How to Live the Bible — We Need Integrity



This is the sixty-eighth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.

See Mel Lawrenz’s book, How to Study the Bible: A Practical Guide.

In this day and age we know we need integrity, from our leaders, and within ourselves. But what does integrity mean?

Blurred people on street illustrating integrity

Integritas (Latin) means “whole or intact.” An integer is a whole number like 3, 7, or 10. No fractions, no divisions, no ambiguity. Integrity is a state of being or becoming whole, sound, consistent, connected. Engineers and architects use “integrity” to describe well-designed buildings, bridges, and towers that will not fall down because the spans of steel, layers of concrete, bolts and screws, glass and silicone work together to create stability and strength. But engineering integrity also includes flexibility.

The New Testament uses the analogy of a building, a “spiritual house” that is built with “living stones,” in the words of 1 Peter. Spiritual influence does not begin with building organizations or institutions, but with building people and communities. And if those communities lead logically and necessarily to organizations and institutions, so be it. But even then the integrity of the work is determined by the construction that happens at the core human level. Great universities, churches, and benevolent organizations derive their greatness from the person-by-person integrity of building lives and of bringing “living stones” in contact with each other until a “spiritual house” is built.

So if a leader is convinced, “I need to have integrity; I want to build integrity in my life,” how does that happen? We tend to think that integrity means avoiding the big, ugly stuff: no robbery, no sexual scandal, no cocaine use. But looking for disqualifying characteristics is only the crudest way of thinking of integrity. Integrity is both a quality of life and a process of living. It is a commitment to a whole-life process of constructing and reconstructing character, all with a background of humility in which the leader acknowledges just how far he or she falls short. Integrity is a process that is never finished.

The pursuit of integrity includes a growing coherence between public and private life. If someone is one person in public and a completely different person in private, that is leading a disjointed life. If public persona contradicts private personhood, then there is a danger, in a worst-case scenario, that private corruption is being masked by the image of public life. It is almost too painful to recount how many times across the ages leaders have ridden a wave of public ascendancy and influence, all the while hiding a complete lack of character. Sometimes the farce is exposed, and oftentimes not.

Integrity also means coherence within one’s personality. Lack of integrity occurs when a person splits belief from behavior or intellect from will. It is the split person who can preach against sexual immorality while carrying on serial affairs. Crises of integrity grab the headlines, but here is a frightening thought: a person can be divided in far subtler and less scandalous ways, but have just as profound a lack of integrity. Greed is hard to quantify, but it has seriously compromised the integrity of many. Greed can dress itself in the pious clothing of “vision” and “passion.” But when greed is our driving energy, purer motives are choked out. Jesus warned us that one cannot serve God and mammon at the same time, because he knew that we will sacrifice our integrity in the process. Divided allegiances on these matters amount to no allegiance. Leaders who split who they are at the core of their personality are living in a continual crisis of integrity, and it is only a matter of time before everything falls apart.

Paul outlines a definition of integrity in his list of qualifications for elders. Strictly speaking, the list is for church officers, but it serves as a picture of spiritual integrity for all believers.

“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, nor quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well…. He must not be a recent convert…. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (1 Tim. 3:3–7).

A few main themes are repeated in this list: the importance of self-control, healthy relationships, and a good reputation. No one possesses these qualities absolutely, and there is no scriptural “passing grade” defined. Rather, these characteristics paint an overall picture of integrity.

Integrity does not mean sinlessness. David was a far-from-perfect man, called by God to do one simple thing: be a shepherd of his people. What he did with his skills was coherent with who he was in his heart. “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (Ps. 78:72). Here are two sides of spiritual leadership: integrity and skill. Skills may give us success, but integrity makes enduring influence possible.

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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.

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