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

Comments 0

  1. I think it is a good point, and one that needs to be heard. Young pastors, seminarians, Bible college students etc need humility. I whole-heartedly agree.

    I will say this, however. I believe both sides need to be corrected. I know you alluded to that in your post, but honestly, most of what is written on this subject comes across as giving lip service to the fact that older pastors must resist the temptation to look down on the younger simply because they are younger, then proceeds to go into long reasons why younger pastors need to respect the older pastors.

    I just want to see good balance. There has been lots said to the young seminarian community about respecting the ones who have been around for so many years and little said, from a conservative perspective, to those who have been around fo a long time and believe they have it all figured out.

    I serve on staff under a man who has been around for a long time and holds prominent positions in both the SBC and the KBC. Yet, he will be the first to say he does not have it all figured out. Both sides need doses of humility and both sides deserve to be addressed.

    In keeping with his subject and looking at the present state of the SBC, which do you think is the bigger problem in our denomination? Younger pastors who are looking for ways for the SBC to continue to be effective or the older pastor who sees no reason to change?

  2. I think the problems on both sides can be narrowed down to arrogance. No matter the age, arrogance in someone’s heart is what demolishes bridges in Baptist life before they are even built. May God soften our hearts and give us Christ-like humility and faithfulness.

  3. I appreciate all of your comments thus far and I think you each make a good point. Let me reply briefly to Jonathan’s response, although I hope that others will follow up on the other two responses as well.
    I would not dispute that there are older pastors who also wrestle with pride and convey an attitude to their church and to younger pastors that “they have it all figured out,” as you said. However, I did not choose to write that post. I chose to write to those of us who are young; I chose to write to the group to which I belong. It seems that on the subject I have written, arrogance in the young and an unwillingness to learn from and respect the older man (as Scripture calls us to), you and I are in agreement. I think in general it is good practice to begin addressing an issue by addressing yourself and the group to which you belong. I would rather begin by asking the Lord, “Where in my heart is there a problem?”

  4. Nice post. I have spent much time with young people and with younger leaders, but I try to remind them that we need both the zeal of youth AND the wisdom of the aged. Further, the passage in Timothy says more than “Let no one look down on your youth.” It goes on to say to “be an example,” so if younger folks are not being godly example, maybe we should look down on their youth :-).
    I have taught at seminary long enough to see more than a few young men who heard too much how great they were and too little how green they were jump at the first opportunity, never finish school, and flame out like a cheap bottle rocket on New Year’s Eve. I recall one young man who came straight from college proclaiming the little church he served before coming to seminary had told him he was the next Billy Graham. He lasted one semester and is no longer in ministry.
    I love young ministers. I have given my life to train them. But if you are not teachable, you are not usable. As McCheyne, himself in his twenties at the time, said, “God does not bless great talent, He blesses great likeness to Jesus.”

  5. I agree with your post, please hear me on that, and it seems you do. I think we have some problems within the SBC as far as youthful arrogance goes and it needs to be addressed.

    However, I believe it has been addressed numerous times by various age groups. My only concern is that we are calling younger pastors to humble themselves and there is no voice that calls upon present leaders to do the same. I am simply commenting on the need for balance.

    By the admittance of our current SBC President, various Seminary Presidents, and other influential players within the SBC, our denomination is not in the greatest of shapes. There needs to be a willingness on the part of long time pastors and leaders to step back and look at what this convention needs to do in order to remain the greatest missionary sending agency in the world!

    So, call for young pastors to excersise humble confidence and contribute to the cause and call for veterans to be confidently humble as they do the same.

    Balance is all I ask for.

  6. Jonathon,

    I don’t know that I can answer your question as to which problem is bigger in the SBC. That is difficult to judge. But let me ask:

    Are younger pastors a problem at all in the SBC? The question might imply that they are the only ones seeking to be effective. Are older pastors not wanting to be effective? Or do they just see a different way at being effective than younger pastors (this question has nothing to do w/ who is right about effectiveness, but rather about motive)?

    Is it a problem that there are pastors and churches that refuse to change? Yes! Is it a problem when they look down on and patronize younger pastors who are trying their best to be innovative and get the gospel to as many people as possible? Yes!

