Should I Keep My Friend’s Sin Secret?

Should I Keep My Friend’s Sin Secret

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Your friend comes to you with a secret sin. You are his accountability partner, and he asks you to keep his sin secret. How would you respond to him? Is it okay to pledge confidentiality or have an expectation of it? Does confidentiality have value in the context of confession, or does it interfere with the benefits of confession? Are there instances where we should tell others about a transgression, even if the guilty party is against it? What biblical principles should guide us regarding sin, secret-keeping, and sharing inside of a biblical community?

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Applying Words

Though there are several questions to work through, let’s begin with the word confidentiality. Firstly, it is not a Bible word, not making it wrong or inappropriate but ensuring we have a biblical framework and worldview when discussing communication puzzles. Christians have brought this modern construction from secular counseling into the application of communication principles. Words are important. Our Christian faith and practice stand or fall on how we think about and apply words (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Word selection and use require our utmost care. For example, theologians have stood at the door of the Word of God for centuries, protecting against any misuse of God’s Word while helping us to understand it correctly. They knew the only way we could have faith in God was by His Word (Romans 10:17).

Historical theologians have lived and died protecting God’s Word from theological error (2 Timothy 4:6-7). The call for theological vigilance and precision has always been paramount for the Christian. One of the odd developments in the past century is how the Christian community has not been as vigilant regarding our sanctification words. While we can be exacting in parsing the Greek, which we should be meticulous in doing, we can be sloppy when thinking about and developing sanctification processes. Sound theology is merely an excellent beginning to a God-glorifying life. Sound sanctification is just as necessary as good theology because sanctification is the assumed outflow of our theological understanding.

A succinct definition of sanctification is the application of theology. Theological knowledge without biblical application can make one arrogant (1 Corinthians 8:1). It’s isolated head knowledge. Biblical application without sound theology can make one foolish. (See the “fool verses” in Proverbs) Wisdom happens when Christians couple sound theological information with practical applications in real-world relationships and contexts (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The call of God is not only to be a stickler about theology but to be just as picky about how we apply our theology. There is a blindside to our sanctification that we must guard just as fiercely as our theological prowess. If we are not as exacting in how we think about sanctification, we’re on the road to being a devil—someone familiar with the Bible but does not accurately apply it (Genesis 3:1; James 2:19).

How to Be a Person of Wisdom

Being Confidential

Because the Bible has a more thorough way of discussing confidentiality in the broader framework of communication, you could extract the word confidential from our Christian vocabulary without compromising what some folks are attempting to solve. Confidentiality is the world’s approach to problem-solving, not the Bible’s. Christians should not think this way because the Bible provides a better way to think about communication. Let me make this point by telling you a story.

Biff was his pastor’s accountability partner. As time passed, Biff learned that his pastor struggled with a porn addiction, a thirty-year secret. Eventually, the church terminated the pastor for other reasons, though those character-related problems contributed to his porn problem. The elders knew about the character deficiencies but did not know the breadth and depth of his problems. Within a few weeks, the recently fired pastor began looking for another ministry job. Biff appealed to him to come clean with the churches interviewing him. The unemployed pastor refused while holding Biff to the secularized standard of confidentiality.

Paul gave the Corinthian church a public rebuke for keeping silent about sexual sin (1 Corinthians 5:12). King David talked about how awful it was to stay quiet about his sin (Psalm 32:3-4), and sent Nathan to confront David (2 Samuel 12:7). Paul warned the Corinthians about how their lack of appropriate confrontation leads to even greater public scrutiny and judgment (1 Corinthians 6:1). When sinful offenses happen, our first call to action should be redemptive measures, not secretive ones. Overlooking this point about sin is similar to cancer: it will continue to spread, rolling over and affecting more people (1 Corinthians 5:6).

Better Words

Though the Bible does not discuss confidentiality, it is not silent on the matter. God’s Word has much to say about how to talk about our relational problems—after you re-frame the language biblically. Confidentiality fits under the communication umbrella, asking us how we should communicate with each other, especially on sensitive matters. The word communication comes from the word community or the Greek word koinonia. The word koinonia means fellowship, community, or participation, which indicates how we are to interrelate with each other in the body of Christ.

The primary way we have relational interaction with each other is through how we communicate with each other. Koinonia is moving toward unity, transparency, honesty, integrity, vulnerability, trust, and redemption. Confidentiality moves toward secrets, hiding, fear, distrust, and even deception in some situations. Confidentiality does not have Biblical moorings, which can lead to sub- and unbiblical applications. The story of Biff and his former pastor illustrates how this can be a problem. The Bible gives better words that teach us how to build community through communication without harming others. Here are a few examples. As you reflect on these words, let the Bible impress you as it teaches how to govern our tongues while broadening God’s assumptions for critical conversations.

Discretion, building up, fitting speech, backbiting, unwholesome speech, a soft answer, judicious, confession, ungodly speech, slander, slow to speak, rash words, grumbling, wise words, and gossip. Of course, there are many more words about communication in the Bible that encourages or convicts us about how we talk to and about each other. Here are a few verses, not to mention all of James 3:1-18. See, 1 Peter 3:1–9; Ephesians 5:22–33; James 1:19; Ephesians 4:25; Ephesians 4:15; Proverbs 13:17; Proverbs 16:23; Proverbs 15:2; Proverbs 12:18; James 1:5; Proverbs 25:11–15; Matthew 12:37; Proverbs 15:1; Proverbs 10:29; Proverbs 17:27

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Biblical Restoration

In the case of the secretive pastor, he likes the word confidentiality because he wants to hide his sin from from view. Matthew provides a governing passage for how we should think about this pastor while never deviating from other directives regarding our tongues. Remember, the goal is not confidentiality, but a community, which will happen in proportion to us being built up in the unity of the faith (Ephesians 4:13-16). The community question, as opposed to the confidentiality question, should motivate us to ask, “How can we have a better community within the body of Christ rather than how can we seek to keep our sinful secrets confidential?” A biblical community has proper motivation for unity, while a fearful one typically prefers confidentiality, desiring to keep secrets.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that you can establish every charge by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).

