5 Reasons For Church Small Groups to Replace “Transparency” With “Integrity”

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.

In a small group setting, sometimes sharing a meal together precedes the exposing of personal sins.

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, integrity, 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.

It may be that some members of the small group are not trustworthy.

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.

What does it mean to live in community?

Four ways teaching Christians to embrace “I’m the worst sinner I know” is harming the church

Are all Christians hypocrites? A response to a Bill Hybels supporter

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Sônia Acioli
Sônia Acioli
4 years ago

Wow! So true, Rebecca. I wish people could see all this with their own eyes and not be blindly guided.

Outside the old wineskin
Outside the old wineskin
4 years ago

Your insight here comes as a wave of relief—relief that someone else sees and understands another aspect of the pernicious evil that hides in churches.You have aptly described a phenomenon that I know from experience is used to control and in some cases abuse church members. The scriptural concept and word choice of integrity truly needs to replace the problematic “transparency” for all the reasons you describe. Thank you for this.

4 years ago

While the doctrine of ‘transparency’ silences victims, it celebrates the wicked and abusers. All these evil people have to do is admit to something wrong to gain the approval of the church. They do not have to change or to compensate their victims, because they have been ‘transparent’. ‘Transparency’ has become a sick counterfeit for repentance.

4 years ago

The doctrine of ‘transparency’ is sick. It promotes a thinly veiled system of spiritual voyeurism, glorifying peeping Toms and forcing the unsuspecting to disrobe themselves publicly.
Over and over again, the ‘transparent’ are exploited by spiritual abusers, suffering spiritual, mental, relational and possibly physical rape.

And what if we refuse to be ‘transparent’? We are accused of lying, withholding information, being hypocrites… And losing the approval and fellowship of the church.

This ‘transparency’ doctrine is spiritual abuse.

4 years ago

The small group mentality… I have seen it too, it was becoming really popular in the Charismatic renewal in the 90’s.. The emphasis was perhaps not so much on sins, but one’s inner wounds – there was this constant encouragement to share your deepest fears and hurts with everyone in the group, so others can pray for you. It was potentially very cultish – not only is it very unwise to share one’s intimate thoughts and life with total strangers (who may or may not be so benevolent and worth trusting), but also listening and dwelling on others’ issues is not very healthy or edifying. This kind of ‘intimate sharing sessions’ could be very emotional and build unnatural emotional ties with people you don’t even know… Too much information can really be, too much.

It is different if God really brings one to a small group of very trustworthy people, and even then, sharing too much isn’t necessarily a good ‘spiritual excercise’.
As someone who is too open to trust others and share… I have learned it is best to wait for the right moment.
I can see the idea behind it and why churches have wanted to create this culture of openness, but now, as an older Christian, I would strongly warn anyone being too trusting. Even if your secrets won’t be used against you as a weapon(the biggest danger), it may be hard to build healthy boundaries again after too much openness.
Np wonder some men hate church – they don’t want to be a part of this kind of forced intimacy with strangers and half-strangers.

4 years ago

Of course, those who refuse to play along and aren’t willing to ‘be transparent’ enough and expose their private lives in front of everybody, are seen as the problem: they have ‘trust issues’, are not Spirit-filled enough, not humble enough, have ‘strongholds’ that the whole group needs to pray against, etc, etc…

4 years ago

Thank you for writing this. I have seen first hand, both in the college I attended and in various churches, how the idea of transparency was used as a tool to damage and control people.

4 years ago

“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.” (From the note at the end of your excellent article).

I believe this, too, as I am looking closely at how the urging of new recruits to high demand authoritarian religious groups (cults) into “confessional transparency,” and “purifying” salvific examinations by leaders based on those confessions, almost inevitably leads to greater power to abuse and control (even blackmail) the person. This is often truest while the abusive leaders claim their own ”pasts-sins” loudly in public: it gives the controller an appearance of openness while keeping real interpersonal control/emotional blackmail motivations intact and hidden from view.

It makes one want to find a deep source of pure Integrity and take an invigorating breath, doesn’t it?


[…] By transparency he means accountability. I’ve written about transparency elsewhere . […]

1 year ago

Anecdote to support this: A friend of mine shared with me about how an elder in her church, before he preached one time, shared with emotion how he felt unworthy to preach because he had just that afternoon been very angry with his wife and children. My friend admired his godliness in being open (transparent!) about his sins. A few years later this man’s wife divorced him, citing emotional and physical abuse, which he himself confessed to. Hindsight is always 20/20 of course, but like you say, transparency about sin shouldn’t be some kind of end in itself. My friend wishes now there had been some kind of private followup on the part of the church leadership after this public ‘confession.’ Had he confessed his sins privately to his pastor earlier on rather than being publicly ‘transparent’ then he would have been required to step down from leadership and get help for his anger issues, might have meant the rescue of their marriage but would at least have prevented years of the church having a hypocrite as an elder.

1 year ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

thanks. I would just like to clarify that the church (which i had earlier been involved with) did take the abuse very seriously once it actually came out, and the leadership did considerable soulsearching regarding signs of the abuse that they could/should have picked up on. And this church hadn’t had any specific focus on transparency over integrity – it was more that my friend’s immediate reaction, which she later questioned in light of finding out the truth, was to admire the man for what in hindsight was non-admirable partial confession to very non-admirable behaviour. Also to do the man justice, I think he genuinely felt troubled in his conscience over his treatment of his wife, but not sufficiently to at any point make a full confession to his fellow elders. Which meant that his ‘transparency’ served, likely (I’m speculating here) to alleviate his conscience by normalising his own behaviour to himself (“everyone gets angry sometimes right? I’m being open about my struggles!”) not to mention to his wife.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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