What role do young Christians play in leading and guiding a local church? It’s a good question, especially in light of young Christians honoring older Christians. Here’s the email: “Pastor John, hello! I’m a young pastor in Missouri. Lately, I’ve noticed older Christians in the church appealing to 1 Peter 5:5. It has been used to silence younger believers in the church. What should be the role of younger members of the church in relation to older members in, say, church business meetings, when older members seek to shut down conversations and to avoid discussing uncomfortable topics? I would love your input on how to navigate through this sticky and confusing topic.”
It seems to me that most human cultures from around the world give evidence that something is written on the human heart to tell us that younger people should respect older people. Now, by respect, I mean accord them a certain deference, a certain honor, show a readiness to serve them, and give serious attention to what they say.
Honor the Old
I think that’s what the Scriptures say. For example, Leviticus 19:32 says, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32).
And Paul cautions Timothy in the exercise of his pastoral authority toward older members. He says, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1–2). And I think that’s Paul’s way of saying, “Yes, young man, Timothy, yes, you have pastoral authority to guide and correct older people, but there’s a way to do it that shows a special respect for them as older.”
Now, I start my answer to this question that way, for this young pastor in Missouri, because I think this tone ought to color all our dealings in the church. I think older people in the church should be treated with a peculiar kind of respect that is different from the young people. Peter says, “Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). Respect all men. And then he says with the same word, “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
All people should be honored or respected as human beings, but that does not mean that all human beings should be respected in the same way. Similarly, all ages should be respected, but an 80-year-old is not to be respected only in the same way you respect a teenager.
Made Wise by the Word
But, having laid that foundation that is crucial for the culture or the ethos of a church, there is a clear and powerful stream in the Bible that warns us against assuming old equals wise. It doesn’t. It may.
An older person may be wiser because of his age. It often works this way. In fact, it should. The old men gave good counsel to Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12, and the young men gave stupid counsel (1 Kings 12:6–11). Oh my goodness, consider the centuries-long horrors that came from that stupid counsel. That’s the way it ordinarily works: young people don’t have wisdom yet, and older people do. But this is not always the case. A long life should be a good teacher, should produce wisdom, and long study of God’s word should yield a ripe mind and heart so that our older men ought to be the great repositories and our older women ought to be the great sages of the church. It should, and we ought to hope for it, expect it, look for it.
“There are some young men who have been shaped more deeply by the word than some old men.”
But it is the case that, often, there are arrogant, stubborn, foolish, lazy, ignorant old men, and there are humble, patient, wise, diligent, knowledgeable young men. We simply dare not equate age with wisdom or youth with folly. The Bible is very clear that is a wrong way to think. For example, Psalm 119:100 says, “I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.” That’s the reason why we dare not equate wisdom with age. The word of God makes the key difference, not the years lived. There are some young men who have been shaped more deeply by the word than some old men who have been very neglectful of the word all their lives. They are still in the church, but they are not as wise and mature as people thirty years younger.
For example, Jeremiah was hesitant to speak God’s word because of his youth. And God got a little bit upset with him. He says in Jeremiah 1:5,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then [Jeremiah] said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:5–8)
That’s a strong word from God for a man who’s saying, “I’m too young.”
Paul was just as concerned that Timothy would be cowed by his own youth as he was concerned that Timothy would be disrespectful of older people. So not only did he say to encourage rather than rebuke older men (1 Timothy 5:1), but he also said, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). In other words, do not let your youth keep you from ministering the word with power and courage to older people.
In August of 1982, two years into my ministry at Bethlehem, I came back from vacation, and I preached a message titled “Let the Young Speak.” And I remembered it after all these years because I felt it was a risky message. “Let the Young Speak.” The church was made up overwhelmingly of older people — wonderful older people, in fact.
I was 36 years old, but newer, younger people were streaming to the church. And it would only be a matter of time till this church — at that time it was 113 years old — would see young names on the ballots and young people at the business meetings, standing up perhaps with something to say. I thought I should head off at the pass any notion that only older people have biblical maturity and wisdom. So I chose as my text Job 32, which is when Elihu speaks. Elihu gets ready to speak and rebuke Job. And he’s going to rebuke Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar because he thinks all of them have got it wrong.
And I think Elihu’s right. I argued in the sermon that Elihu’s a good guy; he’s not one of these bad teachers. And there are all kinds of reasons for that. But here’s what that text says:
Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job because they were older than he. And when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouth of these three men . . . [he] answered and said: “I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. I said, ‘Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right. Therefore, I say, ‘Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion.’” (Job 32:4–10)
“On any issue, we ask, ‘What does the word of God say?’ not, ‘How old is the speaker?’”
I concluded in that message that being old and being young is not decisive in who is qualified for office or who has the greater wisdom. The word of God decides, the Spirit of God decides what is wisdom. On any issue, we ask, “What does the word of God say?” not, “How old is the speaker?”
Clothed with Humility
It’s the same for the elders in 1 Peter 5:5. Those “elders” to whom the young are told to be submissive are not just older people; they are the same elders from 1 Peter 5:1. They are pastors, they are officers (pastor and elder are interchangeable offices in the New Testament). When the younger members are told to be subject to the elders, it means that they should show a special deference to the pastoral leaders of the church.
But the most important exhortation is probably the second half of verse five, which says, “Clothe yourselves, all of you [that means young and old, officers and laypeople], with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). So the older people and the younger people should clothe themselves with humility.
Looking back on those early days of ministry as a 35-, 36-, 37-year-old, surrounded by very old people, that’s what they were like. It was just wonderful. I think we both labored to clothe ourselves with humility toward each other. And I think that means that, in the church, both older and younger will make every effort to submit their wills to the word of God. It’s not age and it’s not youth that is decisive in settling what is true and what is wise; it is the word of God.