Magazine Article

​Can We Trust Our Leaders?

Who will teach us how to follow?

Bill Knott

“Show me your leader, and you have bared your soul.”

Historian Gary Wills’ pithy summary of the symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers is as troubling as it is insightful.1 Which of us would claim that those we follow are true reflections of our own character or goals? We may express admiration for a spiritual or political leader’s vision or causes, but we rarely intend that endorsement to be total. We know that even those we call great, like the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, have “feet partly of iron and partly of clay” (Dan. 2:33). We follow eagerly when their words energize us for evangelism or compassion, but sigh in disillusionment when they use their positions for personal or political gain, or to punish those who disagree with them.

So we may support a leader—follow a leader—in her campaign for equitable pay for women, but go quiet when she advocates just as eloquently for causes we find unwelcome or unbiblical. We line up behind the pastor when he leads the church board in “cleaning up the church books,” but stop following—even resist—when that process would drop our wayward sons or daughters from fellowship. Our causes and commitments are rarely identical with those we call our leaders. Leadership, we learn, is a shifting, even fluid, contract we make with the women and men whose words and lives can summon us to more than the status quo.

The Conditions of Trust

At the heart of the conundrum of contemporary leadership in both the culture and the church is the biblical value we call “trust.” From childhood we memorized the Scriptural admonition to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). But the same Bible that urges us to place our complete confidence in the wisdom of a sovereign God also advises, “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Ps. 146:3).

The same difficult obedience—the trust—that moved the priests bearing the ark of the covenant to step into the unparted Jordan, or caused exhausted Peter to cast his nets in the deep after a night of empty nets is deemed a spiritual liability (yes, a sin) if it causes believers to follow a wayward leader into idolatry, vengeance, or immorality. While we celebrate the trust that caused the apostle Paul to risk life and limb for the progress of the gospel (see 2 Cor. 11:24-28), we deplore the trust that caused believers to embrace the legalistic teachers who followed Paul from church to church to pull new converts back into observance of “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Eph. 2:15), from which the gospel had liberated them.

Trust is not invariably a good thing. Only the goal to which both leader and those led commit themselves can be wholly good: preaching and teaching the gospel; feeding the hungry; visiting those justly or unjustly imprisoned; caring for those marginalized by race or caste or poverty. For Christians, these are causes and commitments inextricably connected with the life and ministry of Jesus, in whom we say we place our trust unreservedly. Only those human spiritual leaders should be trusted who can demonstrate that they fully understand—in word, in deed, in how they lead—the requirement of their personal obedience to the teachings and the ethics of the gospel. Like Jesus, their lives must increasingly be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

If spiritual leaders shouldn’t be trusted unless animated by the loves and life of Jesus, and if following them is advisable only when the causes they advocate are consistent with the gospel, then it seems clear we need continuing guidance on how to be good followers—wise, discerning men and women who understand the covenant we are making when we line up behind any leader. Gary Wills pointedly laments, “We have thousands of books on leadership, none on followership. I have heard college presidents tell their students that schools are meant to train leaders. I have never heard anyone profess to train followers.”2

Except one. Much as I admire Wills’ insights, he misses the most famous example of someone who spent His entire professional career training followers. Jesus says almost nothing positive about the leaders of His day—in the culture or the church—but He spoke extensively about new attitudes that would teach men and women to trust Him and those leaders who inhabited His values. “And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves’ ” (Luke 22:25, 26).

Learning How to Follow

Jesus’ repeated invitations to those who literally left hearth and home to be with Him day in and out underscore the enduring task of learning how to become good followers: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). Paul also reminds us that we “learn Christ” ( see Eph. 4:20), and reminds his readers of the durative process of being shaped as a Christian: “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you . . .” (Gal. 4:19). There must also be a godly process by which Christians learn how to be good followers—of Christ, and of those who illustrate by their lives and leadership that they are inhabiting Jesus’ teaching about servant leadership.

How does the individual believer suppress the claims of ego enough to place trust in those the Spirit has gifted and the praying church has called to leadership? There are few incentives in either the world or the church to do this difficult task. But without this voluntary covenant—this commitment of trust—between a godly leader and those led, the church is forever atomizing, disintegrating centripetally, and spinning off adherents who say, “ ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ’ ” (1 Cor. 1:12). For lack of trust, Jesus and His bride—His church—are “put asunder” (Mark 10:9, KJV).

He who taught us how to follow Him teaches us in His Word how to enact a sacred covenant between us and those who lead in His name. “Fulfill my joy,” Paul writes, “by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus. . .” (Phil. 2:2-5).

The cynic scoffs, “We get the leaders we deserve.” Believers counter, “We follow leaders who show unusual ability to encourage us to practice the behaviors, the attitudes, and the mission of Jesus.” If leaders display—both onstage and behind the curtain—that they are growing in the graces of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23)—we may safely trust that they will lead us to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15, KJV).

  1. Gary Wills, Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 20. Wills’ remarkable study of 16 leadership types, with numerous examples, is a fascinating one-volume introduction to how leadership functions in human society.
  2. Ibid., p. 13.

Bill Knott is the executive editor of
Adventist Review and a historian.

Bill Knott