On the use of NDAs by Christian organisations

Yesterday, The Times (paywall) reported about a Christian charity that gagged a whistleblower who revealed issues of workplace bullying and its handling of a sexual assault case. They report: ‘The allegation is made in evidence published by the Commons international development committee alongside a report warning that sexual exploitation is widespread in the aid sector. The charity is not named but The Times has identified it as Tearfund’.

The paper go on to report:

The unidentified whistleblower says he raised his concerns directly with Nigel Harris, Tearfund’s chief executive, after the Oxfam scandal in 2018. The man is believed to have worked for Tearfund for more than ten years but shortly after the meeting his contract as an aid worker in Africa was terminated.

He appealed, citing unfair dismissal, and was then offered £70,000 “on condition that I signed a non-disclosure agreement [NDA] and ‘erase irretrievably’ all documents/evidence”.

The former employee claims that Tearfund ‘buried an independent investigation into the sexual assault and refused to investigate my allegations.’ However, as he has signed an NDA, he is ‘legally gagged from telling you exactly what took place while I worked for that charity.’

I don’t know any details about the case itself and so don’t intend to comment on it specifically. What I do think worthy of comment, however, is the growing use of NDAs in Christian organisations, including within the church. For Christians, and their organisations supposedly committed to truth, it an incongruous lever to pull.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I cannot fathom why any Christian organisation committed to truth would see fit to implement NDAs. I can see no grounds whatsoever for churches implementing them. If somebody is publicly slandering or libelling your organisation, we already have legal mechanisms to address publicly stated lies. So the concern cannot derive from a desire to stop the spread of untruth about your organisation.

Rather, NDAs exists specifically to stop people sharing any details of the goings on of your organisation, no matter how true they might be. They are, as far as I can see, nothing more than a means of stopping people from speaking about the truth, and causing others to learn the truth, about what is really going on inside our organisation. If we feel the need to employ NDAs lest one of our former employees tells the world about the inner machinations of our organisation, it rather smacks of fear that the way we are working is less than godly. Our fear is not that we might be libelled – for we can rectify that and set the record straight without gagging people – but that people might come to learn the reality of what goes on. The request to sign an NDA, it seems to me, is tantamount to an admission of malpractice. What value do they have otherwise?

As Christians who understand the reality of sin – as people who claim that all fall short of the glory of God – this surely has implications for our organisations and structures. Firstly, as sinful people who set them up, we must surely recognise that there will inevitably be less than excellent elements of our working practice. Some of these things might be considered minor, many of them would probably be considered ‘non-issues’ in the grand scheme of things, but the idea that nothing we do, neither personally nor within any organisations and structures we set up, could possibly be tainted by sin is either naïve, theologically inept or a case of lying to ourselves. That somebody might dare to reveal sin that we readily acknowledge exists everywhere should hardly surprise anybody who listens to what we teach.

Second, as people who insist on the importance of truth, it cannot be consistent for us to seek to hide from it and silence those who speak it. We cannot simultaneously be committed to truth and to the use of NDAs. We simply cannot consistently hold both of those things at the same time. We are either happy with the truth or we want to ensure that the truth is not known so that we are not shown up for the sinners we frequently admit that we all are.

Third, as people who claim to be for what is just, it cannot be right that we seek to silence those who would note unjust practices. Of course, not everybody who raises these things is doing so because they are ‘on our side’ and are simply trying to help the organisation (or church) achieve its stated aims in the best way. But that is really of no importance. If we are committed to justice and right practice, we should want to change when people point it out. Inoculating ourselves from all criticism, and stopping people from being able to even state their criticisms of us through the use of NDAs, effectively says no matter how wrong our practices, we will put our fingers in our ears because we don’t want to hear it. No Christians should be okay with that.

Fourth, the prior points taken in the round, if we are genuinely committed to truth, justice and a recognition that all of us – and thus the structures and organisations we set up – are tainted by sin, what have we really got to be afraid of? If somebody points out where we are doing wrong, we ought to repent and change. I appreciate that in wider society, we have become hot on the accusations and leave little room for repentance. But as Christians, we are not in the business of taking our lead from the world. If somebody points out bad working practices, or behaviour that leads to injustice, surely that is to be welcomed so that we can repent and change? Whilst no doubt some are being malicious and will only be content with our being entirely shut down, presumably, the goal of pointing out the wrongdoing is to effect repentance and change. Silencing anyone who is in any position to highlight it makes it all but impossible for that to happen.

What is more, if we are concerned that we might bring Christ into disrepute, there is a question to be asked. What brings more dishonour to Christ: somebody telling the truth about what we have been up to or our malpractice in his name? Does somebody pointing out our sin – who is merely noting the reality of the situation – or our sin itself bring more dishonour to Jesus? If (as I hope we would all recognise) it is the latter, surely those highlighting our sin are doing us a favour – whatever their motives may be – because they give us an opportunity to live out the gospel as we address those issues, repent and cease doing what brings Christ into disrepute and instead serve him faithfully as one imagines we first set out to do. NDAs rob us of the opportunity to do that and instead insist that we would rather have our sin, our malpractice, our unjust system than we would have truth or repentance. That cannot be a faithful choice for any godly person or organisation.

Where we have sinned, we should acknowledge and repent of our sin. Where our systems are warped and ingrain injustice, we should want to change them. Where people point out the truth, we should not be more concerned with our image or a claim that the truth would damage Jesus’ reputation as though a refusal to own the truth doesn’t damage him all the more. In the end, NDAs are merely a tool for those scared of the truth and we know what Jesus had to say about those who do not like to hear the truth (John 8:31-47 particularly v44f).