I believe followers of Jesus and the Family of God are inherently required to be transparent. In some cases this means being transparent with one other follower of Jesus or a select few trusted people, but other times it is required to be more publicly transparent. Because of this, while wisdom and discernment is required to navigate the tension on this issue, I think all followers of Jesus should err on the side of transparency and even public transparency. I do not believe this is a personal optional commitment that some believers make, I think this is part of being the Family of God.
To explain this further and respond to some of the concerns I want to explore three more ideas in more detail. First, I believe it is impossible for followers of Jesus and the Family of God to deal with sin and bring about change without being transparent. Second, followers of Jesus are simply not promised a “right to privacy” regarding their sins. Third, I believe that the fact that exposing and dealing with sin can be painful and embarrassing cannot be used as an excuse to maintain secrecy about an issue.
Occasionally I will be referring to an unlikely source that I have found helpful on this issue: Tertullian. Tertullian was a leader in the early church, around the close of the 2nd century AD, and his writing concerning why people avoided the public confession required in his day by the church proved helpful as I thought through this issue. So let’s begin.
To the first point, I believe transparency is always necessary to deal with sin issues and bring about change.
On a personal level if you are in denial about what is going in your life, if you are too arrogant to admit you are not perfect, if you are too fearful of the reaction of your community, or if you are for whatever reason unable to be transparent with at least one other person you will not change. If you confess your sins to God you may be forgiven, but you will probably continue to sin. Have we not all experienced times where sins we have confessed to Jesus only to continue to commit the same sin?
There is simply something that happens when we finally are able to swallow our pride or our fear, drop our pretenses and let someone else know what is really going on. Spiritually speaking, at the very least this fulfills the exhortation of James 3 to confess our sins to one another. Practically speaking, at the very least it invites accountability, support and a fresh perspective on the situation from at least one other person.
This is just as true on a communal level. If the Family of God maintains codes of silence and avoids talking about issues, if followers of Jesus refuse to talk about and deal with what is going on in their community, the issues and evils within the community will persist. Ask any dysfunctional family: secrecy is not the pathway to change.
Tertullian’s writing highlights two important points in regards to this issue…
First, Tertullian writes…
I give no place to bashfulness when I am a gainer by its loss…Grand indeed is the reward of modesty, which the concealment of our fault promises us! If we do hide somewhat from the knowledge of man, shall we equally conceal it from God? Are the judgment of men and the knowledge of God so put upon a par? Is it better to be damned in secret than absolved in public?…
Many shun transparency for fear of what others people will say or think. Yet God already knows what we did and it is God who will ultimately judge us and God to whom we are ultimately accountable. So why not confess our sins and be forgiven? Even if the worst should happen, and people around us shun us, ridicule us, break-friendship with us over what we have done, it would still be better to confess our sins and be reconciled to God than to maintain the approval and acceptance of other humans through deception but continue sinning against God.
Later Tertullian adds…
Miserable it is to be cut, and cauterized, and racked with the pungency of some (medicinal) powder: still, the things which heal by unpleasant means do, by the benefit of the cure, excuse their own offensiveness, and make present injury bearable for the sake of the [healing they will eventually bring].
Tertullian points out that the pain of transparency is far outweighed by what we gain from it. Tertullian does not suggest transparency will be fun or easy, but like a medical procedure that is painful or repulsive, transparency is worth it because of the healing and forgiveness it brings. What we have to gain by transparency far outweighs anything that would hold us back from it.
In short, while secrecy may be easier or help us avoid the pain of embarrassment or exposure, it invites stagnation and our sins will most likely continue. What we push away and deny we are doomed to repeat. Transparency may not be fun or easy, but it is required to bring about the forgiveness of our sins and change in our lives. What we acknowledge and accept we can deal with and God can work in our weakness and brokenness.
Second, the scriptures never talk about a right to privacy and they certainly do not suggest followers of Jesus have a right to privacy regarding the sins they have committed.
