1. There are no Biblical guidelines for “transparency,” but there are for integrity
Transparency is an extra-Biblical concept. In church small group it usually seems to mean “being willing to tell us about your sin,” and I think it’s based on James 5:16, which says, “Confess your faults one to another.” Apparently the word “confession” wasn’t a good enough word—“transparency” takes it a step further: the ideal is for us to see all your faults.
But I’m not sure, really, since the word isn’t in the Bible. Apparently it can mean whatever each small group leader or other authority wants it to mean. And of course forcing extra-Biblical mandates on people that they can’t check out from the Scriptures because they aren’t in the Scriptures, is a recipe for trouble.
Integrity, on the other hand, is discussed quite a bit in Scripture. The Hebrew word (for example, in Psalm 26:1) translated integrity in several versions of the Bible carries the connotation of wholeness or completeness, single-heartedness or purity. In other words, you actually are the person you have presented yourself to be.
This is very different from transparency. The concept of everyone being transparent with each other works from a base belief that we are all hypocrites, we are all living double lives, we all have secret sins we need to confess. (At least, I think that’s what it means, from what I’ve been able to ascertain.)
Integrity says, Biblically, “I am not a hypocrite. I am wholehearted, I am the same person in private that I am here before you. I am not living a double life, I’m not living from two selves. I am one person here and the same person at home and even in secret.”
2. Transparency can be faked, integrity can’t
Once when I was having a conversation with a few people, I hesitantly mentioned some of the more heinous crimes I know about among pastors. One of the listeners said, “See, this is why pastors need to be transparent. Transparency is so important!”
I looked at her, thinking, “Do you not know how easy it is to fake transparency?”
So how can one know if someone is being Biblically “transparent”? Well, since it isn’t in the Bible, it’s pretty hard to tell. It can mean, maybe, saying, “I viewed pornography the other day, so I’m telling you all now and shedding some tears.” And the others can congratulate the speaker on his or her transparency.
But this makes it look as if that confession—which may or may not be the whole truth of the sin problem—is the end goal of the Christian life, when it is not. The end goal is whole-heartedness in Christ.
After all, transparency is simply an action; integrity is a lifestyle. If integrity is emphasized instead of transparency, then when a Christian is not walking in integrity, the group should be a place where he or she can be challenged and seek help from safe people.
Proverbs 19:1 Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.
“Crooked in speech” . . . speaking one thing one place and another thing another place. Perhaps being “transparent” . . . but only enough to fake sincerity.
3. A call for integrity promotes (real) righteousness; a call for transparency promotes sin
“Transparency” says we’re all supposed to pull out our sins for others to examine. If you don’t think you have any, you need to dig deeper, because of course you know your heart is a deep dark well of sin (even your heart that has been redeemed and made new by the shed blood and resurrection power of Christ). So it’s important to keep digging until you find it, because basically we’re all sinning every moment of every day in thought, word, and deed. As CJ Mahaney said (discussed in detail here), he wanted to live “close to the doctrine of sin.” The focus of transparency is on sin.
“Integrity,” on the other hand, focuses more on our new life in Jesus Christ. It says that it’s possible to live as the same person at all times. This doesn’t mean you won’t sin. It doesn’t mean there won’t be times you need to confess and repent. But it assumes that if you’re truly born again and made new, you love Jesus and want to follow Him with your whole heart, your whole self.
I know this is a radical thing to say in our modern evangelical culture, but the concept of integrity assumes that it’s possible to do so.
A call for integrity doesn’t promote self-righteousness, which is again the two-faced life, but real righteousness, which is to be found in Jesus Christ alone.
2 Corinthians 11:3 “But I fear, lest perhaps as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity [singleness, simplicity, sincerity, mental honesty] that is in Christ.”
4. “Transparency” presses for a potentially unhealthy openness with people who may not be trustworthy
A call for integrity, and a Biblical description of it, will certainly point out to anyone willing to do some self-examination whether or not they’re living from one self at all times. And if not, a small group can ideally be a safe place from which to choose someone to speak with about it, as they look for others who are living lives of integrity.
Titus 2:7-8 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned
But some might decide they don’t want to speak to the whole group about their sin, and that decision should be accepted. After all, why should you entrust details of your life to people who have made no commitment to confidentiality, who may not stay in this small group, and who may not even be trustworthy? “Transparency” in the church small group setting ignores the trust factor, and as many have learned, it’s important to be able to trust someone before telling them significant information about your life.
5. “Transparency,” by its modern evangelical meaning, silences the victims of abuse
I never liked this teaching because it was extra-Biblical, I was always suspicious of it (and first wrote about it four years ago at this blog post here), but it was when I understood what it was doing to the victims of abuse that I saw it as a danger.
Transparency has typically meant telling us about your sin. As some abuse victims and survivors have found out to their dismay, it does not mean telling us about a sin that someone else has perpetrated against you.
That has a different name, they’ll tell you, and it’s called gossip.
And in the name of transparency, where everyone in the group can make confession of their own sin, but no one can talk about their struggles resulting from what evil perpetrators have inflicted on them, once again, victims and survivors of abuse are shamed and blamed and silenced.
A plea to the church
The concept of integrity, found mostly in the Old Testament, is the same as the concept of “singleness” or “wholeheartedness.” In the Greek, it’s related to “simplicity” and “sincerity,” which would be the opposite of the double life, the life of the mask.
Proverbs 11:3 The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.
2 Corinthians 1:12 For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity; not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God; we have had our conduct in the world, and more abundantly toward you.
After all, the “single-self” life of integrity is a simple life when it comes to our spiritual walk. One doesn’t have to try to hide or remember which lie one told to which group of people. When the members of the group are walking in integrity and encouraging others to walk in integrity, this will bring a lasting benefit that practicing “transparency” can never achieve.
Let’s promote integrity, whole-heartedness, undividedness, the simplicity of sincerity, in our small groups, in our homes, and everywhere, as the Lord Himself urges through the Scriptures, a few of which I’ve presented below.
This will be one aspect of the life of joy for the believer in Jesus Christ.
Psalm 26:1, 11 Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. . . . But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me.
Psalm 41:12 But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.
Psalm 101:2 I will ponder the way that is blameless. Oh when will you come to me? I will walk with integrity of heart within my house;
Psalm 9:1 I will praise You, O Jehovah, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works.
Proverbs 2:7 he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
Proverbs 10:9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.
Proverbs 20:7 The righteous who walks in his integrity— blessed are his children after him!
Note: I believe that “transparency” can be used as a tool by a spiritually abusive church (a cult), as spiritually abusive leaders can use their church members’ darkest struggles against them. Here are the other blog posts I mentioned in today’s article that enlarge on the thoughts I’ve addressed here.