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.
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.