Sometimes privacy is sin against the body.

“Pastor, I want to tell you something. But keep it confidential—we don’t want anyone else to know this.”
“Sure, Pete, you know I’ll keep whatever you tell me strictly between us.”
“Well, Pastor, our son is an alcoholic. And he’s only 18. He’s getting treatment and is dried out right now, but you would not believe the agony we’ve been through.”

“Keep it confidential!” That pastor just agreed to keep secret something his entire congregation should know about. He allowed himself to be cornered into keeping private a matter that belongs not to a few individuals, but to the whole body of which they are part.

This is no isolated experience. It is more common than rare. Church members withhold from their fellow members the hurts, fears, burdens—and also the joys and victories—of their private lives.

It may jar some to have this privacy challenged. Since it is such a typical part of parish life, the practice goes on like other sacred traditions. But closer reflection should lead us to question seriously the appropriateness of many confidences in the Christian church.

A body has no privacy from its various parts. The toe cannot keep its pain confidential, secret, from the rest of the body. In fact, the toe’s pain is not its own. It belongs to and is felt by the whole organism. The communication system is very effective. The news gets around very fast in the otherwise healthy body.

Pete’s pain over his son is not his private property if he holds membership in the body of Christ. While Pete is the father, the alcoholic son belongs to the whole congregation, the entire covenant community. At his baptism, Pete’s son was incorporated into that community with promises spoken or implied that he was now the object of their concern. They pledged to take care of him. He was their son, too. But communication to the rest of the body is being thwarted. Both Pete and his pastor are preventing the necessary transfer of information to the other parts.

In the physical body, if the infected toe is not felt by the rest of the body it is likely to go untreated and get worse. Leprosy is like that, for if the diseased part, dead and unfeeling, goes untreated, serious complications usually result. But if the pain is felt through the whole system, all resources can be martialed to help heal it.

Every day pastors and parishioners are innocently conspiring to prevent the body from taking care of its ailing parts. They do it by requesting and agreeing to keeping secret the hurts, concerns, worries, ills, and tragedies that are occurring in various parts of Christ’s body.

John is having conflict with his employer.

Mary is pregnant but unmarried.

Harry left his wife.

Frank and Betty’s baby seems retarded, but too young to tell for sure.

Ann is in the hospital for a hysterectomy.

Jerry is in a psychiatric hospital.

Earl and Kay’s son has run away again.

Gordon may have cancer.

The list could be lengthened with further instances of the kind of information kept secret from the other members of the church. Often the pastor joins in to keep it secret. Sometimes even he is left out.

Privacy of this sort violates the very essence of the church. At the heart of Christian living is membership in a body, a caring community exhorted and pledged to bear each other’s burdens, to weep with those who weep, and to rejoice with those who rejoice. Keeping one’s pain secret short-circuits this spirit and prevents healthy body life. How can others support, challenge, pray for, weep with, give help to, advise, and confront with an aim toward healing if they do not know what is happening?

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Fear of the effects of gossip fuels the fires of privacy. It works as a powerful inhibitor to openness. But nothing can take the punch out of gossip like being open about one’s troubles. Gossip feeds on secrecy and dies when the news is published. Secrecy thrives on fear of gossip, but actually produces gossip because people are more likely to spread secrets than common knowledge.

There may be other, even valid, reasons for not wanting everyone to know something. But most are born of fear, habit, tradition, and middle-class independence. Pete’s thinking went something like this: “I do want the help of other people, but I don’t want to bother them with everything that happens. When I really need help, I’m able to ask for it and I will.”

The point against too much privacy is not that Pete cannot handle his load by himself. He can and he will. But if he spread it around to others, he would find it not quite as heavy.

But beyond what Pete himself would get out of it, there is another value: the body is reassured by being in on Pete’s problem. Like white blood cells congregating to fight an infection, members of the church body draw together in caring for a troubled part. Seeing this communicates to each member a new awareness of this caring community as an encouraging bulwark in their lives. They, too, are strengthened while focusing on Pete’s pain. So we also distribute our personal problems because the whole body is built up by knowing about it and helping with it.

The fact remains, however, that Pete will be helped if others know. One man told me how he shared with his fellow church members some problems he was having with his employer. While asking for prayer and support, and receiving it, he also was given valuable advice from experienced business men of the congregation. A group of people have a wide array of additional resources that can also help others in crises.

In one church, a special time is set aside in the worship service for “joys and concerns.” People are given an opportunity and sometimes coaxed to say aloud what is going on in their lives. Right now it is only scratching the surface; but it’s a start. Strangely, it is not easy for people or pastor to accept this use of time as being as important as singing a hymn, taking the offering, or reciting a creed.

For the most part, only the socially acceptable common illnesses receive publicity in church. Anything with the slightest stigma is hushed up or only alluded to in vague generalities like “those struggling with marriage problems, the unemployed, those in prison, those with emotional problems.” Seldom is a problem more specific—unless it’s gall bladder or open heart surgery. Announcements, spoken or in the bulletin, veil most problems with a cryptic note that so-and-so is in such-and-such hospital. They leave the congregation guessing about what it’s all about. The covenant community deserves and needs to know details in order for them to respond appropriately.

JIM KOKMr. Kok is chairman of the Department of Pastoral Services at Pine Rest Christian Hospital, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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