Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Right Way to Trust Ministers

In the past I have often emphasized the need for Church of God members to trust God more than the ministry in matters of doctrine, to believe the Bible more than Church of God teachings when there is a difference.

But there is a right way to trust the ministry.

God does not command that we trust ministers or any human being on earth today. Rather, the Bible teaches us to trust God, not any man. "Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help" (Psalm 146:3). "Thus says the Lord: 'Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord...Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord' " (Jeremiah 17:5-7). "It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes" (Psalm 118:8-9). "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5).

Yet, God does teach that we are to highly esteem ministers and respect their authority and their office. "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). See also Philippians 2:29-30 and Hebrews 13:17. A certain amount of trust can be part of that esteem.

But there is a difference between the trust we put in people and the trust we put in God, and we need to understand that difference.

The trust the Bible speaks about when God teaches us to trust God, not man, is an absolute trust. We are to trust God one hundred percent. We are to trust both the Father and Christ one hundred percent. They are perfect. They never sin. They do not make mistakes. They have all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom for making decisions, and their righteousness is infinite. The word of God, the Bible, is perfect. It is infallibly true. As Christ said, scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).

Our trust in God is based on faith that God is perfect and will never lie to us or let us down. He will be faithful to His promises. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18).

That kind of sure, absolute trust should be given to God as part of loving Him with all our being (Mark 12:29-30). And only God should be trusted that way. We should never trust any human being with that kind of absolute trust. We should never believe that any human being can be trusted NEVER to sin or make a mistake.

Yet there is a kind of trust, if you want to call it "trust", that we can have in other people. It is a limited kind of trust, based on our knowledge of people's character and abilities. We can trust people to a limited degree, depending on how well we know them and how well their fruits - their past track record - shows that they are likely to be trustworthy. If we know a person well, if he has a good track record of righteous behavior, we can trust that it is very unlikely he will betray us. Yet, we can know that there is always a chance he will surprise our expectations.

Husbands and wives in a good marriage often trust each other to be faithful, based on their knowledge of each other's character and the strength of their love for each other. An employer will often trust his best employees to do their jobs well because he has observed for a long time that they have done their jobs well in the past. That kind of trust - the expectation that it is extremely unlikely that the other person will let us down - is not wrong.

We are to judge by fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). The Bible has examples of men and women being chosen for service based on their fruits, their reputation, and their character (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9, Exodus 18:21, Acts 6:3). Choosing a man for a position of leadership indicates a certain trust that the man will fulfill his responsibilities well. It is not wrong to develop positive expectations about a person based on our past experience with him or her, and to rely on that person to a degree. Relying on another human being based on our positive expectation, which in turn is based on our experience with that person, can be called "trust". But it is trust on the human level, limited - not the absolute trust we place in God.

God Himself will show trust in us when He gives us eternal life in His kingdom in the resurrection. God will trust us with eternal life when He knows we will never rebel against Him. The positions of kings and priests God will give us in His kingdom are positions of trust.

There is a kind of "working trust" we exercise in order to function and work with other people. It is a trust based on our estimation that it is unlikely (not impossible) that the other person will cheat us or hurt us.

I trust the cashier at a store when I pay for something with a large denomination bill that he or she will give me the correct change and not cheat me. Yet, I know it is possible. So why do I trust? I trust that it is very unlikely that the cashier will cheat me. I also measure the risk, and I conclude the matter is small enough that it is not worth worrying about. I give him or her the benefit of the doubt, and trust that I will not be cheated.

When I am crossing an intersection, walking with the light, I trust that the drivers of the cars waiting for the light to change will not suddenly drive their cars over me for the pleasure of running me down. I don't say it is impossible, but it is so unlikely that I do not worry about it.

Likewise, there is a certain degree of trust between people working together. The greater the trust, the better the working relationship.

The level of trust we have in someone varies according to the person's character and ability and how well we know him or her. Some people we trust more and some we trust less.

But strong trust in a person must be based on past fruits. In that sense, people sometimes must earn our trust before we can trust them very much. And they sometimes do the opposite. They earn our distrust if they show by their actions that they are not trustworthy.

Both trust and distrust in other human beings come in degrees, and both are based on past fruits, good or bad.

How do ministers fit into this?

We can trust ministers, to a degree, based on their past faithfulness, their good fruits, their good track record. It is a limited trust, never the absolute trust we have in God. We can have positive expectations that the minister will do his job well and is very likely to do the right thing, to teach the right things, and to make the right decisions, if we have seen and known him to do the right things in the past.

Ministers can earn trust as they show good fruits over time. Unfortunately, some ministers destroy trust by acts of unfaithfulness or serious mistakes. Those we tend to distrust.

It can be a beautiful thing when a minister, by his ability, wisdom, and faithfulness, develops in those who know him a positive expectation that he will most likely continue to act wisely and righteously. And there is nothing wrong for members to feel that way about a minister. They know it is not impossible for him to sin or make mistakes. But they judge that it is very unlikely for him to make a serious mistake or seriously sin in a decision or matter involving the members. So the members have a good relationship with the minister and are not afraid to communicate with the minister and to value his advice. That kind of relationship benefits the whole Church of God. It makes the minister's job easier and it benefits the members also.

