Whoever walks in integrity walks securely. Proverbs 10:9 Science can only succeed when it is grounded in integrity. Sir Paul Nurse. Success without integrity means nothing. Hugo Boss.
Knowing to whom we are accountable lies at the heart of integrity. Is it self, public opinion or God? This paper aims to distinguish self-referential integrity from a Christian understanding of integrity that is accountable to Christ. Integrity faces counter-currents and riptides capable of causing our scattered self to drift, sometimes to drown. We will describe examples of these undercurrents to warn of their force; they are not always easy to discern and continually change direction and intensity to sweep us off our feet. We will also examine some of the flawed solutions that we fondly hope will be adequate to protect our integrity, but turn out to be a wholly inadequate selective moralism. Finally, we will attempt to define the key ingredients of Christian integrity in terms of moral accountability, relational consistency and personal discipline.
A person of integrity harmonises their thoughts, words and deeds. The Latin ‘integer’ means ‘working well, undivided, integrated, intact and uncorrupted’. The Apostle Paul had integrity in mind when he wrote ‘what we are… when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.’ John Stott sees integrity where there is ‘no dichotomy between their public and their private lives, between what they profess and what they practise, between their words and their deeds.’ Dictionary definitions revolve around goodness, soundness, honesty, sincerity. ‘Integrity’ is not a single word in biblical literature, yet there are places where it is used to translate a range of words, particularly in wisdom literature: true, holy, good, righteous, upright.
We admire integrity because it is uncommon. We recognise that a person may profess integrity while living a contradictory reality. However, definitions which focus solely on consistency could accommodate anyone who is consistently and sincerely misguided or evil. So we recognise that ‘integrity’ involves adherence to some moral standard – but what? A portmanteau of virtue undefined may be self-serving. Polonius’ aphorism, ‘above all, to thine own self be true’ is well-tuned to our individualistic culture. But Hamlet regarded Polonius as a tedious fool spouting clichés. Since we are finite, and our hearts are ‘deceitful above all things’, being true to oneself can lead into a cul-de-sac of questionable preferences. Being answerable to public standards of conduct may be better founded: the Apostle Paul urges us: ‘Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.’ Yet public standards shift with public opinion over time. Jesus warns us that seeking public approval may lead to hypocrisy rather than integrity. For the Christian, approval is primarily sought not from human opinion but from the Lord. This underpins our sense of responsibility and frees us from over-reliance on the approval of others. Only in Jesus, the exact representation of God’s character, do we find pure integrity on which to ground our integrity. In Him alone there is no darkness at all, only faithfulness.
The drift: what is integrity up against?
Have you been guilty of stealing stationery, evading VAT, redefining promises, embroidering CVs, eating too much, exaggerating expenses, speeding, shoplifting, trespassing, littering, gossiping? Why do I write with such planks in my eye? Integrity is central to flourishing and can only propagate in personal, institutional and community settings if a critical mass of people work together towards it. Without integrity, social and transaction costs mount through corruption and the burden of compliance, insurance and reputation damage. Integrity is under the spotlight in our culture because of the repercussions where it is devalued. The sexual allegations against staff working in international development agencies impact themselves, their whole organisation, and the entire sector. The speed with which drift can sweep away an individual or organisation is sobering.
Integrity has been as acclaimed as it has been counterfeited. Everyone applauds it. Nine hundred aphorisms on integrity are tagged online, some proverbial: ‘If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.’ Eisenhower said, ‘the supreme quality of leadership is unquestionably integrity.’ We all agree. No-one believes themselves devoid of it; but we regard it as rare in others.
The scattered self is morally skewed to its own interests by thinking, saying and doing right whenever it costs little. We are all familiar with it in our own lives. Drift is intrinsic: integrity requires single-minded focus on serving one Master. We find it hard to sustain integrity even in daily discourse, let alone in crises. We all face the downward pull of moral gravity from the social environment we inhabit.
Let’s start with the tongue and verbal unreliability. ‘I am a man of unclean lips’. Almost everyone lies, almost all the time, whenever they can get away with it, provided they ‘still feel good about their own sense of integrity’. It appears that the grandmothers of undergraduates about to sit finals are nineteen times more likely than normal to die, and the figure is fifty times among failing students! Mendacity permeates Tennessee Williams’s narrative of a Mississippi household tottering from decay in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?’ is the refrain. It is hard to tell truth from lies.
