Integrity and the Conscience
A heart of integrity is cultivated by striving to maintain a clear conscience. Our conscience is the internal mechanism given to us by God to drive us toward sincerity. Like an internal accountability partner, it acts as a witness in our heart and mind to either “accuse or even excuse” our actions (Rom 2:15). When we inform the conscience with biblical truth we are telling it to accurately hold us in check against the standard of scripture. The conscience itself is not our benchmark, but if kept clear and clean it becomes a powerful instrument of integrity as it drives us toward the grand, inflexible benchmark—God’s word.
There is grave danger when a leader ignores the cries of the conscience. All discernment is lost, pride blooms aggressively, and self-deception spins out of control. The young pastor, Timothy, was warned by the Apostle Paul to keep “a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:19), citing Hymenaeus and Alexander as two contemporaries who regularly violated the convictions they smugly affirmed (1 Tim 1:20). Paul knew that an insincere faith and marred conscience would lead to “fruitless discussion”, sinful ambition, and the propagation of heresy (1 Tim. 1:6-7). He spoke often about the spiritual devastation resulting from the conscience being repeatedly snubbed:
“For If anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” (1 Cor 8:10-12; emphasis added)
“This charge I entrust to you,… wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith,…” (1 Tim 1:18-19; emphasis added)
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith… through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,…” (1 Tim 4:1-2; emphasis added)
“To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” (Titus 1:15; emphasis added)
Paul’s language is unmistakably that of spiritual detriment. Each time our conscience “sounds off” we can either muffle or unleash the volume of its impact. Prompt obedience sharpens the clarity of truth’s familiar sound, causing our spiritual senses to go on high alert. The more we obey the greater affirmation that we are honest and genuine. A highly trained, truth-sensitive conscience will give us no rest when we edge toward compromise. If, instead of resolutely fleeing sin, we suppress the truth in rationalization and compromise, the clearest resonation of right and wrong will become faint. Do this enough times and no bell of truth will ring at all! What appears to others as a life of faithfulness will merely be the calm before the storm. Time and truth always go hand in hand, and the small, seemingly insignificant compromises of today will erode tomorrow’s resolve. What’s so astonishing about a leader like Paul are his many bold claims about having a completely clean conscience. At his defense before the Jewish Council, he asserted, “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1). A short time later, at a public hearing in Caesarea, Paul told the Governor, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16). He frequently appealed to the internal witness of God as the ultimate answer to questions of honesty (2 Cor 1:12; 4:2; 1 Thess 2:4; 2 Tim 1:3). It seems clear that, for Paul, maintaining a life of integrity involved the strict discipline of protecting a truth-sensitive conscience at all costs. Hard work and personal vigilance were a given if his ministry was to experience maximum blessing. In fact, he once told the Corinthian church that he strikes out against the appetites of his flesh to bring his life into “slave[ry],” lest he be disqualified from leadership (1 Cor 9:27).
What were Paul’s non-negotiables for cultivating and preserving leadership integrity? We get a glimpse of his heart from the study of First Thessalonians. After approximately three months of explosive ministry in Thessalonica, some of the Jews had begun a sophisticated smear campaign against the character of Paul and his friends, claiming that they had served for personal power, prestige, and money (2:3-12), that they had abandoned this new church in its hour of need (2:17-20), and that they had deceived the new converts by concealing the trouble such new beliefs would bring (3:2-4). Paul was no stranger to scurrilous charges, but defending his personal honor was never his agenda. On the contrary, he always met accusations by appealing to the life-on-life interaction of his ministry. Repeated phrases in chapter two such as “You yourselves know,” “As you know,” “For you recall,” and “You are witnesses” exemplify Paul’s transparency in everything he said and did.
An Open Book
The first of Paul’s principles of integrity, therefore, is to invite open scrutiny. Integrity is cultivated “out in the open” where others can observe whether your words match your actions. Paul was willing to appeal to the specific history and details of his ministry, offering them up to a full examination of the facts. He had no worry that the Thessalonians would find even the slightest lack of genuine care, personal sacrifice, and humble service. If they would carefully weigh each slanderous charge against the evidence from his leadership, they would be compelled to see the situation rightly. “But surely Paul failed at times, didn’t he?” someone may counter. He is human after all, and we would expect him to miscue on occasion—speak a harsh word, act selfishly, or take credit for achievements. But Paul was so consistently characterized by humility about his Apostleship that if someone discovered a flaw, they found his brokenness and contrition as irresistible as his strengths. Consequently, he was free to invite open scrutiny because his ministry, theology, and effectiveness were not a sham or “personally-derived”. Likewise, our theology and character should not be about our success or achievements, but about finding the clarity of the truth and living it. When someone disagrees or misrepresents our life and ministry, we won’t be personally threatened by the resulting scrutiny. Paul was truly free of all such concern, and so he boldly asked that the Thessalonians check the slanderous claims against their experience with him as a leader in their midst!