The Roys Report [Chicago IL]
July 27, 2023
By Will Timmins
A Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA for short) is a legal covenant that binds its parties to not disclose particular information covered under the terms of the agreement.
They originated during the tech boom of the 1970s and 1980s as a way to protect intellectual property (trade secrets, proprietary information etc.) from getting into the wrong hands. But they have increasingly been used—even at times by churches and Christian organizations—in situations where there are allegations of serious power abuse, such as bullying, discrimination, harassment, sexual abuse, or assault. Such “Abuse NDAs”, as I’m labelling them here, are used to silence complainants and cover up incriminating information.
Abuse NDAs are an offense to God, and an assault on the dignity of his image bearers. Here are ten reasons why.
1. They silence victims
Abuse NDAs silence victims. They are used to stop victims of abuse from speaking about what has happened to them.
They are often far reaching, preventing victims from ever saying anything disparaging about the organization or individuals concerned (whether true or not). Sometimes the NDA will prohibit victims from mentioning the existence of the NDA itself, shrouding even the existence of the secrets in secrecy.
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In the Bible, God repeatedly calls his people generally, and the king specifically, to come to the defense of the weak and oppressed (e.g. Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3; Ps 82:3-4). That involves speaking up for the “mute” (Prov 31:8-9). Not all voices carry equal weight, with the wealthy and powerful being at a great advantage. And so the king in Israel was responsible for executing justice for the poor and needy. He was to speak for those whose voices did not carry weight. He was to amplify their voices, not further mute them.
Being mute is not only a result of lesser power and status, but it’s a mark of suffering, of feeling overwhelmed and confused. See, for example Ps 38:11-14, where David is, quite literally, speechless at being shunned by friends and persecuted by enemies.
Words enable us to bring coherence and order to the threads of our experience. But sometimes, when our peace is shattered and we are assaulted by the inexplicable, words fail us. We struggle to make sense of what is happening. That’s what happens to abuse victims—they are silenced by trauma and struggle to find their voice.
When an NDA is used to legally silence an abuse victim, someone who is already relatively mute both as the weaker party and as someone suffering intensely, is further silenced. That is a perverse and wicked inversion of what God demands of his people in such situations.
2. They judge the innocent
Silencing a victim is not only a serious abuse of power that increases a complainant’s vulnerability and suffering. It is also an act of judgment. Abuse NDAs are typically used by defendants (whether organizations or individuals) who want to avoid litigation in court. As such, they tend to be seen as a way of avoiding the passing of judgment.
However, that is misleading. An abuse NDA does not avoid judgment; it deflects it, away from the person or people to whom it belongs and towards the complainant.
In the Bible, silencing someone is an act of judgment. And it’s God’s prerogative to do so. As David prays, “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts.” (Ps 12:3; cf. Ps 31:18). It is right and just that those who use their speech to boast, flatter, and attack should be silenced. The tongue that “struts through the earth” (Ps 73:9) will one day be silenced by God. But it is God who does the silencing. And it is the wicked who are silenced.
It is a terrible thing to arrogate to ourselves such a divine prerogative. How much more so, if those we silence are weak and suffering people whose voice we are called to amplify.
3. They coerce the weak
Abuse NDAs coerce the weak, since there is typically a significant power differential between the two parties. One party is an authority figure or employer, with money, resources, and ready access to legal advice. The other, the complainant, is not.
That power differential exists even before the subordinate party becomes a complainant. Becoming a complainant greatly magnifies their position of weakness. By bringing an allegation of serious misconduct (typically against someone in authority over them), a complainant places themselves in an extremely vulnerable position, at risk of reprisals, victimization, misrepresentation, and so on.
Abuse NDAs are used by those with greater power to coerce the vulnerable with less power, by making their future welfare contingent on their silence.
How so? By the use of carrot and stick. First, severance payment is almost always made contingent on signing the NDA. That’s the carrot dangled before the poor complainant: “Be silent for the rest of your life about what’s happened here, and you get to pay your rent and feed your family for 3/6 months.”
Second, there are threats. That’s the stick. “You wouldn’t want to leave without a good reference would you?” Or, “Signing this will enable you to keep your professional reputation intact.” And so on.
At the risk of massive understatement—that is not how the under-shepherds of Christ are supposed exercise their authority over the flock (Mk 10:42-45; 1 Pet 5:1-4).
4. They bind and entrap
When we were bound by covenant to God’s law, we were in slavery to sin and death (Gal 3:23; Rom 7:1-4). The gospel sets us free, bringing spiritual power to fulfil the law of love (Gal 5:16-26; Rom 7:5-6; 8:1-4).
An abuse NDA reverses this gospel dynamic. It places someone under a legal covenant that restricts their freedom in Christ: the freedom to speak the truth to one’s neighbor (Zeph 3:13; Zech 8:16; Eph 4:25). It’s not surprising that victims often speak (if they can) of how suffocating it is, year on year, to be under a legal yoke that threatens punishment for any infraction of the code of silence.
It is a serious betrayal of God’s calling, an implicit denial of his truth, and an offense against the Lord’s royal law of love, for a church or organization to simultaneously preach a gospel of freedom from legal bondage and to bind a Christian brother or sister in legal chains.
5. They conceal sin
Of course, the reason leaders or organizations use abuse NDAs is because they want to avoid judgment for their sins. Since they fear the bright light of exposure (or a board of governors fears such exposure), they choose to conceal their sin in order to give the appearance of righteousness.
But it is those who love darkness who avoid exposure (John 3:19, 20). Not only are people who conceal sin unable to forsake it (Prov 28:13), but the deliberate covering up of sin (Ps 32:5) manifests a spirit of deceit (Ps 32:2), and is a rejection of God’s only covering of sin (Ps 32:1).
