Do Your Best to Present Yourself as One Trusted by God

By Wm. Curtis Holtzen

Church leadership involves trust between fellow Christians and mutual trust between God and the leader.

It is difficult to think about leadership without considering the idea of trust. Leaders who do not have the trust of their followers must lead by means of threat or unspoken fear. We all have likely had bosses or managers we did not trust but followed their lead out of apprehension of being reprimanded or fired. Others attempt to lead by promise of reward or personal gain. Think about the promises presidential candidates make in order to secure your vote so they can be your leader. Many promise financial gain in the form of lower taxes, a higher stock market, or, in general, a better economy. But in the absence of such tactics of fear, reward, or some combination, a leader will lead by securing the trust of his or her followers.

Search any article, sermon, or blog on the topic of Christian leadership and it will become clear that discussions of trust are ubiquitous. There are discussions of followers trusting leaders, leaders trusting followers, leaders trusting one another, and of course, everyone’s need to trust God. But there is an important avenue of trust not being discussed—God’s trust. God trusts the church’s leaders or, minimally, God desires to trust those in leadership. God trusts these leaders to care for the wellbeing of their followers, to manifest justice, to encourage both spiritual and moral virtues; in short, to be and to model authenticity as a follower of Christ.

The Bible is not shy in speaking about divine trust, especially trust in God’s leaders. In Numbers 12:6-8 God, speaking to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, says, “When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house.” In several of his letters, Paul speaks of God’s trust. For example, in Romans 3:2 Paul says the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. In Galatians 2:7 Paul says he was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised. It is not just prophets and apostles who were trusted by God since Paul also includes Silvanus and Timothy when he says, “we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel” (I Thes 2:4). The message of divine trust is extended to the entire church when Paul writes, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (II Cor 5:19).

In order to make sense of these declarations of divine trust it might be helpful to discuss just what trust is or entails. I have a lengthy treatment of trust (as well as faith, hope, and love) in my book The God Who Trusts (IVP Academic), but I think a brief statement can work here. The most succinct description of trust I have found is from philosopher Annette Baier, who says that to trust someone is to give them discretionary power over something you value. If I loan you my car, I trust you to care for it. But I also trust you to use it as you see fit given unforeseen circumstances. For example, it may become necessary to drive a friend, who cannot fly, to an important medical procedure hundreds of miles away. I believe this understanding of trust as giving one discretionary power may go a long way in helping us better understand the parable of the talents (Matt 25).

To trust someone is to become vulnerable. You risk something you value in the hope that something even more valuable might be gained. I entrust my car to a friend to help them, but also further the friendship. I trust my young daughter so that she might grow into maturity but also to strengthen our family bond. I trust my wife because that is what it means to be in a loving relationship. I am not saying trust is merely a means to an end, but I am saying that trust is the means and end. The difference between a casual and an intimate relationship is the depth of mutual trust.

From an open and relational perspective, the idea of God trusting those in leadership should hardly be controversial. Open and relational theists affirm that humans are sufficiently free to make genuine choices—choices that cannot be known prior to their being chosen, even by our omniscient God. Add to this, God has certain desires related to what we do, think, believe, and value. That is, God desires we become mature trustworthy covenant partners in the ministry of reconciliation. God does not control what we do and cannot know what a free being will do, and yet God deeply cares about what we do and become; God chooses to trust us. And because leaders are in place to work with God in making all mature in Christ, God has even greater trust in Christian leaders.

To borrow imagery from the business world—even though there are those who may not like this assessment—Christian leaders are essentially middle management. They are unquestionably not the CEO but they are also not the rank and file. And remember, all are valuable in the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:15-20.) Middle managers are semi-executives who need to be mindful that to do their job properly they need to procure the trust of not only their subordinates but also their own leaders. Likewise, Christian leaders need to gain and keep the trust of their fellow Christians who are under their leadership. These same Christian leaders need to earn and affirm the trust God has in them or the trust God desires to have in them. To worry only about the trust of one’s followers is to ignore the one whose trust is most important. Isn’t what we long to hear most, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:23 NRSV)?

We must not confuse obedience for trust. Obedience is good. It means submission. God surely wants church leaders to obey. But if that were all God desired, they would not be leaders, they would merely be those following a different set of rules or commands. This is not bad, but it is not leadership. Christian leadership is more than obedience; it means the leader has a say in the direction and execution of a plan. Leaders influence. To be in leadership is to have the capacity to influence another’s beliefs, behaviors, values, ideals, and hopes. This is a lot of power and with great power comes great responsibility but also great trust.

Does this mean God trusts every leader? Of course not! Christian leaders can disappoint and lose God’s trust just as they can lose our trust. Furthermore, God’s trust is not merely in the leader but also in the people who place leaders in their position. God trusts communities to raise up those into leadership who are wise, resolute, and most of all trustworthy. Again, communities fail, they can be imprudent or self-seeking. So, while God loves all, this does not mean God trusts all. But, I believe, it means God desires to trust all, especially those in leadership. Partnership is simply not possible without mutual trust. Trust is the ground of mutuality; it is the means of real partnership.

What does this mean for Christian leaders? Christian leaders need to remember that they do not work for God but with God. God desires our partnership and when we fulfill our role well God is well pleased, for we have shown ourselves trustworthy. Divine trust also means that when Christian leaders fail, the repercussions are not that God is angry, but that God is disappointed. I care much more about not letting down or betraying the trust of a friend, spouse, parent, or coworker than I do about angering a boss. My motivation in my vocation is to show that God’s faith in me has not been in vain. 2 Tim 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (NRSV). What higher approval is there than to have ones full and complete trust?

Wm. Curtis Holtzen, D.Th., is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Hope International University. He holds graduate degrees in theology and philosophy from Unisa, Pepperdine University, and Loyola Marymount University. Holtzen is the author of The God Who Trusts: A Relational Theology of Divine Faith, Hope, and Love (IVP Academic). He has contributed chapters to books on The Simpsons, The Peanuts, as well as open and relational theology.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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