And yet, trust in God and the Bible must come first. If an occasion arises when the minister seems to make a mistake in his teachings - if he says something that seems to be contrary to the Bible - the members should believe the Bible first. Yet, while believing the Bible first, they should not belittle or contradict the minister in conversation with other members, but rather support the office of the minister and his authority to teach.

This is where too many members go off into the ditch. One ditch is to believe whatever the minister says, even if the minister seems to contradict what the member sees in the Bible. But the other ditch is to openly contradict the minister when talking with other members, spreading one's own view of the scriptures contrary to what the Church teaches. That is not the member's job. His job is to believe what God says in the Bible, to obey the ministry except when the ministry tells him to break the law of God, and to respect and highly esteem the ministry, as much as he can in view of the minister's fruits, and to respect the office in any case.

Everyone has the job of believing God's word, the Bible. Everyone has the job of serving and doing God's work in one form or another, even if it is only in prayer. Everyone has the job of obeying God first. But not everyone has the job of teaching the members and determining what that teaching is. It is the ordained ministry, under the supervision of the top leadership in the Church, which is under Christ the head of the Church, that ONLY has the job of determining what set of doctrines and details of doctrines will be taught by the Church to the members. Individual members have not been given that job. They may teach fellow members only within the context of what the Church has set as doctrine, within the fellowship they attend.

Will the leadership and ministry sometimes make mistakes in their teaching and thus teach some error to the membership? Yes, because they are human. But it is not the job of any member to correct those mistakes with the brethren in the fellowship he attends. Members all have their Bibles. If a doctrine is truly a mistake, they can find the truth as God guides their understanding of the Bible. And God can correct the ministry in time.

But just as we should not undermine the authority of the ministry and undermine the office God has given them by contradicting them in matters of doctrine, likewise we should not undermine the working trust members may have in their ministers.

At Sabbath services, with the brethren in the fellowship we attend, we should not be saying things like, "Well, you can't trust the ministers".

It is the attitude and tone that is important here. We should not build an atmosphere of distrust in the congregation we attend. There is nothing wrong with explaining to someone, when necessary, that all humans are fallible, we all make mistakes, and only God should be trusted completely and absolutely, and we should believe what God says in the Bible first. There is nothing wrong, if the subject comes up, with telling other members that as a general principle you will believe the Bible more than the ministry if you see something in the Bible that is different from what the minister teaches.

But just as it is wrong to openly contradict and criticize the ministry over a doctrine, it is wrong to openly try to build an atmosphere of DIS-trust towards the ministry in a congregation by making insinuating and disrespectful remarks against trusting the ministry. If you do that, you make it more difficult for members to respect and esteem the ministry as we are commanded to do (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). In effect, you are tempting them to disrespect the ministry, and you could be leading them into sin, into resentment, bitterness, and rebellion. Then you become guilty. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!" (Matthew 18:6-7).

If you have a problem with a minister that you cannot overlook, you are not sinning by taking it to headquarters, or you can just take it to God in prayer and wait for Him to handle it. But don't spread it around. That is not God's way.

We are commanded to respect authority, to respect and esteem the office, and we should never weaken the office and authority of one God has placed over us as long as we are in the fellowship that man has authority over. We should not speak against him with other members, in other words. We should not promote disrespect towards the pastor of the congregation we attend with other members. That is not our job. We should not tell other members, "Well, I don't trust our pastor", or "I don't trust our leader at headquarters". Distrust can be an attitude, and we should not promote an attitude of distrust in the congregation.

There may be a time when we may have to simply affirm that we trust God and the Bible absolutely, and while we respect and love the ministry, we know that they are not perfect and that they can make mistakes. But we should not belittle, contradict, and talk down the ministers in the fellowship we attend.

If a minister has a serious problem that must be dealt with, take it to the people who have authority to solve the problem. Take it to headquarters. Don't spread it among the members.

One of my favorite movies is the Caine Mutiny. My favorite scene in that movie is near the end, when defense attorney Barney Greenwald (played by a young Jose Ferrer) tells the officers of the Caine, who were not very supportive of their captain, " don't work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he's got the job, or you're no good."

Even people in the world can understand that principle better than some members in the Church of God.

If a minister has a faithful track record, you can give him a certain level of trust based on his past faithfulness. And if not, then you may not trust him so much in the future. But don't talk him down with other members. Don't take upon yourself the job of weakening his authority in the eyes of the other members as long as you are in his congregation. That is rebellion, according to everything I have seen in the Bible.

What if the pastor or top leader is so far off-base that you cannot speak respectfully of him? What if the leader of the fellowship you attend is a false leader that is hurting the members spiritually, not helping them, but leading them astray? Then I would think that is not a congregation or a fellowship you would want to stay in. If I were in that situation, I would leave quickly and quietly. I would find a leader and a fellowship that is more faithful.

Here are links to posts related to this subject:

"Should We Trust God's Ministers?", dated December 24, 2010, link:

"How Should We Listen to Ministers?", dated May 24, 2012, link:

Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:

The Source of Our Beliefs, Chapter 6

Faith, Chapter 6

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