As a follow on to the recent post about what confidential information pastors should (or shouldn’t) share with their wives, it seems worth spending a moment thinking about the idea of office. In this sense it refers to functions and particularly to duties. Used in this sense, the OED defines it thus:
A position or post to which certain duties are attached, esp. one of a more or less public character; a position of trust, authority, or service under constituted authority; a post in the administration of government, the public service, the direction of a corporation, company, society, etc.
One of the major assumptions behind the post that needs to be explained is that there is an important distinction to to be made between persons and office. When a person becomes a lawyer or a minister, that person has a double identity. He is no longer a merely private person. He has a private life but when he acts in his office he is not acting in a private capacity but in a public or official capacity and in that capacity there are limits imposed on him by his office.
Consider a governor. As a private person he might well ignore insults and even threats but insofar as he holds a public office he is not free to exercise that sort of discretion because, in his office, he is no longer acting as a private person but as a public person. As governor he does not belong to himself. He belongs to the people of the state and he obligated not merely to himself and to his family but to the entire state and to the laws of the state. Thus, if someone makes a threat to the welfare of the state he must act in his office.
Ministers and elders hold an office. Insofar as they are officers in the visible church their duties, a trust, ministerial authority (i.e., they serve the Lord Jesus Christ), and they conduct themselves under a divinely “constituted authority.” Because they hold office in the visible church, ministers are not free to regard themselves as private persons. What they hear or learn in their capacity as pastors belongs to the office not to the person. That information is like the official papers of the congregation. When a pastor leaves the church he doesn’t take the office papers of the congregation. He leaves them with the church because they don’t belong to him but to the office.
This distinction explains why Reformed churches speak about the preaching and ministry the way we do. We usually describe the speaking that unordained seminary students do on the Lord’s Day as “exhorting.” We describe what ordained ministers do as “preaching.” That’s why licentiates are allowed to exhort but not to preach or pronounce the benediction. Those functions belong to an office not to a person.
Confidential information that is disclosed in a counseling session or in a session (consistory) meeting or in an executive session of an ecclesiastical assembly belongs to the office not to the person. It isn’t his private possession. He only knows it by virtue of his office. He wouldn’t know if apart from the office. It’s not his to share outside the office.
As I tried to suggest in the first post, the pastor’s wife is not the pastor. There is no office of pastor’s wife. Her vocation is to love and support her husband. That support of her husband does not require her to know those confidences that belong to the pastor’s office any more than the confidences of the judge’s chambers belong to the judge’s wife.
Of course, the distinction between person and office entails a distinction between public and private. The pastor, like other officers, has both aspects to his life. When he speaks out of his office he speaks in a public capacity. By public, I do not mean “civil” or tax-funded, but public as distinct from private and personal. What he says is not his private opinion but the Word of God as understood and confessed by the church. Of course he has a private life but there must be a clear separation between what he says as a public person and what he says as a private person. This doesn’t mean that he has two moral lives, a private and public but he does have two spheres of responsibilities under Christ’s Lordship and under God’s Word.
There is an ambiguity here. There is another sense of the word “private.” Thus far I’ve been writing of private as a synonym for “personal” or “not official.” The second sense of private refers to that which is no one else’s business. In this sense “public” means “that which is open to everyone.” These are important distinctions in an age that has all but lost them. This is particularly true for those generations that have grown up with the internet and smart phones, who live their private (i.e., that which should be kept secret) lives in the the digital public domain. It seems as if the very idea of “private” has been eroded. Ironically, this has happened at the same time we’ve become hyper-sensitive about “privacy” relative to sensitive information. It seems as if it’s not whether information that was once private will be public but who will make it so and to what effect.
The spirit of our age tends to erode the distinction between public and private, between personal and official, but for the well being of the church and her ministry its essential for them to be retained and, where these ideas have been lost, restored.