    But, might it be an equal problem to have young guys who think they’ve “got it all figured out” on how to do ministry now and who look dismissively at older pastors thinking “the game has passed you by old man?”

  7. I would throw in one more tidbit by agreeing that older leaders in the SBC could exercise humility as well. They could be a little more gracious toward those who may do things a little differently. Using a stool and a table to preach, if you preach the Word, does not mean you have opened the door to heresy, to use a recent example. Also, they could be a little more open to allow young men in discussions of import in the convention and in leadership roles, if these younger men are in fact men who live exemplary lives in speech, in conduct, in self-control, for example.

  8. Alvin,

    I agree wholeheartedly.


    I think you and I were posting replies at the same time, so I apologize b/c my post comes across harsh in light of your second post.

    I agree with you on balance. That is all I’m calling for as well. Amen to your post. I agree with you that our vision should be to see the SBC remain the greatest sending agency for the GC in the world.

  9. So what happens when our generation becomes the gray headed iPod-wearing leaders?

    Should the SBC decide who is to lead large churches or should we leave that to God?

    Just some thoughts.

  10. Chris,

    Not sure I understand your questions… And the SBC never decides who leads churches that is for the churches under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (hopefully). The SBC has no call in who pastors local churches, Baptist’s believe in local church autonomy. I do not believe Scott meant anything like that in his blog. Scott is saying that God should be the one who calls pastors, he is speaking to younger pastors that they should proceed with humility, following the direction of the Holy Spirit not their own pride or aspiration for a NAME.

  11. Scott,

    This is a very good word. Thanks for writing it.


    The new blog looks great. I do have one suggestion, though. If you want to increase your credibility, you need to block Alvin Reid from commenting. Just a thought.


  12. Nathan,

    I was simply questioning point #3 as it seemed that there was a question as to whether a 25 – 30 year old could handle a large church. Have we not seen older pastors stumble in many of the same areas that younger men could? Age, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily reflect maturity, or spiritual maturity for that matter. We can easily say that young men should wait until God calls, but bringing that calling into question puts us in an interesting position of judging others.

    Ironically, point #1 states that “Young believers and young pastors (like the bloggers on this site) need to listen and read more than they talk and write.”, yet this is a blog intended for just that; the administrators writing what they believe and the rest of us discussing it. That sort of ties in to the fact that we are in a technological revolution that the church can either ignore or embrace. This blog also makes reference to iPhones, iPods and, again, blogs. While it may not have been intended, statements such as “We have the iPods; they are the drink offering.” make it seem as if our generation isn’t using these things to reach the unsaved masses. One day, we too will be old and gray expecting to be respected. But, we will have our Halley’s Bible Handbook on our Kindle. What then? Looking into the future, what can we say about the technologically advanced elders of the church?

  13. Thanks for a very well written and thoughtful post. I look forward to reading more in the future.

    I think one of the things that the blogs should make clear is that there is immense diversity even within generations.


  14. Chris,
    Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment on it. Since you asked a few questions, I wanted to take a moment to reply to them.
    First, you are certainly correct that older men are capable of stumbling in the very same areas as younger men. Also, I agree with you that biological age is not equivalent to spiritual age. I did not mean to suggest otherwise and I apologize if I did. While Scripture certainly suggests that we will grow in our walk with the Lord as we progress through life, I am not denying that there are young men who are far along the path spiritually and are capable of leading a church (small or large). (You will note that I did allow for exceptions in the section of the original post dealing with this issue). I am simply asking if there are added dangers in a younger man being elevated to the pastorate of a large church. Also, you suggest that we are putting ourselves in the “interesting position” of judging another man’s calling by raising such questions. I believe that “God called me” are not the magic words that take away the ability of anyone else to raise questions. After all, in the process by which a church calls a minister, both church and minister must sense that God is bringing the two together. I would suggest to you that I believe a church is being negligent if in the interview and decision process they stop raising questions of a candidate because he assures them that God has called him to their church. They should seek to discern whether God is calling the man or whether his ego may be involved (or whether a host of other unbiblical reasons for accepting a pastorate may be driving him).
    On your next point, I did realize as I was writing that post that I was after all writing a post on a blog. There is no contradiction between my point in the original post and this obvious reality. I didn’t say young believers and young ministers aren’t permitted to speak or write; I only stated that they should listen and read more than they speak and write.
    Finally, on the point about technology and its potential usefulness for the Kingdom, let me first say that I do have an iPod. I would guess the other bloggers on this site do too. In the context of the original post, “We have the iPods; they are the drink offering” was not intended to be an anti-technology comment. I was making no statement on the rightness or wrongness of technology or its potential use for the kingdom. I was listing examples of things that make up the world of younger Christians, seminarians, and pastors. I believe we are sometimes guilty of viewing older believers as irrelevant because they do not listen to the same preachers, read the same books, listen to the same music, or have the same technological devices.
    In closing, I would simply ask you to bear in mind the main point of the original post. We as young believers are called to respect our elders and pursue humility. I am simply calling on us as young leaders to reflect on how we are doing in this area to line up our lives with the Word of God. On this point I’m sure you and I can agree wholeheartedly.