Misremembered half-truths, denigration, alternative facts – all contribute to false testimony. Fear of micro-aggression elaborates our efforts to speak correctly rather than truthfully. Aggressive victimhood suppresses discourse. The tongue is full of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Politicians and journalists top the list of mistrusted professions; clergy have tumbled below hairdressers! Loosening Scripture, loosening church discipline, loosening ties to our historic creeds can seem progressive. So can over-claimed spirituality, over-realised eschatology and over-individualised revelation. They all corrode veracity and damage reliable testimony.
Word of the Year, ‘post-truth’, describes situations in which facts are ‘less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion’. We accept advice when it chimes with what we desire. Contrast how we greet advice on climate, obesity and safe sex. Evan Davis comments, ‘we evidently are quite happy to believe untruths’. Why else is so much fake news published and consumed? Despite the fever around ‘post-truth’ hyped by Donald Trump’s effervescence, its analysis reveals few new realities. Humanity spreads delusions and we all find it hard to know what to believe. The Internet facilitates unrestrained assertion, and untested acceptance.
Sexual wandering has become commonplace in our culture as sexual boundaries have been washed away in the pursuit of individualism. Sexual misdemeanour is hardly a new threat to integrity. But the recriminations around Harvey Weinstein expose the polluted harvest we have reaped from an era of sexual freedom constrained by little more than the quicksand of ‘consent’ shamelessly claimed by abusers. Yet when Billy Graham adopted a personal manifesto of integrity designed to avoid such misadventure, he was derided as puritan. We rightly prosecute sex abuse, yet normalise pornography; 28 % of 11-year-olds report seeing porn and 65 % by the age of 15. The Children's Commissioner has voiced strong concerns. Our scattered sexuality is incompatible with our children’s integrity.
Disrespect for authority is another swirling current. We confront leaders with intractable opinions. We demand higher benefits and lower taxes. They face invasive scrutiny, relentless criticism, even violence. When things go awry there are calls for professionals to be struck off, criminal charges, revenge. We are impatient with the complexities of governing – weighing unintended consequences, balancing competing stakeholder interests, evaluating expert opinion. We oppose major projects (transport, renewable energy), denounce election results (‘I didn’t vote for it’), demonise opponents (Brexit, Scottish Independence). The decline in the quasi-Christian consensus of the past 1,000 years has coincided with the eruption of choice through new ideologies and technologies, fragmenting public consensus about moral integrity and devaluing submission to authority.
Then there is the treacherous water of defective governance in working life. Lack of integrity embedded in Enron’s profit culture, in its ‘rank and yank’ annual appraisal system, and in obscure accounting that masked losses, led to its collapse and $11bn lost in shares. Arthur Andersen, one of the top five global accountancy firms, faced criminal charges and was dissolved. Jeff Skilling, one of America’s most esteemed business leaders and Enron’s CEO, went to jail. MPs have described a similar store window of respectable governance at BHS cloaking self-serving leadership and personal greed that plundered the high street chain, costing 11,000 jobs and jeopardising 20,000 pensions. The Institute of Directors champions good governance; yet allegations over its Chairwoman’s abusive behaviour led to her resignation and counter-claim that the investigation was defective, utterly undermining any credibility the IoD might claim on good governance. More mundane massaging of personal expenses exists in all sectors, as MPs know only too well.
Our tendency to drift from integrity reflects our susceptibility to verbal unreliability, sexual wandering, disrespect of authority and defective governance. We underestimate how slender a bulwark integrity is and how swiftly drift can overwhelm us in its absence. Integrity is eroded by many currents and some of the solutions for dealing with them amount to little more than selective moralism which turns out to be flawed.
Many of us believe ourselves to be protected by our integrity. Yet ‘impeccable’ public figures seem to be holed below the waterline regularly, with widespread glee and disgust. Why?
Legality cannot be a substitute for integrity. If we look at family relationships, we see the impotence of legality in preventing marriage failure. Marriage vows are legally binding relational promises; they embrace a future where ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are predictable. Promises are intended to liberate us from the tyranny of alternatives. As understood by all societies until recently, marriage is intended to provide a secure base for children with their biological parents. But easy divorce repositions marriage vows as negotiable rights: 42 % of marriages end in divorce. In any case, many opt out of marriages altogether. The upshot of these choices: 91 % of lone parents are mothers. Three times more cohabitees (27 %) than marrieds (9 %) split before their child is five. Separations absorb 35 % of the annual increase in housing. Millions of grandparents have little or no access to their grandchildren. Who can still believe that becoming a couple concerns just two individuals? Needless to say, many types of sexual behaviour lie beyond the reach of law: sexual recreation, the ‘hook-up’ culture, out-of-wedlock births, transient coupling, ‘conscious uncoupling’, and so on. Something more than legality is needed if men and women are to exhibit integrity towards their word, their commitments, their dependants and their communities.
