In the current debate over change, we seldom have the patience or the interest to listen to our elders. It has become tragic to hear of a generation of Christians who have come to the Lord out of their sinful past, given their money over their life-time to their church, raised their kids in their church, only to have their church taken away from them in one leadership change and themselves asked to sit quietly on the sidelines. The biblical admonitions to learn from our elders as well as to respect them, takes a back seat to the need for growth and innovation.
No older saint I know is advocating unnecessary blindness. Most of our seniors realize that there will be a time when their reasoning powers as well as their physical powers wane. Most I know welcome the younger families and are glad for their vitality and participation. But this is often taken advantage of by younger Christians who do not have a full perspective of the history that preceded them.
Christianity is not unique in its respect for gray hair. Most healthy civilizations as well as most religions have long traditions of giving honor to their elders, usually men and women. But for the Christian, from the fifth commandment to honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee (Ex 20:12), to Paul’s admonitions to rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father . . . and let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor . . .and even against an elder receive not an accusation but before two or three witnesses (1 Tim 5:1, 17, 19), respect, patience and recognition have always been the Christian ethic toward older saints.
Our fault in this area comes for a number of reasons. One reason may be a younger generation’s inability to listen and learn. Ralph Waldo Emerson once retorted, “The secret of a true scholar? In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him; and in that I am his pupil.”1 Will Rogers said the greatest compliment you could pay to a person is to ask a question and then listen to his response. Our generation seems to have little time to listen.
Another reason may be a modern notion that what is changing is always better than what remains the same. Norman Geisler recently wrote concerning modern notions of God,
It is difficult to understand how we can know that everything is relative and changing. How could anyone be sure that something is changing without having some unchanging measure to measure the change? And if everything is changing, then there could not be the standard or measure by which we could measure the change.2
When we ask our elders to sit on the sidelines of ministry, we may be removing landmarks that we cannot do without! Those eyes have seen things that others have not. They have seen spiritual victories and defeats caused by repeating truths and errors over many years. Just because the body is wrinkled and the clothes are an older style does not mean the wisdom inside is somehow less. It may mean the very opposite. Paul warned the Corinthians, For which cause we faint not; but though the outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). I have often said at funerals that some saints grow so much throughout their Christian life that finally their spirit cannot fit inside the body any longer and God graciously lets them leave! Some of the wisest words of biblical characters are the ones just before death: Moses to Joshua; Elijah to Elisha; Paul to Timothy. We would do well to listen to the wisdom of saints in this “prime” of their life also.
Still, when it comes to accomplishing our personal goals and creating our personal visions, the elders are often obstacles in the way of progress. When I hear critical statements about older saints being reluctant to change, it is easy to identify a number of false assumptions made about the thinking of our elders.
Old Age Means Ignorance
The assumption is that older Christians have no good reason for refusing change, or have never thought through the consequences of not changing. Typical of our generation, we think that any change is better than no change and therefore it is senseless to resist. G.K. Chesterton described it,
Modern men are not familiar with the rational arguments for tradition, but they are familiar, and almost wearily familiar with the rational arguments for change . . . . The language which comes most readily to everyone’s mind is the language of innovation; but it is a language that is rather exercised than examined.3
Thomas á Kempis described his Lord’s thought of him as, “unless thou stand steadfast in Me, thou mayest change, but not better thyself.”4 It could be that many seniors know the consequences of proposed changes far better than younger people and are also willing to stand their ground out of conviction and love for the ministry. It is near-sightedness for younger adults, because the seniors say it in older terminology while wearing older (and far less expensive) styles, to interpret such conviction as old-age senility.
Old Age Means Compliance
This assumption is that because some saints are older they should automatically give in to younger desires. Youth is always thought to be better. Older folks are there to pay the bills, staff the menial chores and stay off the platform unless they are willing to act like youth. Whatever the younger generation desires, they have always insisted on and gotten. Walt Whitman once described it as, “Open up all your values and let her go–swing, whirl with the rest—you will soon get under such momentum you can’t stop if you would.”5 Perhaps the elders among us realize that.
The great sixteenth century British parliamentarian, William Wilberforce observed in his own day and culture,
At length, old age has made its advances. Now, if ever, we would expect it would be high time to make eternal things the great object of attention. No such thing! It is now required of them to be good-natured and indulgent to the frailties and follies of youth, remembering that when they were young they gave themselves up to the same practices.
How opposite this is to that dread of sin which is the sure characteristic of the true Christian. Such a dread causes him to look back upon the vices of his own youthful days with shame and sorrow.6
Old Age Means Neutrality
The cry of today’s cultural changers is that all changes of “style” are morally neutral. It should not matter to the older folks that the church now looks different, sounds different and has been “styled down” to an easy, casual atmosphere that is comfortable for any level of spirituality. Are we to think that folks who have been under the sound of the Word for decades have no sensitivity to grieving the Spirit? Is it possible that younger saints may not yet have this sensitivity?
Wilberforce finished his statement by saying, “Then instead of conceding to young people to be wild and thoughtless—a privilege of their age and circumstances(!)—he is prompted to warn them against what has proved to him to be a matter of such bitter reflection.”7 But this decision to resist what others consider to be harmless, will bring impatient accusations quickly on one’s own head. To disagree is to say the other is wrong. And we know how youth love to be told they are wrong!
Old Age Means Surrender
The final straw for many older saints is to be told that they won’t and can’t change. The irony behind this accusation is two-fold. On the one hand, we forget that they did change! Years ago they repented of an old life in sin and became new creatures in Christ! They quit going where they used to go and talking like they used to talk. They gave up old habits and even changed the way they looked to more reflect their new found spiritual life. They started giving sacrificially to start new churches, build buildings and send missionaries. To say that these folks won’t change is to deny their very testimony for Christ.
On the other hand, the irony deepens when it is finally seen that the younger people coming to the church are the ones that don’t change! They want the church to be like they already are: same music, same casualness, same impulsiveness with no change of life-style outside the church. Chesterton said, “The modern man found the church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy.”8 And when such is the case, who has had to do the changing? In our age, I dare say, not the younger people!
When I read George Barna deriding older saints for not always changing at the drop of a hat (or should we say ball cap?), I said to myself, “Good!” He wrote, “Most older adults are not about to accept the new ways of experiencing and learning about God. In fact, there is not much that most of them will change in terms of values, perceptions, and behaviors at this advanced state of their life.”7 Perhaps that is because they already have changed and are waiting for another generation to do the same!
And So . . .
We really owe a debt of gratitude to the elders among us for fighting a good fight and finishing their course well. I pray they are not too offended by today’s immaturity. As one writer said, “The charge of hypocrisy is the unintended compliment that vice pays to virture.”9 I know they know that!Notes: 1. Quoted by Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Garden City Pub, 1927) 4. 2. Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man (Minneapolis: Bethany Books, 1997) 66. 3. Quoted by Michael Aeschliman, The Restitution of Man (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 8. 4. Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 190. 5. Quoted by William Strauss & Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning (New York: Broadway Books, 1997) 146. 6. William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany Books, 1997) 116-117. 7. Wilberforce, 117. 8. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1994) 96. 9. Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996) 112.