As mentioned in the last issue, although integrity is not specifically identified in Scripture as a qualification for shepherds of the church, it certainly should be a characteristic for men of elder caliber. The first characteristic of the man of Psalm 15 is integrity (v. 2a NASB). This becomes the theme of the whole psalm. We continue now with the third and fourth characteristics of a Psalm 15 kind of man.
“He who speaks the truth in his heart” (15:2c NASB)
The third trait of a Psalm 15 man has to do with inner truthfulness. In another psalm, David puts it this way, “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being…” (Ps. 51:6). Truth at the deepest level is as necessary to integrity as air is necessary for wind. Truth is the substance of integrity, just like air is the substance of wind. Truth is not just one of many traits, the sum of which make up integrity. It permeates every corner, every action, every thought in the life of a man of integrity.
At this juncture, we must equivocate somewhat—integrity is a process, the end of which will be attained only in glory. Perfect integrity is illusive in our pre-resurrected state. The goal for us is progressive movement toward being a man of truth. Like learning to ride a bike, you may fall off from time to time, but you keep getting back on and learning.
Now, truth has to do both with telling truth to others in our relationships, but also in acknowledging truth about ourselves, whether good or bad. For example, David displayed great integrity when he acknowledged the truth of his pervasive sinfulness:
Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Ps. 51:4-5)
So integrity comes into play even in how truthful we are about our inner failures. As elders we ought not falsely portray ourselves as having no or few faults.
That doesn’t mean we should always air our “dirty laundry.” But too often in the Christian life we fall into the trap of acting as though keeping the law will make us spiritual. That includes a kind of “Christian law” which takes New Testament teachings but cuts them loose from grace– as though righteousness and holiness now belong to those who “do” the right things. If we as elders treat New Testament instructions as a form of law, we convey a law-based spirituality to the flock of God for whom Christ died. The only “law” for Christians now is the new commandment, “the law of love” (see John 13:34, 1 John 2:7). All else flows from that. Isn’t this simply a reinforcement of the two great commandments Jesus spoke of? Only a Pharisee could object!
The truth of the matter is that we continuously fail the second trait of the Psalm 15 man, namely, “He who does what is righteous” (see previous article in this series). Therein lies the truthfulness of integrity. How often do we hear the mystics of old proclaim, “I am but a sinner saved by grace.” Notice, following the example of Paul, the present tense of the admission. “I am … a sinner” (1 Tim. 1:15, see also Rom. 7:14-25).
As elders, we must lead the way in truthfulness at this level. Not a condescending repetition of “I am your humble servant …” but a real honesty where an elder freely confesses when he has sinned against others. This models for everyone else true godliness—not the absence of sin, but the confession of sin and the inherent embrace of God’s grace.
Too often we are muzzled by the fear that someone will jump up and assert, “You have disqualified yourself from being an elder.” But the truth shall set an elder free from a false sense of holiness that no one can emulate. What the flock of God needs is more examples of David-like honesty, the model of how a godly man deals with his sin.
Obviously, some sinful acts (especially when they are characteristic of an elder) may result in disqualification and removal from being an elder. But there are a whole host of sinful behaviors for which disqualification may not be necessary, but honesty still is required. Elders are not to be quarrelsome, for example, but sometimes we do quarrel. Sometimes an elder can be passive-aggres-sive (as in stubbornly resisting decisions in a way that is not overt). That doesn’t mean an elder is immediately disqualified, unless it becomes a pattern of behavior. Better that we honestly “fess” up to it as soon as it happens and ask forgiveness, so we don’t disqualify ourselves for developing a life-style of passive-aggressive behavior. If we really believe that we are not perfected until our graduation to glory, then honesty like this makes sense.
As with the rest of the Old Testament, Psalm 15 reflects a standard that is nothing other than the character of God himself. He is the truth (John 16:4). As his followers and shepherds of God’s people who desire to be Psalm 15 kind of men, we want to be like him, that is, truthful. To the degree we live our lives in truthfulness, we will increasingly feel at home in God’s presence – which is what Psalm 15 is all about.
How does this square with Hebrews 4:16 that says we should confidently “approach the throne of grace so that we may receive mercy and find grace…”? Does Psalm 15 present a human-effort approach to God’s presence as opposed to a grace-focused approach? The two passages fit seamlessly together. Only those who are honest with their soul’s deep need and who embrace God’s mercy and grace will truly feel confident in God’s presence. Grace is not blind to two-faced hypocrisy. Neither God nor sinner is fooled. A person will have no confidence entering God’s presence if he does not believe he needs grace or mercy. Confidence comes only in the acknowledgement of our need for – and acceptance of — grace and mercy.
I remember a discussion among Christians about an unbeliever with obnoxious, imposing behavior. One of the group, relatively new to the faith, was trying to encourage the other Christians to be more patient and accepting of the unbeliever. After all he is in need of God’s transforming grace just as we all are. At this, another believer, one of long standing, angrily blurted out, “I may need God’s grace, but I don’t need it as much as that disgusting man.” Therein is the rub! We all need God’s grace just as much as the worst sinner we can imagine. That includes elders—we still need God’s grace!
This level of truthfulness should be characteristic of us elders, it should permeate everything we think, say and do. We ought to be quick in saying, “I was wrong, please forgive me.” A man of integrity will admit, “I was self-serving in our last elders’ meeting when I pushed for my own agenda. Will you fellows forgive me?” Or, “It wasn’t right the way I stonewalled what the rest of you felt the Lord was leading us to do.” Or, “Please forgive me for not listening to you. Can you explain your view again so that I can understand.” “I am sorry that I distorted or misrepresented the truth in a way that caused others to be mislead in their thinking.”
“He does not slander with his tongue” (15:3a)
A Psalm 15 kind of man does not go about gaining and giving information about another for the purpose of harming that person’s reputation. This is the fourth characteristic we find in the psalm. The Hebrew word translated “slander” has the basic meaning of to “go about,” here used in the sense of going out of one’s way to give information in a more or less covert manner. The KJV renders it “backbite.”
Elders, being men of integrity, should not be those who slander others. Does this mean that elders should never speak among themselves of anyone’s negative behavior? Not at all. There are times when open discussion is necessary so that problems and conflicts can be dealt with from a position of reality and truth. For elders to maintain a distorted sense of “secrecy” can seriously hamper conflict resolution in the church.
There should, however, be caution when discussing people among the elders. The motivation should be love for all the flock of God, the standard should be truth and the goal should be a positive resolution or outcome. Slander, on the other hand, reveals a motive to harm another person’s reputation, the standard of truth is ignored and the goal is building up oneself at the expense of another.
As elders we must resist the urge to pass on the slanted perspective from others without careful investigation. Years ago I was “informed” by an individual that a certain Christian ministry had changed its doctrinal statement, a serious charge to be sure. Upon further questioning, he assured me of the veracity of his sources, although leaving them unidentified. I investigated the charge by calling the head of the ministry in question directly to find out if these things were true. He affirmed that their doctrinal statement had not changed nor did anyone in that ministry espouse the alleged doctrinal error. Following the example of Chloe’s house (1 Cor. 1:10), I reported to the ministry leader the identity of the individual spreading the falsehood. The matter was confronted and the accuser was corrected. However, the damage was done and many continued to believe the organization had fallen into doctrinal error. “He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who spreads slander is a fool” (Prov. 10:18). Let this not be said of us as elders!
In the next segment of this series on integrity, we will look at the fifth and sixth characteristics of a Psalm 15 kind of man.