Shall We Respect The Elders?

It can be an inglorious task to say anything about the current generation. Some concepts that would have been considered “conventional wisdom” a few years ago and wouldn’t require a lot of explanation are now under scrutiny and being reframed in an impressive and frightening exercise of deconstructing ideas that we see today.

I want to reflect on something that seemed like commonplace knowledge not so long ago, but is now under this sort of re-signification, which is the respect for the elderly.

It seems that we live in a time when the elderly represent a way of thinking and doing things that no longer works in our society (and, to our astonishment, in some churches) and therefore it is necessary to distance oneself from them (or from us). My subject is brief and I want to deal with it in the context of the Christian faith, for my concern is with the state of the church, I mean, the state of those who professes faith in Jesus Christ.

A huge number of young people from the “Z” generation, that is, people born from 1995 and on, seem to be leading a relentless patrol to everything that stands in the way of the new ethics that the so-called “woke” movement established as the immutable clause of our society. This new ethics is comprehensive and incorporates practically all the ideas that have emerged from the progressive narratives of the last 25 years that give new guidelines on what it means to live well in society. The escalation of change in core values was very fast, and, it seems it started to be implemented even more aggressively after the 2020 pandemic. From areas related to the environment to complex issues in medicine, science, politics, sexuality, psychology and religion, in short, for everything there is a new norm that does not accept any discussion. Its imposition becomes violent, whether due to the cancellation culture, very strong in the press and social media environment, or, even more dangerous, as we see in Western governments, due to the creation of new bills and jurisprudence that criminalize public opinion and the discussion of ideas. Thinking in an old-fashioned way in the 2023 can be very dangerous and even get one arrested.

It is curious, however, that the method of this new ethics takes place through the fragmentation of truth, through the end of empiricism and common wisdom and through the use of broken narratives, disconnected of a metanarrative in favor of a broad pluralism. This has been called post-truth and means that each person or social group has its own truth and values, which can never be questioned.

It is very disconcerting to realize that this trend has infiltrated the Christian church as well. Many among God’s people are strongly influenced by this new post-truth ethics and begin to confuse Christian ethics with the new (and suffocating) ideas that regulate the life of Western society in this 21st century. Alisa Childers, American Christian author, addressed this issue in her moving testimony published in book form under the title Another Gospel? A response to progressive Christianity, and also in here more recent title, Live your Truth.

But I digress. Let me get back to the point. Elders are being canceled left and right and it is happening in the church too, right under our nose. So, let me first bring the biblical principle to tackle this issue.

The fifth commandment of the Decalogue, written by God’s own hand (and spoken before His people in the Sinai) says: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you”. 

In this commandment, God’s people are called to love and obey their parents. A first and important element that must be highlighted is that the commandment is not addressed to children only, but to all who have living parents (Proverbs 19:26; 23:22). This commandment, in distinction from most commandments in the Decalogue, is put in positive terms and, furthermore, is bound up with a promise. The promise has to do with the effects of obedience. As we see in the wisdom books of the Bible, taking good advice from our parents, listening to and respecting our elders, dealing respectfully with authorities are generally attitudes that will prolong one’s days and make life easier. Add to this the fact that God himself promises to bless those who seek to keep the fifth commandment and preserve its spirit.

The expression “honor” comes from the Hebrew kabod and has a sense of weight, importance, glory and prestige. It is the respect that an inferior offers to a superior. The Westminster Larger Catechism, in question 126, proposes that the scope of the fifth commandment is the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors or equals.

The Reformers went even further and expanded the understanding of this commandment to all who are in authority over us—primarily and immediately our parents, but also the elderly, the magistrate, educators, and spiritual fathers. French reformer John Calvin, commenting on the fifth commandment, highlighted three expressions of honor—“reverence, obedience, and recognition”—and demonstrates how the principle of honoring parents can extend to all in position of authority: magistrates, elders, fathers in faith, pedagogues. In his elaboration, Calvin will condition this obedience to obedience “in the Lord” (Ephesians 6.1).

A very important point of the commandment is that honor, respect and consideration begin in the heart. Reverence for our parents and other authority figures should be a reflection and evidence of our honor and reverence for God in the first place.

Reverence for our parents and other authority figures should be a reflection and evidence of our honor and reverence for God in the first place.

We also read in Leviticus 19:32: “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.” Proverbs 16:31 and 20:29 reinforce the teaching of Scripture that elders should be honored. This principle is there because normally the elderly are associated with maturity, experience, wisdom, and the accumulation of knowledge and a better sense of realism of life. In the Bible, the elderly are treated as a reservoir of tradition, of family history, as the living archive of a society that lives through oral tradition. 

The influence of the Christian faith in the world did a good job of carrying this principle of life forward. Societies that preserve the value of respecting their elders are usually prosperous and very well organized.

It must be said, however, that not every elderly person is wise and a model for others. We have examples of old men in Scripture who were involved in awful sins, and it is possible that some old men and women hold very immature standards or find themselves involved in ugly sins. Therefore, associating maturity with age can be a mistake. Nineteenth-century Austrian author Hugo Hoffmanstall, in his book The Book of Friends, said: “Precocious children and immature old men there are plenty in certain states in which the world sometimes finds itself.” The Portuguese poet Antero de Quental made a harsh comment to a foe of his, an already old man, saying: “I get up when Your Excellency’s white hair pass before me. But the mischievous brain that is underneath and the garish little things that come out of it, I confess, do not deserve my admiration….Futility in an old man disgusts me as much as injudiciousness in a child. Your Excellency needs fifty years less age or, then, more fifty years of reflection.”

