Jesus Christ admonished His disciples to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” With this imperative Christ was not telling His disciples to try to achieve a flawless Greco-Roman perfection; this would have been a most impossible and demoralizing order. Rather, He was telling them to be congruent with themselves.
In the Church today we don’t often encourage each other to be perfect because we claim to believe no-one is perfect but God alone. Instead we tell people to have high levels of integrity; integrity is often used in place of perfection. When we say that someone has integrity, we often mean they are above reproach. We imply that they never commit moral errors, or if they do, the errors are so small as to be negligible. In many churches people form small groups to act as watchdogs over each others’ behavior in efforts to “maintain integrity”. If a church member deviates from a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral…values” we say they have no integrity.
In other words, the Church has a Code of Conduct. Maintain and uphold that Code, and you have integrity. Failure to adhere to the Code equals a loss of integrity. However, this perfectionistic understanding of integrity is completely ridiculous for human beings to try to imitate; it’s an unsustainable model of behavior.
But this was not the original definition of integrity! You’ll be pleased to know that the word first aligned much more closely with Jesus’ understanding of perfection, rather than the Greco-Roman definition we attempt to emulate today. According to Merriam-Webster the root of the word “integrity” is “integer”, which means “complete”. The dictionary lists the primary definitions of integrity as “the quality of being honest and fair” and “the state of being complete or whole”. Do you see how critically similar these definitions are to the understanding of perfection as congruency with oneself? Having integrity does mean being perfect, but only if you understand these words as implying a sense of wholeness or self-congruency.
If I am “honest and fair” I can be “congruent” or “complete or whole” because I will acknowledge the good and the bad in me. Or said another way: By confessing my sins and my sinful nature I’m being honest about my human condition and am therefore congruent, complete and whole with myself because I’m not hiding parts of myself in the shadows!
Suppose tomorrow you find out the pastor of your church is having an affair. He would probably be forced to publicly admit his sin and resign his position. It’s unlikely this pastor would be allowed to preach or lead again. His church would say that in having the affair he “lost his integrity”, but that’s not quite right, is it? The pastor in this example lost his integrity the moment he started the affair because he was lying about who he was and what he was doing. If our definition is correct, however, the moment he confessed his sins he regained his integrity! Through confession he returns from a state of duplicitous adultery to a state of self-congruency, wholeness, and completeness. In this sense a church leader confessing an affair has more integrity than leaders still hiding their sins.
I believe it’s our willingness to be open and honest with ourselves and others, not our adherence to a Christian Code of Conduct, that makes us perfect people of integrity.
How different would your church look if its members accepted these definitions of integrity and perfection? Would we treat church leaders differently? If so, do you think this would make them more, or less, effective?