Shall We Respect the Elders?
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.
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.
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.