Questions of Confidence

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” —variously attributed to Mark Twain, Will Rodgers, etc.

Much ink has been spilt — or, perhaps, many keys have been struck — over the recent release of emails from the National Partnership going back almost a decade. In usual internet fashion, there has been as much clutching at pearls as there has been gentle (or not so gentle) nudges to move along because there is nothing here to see. I suppose with these emails having been leaked, anyone curious is able to decide for themselves.

My concern in this particular article is not so much if the emails contain nefarious plots, but rather the oft repeated rejoinder that these emails are confidential, and that the real nefarious deed was their illicit release to the public. This is not a small accusation – keeping confidence is a serious matter.

It is not very far into the emails that a header is added indicating the desire of the moderator of the email group that all those who receive the email keep it confidential. Not long after that, the moderator emails the group in response to a leak of emails to a presbyter outside the group. In that email, he declares his understanding of the confidential nature of the group. In particular, he asserts that confidentiality exists because of the private (i.e., non-public) nature of the conversation the emails contain.

This assertion (both specifically in that particular response and more generally as the claim is being bandied about) raises a number of questions. How is a confidential relationship created? Does one person have the authority to establish confidentiality by fiat? What about the request of the leader/moderator of a group – does that, by itself, establish confidentiality? If the leader of a group indicates that it was his intention for the group to have a layer of confidentiality, does that declared intention, by itself, establish confidentiality? Would that confidentiality be retroactive according to the originator’s desire, or would it only establish confidentiality on an ongoing basis? What if members of that thing remain after the leader has indicated his intention? Does remaining in a group whose originator desires confidentiality equate to tacit approval of that imposed confidentiality?

Much in line with caveat emptor, I would say “let the one who seeks to establish confidentiality beware.” Confidentiality requires the consent of both – indeed, all – parties. Without that consent, statements of confidentiality are both hollow and unsupported – regardless of what statements are made in the actual emails.

It does not appear that the apparent initiator and the primary communicator did have consent from all parties that this was, in fact, a confidential group. Take the repeated reminders of the authors desire for confidentiality. If membership in the email group was conditioned upon confidentiality – that is, if a prospective member had to explicitly agree to confidentiality to be part of the group – then the emails would not indicate the authors desire for the group to be confidential. Rather, the emails would remind the members of what they had agreed to in joining the group.

The moderator may have desired for the group to be confidential, he may have insisted it was, demanded it remain so. But unless he had explicit, prior consent from the whole membership of that group that everything said would remain confidential, it just wasn’t so. He is, after all, not in the same position as the civil magistrate, who may declare an item confidential (or even secret or top secret) and punish those who violate that confidence. A moderator of an email group cannot take to himself the prerogatives of the civil magistrate, not even that of a superior to inferiors – it was a peer based collective, after all.

This, however, may seem to be an overly legal (dare we say, legalistic?) approach to such a question. What do our standards say about such a case? In scouring the Westminster Larger Catechism, particularly on the 9th commandment, a good many concerns can be raised about the release of these emails. Many of those concerns, however, seem like so much begging the question.

If you are convinced that the matters contained in the emails are nefarious, then you might justify the release of such emails by with reference to such sins as: concealing the truth, undue silence in just causes, or the hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins. If, on the other hand, you are of the opinion that nothing untoward occurred, you might point to the responsibility to protect a brother’s good name or the sin of receiving (or passing along) a bad report. But the problem in assigning any of these primacy from the start is to assume what should first be proven. It is only someone’s ‘good’ name if they are, in fact, doing ‘good’ things under that name. Likewise, to remain silence in a just cause requires demonstrating that the cause is, in fact, just.

There is, however, another concern raised by the WLC’s discussion of the 9th commandment: the keeping of lawful promises. Here, in question 144, the catechism references Psalm 15:4, which speaks of the man who “swears to his own hurt and does not change.” Thus, if the members of this email group explicitly gave their word as to their willingness to behave in a confidential matter, they should not have broken that confidence. Indeed, had they given their word – had they sworn and then changed – there would be a violation to pursue.

There is, however, no evidence that the members of this email group ever made such an explicit promise by which they bound themselves to confidentiality. Instead, all one can find is the naïve assumption of confidentiality, the bare pronouncement of confidentiality.

And, we must ultimately conclude, assumptions and pronouncements are not the stuff from which confidentiality is made.

Author's Note (11/18) 

Since publishing this article, I have been in communication with the coordinator of the NP email list. He has indicated that every member of the NP agrees in an email to confidentiality prior to joining. At my request, he forwarded me a standard sample email. This sample email provides several of the goals of the National Partnership along with answers to two frequently asked questions. It is the coordinator's opinion that agreement to this email constitutes affirmation that confidentiality is a condition for joining the group.

On my reading of the email, I am not convinced that this is so. The email asks for affirmation of "principles and expectations" - words that are not even used again in the document. The section that does relate to confidentiality is couched in terms of wanting accurate and fair representation of the views of others rather than any fundamental principle or expectation of confidentiality.

There is, however, a more pressing question than whether I or the coordinator of the NP email list believes that their invitation email requires confidentiality. That more pressing question is whether the "whistleblower" would agree that his invitation email required a binding oath of confidentiality to join (and if not, why not). Since neither I nor the coordinator know who that whistleblower is, we can only surmise. Much like getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know

At the same time, I would like to be explicit: if the person who leaked those emails believed at the time that he joined the NP email group that confidentiality was a condition for joining, and went ahead and distributed them anyway, he would be guilty of breaking confidence. That may be a lesser sin to remaining complicit in evil but, as I say in my article, one would have to demonstrate that evil was truly afoot. 

None of this, however, even touches upon the question of whether such confidentiality was appropriate. I have restricted myself to merely considering whether confidentiality had been explicitly agreed to.

Dr. Stephen B. Tipton is the Senior Pastor of Hillcrest Presbyterian Church in Volant, PA and an Affiliated Researcher in Historical Theology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. 

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