Gray Hair is a Crown of Glory: Ageism In The Church

This morning I was researching a conference that is coming to Toronto later this year and noted the following statement which was in the short biography of one of the keynote speakers. “St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England has grown to be one of the largest churches in England with 2,000+ in weekly worship, 70% of which are under the age of 35.” What struck me about that statement is the emphasis on youth, as if this person is a more credible minister of the Word because he appeals to youth rather than to the elderly.

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As I thought about this, I remembered an article R.C. Sproul Jr. posted recently. He says, “When I last crossed a decade barrier in my own aging process, God was good enough to grant me this small bit of wisdom—the Bible honors age, not youth. I came to understand that the disappearance of my youth was something God thought a good thing, and if I were wise, I would agree. Now a decade later and I have been given this bit of wisdom—easier said than done.” Sproul is absolutely correct that the Bible honors age above youth. This is not to say that the Bible marginalizes young people, but that it sees them in their proper perspective – as people who are far less wise than the aged. Recently I completed a study of Proverbs and this was made abundantly clear throughout the book of wisdom. These verses are typical of the wisdom of Solomon. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him (Proverbs 22:15).” Compare that with Proverbs 16:31 which tells us that “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”

Only a cursory search through the other 65 books of the Bible will reveal this is a common theme. Allow me to provide just a few examples of the Bible mandate to honor the elderly.

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.” God commanded that we are to stand in the presence of the eldery to render to them the honor due to them. In Deuteronomy 28:50 God told the Israelites that a curse would come upon them for their disobedience. “A hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.” A hard-faced nation is one that does not respect the old. Perhaps one of the clearest endorsements of God’s commands towards the aged comes from Job 12:12. “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” True wisdom comes from length of days lived walking with the Lord, not with the arrogant impulses of youth. In the story of Job we also see Elihu, who was the youngest of Job’s friends, wait to speak until the older men had spoken their part. He treated Job with both admiration and respect as his elder. Turning to the New Testament, Paul cautioned Timothy that he must “…not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father (1 Timothy 5:1).” He also tells him to treat elderly women like mothers.

The Bible also has much to say about youth. “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die (Proverbs 23:13).” “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother (Proverbs 29:15).” Hebrews 12:6-7 compares new believers, who are immature in their beliefs, to children. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”

A clear picture emerges from the pages of Scripture. To quote Sproul once more, “The Bible honors age, not youth.” This does not mean that God despises youth and that He honors all elderly people. But a person who has lived a long life of dedicated service to God, walking in the paths of wisdom, is surely worthy of higher honor than the youth who has only just begun.

And so we need to ask a question about the church. Does the church honor the Bible in honoring age, or does the church instead honor youth?

I have to wonder, has one of today’s newest “-isms” made its way into the church? In our day many are fearing the aging of the Baby Boomers, worrying that they will become a burden on society that will empty the coffers of pension plans and overrun the health care systems. A new word I have begun to hear increasingly lately is ageism. Ageism can be defined as “any attitude, action, or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of age or any assignment of roles in society purely on the basis of age.” We are all familiar, of course, with racism which subordinates people based on their skin color or ethnicity. While this is surely sinful, we can understand how it comes to happen. One ethnic group outnumbers another, and treat the other group as somehow inferior to themselves. But this makes little sense with age, for, as C.S. Lewis said, “The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” We will all be old some day. Ageism is not only unbiblical and destructive to a well-ordered society, but it is also selfish and foolish.

I remind you again of what spurred this article. “St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England has grown to be one of the largest churches in England with 2,000+ in weekly worship, 70% of which are under the age of 35.” Is this something to boast about? Are we to be proud that we have built a church for the young at the expense of the aged? Have we built a church that would rather have pews filled with youth than with the elderly? Have we built an institution that subordinates a group on the basis of their age?

At this point I considered writing about the church growth movement, which has impacted almost every local congregation to at least some extent, but I am not sure that there is much to say that Scripture has not already told us. While I have read of hundreds of churches boast about how young their median age is, I have heard of none that boast in the number of elderly members. While new churches are being planted on a daily basis to reach tens, twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, I do not know of any that are emphasized reaching the elderly. And while many churches are transitioning to new models of “doing church,” none seem to be doing so at the expense of youth. Surely we have missed the Bible’s emphasis on honoring age.

My parents modeled respect for the elderly. I remember at certain points in their life they faced conflict in their relationship that they just could not seem to resolve. Did they call on a marriage counsellor? Did they go to a therapist? No, they turned to people in the church who had been married for forty or fifty years and who had surely faced any problem my parents could encounter. They turned to the elderly and gleaned from them wisdom and discernment. They sat with their grey-haired friends (these were the days before my parents had grey hair of their own) and had them pray with and for them. They allowed God to teach them wisdom through what He had taught others. These elderly people modeled the Bible’s call to the elderly.

Many years ago (and I’m sure the pastor would be happy to know that I still remember the sermon), the pastor at the church I used to attend preached on Ecclesiastes chapter twelve. The chapter begins with the words, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.” That is God’s call to those of us who have not yet earned our grey hair. When we are young, we are to heed the call of Wisdom, who cries, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge” (Proverbs 1:22)? We must seek after wisdom so that when we are elderly, we can share our wisdom with the young and foolish.

Until then, let us honor the aged. Let us give double-honor to those with grey hair. Let us stand in their presence and give them the honor God requires. Let our hope and confidence be in the words of the Psalmist who says, “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be fresh and flourishing (Psalm 92:13,14).”