In the midst of a recent series of comments railing against commenter Felicity, for which he has since apologised, albeit with reservations, chookwatcher dropped an accusation that Hillsong allegedly kept what chookwatcher calls ‘sin files’.

Chookwatcher’s original comment, since removed, added that Hillsong would allegedly potentially use this information to manipulate Felicity’s children. I have a screenshot of this allegation, which said…

‘BTW – you might want to ask your leadership what information they have collected on your children. They do keep a record of the sins of your children. You do realise that don’t you? Are you aware that they use this information to manipulate them?’

In another comment to Felicity, chookwatcher has a slightly softer approach, in a claim that is still on their site…

‘Furthermore, you need to keep your children out of Hillsong youth programs. Those programs are dangerous and leave your kids open to being manipulated and shamed by Hillsong leadership if they disclose personal information about you or themselves. (Please read Hillsong policy. They collect information about you and your family and will use this against you at will.)’

There was no evidence produced to back these claims. They were seemingly based on a Facebook exchange on Hillsong Pastor Joel A’Bell’s Facebook page between Joel and a commenter, who brought up the issue, which has since been removed from Joel’s thread, but reproduced as a screenshot by chookwatcher on their sites.

Chookwatcher decided to publish this information, linking it to Hillsong’s Privacy Policy, which is required by law in Australia as a matter of data protection.

There is, to date, no evidence produced by chookwatcher that ‘sin files’ are kept, nor, especially and crucially, that it is Hillsong policy. In fact, chookwatcher is currently pleading for readers to supply any information that can back up the claim. So far no one has obliged.

Unperturbed by the lack of concrete evidence, chookwatcher posted an article which included the name of the original claimant (still locatable in browsers as ‘cached’), then removed that post, her name, and the original allegations, replacing it with an article that is, at best, speculative, and remarkably inconclusive, renaming the original claimant as an ‘insider’.

In summary, chookwatcher has based serious allegations on the testimony of an alleged former Hillsong member who posted her claims on a social media site with no substantiating evidence to back it up.

The rumour spreads

Then, within hours, Bud Ahlheim of Pulpit & Pen gets hold of the story and beefs it up somewhat in an article provocatively titled ‘Cult of Hillsong: ‘Sin Files’ on Members & Attendees?’, which chookwatcher then reproduced on his own site under the same heading.

You can generally tell when articles on these kinds of sites are speculative or have a lack of evidence. The titles of their posts end with a question mark at the end of a statement, when there is no question asked. But Ahlheim, despite this, wades in anyway.

‘Called the “sin files,” it’s alleged by at least one former insider that Hillsong… maintains a database that records private information about members and attendees, particularly youth.’

This, of course, is inflammatory, not the fact that there is a data base, which is normal for a large enterprise, but that the data base is called the ‘sin files’. And, as far as we know, there is only one ‘former insider’ who is making this claim.

Did Ahlheim or chookwatcher approach Hillsong for a response to these allegations, or did they simply go ahead and produce the articles on the basis of a single person’s claims?

What is their Biblical context for this? Doesn’t scripture state that any accusations should be at the mouth of two or three witnesses? Does a single witness on a Facebook thread qualify?

1 Timothy 5:19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.

A witness is a named person with evidence to back up the accusation. Was the person involved approached for positive evidence of the claims she made? Was there any evidence produced? One would think that if there is actual evidence chookwatcher ‘at least’ would have produced it by now.

Or is this all simply speculation? The reputation of a several people is at stake here, so surely there should be some proprietary inquiries made before allegations are publicly displayed.

Legal requirement of a privacy policy

Ahlheim proceeds…

‘Hillsong, for a church, does seem to have a rather extensive “Privacy Policy.” Found on its main website, the Hillsong Privacy Policy “sets out how we will collect, use, store, disclose, and de-identify your personal information.

Why does the church need to collect information beyond the basic contact information or donation records? Why does it need such things as “idiosyncratic or personal information?” Why is it collecting information not only from the individual directly but also information “we collect from others?”’

Ahlheim is American, and seemingly unaware of legal requirements under Australian law. Of course, if Bud had read the policy properly, he would have noticed that the second paragraph of the policy states the reason for the policy.

‘When dealing with your personal information we as a church are required to observe our obligations under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) and comply with the Australian Privacy Principles, as well other relevant State legislation.’

The policy is required by Federal law. It is also State legislation. The policy is a standard Privacy Policy. They make the following guarantees, amongst others, in the policy…

‘We do not use the information in any way other than in the furtherance of our objects and purposes.’

And…

‘We only use your personal and sensitive information for the reason we collect it as set out above and for the purpose(s) for which it was collected, or as otherwise permitted by law. We will not disclose the above information that we collect to affiliates or third parties without your consent.’

This statement alone refutes the likelihood of chookwatcher’s original claim that there is a ‘sin file’ allegedly utilised to ‘manipulate children’.

Chookwatcher had reproduced this policy in advance of the allegations made by the Facebook commenter. They stated that they intended to focus on portions of the policy statement, not realising, it seems, that the policy is a standard requirement.

In short they are putting two and two together to make five. They have got hold of the wrong end of the stick and are making claims based on a hitherto unsubstantiated allegation.

Rather than taking the time to ask Hillsong themselves, Ahlheim asks his readers…

‘According, though, to the insider source, the sin file on a youth (whether a member or merely a Hillsong attendee) “was sensitive information used to screen people if they wanted to step into leadership.” Hmm. Was confidential information of a youth’s sin used, one wonders, to effectively blackmail the youth with leadership potential in order to keep them within the cult-like confines of Hillsong authority? Was it to keep them beholden to their Hillsong confessors?’

Can you see how this kind of rumour advances? This was up and posted within days of the original allegation by chookwatcher in the conversation with Felicity.

So now we will see how far this rumour will go.

Obligations of propriety for Christians

Even if it is shown, subsequently, that the allegations have an element of truth to them, it is beholden on a Christian, even a Christian critic, to find out the facts before publishing the allegations. This is surely a moral obligation as much as a Biblical requirement.

What did James say about rumours? Speaking of the tongue he said it is a fire. These days, blogs can reiterate and spread the fire of the tongue much quicker than in James’ day.

James 3:5-12 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue.

It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.

Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.

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