“A Time to Speak”—When?
MARY works as a medical assistant at a hospital. One requirement she has to abide by in her work is confidentiality. She must keep documents and information pertaining to her work from going to unauthorized persons. Law codes in her state also regulate the disclosure of confidential information on patients.
One day Mary faced a dilemma. In processing medical records, she came upon information indicating that a patient, a fellow Christian, had submitted to an abortion. Did she have a Scriptural responsibility to expose this information to elders in the congregation, even though it might lead to her losing her job, to her being sued, or to her employer’s having legal problems? Or would Proverbs 11:13 justify keeping the matter concealed? This reads: “The one walking about as a slanderer is uncovering confidential talk, but the one faithful in spirit is covering over a matter.”—Compare Proverbs 25:9, 10.
Situations like this are faced by Jehovah’s Witnesses from time to time. Like Mary, they become acutely aware of what King Solomon observed: “For everything there is an appointed time, even a time for every affair under the heavens: . . . a time to keep quiet and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7) Was this the time for Mary to keep quiet, or was it the time to speak about what she had learned?*
Circumstances can vary greatly. Hence, it would be impossible to set forth a standard procedure to be followed in every case, as if everyone should handle matters the way Mary did. Indeed, each Christian, if ever faced with a situation of this nature, must be prepared to weigh all the factors involved and reach a decision that takes into consideration Bible principles as well as any legal implications and that will leave him or her with a clear conscience before Jehovah. (1 Timothy 1:5, 19) When sins are minor and due to human imperfection, the principle applies: “Love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) But when there seems to be serious wrongdoing, should a loyal Christian out of love of God and his fellow Christian reveal what he knows so that the apparent sinner can receive help and the congregation’s purity be preserved?
Applying Bible Principles
What are some basic Bible principles that apply? First, anyone committing serious wrongdoing should not try to conceal it. “He that is covering over his transgressions will not succeed, but he that is confessing and leaving them will be shown mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13) Nothing escapes the notice of Jehovah. Hidden transgressions must eventually be accounted for. (Proverbs 15:3; 1 Timothy 5:24, 25) At times Jehovah brings concealed wrongdoing to the attention of a member of the congregation that this might be given proper attention.—Joshua 7:1-26.
Another Bible guideline appears at Leviticus 5:1: “Now in case a soul sins in that he has heard public cursing and he is a witness or he has seen it or has come to know of it, if he does not report it, then he must answer for his error.” This “public cursing” was not profanity or blasphemy. Rather, it often occurred when someone who had been wronged demanded that any potential witnesses help him to get justice, while calling down curses—likely from Jehovah—on the one, perhaps not yet identified, who had wronged him. It was a form of putting others under oath. Any witnesses of the wrong would know who had suffered an injustice and would have a responsibility to come forward to establish guilt. Otherwise, they would have to ‘answer for their error’ before Jehovah.*
This command from the Highest Level of authority in the universe put the responsibility upon each Israelite to report to the judges any serious wrongdoing that he observed so that the matter might be handled. While Christians are not strictly under the Mosaic Law, its principles still apply in the Christian congregation. Hence, there may be times when a Christian is obligated to bring a matter to the attention of the elders. True, it is illegal in many countries to disclose to unauthorized ones what is found in private records. But if a Christian feels, after prayerful consideration, that he is facing a situation where the law of God required him to report what he knew despite the demands of lesser authorities, then that is a responsibility he accepts before Jehovah. There are times when a Christian “must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
While oaths or solemn promises should never be taken lightly, there may be times when promises required by men are in conflict with the requirement that we render exclusive devotion to our God. When someone commits a serious sin, he, in effect, comes under a ‘public curse’ from the One wronged, Jehovah God. (Deuteronomy 27:26; Proverbs 3:33) All who become part of the Christian congregation put themselves under “oath” to keep the congregation clean, both by what they do personally and by the way they help others to remain clean.
These are some of the Bible principles Mary likely considered in making her personal decision. Wisdom dictated that she should not act quickly, without weighing matters very carefully. The Bible counsels: “Do not become a witness against your fellowman without grounds. Then you would have to be foolish with your lips.” (Proverbs 24:28) To establish a matter conclusively, the testimony of at least two eyewitnesses is needed. (Deuteronomy 19:15) If Mary had seen only a brief mention of abortion, she might have decided conscientiously that the evidence of any guilt was so inconclusive that she should not proceed further. There could have been a mistake in billing, or in some other way the records may not have properly reflected the situation.
