When a pastor, elder, or other Christian mentor/counselor in a church is dealing with a another person’s sin issue, is 100% confidentiality biblical? Jay Adams argues that it is not. He makes a good case for this in The Handbook of Church Discipline. Here’s an edited summary of his argument which specifically has to do with church discipline:
The biblical requirement (Mt. 18:15-17) to seek additional help in the ongoing process of discipline means that Christians must never promise absolute confidentiality to any person. Frequently it is the practice of Bible-believing Christians to give assurances of absolute confidentiality, never realizing that they are following a policy that originated in the Middle Ages and that is unbiblical and contrary to Scripture (there is not a scrap of evidence in the Bible for the practice).
Both individuals and counselors must be aware of the all-important fact that absolute confidentiality prohibits the proper exercise of church discipline. It would be impossible to follow the discipline steps of Matthew 18 if absolute confidentiality was being practiced. Because absolute confidentiality is an unbiblical concept, it serves only to keep persons who need the help of others from receiving it.
Absolute confidentiality also requires a person to make a hasty vow. No such vow to silence should ever be made. A rash vow of this sort may put us in a bind where we are obligated to God to move the process of discipline to a larger sphere, yet our vow to silence prohibits us from doing so. We should never speak a rash vow that makes it impossible for us to follow a command of Scripture.
The best thing to say to the person is, ‘I am glad to keep confidence in the way that the Bible instructs me. That means, of course, I shall never involve others unless God requires me to do so.’ In other words, we must not promise absolute confidentiality, but rather, confidentiality that is consistent with biblical requirements. No Christian can rightly ask another for more than that.”
I believe this is wise, biblical advice. Of course pastors, elders, and Christian counselors should never gossip or spread stories about others. There is certainly a level of privacy and confidentiality as we deal with sin. However, it is not 100% confidentiality, but biblical confidentiality that helps in the process of discipline and, by God’s grace, restoration.
For Adams’ entire argument, see pages 30-33 of his helpful book, Handbook of Church Discipline.