Is there Ageism in the SBC?

1 Timothy 4:12 is one of our generation’s favorite verses to quote, is it not? “Let no one look down on you because you are young” we say to the teen in the youth group, the college graduate heading out into the work force, and the seminarian accepting the call to his first pastorate. Since all Scripture is profitable (2 Tim 3:16), we are confident this is an encouragement many young people need to hear—and we are right to think so. Yet I wonder, in a country like ours which celebrates, even worships, youthfulness, is this call to “let no one look down on you because you are young” the word our young people need to hear most? What I wish to suggest is that perhaps in early twenty-first century America the greater danger for young believers is that they would look down their noses at the old, rather than vice versa.

Ours is after all the culture which says that older workers know less, cost too much, and are therefore, expendable. Ours is a culture which is more and more coming to view euthanasia as an act of mercy, celebrating it in films like “Million Dollar Baby.” Ours is a culture which holds up the image of a twenty-something Hollywood celeb as the picture of beauty. In short, ours is a culture which worships the young, fears aging because it makes us less “beautiful,” and views the old as bothersome and expendable. In a culture like ours, I believe young Christians, and particularly young pastors, need to be careful that they do not fall prey to the culture’s negative mantra concerning the elderly.

Perhaps a message young American Christians are more in need of hearing (than 1 Timothy 4:12) is the message of Leviticus 19:32, “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of the old man and fear your God: I am the Lord.” Let me suggest that this verse be written on Christian graduation cards and engraved on the plaque in the young pastor’s study. Why? Because every message the young believer or young pastor is hearing from his culture will be to disobey Leviticus 19:32. His culture is screaming to him that he only has until he is 30, 40, or maybe 50 until he is yesterday’s news, until technology has passed him by, until culture has gone on without him, until he is an oddity, a relic, an antique. Only the Word reminds him that God’s standard is different from our cultures’. In fact, God commands the young man to honor the older man, but gives no such instruction to the old man about “rising in the presence” of the young. This is one of the myriad of places where the Bible calls the Christian to be counter-cultural.

It may help us to consider how the church is doing in this area—are we being as counter-cultural as God has called us to be? While I cannot speak for the whole church, at least in the case of younger ministers of the Gospel, it appears to me that we’re not even close. For many seminary graduates, I sense that ageism is closely wed with a sort of theological elitism. This ageism-elitism, as I will call it, prompts the young pastor to think himself closer to God than the older believer in his congregation because the pastor can define “infralapsarian” and the older man cannot. Yet the older man has walked with God for seventy years! Do you think he would trade those years of intimacy with the Lord for a definition? Perhaps most troubling, ageism-elitism is popping up not only in young pastors’ views towards older believers but in young pastors’ views toward older pastors. Sure the older pastor can define “infralapsarian” as well as we can, they say, but is he still reading Erickson’s Christian Theology? Does he not even own Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Akin’s Theology for the Church?

As a young seminarian and a young minister, I want to take a moment and speak directly to young seminarians and young ministers of the Gospel (including myself and the other bloggers on this site). Has our generation become so arrogant that we think we have nothing to learn from those who have been in ministry for forty years, while we have been in ministry for two? I fear that this is the case. I fear that many in our generation only view as relevant those with iPhones, those with schedules as hectic as their own, those with iPods who listen to the same preachers and musicians as they do, and those with finger-tip knowledge of the latest publications from B & H? We need to be careful. We need to realize that by forming such opinions about the “relevance” of people we are also making implicit statements about the value of iPods and blogs versus the value of a lifetime in ministry pouring oneself out as a “drink offering.” We have the iPods; they are the drink offering. We have only just begun to suffer for Christ; they have much to teach us, if only we would humble ourselves long enough to listen.

Our generation has taken 1 Tim 4:12a to heart—we are making sure that no one looks down on us. Let us not forget, however, that 1 Timothy 4:12b calls us to be an example to other believers “in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” Part of being an example in these ways is living out the rest of Scripture, including the calls of Scripture to “honor the presence of an old man” (Lev 19:32).

Let me close this meditation on Leviticus 19:32 by suggesting five possible applications of this passage and its warning to us against ageism.

(1) Young believers and young pastors (like the bloggers on this site) need to listen and read more than they talk and write. [Of course, this is true for everyone (James 1:19) but how much more so for us who are young].

(2) Young believers and young pastors need to seek out older mentors, realizing their need to learn and grow. “Walk with the wise,” the Scripture says, “and you will be wise” (Prov 13:20).

(3) Younger believers need to delay accepting leadership positions in the church until God, not their ego, calls them to accept the position. Young believers should allow the elders of the church to take note of their giftedness and invite them into ever-increasing realms of responsibility. This concept of delaying the acceptance of certain leadership positions also applies to current ministers considering opportunities at larger churches. For one example of my point, why is it that a 25 or 30-year-old pastor shepherding a 1000-member church has become the new ideal in the SBC? While there are exceptions, do we not realize that in most cases putting a man that young in a position that large is fraught with danger? Have we not seen enough examples of young pastors wrecking large churches because they do not have the foggiest notion of how to love and lead a church that size?

(4) Just a question for your consideration, but should younger pastors not in general defer to older pastors in the SBC when it comes to appointment to key denominational leadership posts? Young pastor, ask yourself this question, “Does my heart delight to rise before the gray headed in our convention or do I long to take a post where the gray headed will rise before me?”

(5) The attitude of a younger pastor entering a church should at least in part be that of a learner. While the pastor is given a God-assigned task to teach and equip the flock, the young pastor also has much to learn from the members of his congregation, particularly those most advanced in the faith. The pastor should look to the older godly men in his congregation as examples and should not be intimidated if someone else in the church actually knows more about God or the Bible than he does. The young pastor should let the older men spur him on in his walk with Christ; that result of meeting together corporately (Heb 10:24-25), spurring one another on in the faith, applies to pastors too.

**In closing, let me pass along a recommendation from Jonathan Akin, one of the other bloggers on this site, on a resource with a similar argument to that of this post. Consider the following message preached in Southern Seminary’s chapel by Jimmy Scroggins entitled “Pride on the Prowl.”

–Scott Wilson