Behind the use of abuse NDAs lies a worldliness that values the reputation of righteousness over the righteousness of Christ, and the maintenance of power and position over “truth in the inward being” (Ps 51:6), a “clean heart”, and a “right spirit” (Ps 51:10).
6. They deceive and mislead
The use of abuse NDAs to conceal sin and promote self-righteousness deceives and misleads people. What is visible on the outside of the individual or organization is not a reflection of the inner reality. Jesus reserves his harshest words for those who outwardly appear righteous, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Mt 23:25-27).
Such deception is a rejection of the pattern of apostolic ministry, modelled on the way of Christ. Christian ministry necessitates the rejection of “shameful hidden things” and “cunning” practices if it is to be consistent with the character of the gospel itself (2 Cor 4:1-4). The person or organization who uses abuse NDAs has embraced what is shameful and hidden and is, therefore, unable to commend themselves to the conscience of their hearers (2 Cor 4:2).
People who are willing to deliberately deceive their hearers are not fit to preach the gospel of truth to others.
7. They commit simony
An abuse NDA offers money in exchange for release from a moral debt and—in the case of Christian leaders and organizations—in exchange for preserving spiritual power and status.
Simony classically defined is the procurement of spiritual power, privilege, or position by money. The “Christian” use of abuse NDAs seeks to protect spiritual power, privilege, and position by monetary means. Others better versed in the history of theology than I can say whether, historically, the monetary protection of spiritual position, and not merely the procurement, was considered to be simony. But even if not, it is undoubtedly of the same corrupt spirit.
Simony is named after Simon Magus, who thought he could “obtain the gift of God with money” (Acts 8:20). Those who use abuse NDAs and profess Christ, use money to cling to what is theirs only by God’s kind gift. Such a commodification of the spiritual is a great offense to God and, like all sin, can only be forgiven where there is the divine gift of repentance (Acts 8:20-24).
8. They are idolatrous
Again and again in the Old Testament, Israel turned to idols, wrongly thinking that protection and provision was found in the surrounding nations and their gods. “When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his sores, then Ephraim turned to Assyria, and sent to the great king for help. But he is not able to cure you, not able to heal your sores.” (Hosea 5:13, NIV).
To whom can Christian leaders and organizations turn who has the power to protect their carefully manicured self-image, and their financial and competitive status in the market? Not God, of course, since he is more interested in ethical righteousness and repentance than reputational management. But lawyers—well they can do for us what God, apparently, can’t. They can offer protection from judgment, satisfaction for sin, and preservation of image.
The way churches and Christian organizations have jumped on the bandwagon of using abuse NDAs (and have often surpassed their secular contemporaries in their use) is a sign of a deep idolatry.
Seriously, abuse NDAs? If you had said twenty years ago that apparently gospel-loving people would use NDAs to silence abuse victims and to compound their misery, most of us, surely, would have found it hard to believe. The people of the meek, merciful Suffering Servant, who wouldn’t break a bruised reed, trampling abuse victims underfoot? Seriously? Are you kidding?
But maybe it’s not that surprising after all. Because when the fear of God is exchanged for the fear of people, our idols will urge us on towards ever greater folly and cruelty. Abuse NDAs are, above all, a sign of Christian leaders and organizations in slavery to idolatry. Like Molech, who demanded that children be sacrificed in the fire, so the gods of money, power, and status demand that Christ’s little ones be plunged further into the fires of suffering, so that the great show might go on.
9. They are ineffectual
Idolatry never works. It is ineffectual and is consistently ridiculed by God’s prophets for its self-evident stupidity. It is unsurprising, therefore, that abuse NDAs don’t work. They are ineffectual in four main ways.
First, the Lord has already seen and heard everything. His eyes are everywhere (Prov 15:3). Nothing ever escapes his notice. Abuse NDAs would only work if we lived in a world where other humans, and not God, were the main audience to whom we must give an account. But we don’t.
Second, abuse NDAs cover up sin (from public view), but leave the guilt uncovered before God. They offer a pseudo-gospel, where all is covered up but nothing is covered over in the presence of God. Pseudo-gospels don’t work.
Third, an abuse NDA preserves the appearance of righteousness by recourse to further unrighteousness, the callousness of which only lends credence to a complainant’s allegations (hence the frequent desire to keep the existence of the NDA itself secret).
Fourth, when the truth does come out—and the last few years of crises and scandals within the church has shown that it has a habit of doing so—the reputational damage is all the greater. Abuse NDAs protect reputation in the short term and then, ironically, damage it in the long run.
10. They covenant with death
In Isaiah 28:15, the prophet Isaiah sarcastically parodies the rulers of Israel. He mocks their folly for entering into a treaty with Egypt, thinking it will protect them from the might of Assyria.
Isaiah verbalizes their self-confidence as follows: “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement; when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter.” (ESV).
In other words: “You are utterly deluded in your confidence. If you think there is safety outside of your covenant with God you are badly mistaken. Your covenant with Egypt is a covenant with lies and death. You have committed yourselves to a pathway that will lead to your certain ruin.”
Similarly, a Christian organization that takes shelter under an abuse NDA covenants with death. Their use involves a considered, formal covenanting to act with cruelty, malice, selfishness, and deceit. That can only bring misery and death in its wake for all involved.
It does, and it has. And it will continue to do so until those who name the name of Christ repent of such utter folly and wickedness.
This article was originally published at Bible By Day and does not necessarily represent the views of The Roys Report.
Will Timmins is a teacher, pastor, and Bible scholar who has lectured at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia.