This may be controversial, but I’d like to briefly put forward a thesis:
No Christian church or ministry should ever ask a Christian to sign a non-disclosure agreement (or non-disparagement agreement, or any other similar document to the same effect).
You may read that and think, “Okay, but big deal. Which churches or ministries are doing that anyway? Aren’t you tilting at windmills? This sounds a bit like calling on churches not to insist that everyone must eat KFC for lunch on Thursdays.”
But, sadly, NDAs have become all too common in Christian circles.
The most common situation where an NDA may be used (to my knowledge) is where a Christian leader is being accused of ungodly behaviour—spiritual abuse, verbal abuse, bullying, dishonesty, manipulation, and the like—by someone within their church or ministry.
Spiritual abuse is far more widespread than most Christians think, and the inappropriate solution of signing an NDA is also more common than most Christians think.
Here’s why we should do away with NDAs in churches or other ministries.
They silence victims—with money (in the form of severance pay, etc) often serving as the unholy carrot. ‘Sign this, or you won’t get paid. Where will that leave you and your family for the next few months?’ Actually, it will sound more like this: ‘We want to care for you as you make this transition and ensure you get what’s owed to you. We’ll just need you to sign this first…’
[For this and other reasons, I’m not criticizing any individual who chooses to sign an NDA. I’m criticizing the people who propose the idea of an NDA in the first place, not to mention the broader culture that has sprung up and made this seem like a good solution. Those asked to sign may feel like they have—or may actually have—little real choice.]
They protect perpetrators. The sinner’s sin is swept under the rug. Instead of perpetrators being called to account, the victim now faces legal action if they dare speak the truth. The desire to protect perpetrators often arises because (a) others (e.g. denominational leaders or elders) think that they’ll look bad by association, or (b) well, he’s such a gifted leader, and we can’t afford for him to lose his platform.
(a) No, we look bad when we suppress the truth.
(b) Yes, actually, we can afford to lose him. God doesn’t need anyone’s gifts, no matter how spectacular or important we judge them to be. More than anything else, God desires our holiness. That leader is eminently replaceable (and so are you and I).
Maybe most importantly, NDAs eschew a gospel-shaped response to sin in favour of a secular response to sin. I understand the need for NDAs in the dog-eat-dog secular world; but why would Christians who’ve come together for the purpose of gospel ministry resort to this type of worldly solution?
Think about it: If I were a Christian leader being falsely accused of ungodly, abusive behaviour, I would absolutely want the truth to come out. For one thing, I would want to reconcile with the person or people making the accusation. I’d want to know why they were telling lies about me, or why they’d understood my actions and motives so badly. I’d want them to start telling the truth about me, and I’d want to make sure they were okay. I’d hope that they’d ask forgiveness so I could reconcile with them. And, if appropriate, I’d want the chance to apologise for inadvertently causing hurt and giving such a damaging false impression.
To put it another way, I’d want the gospel—not some lousy NDA—to do the heavy lifting of restoring the relationship.
I’d also want anyone looking on from the outside to see my willingness to entrust both my reputation and my messy situation into the Lord’s hands, following his appointed method for handling things. Within a confessional Christian context, I should rather be cheated and wronged than rely on worldly tools of law to protect my good name (1 Cor 6:7). Why should I expect that my name will never be smeared when they crucified the Lord who bought me?
I’d also want my name cleared for the sake of my family and my ongoing ministry.
But once an NDA is signed, you can forget all that.
And if I were a Christian leader being rightly accused of ungodly, abusive behaviour, I need to get on my knees before Almighty God and ask his forgiveness—not to mention seeking the forgiveness of the people I have harmed. The gospel, unlike a non-disclosure agreement, is righteous enough and powerful enough to bring healing and restoration in such a situation—if the perpetrator repents. The gospel can bring perpetrators to their knees; NDAs allow perpetrators to walk between the raindrops.
A common idea invoked in defence of NDAs is that we need to ‘protect the brand’—or, in more genteel words, that we need to ‘protect Jesus’ reputation’. It’s a weak defence.
First of all, we live at a cultural moment where light is finally being cast into the dark corners of long-hidden abuse. The one thing sure to bring the gospel into disrepute is any hint of a cover-up—the powerful protecting the powerful, gagging the vulnerable, to ‘protect the brand name’. Transparency is the right approach, but in our day and age it’s (thankfully) also the more popular approach.
More importantly than that, Jesus’ name and reputation are not ‘defended’ by hiding the truth, especially when it involves vulnerable people being silenced or coerced. The Lord Jesus loves the truth. I’m not saying that all the gory details of every accusation should be shouted from the rooftops—by no means! But there is a world of difference between shouting it from the rooftops and suppressing the truth through the use of NDAs. There is plenty of room for a viable, biblical middle ground. The best thing we can do to defend and promote Jesus’ reputation is to deal with sin according to his word, not according to worldly standards.
Let me finish with (a very slightly paraphrased version of) 1 Corinthians 6. I have to be careful here, because the situation Paul describes may not match precisely with what I’m describing. But I believe the principles laid down in this passage should inform our thinking and shape our response.
“If you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court or signs a non-disclosure agreement about another—and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits or non-disclosure agreements among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.” (1 Cor 6:5-8)
Using non-disclosure agreements is, it seems to me, a failure—a failure to properly protect victims, a failure to properly call sinners to account for their ungodly behaviour, and a failure to trust the gospel to do its mighty reconciling work.