The Conundrum of Confidentiality, Part 1

Tim AllchinFor Those Giving HelpLeave a Comment

BCC executive director Dr. Tim Allchin tackles questions on confidentiality in counseling. His article appeared first here and is used with permission.

One of the most common concerns about biblical counseling is how we handle the issue of confidentiality and how our ethical standards would be enforced if there were to be a violation.

Critics propose that biblical counseling will never be safe for those we counsel until confidentiality similar to the standards for licensed counselors is the mandated ethical standard for biblical counselors.

A critic’s proposed ethical standard

A recent critic proposed an ethical standard she wishes that all biblical counselors would adhere to:

We believe that client confidentiality is vital to the health of a counseling relationship. Confidentiality will not be broken except when necessary to report crimes; to report suspicion of abuse; or if the client poses a harm to him/herself or others. In these cases, the concern will be reported to legal authorities. Other than these exceptions, what is disclosed in counseling will be kept private.

The counselor will be the only one with access to files concerning the client, unless the counselor is under supervision for the purposes of training, and then only that supervisor would also have access. These files will be kept locked up where other church employees will not have access. If digital, the files will be kept password-protected.[1]

Other confidentiality concerns

We have often seen other critics, typically who are responding to abuses of power in the church, detail how expectations of confidentiality have not been met within various biblical counseling contexts.[2] These stories often articulate survivor stories and the pain they feel when private matters become a public discussion. I don’t doubt that some biblical counselors have done this and have caused great pain.

Furthermore, there has been some recent discussion of churches that “weaponized” information from biblical counseling ministries in an abuse of power to silence and manipulate critics. It’s clear that our position and practice of confidentiality require careful thought if we are going to earn a good reputation for quality care.

Biblical limits of confidentiality

Biblical counselors have spoken for years about the biblical limits of confidentiality.[3] However, little has been written to expand upon what we mean by this and the way that these limits work out in reality.[4] 

This has created confusion and fear for those seeking biblical counseling and caused others to seek counsel from organizations where the assurance of complete confidentiality is mandated. How we describe and practice confidentiality is a matter of concern and one in which our movement can seek to grow.

Most biblical counselors practice confidentiality and would agree that confidentiality most often brings safety and benefits to the counseling relationship.[5] Scripture directly confirms this principle, “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28). 

However, we have not stressed nor frequently articulated the benefits of confidentiality that we see, nor do we describe how we would deal with some trickier ethical situations and why we might practice more limited confidentiality in some settings.[6] 

Examples of confidentiality as beneficial

Following are some examples of how we would view confidentiality as beneficial:

  • College students are protected from parents’ prying eyes as they work through family or personal struggles.
  • Spouses are protected from abusive and controlling partners weaponizing counseling records in marital or custodial disputes.
  • Pastors are protected from the prying eyes of concerned parishioners when dealing with personal issues.
  • Employees are protected from self-serving employers accessing mental health records to wrongly terminate those with mental health struggles.
  • Citizens are protected from unlawful invasions of privacy from government or corporate interests.

Less clear-cut examples?

The following examples are more difficult to determine how to best apply the limits of confidentiality and uphold the principle of “doing no harm”:

  • Husbands are protected from having to admit they are deceptively committing adultery when visiting massage parlors.
  • Spouses are protected from letting their spouse know of undisclosed debts or financial obligations.
  • Employees are protected from admitting they have stolen from their employers.
  • Juveniles are able to confess they are addicted to pornography while being protected from fear of embarrassment and awkward conversations.
  • Addicts are protected from the shame of disclosing a hidden relapse and a hidden stash of opioids.
  • Young adults who drive home drunk after a night-clubbing escapade are protected from being called out by friends or family.

While many of the above scenarios involve illegal actions in a technical sense, none of them would allow confidentiality to be broken by those adhering to clinical counseling ethics. With most of these situations, biblical counselors would strongly agree that violating confidentiality would cause serious harm. However, I suspect all counselors would be a little more torn about what to do in the manipulative case scenarios listed above.

“Do No Harm”

It is one thing to say that “confidentiality is the best practice in the most amount of cases and leads to the best overall care,” but it is another thing to refuse to admit that blanket confidentiality can cause harm in other cases. Biblical counselors are committed to “do no harm,” but this requires more than a simple affirmation that confidentiality would never allow us to disclose counseling content. Our ethical standard requires us to think through the question of “do no harm.”[7]

Part Two will discuss the principles of confidentiality and propose seven principles that should guide the practice of confidentiality for biblical counselors.

Questions for Reflection

What are the best practices for confidentiality in the setting where you counsel? How can we better articulate the benefits of limiting confidentiality in some situations for the good of the counselee and their family?

[1] Sheila Gregoire, “A “Bill of Rights” for Biblical Counseling Clients,” to Love, Honor, & Vacuum, April 5, 2019, https://tolovehonorandvacuum.com/2019/04/a-bill-of-rights-for-biblical-counseling-clients/.

[2] Dee Parsons, “Another Reason to Avoid Biblical Counseling: Confidentiality is Not Guaranteed When Sin is Involved,” The Wartburg Watch, September 26, 2018, http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/09/26/another-reason-to-avoid-biblical-counseling-confidentiality-is-not-guaranteed-when-sin-is-involved/.

[3] G. Scipione, “The Limits of Confidentiality in Counseling,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, 7(2), (1984). 29-34.

[4] One brief article that does address the limits of confidentiality within biblical counseling can be found here: Deepak Reju, “Strict Confidentiality?” Biblical Counseling Coalition, June 12, 2012, https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2012/06/12/strict-confidentiality/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert W. Kellemen, “Gospel Conversations: How to Care like Christ” (Zondervan, 2015), 373.

[7] ACBC Standards of Conduct, adopted October 4, 2016, https://biblicalcounseling.com/certification/standards-of-conduct/.

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