If you’ve listened to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, you no doubt are familiar with the damage that Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) can cause for those in the church. If you’ve been required to sign one, you definitely know what I’m talking about. Sure, in the secular world they can be used to protect trade secrets, brands, mergers, and so forth. But in the church, they can be used to silence the abused and mistreated, and keep unethical and disqualified people in power. NDAs have no place in the church because not only do they undermine God’s justice, silence professing believers, and devalue victims, but also because they blatantly violate 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
“NDAs Have No Place in the Church”
If you aren’t sure what NDAs are or what they do, here is a helpful summary from Cornell Law, “an NDA is an agreement in contract law that certain information will remain confidential. As such, an NDA binds a person who has signed it and prevents them from discussing any information included in the contract with any non-authorized party” (1). In short, an NDA is a legal contract preventing one or more parties from disclosing certain information. It is no wonder that behind abuse hide many an NDA (See Ravi Zacharias).
There’s no question that NDAs can be used to cover up evil, but that’s not the issue at hand. After all, in a fallen world humans can use anything for evil. The question is whether or not it is biblically acceptable for churches to employ NDAs in any context. I believe the answer is an emphatic “No.” Paul planted and dealt with the most difficult church in the New Testament, Corinth. To put it theologically, this church was a hot mess. One of the (many) things he chastised the church for was the quickness in which professing Christians went to the Roman courts to handle disputes and troubles. Here’s what Paul had to say to the church about this:
“When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!”
“Why not rather suffer wrong?”
Now, the main point of this passage is that Christians shouldn’t immediately go to the law to try a case that could be handled through the church via counseling, mediation, church discipline, or other means. It is pointing out that people were defrauded by other Christians in some way, went out to the middle of the city (where trials happened), and, in front of everyone, aired out civil grievances. That doesn’t bode well for the witness of the local church!
But while this passage is dealing directly with a case of fraud and litigation, there is a principle drawn out from good and necessary consequence. Namely, Christians should ordinarily avoid handling disputes through legal systems. Now, there are absolutely times to get the law involved (namely when a criminal act has taken place). And the failure to do this is how cases of abuse have been covered up. But regular civil disputes within the church should be handled according to biblical principles. Enter NDAs.
When a church has someone sign an NDA, regardless of the context, they are going through the legal system (via an enforceable legal contract) to maintain someone’s silence. How can you bring a dispute to a wise person in the church when there is a legally binding gag attached to one of the parties? And not only that, as we’ve seen through the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, there is usually a financial stipulation attached (Sign this or don’t get any severance).
Some may argue that this isn’t the same as going before a judge. But using the law to avoid going before a judge isn’t avoiding the law at all. Having someone in the church sign an NDA is submitting ecclesiastical issues to civil authorities, full stop. While it isn’t a trial, it is a legally binding document supported by the U.S Legal system and therefore violates the divinely inspired principle found in 1 Corinthians 6.
Don’t Walk, Run.
The number one argument I hear about NDAs in the church is either confidentiality or the protection of the church. And to those points, I’ll simply echo the Word of God, “why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” If you go to a church with a filing cabinet filled with NDAs, I only have one word of advice for you. Run.