Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pastoral Confidentiality

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Pastoral Confidentiality:

Q: Are pastors required to keep everything they are told confidential? Are there any cases in which a pastor is allowed to expose the things that are revealed to him?

Pastoral Confidentiality is a subject which certainly has its share of myths. I have heard numerous stories from pastors about the assumptions about this that they have encountered in the course of ministry. The common assumption that I hear expressed regarding this ethical question is that all communication with a pastor is considered confidential, but this is only partially true.

The myth that every statement made to a pastor is confidential arises from the idea of the “Confessional Seal.” This is a vow taken by priests and pastors of several denominations when they are ordained as pastors. In the case of my Lutheran ordination vows, the pastor promises “never to reveal the sins confessed” to him.

Because of the long history of this practice in the Christian Church, it is even recognized as privileged communication in most courts, meaning that the pastor cannot be compelled to testify concerning what was confessed to him. But, this does not cover every statement made to a pastor, but only requires the pastor to maintain confidentiality when the information is revealed to him in the course of the ceremonial act of confessing sin to the pastor for the purpose of receiving forgiveness.

In addition to the “Confessional Seal,” there is also a professional expectation that pastors will maintain confidentiality regarding what is said to them in a counseling setting. However, as is also the case even with a psychologist or licensed counselor, this is not an absolute confidentiality. For example, pastors may break confidentiality in a counseling setting to preserve the safety of the person they are counseling. This could occur, for instance, if the counselee states that they intend to harm themselves or others.

To give a similar example, many states now require pastors to be “mandatory reporters” in cases of child abuse, much like teachers and medical professionals. Most (but not all) of these states, though, do make exceptions to this law for the “Confessional Seal” mentioned above.

Beyond these two expectations of confidentiality, pastors are also held to the same spiritual standard as all Christians. Particularly, the Eighth Commandment says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” When Martin Luther explained this commandment in his catechisms, he taught that this does not only forbid lying about our neighbors, but even telling true things about them when those things are uncomplimentary or harmful to their reputation.

Even further, pastors ought to consider the impact that their statements make on their own reputation and their ability to effectively minister to those they are called to serve. Even if something a pastor was told did not come in the course of confession or counseling or does not harm the reputation of another person, he would be wise to consider how his speech will reflect upon his character and ministry. Many pastors choose to guard very closely what they reveal about anything said to them simply for the reason that a pastor who says too much, even when he is not violating an expectation of confidentiality, may be perceived by others as unreliable or untrustworthy.

Essentially, the only absolute spiritual requirement upon a pastor to maintain confidentiality is when a statement is made in the course of confession. At the same time, there may be other earthly standards of confidentiality which many pastors choose to maintain, even when not religiously mandated. If you have concerns about the confidential nature of something you intend to speak with a pastor about, it is certainly acceptable to clarify with him at the beginning of your conversation to what degree he will consider it confidential.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Christians and Body Art

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Christians and Body Art:

Q: Are Christians allowed to have tattoos? What about other body modification such as piercing? Are there any other Biblical laws regulating the appearance of Christians?

There is one verse in the Old Testament which specifically mentions tattooing. Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves.” However, this does not forbid Christians from having a tattoo for two reasons: First, this command does not stand alone, but rather, it is part of a command against idolatry. It forbids the Israelites from having tattoos because of the relation of that practice to the worship of false gods. Second, because it is part of the Old Testament’s ceremonial law, which governed only the people of Israel and only in Old Testament times. Since this law is not related to any of God’s moral demands (summarized in the Ten Commandments) and is not endorsed by New Testament authors, it is not intended to bind the consciences of Christians in the New Testament era.

As Christians, we ought to certainly be careful that we not sin or cause sin in others by our appearance, and the Ten Commandments can serve as our guide in this. For example, Jesus tells us that the Sixth Commandment, which forbids adultery, is broken even when a person harbors lustful thoughts about someone to whom they are not married. In light of this, Christians ought to be careful about how their clothing both reflects on their reputation and whether it might unnecessarily promote lust in another person.

Throughout Christian history, movements have arisen from time to time which insist that there are particular regulations on the appearance of Christians which exceed those in the Ten Commandments. The passages typically cited by those promoting these movements are 1 Peter 3:3 and 1 Timothy 2:9, which they insist forbid such things as the wearing of make-up or jewelry and the braiding of hair.

These verses, however, do not forbid jewelry, elaborate hairstyles, or cosmetics in an absolute sense. In fact, they do not forbid them at all. What they forbid is for a person to rely only on those things for their beauty and reputation rather than on inner qualities such as faithfulness, respect, modesty, and self-control, or to use external beauty or adornment to disguise deficiencies in spiritual character.

Any time that Christian leaders attempt to burden the consciences of Christian people with laws that are unbiblical or that are taken out of the Bible’s proper context, they commit the same error as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day, with the result that their new laws ultimately lead people away from Jesus rather than to Him. This sort of approach to Christian morality runs the danger of leading Christians either to despair when they fail to live up to the humanly-imposed demands or to pride when they are misled to believe they have pleased God by following human regulations.

In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body.” The last words of this verse make everything clear. It is not the act of tattooing or piercing itself that glorifies or offends God. It is the message it gives to our neighbors about or Lord.

Ultimately, there is no Biblical law binding Christians on these matters, and each is free to judge based on their own conscience and context. A tattoo (depending on its content) or piercing may be just as God-glorifying as any other choice a Christian makes in dress or appearance. The Christian’s concern ought not to be in making a list of rules and regulations about what we may or may not pierce, tattoo, or wear, but instead, about how our appearance advances or detracts from the message of the Gospel.