  15. Scott,

    I, for one, do agree wholeheartedly…except for the comment about all the bloggers on this site having iPods. My wife left ours on top of the car one day after a walk and we never saw it again…A very sad day 🙁

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  17. “…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!”

    Isn’t the passage in Leviticus you mentioned admonishing us to bow before those who are both older AND wiser than us? If a man has been in the church and “walked with God for seventy years” and yet knows less about the Lord and his Law than a man who has spent 4 years in seminary (or otherwise) training and showing himself to be an approved workman (much the same way Jesus did when he was 13 I might add) then why should we esteem him simply because his butt has warmed a pew longer than ours has?

    I believe the real tragedy is not so much ageism (which I will agree is a growing problem), but the pitiful cry of many people for honor and respect that they have done nothing to garner or deserve. Whatever happened to requiring brothers and sisters to prove their maturity and walk with Christ by their depth of understanding of the Scriptures?

    Aren’t we supposed to be about pursuing the truth, who we believe to be a person? Isn’t the mark of that pursuit a maturity and depth in understanding of topics along the way?

    Wouldn’t it then follow that the gray haired one who is deserving of more respect when it comes to wisdom and leadership is the one who should be more revered and respected, regardless of their age (per Timothy)?

    I agree that in a perfect world the older should be teaching the younger since they have had more time with the material and should be more advanced in their studies and walk. However a cursory glance around many churches I’ve known doesn’t show that this is the case.

  18. Provocative article. Hope it’s not lost now in the archives. Young or old, cockiness is never the fruit of the Spirit. There are young and old with age-prejudice in the way of esteeming one another in the Lord. The newest believer has something to teach me. There’s room in the most wrinkled of us for a renewing work of the Spirit in life and ministry. It’s Jesus, after all, from generation to generation.

    Well, with the New Creation, behold, the old, the archaic, goes away. The new is come…and yet was he not appealing to believers who needed to relate to one another in a way that was consistent with that new creation in full harmony with God. The old that was supposed to go away? (Maybe he meant old attitudes…not old preachers.)I suppose I could check what Grudem or Erickson says about this, but sometimes I may not find as full a treatment in a headier text than I might find in an online conversation. I really appreciate your thoughts. And I think a new look at 2 Co. 5.16 has huge import for our ageism-elitism. To paraphrase: “There was a time when we recognized one another based on flesh…skin, size, style, seniority, whatever. There was even a time when we might’ve rated Jesus that way. Not any more. We no longer score each other from a flesh point of view.” …I wonder where he went to seminary?

  19. Post

    Thanks for your comment. I’m pretty sure this article has been lost in the archives but thanks for unearthing it–you probably had to search pretty hard!
    Your insight into the application of 2 Cor 5:16 is right on target I believe. Ageism, elitism, and any combination of the two would certainly fall into the category of viewing others in a “purely human way.” This is out of place in the new aeon initiated by Christ and growing in our hearts as believers.
    The basic point of your first paragraph is also on point. This works both ways, and the old can be just as guilty in looking down on the young. However, as I mentioned earlier in the comment string, I chose to address this piece to my own age group in an area I think many of us struggle in.
    Blessings to you and your ministry.

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