Regulation is legality’s attempt to impose integrity through detailed rules. For example, the ‘Nolan principles’ require public officials to declare conflicts of interest. In the context of health and social care, 800 words clarify the ‘duty of candour’. Such micromanagement may prompt more external conformity than internal integrity. There is a role for regulation in enforcing good governance where Christians can work wholeheartedly with society and with the grain of integrity; but it will never be as effective as ‘utmost good faith’, a motto that City institutions once claimed as principle. Jonathan Sacks says we have ‘chosen to worship the idols of the self – the market, consumerism, individualism, autonomy, rights and “whatever works for you”’. It is impossible to regulate all such idols.
Democracy is founded on majority opinion. If democracy determined morality, we would have to accommodate Nazism’s democratic mandate. Pliny, Governor of Bithynia (c. ad 112), reflected majority opinion when he asked Emperor Trajan how to handle the contagion of a fundamentalist minority. Torture revealed them to be ‘a depraved and excessive superstition’. Today we know them as ‘Christians’. The transatlantic slave trade was upheld in Europe by majority opinion for centuries before a minority campaigned for its overthrow. Majorities often vilify opponents yet most social reforms begin with minorities. Moral majorities are fickle, sometimes oppressive to the powerless. One generation’s consensus is overturned by another. ‘The majority is never right.’
Inclusiveness has exerted extraordinary dominance over contemporary attitudes to integrity by welcoming many who felt excluded. Jesus is arguably the least, and the most, inclusive religious leader. Tolerance can rapidly trigger exclusion. It is unsettling to find inclusiveness suppressing debate across universities that used to pride themselves on examining divergent ideas. How easily criteria can change: the National Council for Civil Liberties tolerated the Paedophile Information Exchange’s affiliation in the 1980s – tolerance that seems inconceivable today. Tolerance can bare angry fangs when a Bishop or a party leader confesses to holding traditional views about the Bible’s teachings which have remained sound doctrine for generations according to the Vincentian Canon. ‘Inclusive’ and ‘angry’ are baffling bedfellows. Inclusion sometimes amounts to little more than muscular, secular culture thrusting its supremacy on all, equally.
Selective moralism is too self-referential to withstand the currents flowing against integrity. Legality, democracy and inclusiveness can inadvertently condone conduct that is relationally contradictory, morally threadbare and personally self-serving. Let us consider how we might pursue a more single-minded integrity capable of becoming contagious.
Christian integrity requires breadth spanning all aspects of our thought, word and deed. Scripture emphasises wholeheartedness more than faultlessness – or God would never have selected King David, murderer and womaniser, as an example. Vignettes of integrity in Scripture are generally highly practical. We can explore three themes that might help promote Christian integrity.
Integrity has an objective moral core independent of personal or public conviction. This rescues it from earnest sincerity and defiant cultural fashions (‘what right do you have to judge me?’). Societies have practised infanticide and human sacrifice with impunity. Who knows how future generations may judge us? Integrity needs an objective standard beyond the reach of individual and cultural vagaries. The pursuit of happiness has so blunted our moral senses that we exalt feelings as a reliable guide to truth. We confuse sentiment with substance; kindness with truth. We fail to distinguish doing what is right, from doing what seems right to us. Without truth we hollow out integrity. Integrity without moral accountability is like a tortoise without a shell.
Integrity requires moral discernment and critical thinking, individually and collectively. Stephen Carter places this centre-stage: ‘Discerning what is right and what is wrong... requiring a degree of moral reflectiveness’. Reasoning and reflection are key to discerning right from wrong, reliable testimony from specious plausibility. This is perhaps the toughest task we face when complex issues are cunningly presented with sly timeliness by partisan interests. Effective deception offers almost the whole truth. Thoughtful reflection on moral accountability, in partnership and in prayer, offers the best hope of living a disinterested and generous life.
In a messy world, discerning the best path ahead may include contemplating moral ambiguities. This could lead to dreadful consequences. The collision in 1942 between RMS Queen Mary and her escort, HMS Curacoa, sliced the latter in two with over 300 lives lost. The captain of the Queen Mary had to decide whether to turn back to rescue his compatriots; he pressed on. This terrible decision was eased by orders to keep steaming in all circumstances, given that speed was the main defence against the U-boats threatening the 10,000 troops on his own vessel.
