Respecting Elders - The Proper Relationships Between the Young and the Old

Younger believers need to submit to and respect their elders. But what does this mean, and what does this not mean?

First, older people generally have more knowledge and experience than their younger counterparts (although experience in some areas is subjective). The principle is based on authority and the way God has ordained things. Younger people should not talk to older people as they would those closest to their age because this can lead to improper behavior.

As a quick side discussion, in Ephesians 6:1-4, Paul states that children must obey their parents and that parents rear their children properly. Fathers must not exasperate their children by provoking them to wrath. That may only cause the adolescent to show less regard for them, defeating the whole purpose and encouraging disobedience. Children can indeed be in the right while parents in the wrong. However, this still doesn’t mean they should not respect and obey their parents as they should.

What if a parent wants their child to do something unbiblical? The best thing for the young man or woman to do (assuming they are at the age of accountability) is put the Lord first and do the right thing. Not only is this not disrespectful to parents, but it also honors God, who comes before any man and acts as a witness and testimony to the older generation. But if a parent raises their child accordingly (Proverbs 22:6), then children will rarely have to do this because they will have parents who set a good example as role models, a standard the children need to follow and obey. Of course, adults will get things wrong, but this does not excuse children to usurp and abuse the proper relationship they need to have with their mother and father. The danger is that they may start looking for imperfections and then use them against their parents to disrespect the proper authority relationship. Therefore, children must obey their parents unless told to do something unbiblical.

Anyway, greater age doesn’t technically guarantee more knowledge or wisdom, even if that is generally the case. Of course, this principle doesn’t eliminate the command to properly approach those older than ourselves (whoever “they” or “we” may be). But that has little to do with wisdom and knowledge. There are a good handful of godly young men and women alive in this world who have attained greater spiritual maturity than most of their elders around them, even if that isn’t the norm. The reasons all come back to free will and the disposition of the individual’s heart. The Christian life is all about choice, meaning that God awards knowledge and wisdom to those who seek it the most. Some older people may not have (and still don’t) done a very good job at this throughout their life due to poor decisions on their part. Age doesn’t promise greater spiritual maturity and progress because that can depend on so many factors. So although time and age can play a significant role in a believers spiritual level, it is not always the deciding factor that determines their current relationship with the Lord. For example, Paul didn’t come into the faith until later than the rest of the eleven. Yet, he will most likely be the most rewarded apostle ever.

Nevertheless, younger people need to respect their elders as they should in a way that demonstrates their submission and obedience to God. However, this does not excuse older people to lord themselves over others by disrespecting the younger crowd. Those less advanced in years need to be treated with love and respect just as any older person should be treated. Being older doesn’t excuse anyone from talking down to anybody else (arrogance) or heaping verbal abuse into their heads. Older individuals should never take advantage of the dignity and respect their age allows them but should set a good example by doing what is right, as Titus 2:2-8 demonstrates. Older men should not exasperate the younger generation but should carry themselves as men worthy of respect. And it is a person’s actions and behavior that will either make them easier or harder to look up to. Those who wish to be treated the way someone their age should be treated should not shoot themselves in the foot through poor behavior. That only defeats the whole purpose. It is harder to respect those who don’t respect others.

Titus 2:2-8 (NIV)

2 Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. 3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. 6 Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. 7 In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness 8 and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

In 1 Peter 5:5 below, the issue is not one of years and numbers, but authority based on the spiritual gift of teaching and leading God has given some individuals. So this passage applies to believers of all ages, both young and old. Laypeople need to submit to those in higher positions of authority (teachers), whether younger or older than they are. However, it is more likely that younger individuals are more prone to disrespecting authority, something the older members of the congregation have learned not to do from years of experience. It is for this reason why Peter addresses the younger members specifically. But the principle relationship between teacher and non-teacher still applies to people of every age (Hebrews 13:17). Without a proper leadership structure and those willing to follow it, very little unity and progress in the truth could exist.

1 Peter 5:5 (NIV)

5 In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.

The passage above reminds us of another principle we haven’t discussed; the despise for younger teaching authorities. Paul preaches against this very same prejudice in 1 Timothy 4:12-13 when he writes, “ Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” Timothy was a young and very timid man. It is true that more years often means a more profound knowledge of God’s Word, but not always. The point is that only those gifted to teach may do so, not those who think they can or should, even though they don’t have the gift. And if the Lord calls a man to teach the Word from a certain point forward, then his age matters little because great Bible teachers can be both young and old.

There is no guarantee Timothy knew more than many teachers older than him (he probably didn’t). The twelve, including Paul, had more knowledge and experience. But the point is that young men can and must teach if called upon to do so regardless of their age and what other people think about it. And of course, they must be adequately prepared to do so.

Finally, the reader may ask, what does 1 Timothy 5:1a, which says, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” mean? Firstly, it doesn’t mean a younger man cannot rebuke an older believer. And the Greek word for “elder” in 1 Timothy 5:1 is presbuteros, the same word used for elders in other verses (pastor teachers), not men more advanced in years.

1 Timothy 5:1 aside, the real issue is how a younger believer rebukes an older brother, not whether a young Christian can rebuke one older than himself. There will be (hopefully few) times when some people (regardless of their age) step out of line and need correction. It is one thing to come down a little harder on another young believer closer to one’s age. It is another matter to do it the same way with someone who probably requires it less due to their age, status, and experience. Younger people are more likely to act up more often and in more dramatic ways than their elders because they have yet to experience many of the hard lessons those more advanced in years endured throughout their lifetimes.