Trust is one of the most fundamental components of everyday life. In our familial relationships, friendships, and formal interactions, we continually exercise trust as the means by which we flourish. Thus, Oswald Bayer rightly said, “Without trust, there is no human life.”1 However, the events of 2020 have shown that we have a problem. Societal relationships are not functioning as they should. People are reluctant to trust one another, and we doubt the validity of every interpretation. It is unlikely that the protests and the global pandemic have caused this reality. Rather they have merely served to reveal it. These unforeseen circumstances have simply made clear that which has been true for some time: we live in an age of skepticism.
The problem that such a reality poses for the church is clear. Cultural trends always have the tendency to manifest themselves in the pews. Thus, there is a risk that the present lack of trust in society may readily become a lack of trust in the church. This age of skepticism could very easily produce doubting congregations: communities of believers who do not take one another at their word filled with church members who continuously resist sound leadership. Clearly, such would be to the detriment of body-life and the gospel itself.
The response to this threat is at least twofold. First, church leaders and church members alike must strive to understand more fully the nature of the issue. How exactly has society arrived at such levels of distrust? Second, we must consider afresh the Bible’s teaching on the matter. How does God instruct us to relate to one another, exercising trust correctly, so as to flourish?
Considering first the nature of the problem, we understand that interpersonal relationships are central to the notion of trust. Whether the interaction is fleeting or longstanding, the demand for trust arises from human engagement. In turn, successful relationships depend on a level of mutuality—a willingness to share or reciprocate certain things. There are at least three “mutualities” that have been in steady decline in recent years and have contributed to the low levels of trust.
The first of these is what we might call a mutuality of presence. If trust is to be established, both parties must show up. Indeed, only when both sides of a relationship are present can one enlist the trust of the other. Until the salesman shows up at my door, it is difficult to put my confidence in him. At a societal level, this simple requirement has been greatly hindered by the rise of individualism. An increasingly self-centered worldview means people feel less obligated toward the community and are much less relationally involved than in previous generations. Added to that the ability we now have to exist almost exclusively online, having fewer meaningful interactions gradually erodes levels of trust. We are skeptical simply because we are not present.
A second, closely related mutuality is that of discourse. Though trust can derive purely from a perception of one’s actions, most normally it stems from verbal exchanges. As two parties discuss an issue, a level of trust develops whereby each believes the other’s words to be an accurate representation of his or her view. If I trust the salesman at my door, it is because his claims are reasonable and his request seems fair. An enormous impediment to this in recent years has been the rise of what some call “new tolerance.”2 The implicit demand that public speech offend no one is detrimental to establishing trust. Sadly, people no longer say what they believe but what is expected. Such reciprocal flattery does not build trust. It creates skepticism.
Third, trust depends on a mutuality of influence. Inasmuch as every interpersonal relationship involves some degree of entrusting oneself to another, success becomes dependent upon the willingness to submit. Adopting a position of vulnerability will involve receiving a level of influence. In fleeting transactions it is minimal. In lifelong relationships it is significant. This is why husband and wife can often finish one another’s sentences. They have enjoyed a mutuality of influence over many years. Such influence builds trust. Detrimental to this has been a growing level of anti-institutionalism: seeing less value in the institutions of society and their conforming influence. From the most fundamental institutions of marriage and the family to larger entities such as colleges and universities, participants seek less and less to submit and be shaped.3 The result is a more autonomous society composed of individuals who fear being vulnerable. This disposition leads to skepticism.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, these are some of the primary factors that have shaped the nature of our relationships in recent times. The outworking of each has been subtle, but their cumulative effect has been to diminish levels of trust and to hinder relationships. If the church is to avoid such patterns’ being established in the pews, a return to the Bible’s teaching on trust is paramount.
Though Scripture has much to say on the topic, perhaps the most developed theology of trust is found in the book of Isaiah. There, the exhortation given to a disbelieving Israel from beginning to end is to trust in God. The point is instructive because as Martin Luther shows in his Small Catechism, our relationship with God orders our relationship with everyone else. Our trust in Him engenders and informs our trust in others. Thus, if the church is to shine as a community of trust in an age of skepticism, we must behold afresh the God in whom we trust.
We may go further, however, and note that our trust in God is not arbitrary or without precedent. Leaning again on Luther, we can see that he draws attention to the foundation of our trust being in God’s character. Specifically, as the almighty Creator has entrusted Himself to us, so we find Him to be trustworthy. Here Luther has in view the opening promise of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord, your God” (Ex. 20:2, emphasis added).4 We may consider the fuller expression of this idea as found in Isaiah: four times the prophet sets forth God’s Servant as One whom He entrusted to us.
First, the Servant is presented as One who demonstrated a mutuality of presence. He was not aloof but was in the midst of those whose trust He sought (Isa. 42:1–2; 49:6; 50:8; 53:2). Indeed, the Servant exceeded all normal expectations by remaining present even when mistreated. When His contemporaries struck, despised, and rejected Him, the Servant was steadfast (Isa. 50:6; 53:3). By His presence He showed His trustworthiness.
Second, the Servant’s ministry was marked by a mutuality of discourse. He spoke necessary words to those around Him. The weary He sought to sustain and the adversary He sought to admonish (Isa. 50:4, 8–9). His manner was neither brash nor arrogant but meek and humble (Isa. 42:2–3). By His words He demonstrated His trustworthiness.
Finally, the Servant submitted to a mutuality of influence. Rather than project Himself in isolation from all others, He followed the lead of His Master (Isa. 50:4). He upheld the law as given to Israel (Isa. 42:1, 4). And He brought forth the promised salvation to the nations (Isa. 49:6). Again, He went beyond all reasonable requirements for establishing trust—when those around Him wrought injustice, the Servant did not retaliate (Isa. 53:7). He yielded, even unto death (Isa. 53:8). Through His submission, the Servant showed His trustworthiness.
The benefits enjoyed by those who trust in the Servant are explained by Isaiah throughout the celebratory songs in the second half of the book. Comfort, salvation, and blessing are given to the believing community (Isa. 44:22; 49:8, 13; 51:12; 52:9–10). Furthermore, there is an ordering effect by which societal relationships begin to flourish. As God’s people trust in the Servant, they exercise a reciprocity of trust with one another (Isa. 51:1, 7; 52:7; 54:13–14; 56:4, 6). Skepticism vanishes as they live mutually dependent lives.
In the present age of skepticism, the church must be diligent to avoid a deterioration of relational trust. If the body of Christ is to flourish, it must resist the influence of society and diligently pursue the mutualities upon which such trust is built. This effort begins by considering afresh the character and disposition of God. Moreover, from beginning to end this effort requires a consideration of His Servant, who proved Himself trustworthy. As we behold Him and His mission, we find One who enables and guides. He helps us trust and teaches us how. May the church proclaim, obey, and imitate God’s Servant, the Lord Jesus Christ, at this time. May He be worshiped as the trustworthy One on whom we depend.
- Oswald Bayer, “Trust,” Lutheran Quarterly 29, no. 3 (2015): 249. ↩︎
- See for example, Theodore Caplow, Howard M. Bahr, and Bruce A. Chadwick, All Faithful People: Change and Continuity in Middletown's Religion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 121. ↩︎
- Noted by Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens, Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 14, and more recently by Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (New York: Basic, 2020). ↩︎
- For a fuller discussion of trust in Luther’s catechism, see Bayer, “Trust,” 252–56. ↩︎