Was the captain courageous or cruel? Armchair critics with no difficulty in changing opinions in hindsight can readily denounce others for perceived shortcomings. Decisions never implemented have the advantage of never generating unforeseen consequences or least worst outcomes. Moral accountability is consistent with evaluating barbed dilemmas to make optimal decisions. Inflexibility on moral dilemmas in a fallen world is often immaturity championing ideals at the expense of progress. It fails to acknowledge that integrity’s fullness will not be revealed until Christ returns in His fullness.
Moral accountability connects with our lives at three levels. First, we are accountable to ourselves for reflecting self-critically; but we can deceive ourselves, crying ‘Lord, Lord,’ while pursuing our own path, paying limited attention to His words. Secondly, we are accountable to others, including human authority. This too can prove unreliable as politically correct clamour comes and goes, often imposed by public disapproval – an instant and erratic form of which is Internet trolling. Ultimately, the only meaningful accountability is to Christ at His judgement seat. This is transformative for Christian integrity. God brings every deed into judgement, every idle word, every hidden thing. Every knee will bow. 
Relational consistency 
Christians are called to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. So moral accountability expresses itself most conspicuously in relationships. Integrity requires our dealings with others to be honest, transparent and without conflicts of interest. It has a gentle human face. It nurtures doing right by others, loving generous relationships and walking with humility. Paul’s poem on love urges us to be patient in restraining self-regard, kind in arousing self-giving. There is tenderness in integrity as well as a sharp edge; a yielding to one another as well as an insistence upon principle. It values the delicacy of freesias as much as the strength of oaks. Integrity is willing to give or receive rebuke, to care for the interests of others, and work for reconciliation. Strikingly, we are to love even our enemies who may be seeking our downfall. This requires us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.
‘Relational consistency’ invests in compassionate, dignified, lasting relationships to create flourishing communities for all of us with our differing identities and disabilities. In contrast to altruism ‘mostly aimed at members of our own group’, integrity demands that we love our neighbours, whoever they may be. We care about their economic security, but do not evaluate every decision by the measure of maximum profitability. We care about changing climate, polluted seas and depleted biodiversity; we cannot love our neighbour while ignoring these impacts. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’ So we integrate and do not compartmentalise social, economic and environmental wellbeing recognising that, in our God-given stewardship of the natural world, we are of nature, not above it. This calls for courage and a refusal to countenance the powerful destroying the innocent. We cannot turn away saying, ‘I never knew’.
The burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI) will create a whole new matrix of relationships involving anthropomorphic machines. While we welcome AI’s opportunities for humankind in digital, physical and political arenas, there is a pressing role for Christians to help imagine AI in soft robotics, autonomous weapons and work so that relational integrity functions in its standards and governance.
Integrity in relationships is exacting and we all stumble in many ways. Jesus’ Beatitudes acknowledge our spiritual frailties. He offers mercy as a way back to restore us when we stumble. Judah sold his half-brother Joseph to slavers, married a pagan, used a prostitute, fathered Jesus’ ancestor Perez thereby, then ordered the prostitute’s death by burning. Astonishingly, he became the source of Christ’s title, ‘Lion of Judah’. Such is God’s pledge of restoration amidst our failures. Integrity takes years to build, seconds to destroy, and grace to rebuild.
Despite our brokenness we are loved by God our Father, united with Christ, and filled with His Spirit. We are made in His image to reflect His tender mercy, full of grace and truth. Integrity reflects God’s love, majestic in its wisdom, that cries out in the public square. Hence we look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Integrity costs. It is willing to act at a price. Few people have suffered as Job. His integrity stood out to God, ‘a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil. And he has maintained his integrity.’ His wife scorned, ‘Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.’ Job insisted, ‘I will never concede… I will defend my integrity until I die.’
There has never been a golden age of integrity. Indeed, sages through the ages have wrestled with it. The philosopher Cato was noted for his stoic integrity. He lived frugally despite inherited wealth; prosecuted public servants for misappropriating funds; scrupulously attended the Senate; and ran for Consul without using bribery. He lost. He committed suicide in 46 bc rather than serve under Julius Caesar. Dante cited him as the illuminating virtue of Rome.
Self-discipline is tested by heavy losses or large prizes. We are reluctant to put at risk our influence, status, security. Yet sometimes we have to bear the cost of confronting vested interests. The alternative is longing to be liked, by pining to be positive. Christian integrity is frequently despised, unless it is smoothly affirming and shrinks from contending against wrong. We must decide how far we prize our social privileges, for they tend to draw us into painting the toenails of the rich, rather than washing the feet of the poor. This may serve our culture, but it will not extend God’s Kingdom.
