ASKED: Should a younger Christian ever correct an older Christian?

Hands Raised

ASKED: A New Feature

This semester I’m teaching 230 students in four biblical counseling classes at Boyce College, the undergraduate school at Southern Seminary.

  • CN101a: Introduction to Biblical Counseling
  • CN101b: Introduction to Biblical Counseling
  • CN201: Methods of Biblical Counseling
  • CN481: Counseling Skills Development I

Depending on time and topic, students ask 10-20 questions per class, and many stick around afterwards or walk with me across campus to keep asking and discussing. I answer these questions the best I can, ask the class what they think, highlight other resources when relevant, or say “I don’t know” when I don’t know. But every time, I learn something myself, and I often find my mind racing to crystallize additional thoughts as I circle back around to the question in the intellectual aftermath.

So to refine my thinking, serve my students, continue the discussion, and resource those interested, I’m starting an informal feature here on the blog entitled “ASKED.” Sometimes my answer will be a quick, unrefined burst; other times, I’ll try to flesh things out in more detail.

This first question has been asked twice in the past week:

Should a younger Christian ever correct an older Christian? If so, how?

College is a transitional time of life. During this new chapter, students typically begin reflecting on their relationships and responsibilities in fresh ways. They might realize concerning things about their families or friends or home churches, and they sometimes realize that they have opportunities and responsibilities to shape the people closest to them. Students often ask this particular question about their parents, although in my class the other day it was simply focused on biblical counseling.

So, should younger Christians ever correct older Christians? If so, how?

First, through both example and precept, Scripture consistently teaches young men and women to respect older generations, honor our fathers and mothers, and seek aged wisdom rather than spouting our own youthful opinions. So the dominant posture of the younger generation should be a posture of asking, learning, and listening. Moses, careening toward ministerial burnout, benefits from the organizational wisdom of his father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 18:13-27). Solomon pleads with his young son to clutch parental wisdom close to his chest long after he’s left the home (Proverbs 3:1-3). Sadly, that son Rehoboam later ignores his patient elders and listens to his hasty young buddies, leaving the perfect example not to follow (1 Kings 12:1-15). Scripture piles up both instructions and illustrations on this topic: Elihu, though his spirit burned within him, rightly waited for his elders to speak (Job 32:1-22). The sages tell us that “the glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29). And the older women are taught to mentor the younger women, not the other way around (Titus 2:3-5). Thus we who are younger should seek to be learners before we seek to be teachers.

Second, however, Scripture also makes clear that the church only grows as we “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), and truth-speaking must be a cross-generational activity. So it’s vital that all members play truth-speaking roles in each other’s lives, regardless of age. Every movement needs both the wisdom of its elders and the zeal of its youth, and sometimes that zeal must humbly challenge some of the settled beliefs or behaviors of those who’ve walked a longer path.

Third, though experience is one of our best teachers, and most experience comes with age, our ultimate teacher is the eternal Word of God. The psalmist writes,

I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts. — Psalm 119:99-100

It’s possible to be wise beyond your years if you contemplate and keep the eternal Word which is wise beyond the ages. The implication is not that we should disregard our elders once we have a dozen verses memorized. The point is that nothing and no one outwises God’s Word. God’s truth towers above every generation, casting its long shadow over even the oldest and wisest among us. Thus there will be times when a young man is right and his pastor is wrong, or a thoughtful college-aged daughter knows better than her parents.

Fourth, though, even when we’re walking in the light of God’s Word and marinating in ancient wisdom, we still shouldn’t be quick to correct those older than us. We should consider the nature of our relationship (Proverbs 26:17), the objectivity of our observations (Proverbs 18:13), and the relative importance of our concerns (Matthew 23:23). For example, it’s much more important for a 19-year-old son to challenge his father over an impending wrongful divorce than to challenge that same father’s use of Christian liberties. In the same vein, we should also take stock of how receptive this older person might be toward us, and whether our lives give us standing to speak (Matthew 7:1-5).

Fifth, as young men and women, our example should be the sharpest tool in our belt. Long before we enter a room to speak a word of correction, and long after our careful words have passed through the ears of those we’ve corrected, our example should continue whispering truth and wisdom. How we live should be both the forerunner and the echo of our instruction. Paul exhorted Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Example is the silent teacher in every room. Indeed,

Even a child makes himself known by his acts,
by whether his conduct is pure and upright.
Proverbs 20:11

Sixth, and finally, even when we do need to speak up and offer correction to an older man or woman, our tone should communicate the utmost respect. Again Paul instructs Timothy: “Do not rebuke (ἐπιπλήσσω) an older man but encourage (παρακαλέω) him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). Every older Christian, by virtue of their God-given age and stature, deserves the kind of honor we would show our parents. Thus correction in this context should sound more like an appeal or an encouragement rather than a strong rebuke or verbal chastisement.

Young Christians should be careful and patient, but we should not be silent. Our dominant approach should be one of listening and learning, but there are also times when we’re obligated by the Word of God and the love of Christ to speak his truth appropriately and respectfully into the lives of those whose years outnumber us. When we must do so, I pray that our example will pave the way for our words and will earn the kind of hearing that builds unity, purity, and love.