Integrity is the most important attribute of a Christian leader, O.S. Hawkins told students at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Hawkins, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Annuity Board, was on campus to participate in the seminary's second-annual Heritage Week, a series of special events celebrating nearly 150 years of ministerial training at Southern Baptists' flagship seminary. Keynote speakers for the week were Hawkins, Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and SBC President James Merritt.
Hawkins, on Oct. 12, said a lack of integrity will undermine a Christian leader who is gifted with intellectual skill, passion in the pulpit and vision for ministry. He said he went to seminary with men who "had a tremendous amount of intellect but had little integrity and are out of the race today.
"I've known others who had a lot of intensity and passion and the spirit of conquest and could really rally people, but who had little integrity and became what Paul feared becoming, a castaway [with] God's hand removed from him."
Hawkins pointed out that within their lives, people exist in four basic spheres: the private, the personal, the professional and the public. He said that some leaders think integrity is grounded in the professional realm and seek to perpetuate a strong ethical persona in front of those who only know them on a professional level.
Others, he said, build integrity before the watching public, or in non-intimate relationships. True integrity finds its root in a leader's private world, where only the leader and God know his thoughts and deeds, Hawkins said.
"Integrity is rooted in the part of you that's going to live as long as God — in your private world," he said. "Integrity isn't rooted in the public life; it's only revealed there. It's not rooted in the professional life, only reinforced there. It's not rooted in the personal world of interpersonal relationships, only reflected there.
"Some spend all their time trying to put upon themselves a public persona, but integrity isn't revealed there. But ultimately, if you don't have it, that is where it will be revealed."
Hawkins said those who lack integrity in ministry are often exposed publicly. Many of them may practice immorality for many years in their private lives, but on nearly every occasion, it is eventually made known before a watching world, he said.
Hawkins drew upon the prophet Elijah's first appearance in Scripture, I Kings 17. Elijah was a man of such strong integrity in his private life that people began referring to him simply as "the man of God." Elijah should serve as a role model for Christian leaders, Hawkins said.
Elijah began to build impeccable integrity when he recognized God's plan for his life and journeyed alone to Mount Carmel, stopping first at the brook Cherith where God used ravens to provide him with bread and meat. It was in that aloneness and centeredness in God's plan that Elijah built integrity in his private life, Hawkins said.
"In a few chapters the people see him walking down the street and they no longer say, 'There goes Elijah the Tishbite from Gilead,'" Hawkins said. "They simply say, 'There goes the man of God.' He had lost his identity."
The encouraging thing, Hawkins said, is that James 5:17 "reminds us that Elijah was a man of nature like you. He was made out of the same stuff we are."
Hawkins said, as in the account of Elijah, God promises to meet his people in the middle of His will. But secret sins can beset Christian laypersons and leaders alike and keep them from the blessings of God, he said. Repentance of those sins and the impeccable integrity in private are keys to receiving God's blessing and provision, he said.
Said Hawkins, "Perhaps God has promised to meet some of you here today, but some secret sin that is besetting you that nobody else knows about is plaguing your heart and your soul, your life and your ministry. And [maybe] God has promised to meet you here in repentance of that, but you're somewhere else.
"[When] engineers say a building has structural integrity, they mean that the building has a hidden life, a strong foundation that gives the whole building integrity and strength. We must find our strength in some brook Cherith. ... So many of us today try to give out at Mount Carmel without taking in at brook Cherith. We cannot bypass it on the way."