A powerful disincentive to pursuing integrity is the charge of hypocrisy when we fail. Why bother with self-discipline if public disgrace is ready to pounce? One lapse of discipline from a person of ‘integrity’ can destroy that person without recovery. By contrast, base behaviour, even by presidents and princes, may be overlooked if it is brazen. The stinging charge of hypocrisy, ever present for us all, requires more personal discipline, not abandoning its pitted path on which we all stumble.
Integrity is willing to listen to diverse perspectives, respect difference, and resist our own prejudice. I have been helped by friends who have been willing to be frank when it was least welcome! They form part of our hinterland that nourishes integrity at the front line. Decisions are enriched by unfamiliar, minority voices; it requires discipline to listen to difference and not sweep on arrogantly. Isaiah warns those who light their own fires in their own way, without listening to the voice of God, that they will ignite their own torment.
We started with the tongue. Perhaps we should end there. It is a small member to discipline. Nevertheless, there are few greater tests of our commitment to integrity. How often can others rely on our ‘yes’ meaning yes, and our ‘no’ meaning no? We subtly justify a small lie to avert a big crisis. But we will need to nurture integrity, iron sharpening iron, if guile is not to pervade our vernacular.
Personal discipline is critical to negotiating the undercurrents threatening our integrity. It mitigates the risks of the scattered self. It is at its most convincing when we practise it not for self-satisfaction or public approval but for our Father who sees in secret.
Integrity is indispensable to human flourishing. It faces powerful crosscurrents that can sweep it away exposing the jagged rocks of our self-justifying individualism and transient public opinion.
Christian integrity is not a portmanteau of undefined ‘good’. It is not defended by the flawed solutions of selective moralism. It is not self-referential, but Christ-deferential. When unsure of the path to take, our eyes are upon Him.
Christian integrity prioritises moral accountability, relational consistency and personal discipline. It is a lifelong endeavour, always demanding, never perfected. For tomorrow trials may come, unforeseen or self-inflicted, when utmost good faith will be crucial. So we pray, ‘lead us not into temptation’. In this knowledge, integrity offers space for grace and restoration.
We all have our own integrity: atheists advocate noble convictions, dictators display steely consistency, thieves exhibit honour. The question is, ‘what is the purpose of your integrity?’ Christian integrity is a passion to harmonise thoughts, words and deeds around God’s rich store of wisdom, conscious that we cannot evade our moral accountability to Him. ‘The fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.’
About the Author
Rodney Green CBE studied law and theology at Cambridge University. He was Chief Executive of Leicester City Council from 1996 to 2008 and has held non-executive roles in British Waterways, A Rocha International and The Order of St John as Prior/Chair of St John Ambulance. He is the author of 90,000 Hours: managing the world of work (SU 2002). He and his wife Helen have two adult sons and four grandchildren.
 ‘Making Science Work’, Lecture at De Montfort University, 6 December 2017.
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 2 Cor. 10:11.
 Jonathan Lamb, Integrity: Leading with God watching, IVP, 2006, Foreword.
 Job, Pss., Prov., S. of S., Eccles.
 Jer. 17:9.
 Rom. 12:17.
 Matt. 6:1–18.
 1 Cor. 4:2–5.
 Matt. 7:5.
 Isa. 6:5.
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 www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/politicians-are-still-trusted-less-estate-agents-journalists-and-bankers 22 Jan. 16.
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 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation of Parliamentary candidates, July 2017.
 ‘The 7 principles of public life’, 31 May 1995.
 Health and Social Care Act 2008, (Regulated Activities), Regulations 2014: Regulation 20.
 Lord Mansfield, ‘uberrima fides’, Carter v Boehm 1766.
 Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, Hodder 2015, p.261.
 Pliny, Letters, 10.96–97.
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 1 Kgs. 9:4.
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 Stephen L Carter, Integrity, Harper, 1996, p.7.
 David Thomas and Patrick Holmes, Queen Mary and the Cruiser: The Curacoa Disaster, Naval Institute Press, 1997.
 Matt. 7:21–27.
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 ‘I saw him as if the sun had been before him.’ Dante, Divine Comedy, Canto 1, 37.
 Ps. 15:4.
 Isa. 50:11.
 Matt. 5:37.
 Matt. 6:1–4.
 Isa. 33:6.