But I perceive with concern a certain anti-elder movement in our days, and our evangelical camps are not immune to this attitude, on the contrary. The desire to remove the most experienced from the center of ideas and discussions is becoming stronger each day. The Internet is the space where this is most strongly manifested. Such an attitude is sometimes veiled, sometimes explicit; sometimes unnoticed, sometimes intentional; but it’s real.

Some, like Dr. John McArthur Jr., for example, have lived long enough to become subject of controversy, vicious attacks and harsh criticism from people within the Christian church. Men like R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Voddie Bauchan to name a few of the “international” gospel ministers who have blessed the Christian church in their own country and whose influence reached thousands upon thousands in Brazil and elsewhere, are now under enormous scrutiny, suspicion and attacks of all kinds, some even targeting their character.

I guess, on the other hand, the older generation might acknowledge that at some point we might have lost the ability to speak up to this younger generation, reaching out to them with patience and grace. But this is another matter for a future article.

The point is that I have seen many young people (and others not so young, but with the very much in-tune with this new approach), seeking their place of speech, their platform and their role in teaching so they can show that they also have a voice, an opinion, an idea that needs to prevail. They want to make the case that they are sensitive to the new causes and demands that society places before the church and that they should be heard; but there is a problem: the old pastors, theologians and professors who have a distinguished position are still alive or, those who have died, still exert an uncomfortable influence. They need to be silenced. I feel in this attitude something similar to the young man who asked his father who was still alive “his share of the inheritance” (Luke 15.12).

Furthermore, it must be said that many of those who seek to occupy the spaces of the elderly still do not have much of a life experience, much church ground, so to say, and really much to offer. All they have is their opinion and their complaints. Their criticism mostly comes with the weight of hammer, seeking for validation and applause in through social media, but it’s all very acidic and very virtual, with little or no fruit.

It is not rare, however, that this tough stance and criticism towards the elderly, generated in the superficial environment of social media have their origin in people who possibly never had the opportunity to exchange a single word with their targets (who become slogans or an idea), never visited their homes, never been to their churches or talked to their church members, and who rarely read more than a few lines of their writings (probably just the excerpts that ended up on the internet) and, worse , their criticism reach people all sorts of people indistinctly, including many neophytes, who in the end will reproduce this procedure, in an endless loop, making everything very public, very ugly.

To mention a few familiar examples, I single out J. I. Packer, Martin Lloyd-Jones and Iain Murray (the latter still alive in his 90s), who rediscovered the Puritans in the 1940s and shed new light on the their teaching. R. C. Sproul defended biblical inerrancy in the 1970s, and vigorously emphasized the biblical teaching on justification by grace through faith alone and the holiness of God. John MacAthur Jr. rescued and defended the doctrine of the lordship of Christ in the Christian life in the 1980s. John Piper taught about the joy of life by faith and fellowship with Christ in the 1990s. Wayne Gruden emphasized the biblical teaching on the dignity both man and woman, bearers God’s image, each one having harmonious and complementary role defined by God in Revelation and in their very physical constitution. Tedd Tripp has helped thousands of people realize the importance of reaching our children’s hearts with the life-changing truth of God’s Word. Men such as Voddie Baucham who have stood up for marriage between a man and a woman and the importance of educating our children in the ways of the Lord. All these men suddenly became targets of cancelation, open criticism and controversy. 

Scripture exhorts us to be grateful for God’s gifts in life of the church and to acknowledge the benefits of grace in the lives of those who trod hard paths and broke down stones harder than ours. Our elders in the church are our fathers in the faith and worthy of our honor, that we stand before their gray hairs.

Our elders in the church are our fathers in the faith and worthy of our honor, that we stand before their gray hairs.

Many of our elders have their struggles, it is true, they have their blind spots, their areas of failure and contradictions. But the reality is that we all have them. After all, we are all outside the garden Eden. Our elders may have made mistakes in some of their emphases and even in certain omissions, but what we do is cover their nakedness (Genesis 9.23) and not expose them to public spectacle, cancellation and mockery.

It’s one thing to fight heresy, false teachers, charlatans of faith, impostors – and these are doing a lot of damage. But it is something else to expose men of God who may have failed at some point in their ministry to public reproach and the court of social media. And even the measurement of ministerial failures needs a very honest and judicious judgment, which ideally should happen in the covenantal end godly context of the local community and never in the few characters of social networks.

Brazilian writer Machado de Assis said in his tale  “Relíquias da Casa Velha” that “it is not enough to be right, one must know how to be right”. This is wise. It is a good principle that the Lord Jesus and his apostles taught. The purpose of discipline is to win the sinner and not to destroy him (Matt. 18:15). If we have to correct someone, let it be to win the person. If we have to prevent mistakes, let it be through propositional and preventive teaching. Let our exhortations, and admonitions be tempered with respect, consideration, and love, and let them take place within the safe space of the church ground through mature conversation of edification. Otherwise, we won’t have much more than the exposure of partial and sometimes biased opinions, which can stimulate hatred and prejudice to an indistinct public and without any condition to promote healthy changes. That’s not how we do things.

We are all called to honor the gray hairs, to be grateful for God’s gifts to the church, and to sit at the feet of our elders with reverence, respect, and deference, like the fathers in the faith that they are. This will also teach our children, it will teach our churches, it will teach society outside the church how we deal with things: with the principle of grace, respect, forgiveness, redemption and mercy. If these virtues do not guide our zeal, all we will have to offer is resentment, bitterness, vanities and a lot of self-righteousness.

We do well to remember that God is also referred to in the Word as “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7.9) and his wisdom is much more ancient than all of us combined.

Tiago J. Santos Filho is the executive director of Fiel Ministries in Brazil; cofounder and director at Martin Bucer Seminary, Brazil; is the president of the TGC Brazil and is one of the pastors of Grace Baptist Church, Brazil.
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