Question: "What does the Bible say about confidentiality?"
Answer: The concept of confidentiality does come up in the Bible. As with similar topics, whether or not confidentiality is good, or even possible, depends on whom the information is being kept from and for what purpose. Some details of a person’s life are better kept out of the public eye, even if exposing those secrets would be to our advantage. At the same time, there are some things we might want to keep confidential, especially about ourselves, that would be better confessed and dealt with.
Obviously, it’s impossible to keep anything “confidential” from God. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). So, confidentiality is an earthly concern, but it does not extend vertically to heaven. God is the revealer of secrets (Daniel 2:22). The king of Aram found this out the hard way; every time his troops tried to ambush Israel’s army, the Israelites were ready for them. The king of Aram could not understand how the Israelites were getting their intelligence until one of his officers discovered the source of the leak: “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom” (2 Kings 6:12). So much for confidentiality; if God wants something known, it will be known.
Interestingly, a common synonym for confidentiality is discretion. This makes sense, in that it’s important to distinguish between information that should be made public and that which should be kept private. Few people would want to go to a counselor or pastor who could not maintain confidentiality. And yet, those advisors have to gauge when information needs to be shared, even if the other person doesn’t want it to be. For example, threats to others or intentions of self-harm cannot rightly be kept confidential. The book of Proverbs, which extolls the virtues of wisdom, also encourages “discretion” four times in the first five chapters (Proverbs 1:4; 2:1; 3:21; 5:2). So, the biblical question about confidentiality is not whether or not it is ever acceptable but how to know when a particular piece of information ought to be kept in confidence.
One aspect of confidentiality to consider is exactly whom we are attempting to keep information secret from. There is nothing God cannot see, hear, or know (Psalm 44:21; 90:8). So any attempt to keep secrets from God is pointless (Jeremiah 23:24; Mark 4:22). Further, every deed and thought is going to be public knowledge someday (Matthew 12:36; 2 Peter 3:10). Then again, some secrets are better kept away from our enemies—something Samson failed to consider (Judges 16:16–21). Aspects of military, law enforcement, or business may also require confidentiality (Joshua 2:1). This, in some cases, is because the knowledge is literally owned by other people. Betraying confidential information in a business setting, for example, is not significantly different from stealing.
There are aspects of our lives that we are explicitly told not to maintain secrecy over, such as our faith (Matthew 5:14–16). There are other aspects of our lives that are just between ourselves and God (Matthew 6:6), even if what’s kept private are good things (Matthew 6:4). Keeping something confidential out of sound discretion is not necessarily a bad thing. But avoiding confession and repentance of our sins is another story (1 Corinthians 4:2; Proverbs 28:13; 1 Peter 2:16). Whether the information is ours or someone else’s, we need to ask, “Am I keeping this a secret for a good reason?”
The Bible demands confidentiality in some areas. We are obligated to honor secrets told to us in confidence, unless there is a pressing reason not to (Proverbs 11:13; 12:23). In fact, those who cannot keep secrets are to be avoided: “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19). The need to maintain confidence even applies when challenging others about their own sin (Matthew 18:15). Joseph’s initial response to Mary’s pregnancy was a quiet divorce, done in confidence (Matthew 1:19), a choice credited to his righteousness.
Confidentiality with discretion is important even when the information concerns our enemies (Proverbs 25:9; 17:9). At some point, it may become necessary to publicly denounce sin (1 Timothy 5:20). But this is not meant to be our first reaction to such information (Matthew 18:15–17).
Biblically, there is great value in having the discretion to know when to keep something private and when to pass the information to others. We should be especially wary of hiding personal secrets so that we don’t have to deal with our own sin and the temptation to expose others out of spite or vengeance. Rather than being gossips (Proverbs 16:28; 1 Timothy 5:13) or overly argumentative (1 Timothy 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:23), we should take the high road with what we know. Confidentiality is important, but it must be kept in a scripturally sound way.