The humble, gospelized person has nothing to hide and constantly pushes toward greater integration within Christ’s body. Christ came to give us a biblical community (koinonia). He has always desired to reverse the curse that includes covert operations (Romans 8:1). Adam put on fig leaves to cover his fear, guilt, and shame because he was more interested in secret keeping than open and honest care and accountability (Genesis 3:7-10). We do not want to mimic Adam (Ephesians 5:11). We want to follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). We do this through confession, which is agreeing with God about the actual condition of ourselves while walking out repentance within a community of appropriate friends (1 John 1:7-10). The people who do this experience biblical koinonia in the body of Christ.

Loving Brothers

There will be times when a Christian sins. There is a process for restoring them to God. The first step is their confession. If the person confesses their sins to God, they can receive instant forgiveness while stepping on the path to freedom from their sin. But if sin has caught them and they cannot or will not extricate themselves (like the pastor), they will need external restoration from those within the community (Galatians 6:1-2). This opportunity is where Matthew 18:15-17 releases us from secular worldviews about how to help people change. If a person is not willing to clean up their act or cannot clean up their act, the Lord calls the body of Christ to engage the erring friend for His glory, the person’s benefit, the body’s health, and a warning to all.

These reasons are why I would never pledge to keep things confidential with anyone. If someone were to appeal to me to keep what they are about to say confidential, I would tell them that I can’t make that pledge because I do not know what they will say to me. What if they told you about sexually abusing an underage child? It does not mean I am to gossip about or slander them. The opposite of extracting confidentiality from our language is not permission to gossip or slander. Scripture commands that we should not let an erring believer continue in sin. There is a beautiful biblical symmetry between communication that honors discretion and dialogue that celebrates redemptive work in a person’s life, which is the entire point of Matthew 18:15-17.

The process for Biff should have been to let his pastor friend know that he would talk to the elder board to get him biblical help if he was unwilling to take this initiative. He had already made many appeals for him to change. Sin had captured the pastor, a problem that eventually cost him his church, though more importantly, it was a besmirching of God’s name, hurting the body of Christ, and could—possibly—endanger innocent people. The Lord executed His Son because of our transgressions (Isaiah 53:10)—a clue that informs us how seriously God takes our sin. For us to hide our problems from others is to mock the death of Christ. To bore you with my redundancy, the issue is not about slander or gossip but about responding appropriately redemptive on behalf of a person who refuses to act redemptively for himself.

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Case Study Application

If a friend is in sin and the community of faith does not act upon what they know, the community of faith becomes guilty to some degree. Think about it this way: Would you want a secret porn addict pastoring your children? Would you hire a porn addict to lead and shepherd your church? Of course, not. What if we take my questions in the beginning and push them through the filter of community and communication rather than through the filter of confidentiality?

  • How would you respond to Biff? When I’m an accountability partner with someone who has secret sins, I need grace-filled courage to let him know I will do everything within my biblical rights to motivate him to be honest with God and others, even if it means letting others know about his problem should he refuse to repent?
  • Is it okay to pledge confidentiality or have an expectation of it? I will let my friend know that I will love him to the end. I will also let him know I will use the utmost discretion and stewardship regarding what he tells me. He will know that my love for him may mean I will make some hard decisions if he continues to choose a life of unrepentant sin. I cannot hide his sin because I love him too much.
  • Does confidentiality have value in the context of confession? Discretion has value. Wisdom has value. We should never tolerate slander and gossip. Therefore, I will guard my tongue when he confesses sin to me, but because I love him, I cannot keep his issues secret if he chooses not to repent. He will not hold me to an unbiblical standard if he genuinely loves me. He will want me to get all the appropriate help necessary so he can be free.
  • Are there instances where we should tell others about a transgression, even if the guilty party is against it? I have no choice but to ask others to become involved with my friend, who refuses to repent. Not to do so would be like watching a friend bleed to death in front of me while not acting on it. Biblical love must override biblical hate. Matthew 18:15-17 is my guide. 1 Corinthians 6:1 is my warning. If I do not do this for him, the sin he wants me to hide may become more public than he ever imagined.
  • What biblical principles guide us in this? There is no one principle to guide, but there is a gospel to emulate. The gospel is about redeeming, restoring, rescuing, and rejoicing. I want to follow my Lord by being redemptive in the lives of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though I hope to never sin against any of them with my words, I am bound to use my words in the fullest redemptive means possible, even if it causes relational conflict within the community of faith.

Call to Action

  1. What are some instances where you would not share a person’s sin?
  2. What are a couple of others where you have no choice but to let others know?
  3. Why is it wise never to promise confidentiality before someone shares something with you?
  4. Will you review the words and terms I gave and talk about how the Bible’s view of communication is better than the purposes of confidentiality while not making the “confidential mistake” that the pastor made?

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