channels and now wanted to bring in outside people to address the various issues they were concerned about.

    Imagine the following re-writing of Acts:

    Acts 15:

    36 After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.”37 Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. 39 a Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. 39 b Paul made Barnabas sign a gagging order threatening that if he did not his financial support from the brethren to tide him through the start of his next missionary work would be cut off. 39 cThis was to ensure Barnabas would make no mention of their disagreement in the future in order to present himself in the best possible light. 39 d Accordingly, Paul explained to everyone that they were splitting up and going their separate ways because they were in complete agreement with each other. 39 e Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus.

    Secrecy is not always healthy and right – in this case it is positively pathological and their actions indefensible.

  • Charles

    Adrian – it is a real pity you wrote this and poor timing
    given the revelations about this church. It is important to see the whole in
    thing in context and not just focus on the leaking of this one letter. In the
    bible there are different ways dealing with conflict or corruption, not just
    the one approach you highlight and it all has to weighed up in context. This is
    the way I see it: Lack of accountability has meant that power has been concentrated
    in the hands of an abusive and corrupt individual. People have tried to deal
    with the situation but to no avail. Their only recourse is to whistle blow and
    the internet is a means of warning other
    people about what is going on.

    Adrian – you chose to ignore these inconvenient truths
    because otherwise you risk being ousted
    as member of ‘the club.’ It is time to get out of the club, see reality, and
    put the gospel first.

  • Phillip Maitland

    Adrian – I am sorry to say this but your post in context is in poor taste, uses unhelpful rhetoric and has flawed theology.

    Firstly, if you were concerned about the letter being made public, why then did you read it?

    Secondly, you make a big thing about not judging other people and then label the people who have courage to speak up about this issue a ‘lynch mob’ which totally undermines what you are saying. By innuendo you dangle your criticism but don’t have the courage to indicate who you might be referring to.

    Thirdly, you are deliberately not giving the whole picture here, referring to a small part of it to support a situation in which the main problem is that people like you have failed to speak out in the past – you are partly to blame, but you don’t take responsibility.

    The bible does not say we shouldn’t judge other people. Quite the opposite – leaders should be chosen as those who are beyond reproach – not people with a systematic a record of abusing people under them and cheating the system and then not properly coming clean when found out. We have a duty to speak out and people need to be warned if this is happening and there is no proper accountability. Recent gagging agreements under financial duress and deleting of sermons and 90 day rules for deleting emails points towards a cover up rather than openness and honesty.

    You say that “We have no business parading other people’s sins outside this context, and to do so is indeed gossip.” Taken as a whole and considering what the bible says overall, this is silly and unhelpful rhetoric.The bible does not suggest that we should only speak in private all the time about other people’s misdemeanors – there are plenty of examples of God condoning people speaking out in public. But you don’t balance what you say using the totality of scripture, and reading your post I am not even sure if you read the bible in more than a cursory fashion or you would immediately have realized your narrow understanding.

    You concentrate on the leaking of one letter, a bit like focusing on a small piece of dung in the living room when there is an elephant marching up and down the hallway.

    I would urge anyone reading this post to become better acquainted with the issues and not be fooled in to thinking secrecy in this situation is healthy.

  • Stephen Leslie

    If an email is sent to more than a small trusted few, I can’t see how the sender could expect there’s no possibility it mightn’t go ‘public’.