In this instance, however, Mary had some other significant information. For example, she knew that the sister had paid the bill, apparently acknowledging that she had received the service specified. Also, she knew personally that the sister was single, thus raising the possibility of fornication. Mary felt a desire lovingly to help one who may have erred and to protect the cleanness of Jehovah’s organization, remembering Proverbs 14:25: “A true witness is delivering souls, but a deceitful one launches forth mere lies.”
Mary was somewhat apprehensive about the legal aspects but felt that in this situation Bible principles should carry more weight than the requirement that she protect the privacy of the medical records. Surely the sister would not want to become resentful and try to retaliate by making trouble for her, she reasoned. So when Mary analyzed all the facts available to her, she decided conscientiously that this was a time to “speak,” not to “keep quiet.”
Now Mary faced an additional question: To whom should she speak, and how could she do so discreetly? She could go directly to the elders, but she decided to go first privately to the sister. This was a loving approach. Mary reasoned that this one under some suspicion might welcome the opportunity to clarify matters or, if guilty, confirm the suspicion. If the sister had already spoken to the elders about the matter, likely she would say so, and Mary would not need to pursue matters further. Mary reasoned that if the sister had submitted to an abortion and had not confessed to this serious transgression of God’s law, she would encourage her to do this. Then the elders could help her in accord with James 5:13-20. Happily, this is how matters worked out. Mary found that the sister had submitted to an abortion under much pressure and because of being spiritually weak. Shame and fear had moved her to conceal her sin, but she was glad to get help from the elders toward spiritual recovery.
If Mary had reported first to the body of elders, they would have been faced with a similar decision. How would they handle confidential information coming into their possession? They would have had to make a decision based on what they felt Jehovah and his Word required of them as shepherds of the flock. If the report involved a baptized Christian who was actively associated with the congregation, they would have had to weigh the evidence as did Mary in determining if they should proceed further. If they decided that there was a strong possibility that a condition of “leaven” existed in the congregation, they might have chosen to assign a judicial committee to look into the matter. (Galatians 5:9, 10) If the one under suspicion had, in effect, resigned from being a member, not having attended any meetings for some time and not identifying herself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they might choose to let the matter rest until such time as she did begin to identify herself again as a Witness.
Employers have a right to expect that their Christian employees will ‘exhibit good fidelity to the full,’ including observing rules on confidentiality. (Titus 2:9, 10) If an oath is taken, it should not be taken lightly. An oath makes a promise more solemn and binding. (Psalm 24:4) And where the law reinforces a requirement on confidentiality, the matter becomes still more serious. Hence, before a Christian takes an oath or puts himself under a confidentiality restriction, whether in connection with employment or otherwise, it would be wise to determine to the extent possible what problems this may produce because of any conflict with Bible requirements. How will one handle matters if a brother or a sister becomes a client? Usually such jobs as working with doctors, hospitals, courts, and lawyers are the type of employment in which a problem could develop. We cannot ignore Caesar’s law or the seriousness of an oath, but Jehovah’s law is supreme.
Anticipating the problem, some brothers who are lawyers, doctors, accountants, and so forth, have prepared guidelines in writing and have asked brothers who may consult them to read these over before revealing anything confidential. Thus an understanding is required in advance that if serious wrongdoing comes to light, the wrongdoer would be encouraged to go to the elders in his congregation about the matter. It would be understood that if he did not do so, the counselor would feel an obligation to go to the elders himself.
There may be occasions when a faithful servant of God is motivated by his personal convictions, based on his knowledge of God’s Word, to strain or even breach the requirements of confidentiality because of the superior demands of divine law. Courage and discretion would be needed. The objective would not be to spy on another’s freedom but to help erring ones and to keep the Christian congregation clean. Minor transgressions due to sin should be overlooked. Here, “love covers a multitude of sins,” and we should forgive “up to seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21, 22) This is the “time to keep quiet.” But when there is an attempt to conceal major sins, this may be the “time to speak.”
Mary is a hypothetical person facing a situation that some Christians have faced. The way she handles the situation represents how some have applied Bible principles in similar circumstances.
In their Commentary on the Old Testament, Keil and Delitzsch state that a person would be guilty of error or sin if he “knew of another’s crime, whether he had seen it, or had come to the certain knowledge of it in any other way, and was therefore qualified to appear in court as a witness for the conviction of the criminal, neglected to do so, and did not state what he had seen or learned, when he heard the solemn adjuration of the judge at the public investigation of the crime, by which all persons present, who knew anything of the matter, were urged to come forward as witnesses.”
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It is the right and loving course to encourage an erring Witness to speak with the elders, confident that they will handle the problem in a kind and understanding way