A right to privacy is a modern concept. Not surprisingly nothing is said about it in the scriptures. We are not guaranteed that we have a right to run our personal affairs however we see fit, with no commentary or intervention from the family, and we certainly are not promised that we have a right to privacy to sins that we commit. I would actually suggest that a follower of Jesus should expect less privacy if they join the Family of God. Let me explain what I mean.
If I saw a random stranger at the supermarket cuss out their children I’m probably not going to talk to them about it. However, if my cousin cusses out their children, we are certainly going to have a talk about it. What is the variable that changes my reaction? The answer is simple: ownership.
With my family I have a stake in the lives of my family members and they have a stake in mine because, like it or not, we are blood and we are in this together. How they live their life inherently impacts and reflects upon me and vice versa. With a stranger I feel no such ownership and at the end of the day the consequences, good or bad, of how they choose their life will be on them and theirs. This is why I would address the issue with my cousin but not with a stranger.
If you join the Family of God, you are no longer some stranger, but a member of the Family. More people, not less, will have a vested interest in how you live your life. Now I’m not saying other followers of Jesus a right to install hidden cameras in your house or read your diary (healthy families have healthy boundaries), but you cannot brush off the concerns of other followers of Jesus or leaders by suggesting you have a right to privacy, by accusing them of meddling in your affairs, and by stating they have no right to involve themselves in how you conduct your personal business. Your affairs are now family affairs. If you do not want the added scrutiny and involvement, don’t get baptized.
I almost feel it does not need to be said, but nowhere in scripture does it suggest that Followers of Jesus have a right to privacy about the sins they have committed. Obviously I would expect the Family of God to be loving in how it deals with evil, and this would not mean exposing sins without any purpose or in an unloving manner, but Jesus does not say that we can sin and that are owed some right to secrecy regarding those sins. This just is not part of following Jesus or being the Family of God.
Third, the fact that exposing and dealing with sin can be painful and embarrassing cannot be used as an excuse to maintain secrecy about an issue.
Some might suggest that certain sins should be kept secret because exposing the sin may cause more harm than good. For example, what if you caught your pastor in an affair? Exposing this affair might lead to divorce(s), children growing up in broken homes, a split church and a tarnished reputation of the church and of Jesus. Should you keep this sin a secret because exposing it might hurt too many people? Should transparency be compromised to avoid the pain and consequences of exposing sin? Let us say a sin is exposed against the wishes of the perpetrator. In a similar vein, could the perpetrator ever hold the person who exposed them accountable for the emotional pain or other consequences of having their sin exposed?
Tertullian again wrote something that I think is helpful…
But you say [in objection to going to public confession], “It is a miserable thing thus to come to [public confession]” yes, for evil does bring to misery; but where repentance is to be made, the misery ceases, because it is turned into something salutary. (Emphasis mine.)
Evil does bring misery. Dealing with evil is painful and messy. It is a horrible feeling when our evil deeds are exposed. It is horrible to see other followers confess things that wrench your heart. It is horrible to see a secret sin exposed against the wishes of an unrepentant perpetrator. But this is part of the devastation of sin.
Part of the pain of sin is the pain it causes when it is exposed and dealt with. Sin gets you coming and going as it were. Not only is there a right guilt about committing an evil act but there is a second cut as it where when we decide to deal with it.
Because part of the pain of sin comes from dealing with it I do not believe one can ever use this pain as a rational for continuing to keep issues secret. To suggest that an evil should be kept secret in an attempt to avoid the full consequences of that evil is, in my mind, trying to do evil that some good may come. This sort of logic has no place in the Family of God.
Additionally, I believe this means that ultimately the responsibility for the pain of the sin being exposed or any consequences of sin is on the people who perpetrated the sin. You cannot commit a sin and then blame the person who exposes it for the consequences of the sin that you committed. I could not have an affair, destroy my marriage, destroy the lives of my kids, destroy my church and then blame the person who exposed it. There might be a situation where a sin was unnecessarily exposed or exposed in an unloving manner, but even in these situations, if the accusation is true, if you had not sinned there would never have been a problem in the first place.
In my next and final post on this subject I want to talk about some barriers to transparency in the Family of God I have seen and hopefully provide some constructive thoughts on how to overcome them.