Passage: 1 Timothy 5:1-2
Several weeks ago, I was looking ahead at what was coming in 1 Timothy. When I first looked at our text for today, it was obvious that it is a distinct paragraph; however, I was concerned that there may not be enough here to warrant an entire message.
Now, I’m sure that none of you doubt my ability to preach for a long time about anything. But I want to do more than just fill up time. I want to fill our time with substance, and I wasn’t sure there was much substance to these verses. After all, one of the first things we learn as children is to respect your elders, so it seems we have the first statement covered, and the rest of the passage seems pretty simple and non-confrontational.
But the more I got into this passage and thought about its significance, the more I realized that these two short and seemingly innocent verses have some real bite when it comes to how our culture and even most Christians think. In particular, this passage strongly confronts the arrogant youth culture of our society as well as our sexualized, romance-driven understanding of gender and cross-gender relationships. And folks, I don’t think we always realize how much our own thinking has been influenced by these cultural influences, so it’s not just people out there who need to hear what God says. We need what God says, and so I hope that we will be attention to where our own thinking and practice needs to change.
But before we get to these principles, I’d like to establish three points that will frame our discussion.
First, for the sake of our understanding of 1 Timothy as a whole, notice that…
This passage introduces a new section on relationships.
In 5:1–6:2 Paul gives instructions regarding several kinds of relationships. Verses 3–16 address care for widows. Verses 17–25 deal with the church’s relationship to its pastors, and 6:1–2 address the master/slave relationship. But before Paul gives these specific instructions, he begins in our text with some general principles that should guide godly relationships. Second…
The four groups in this passage are based on age and gender.
This may seem obvious because most translations say “older man” in v. 1; however, the Greek term is presbuteros, which is used throughout the epistle to refer to the office of elder or pastor. However, pretty much everyone agrees that it is not referring to the office in this verse. The primary reason is that “older women” in v. 2 is the feminine form of the same Greek term, and there are no examples in the NT of women elders. Since v. 2 must simply be referring to women who are older, we should also understand the masculine form in v. 1 as also referring to men who are older.
And so Paul describes four groups of people comparing them to Timothy based on age and gender. There are men and women who are older than Timothy and there are men and women who are Timothy’s peers or younger.
I’m sure that some of you who are in what we like to call “middle age” are wondering what category do I fit in? I’ll just say that I am not dumb enough to answer that question. I will leave it to your conscience to decide if you are an older person or a younger person.
We don’t really need to establish a line between older and younger because Paul’s point isn’t to define hard and fast age brackets; instead, his discussion is framed by Timothy’s age. Timothy was probably in his 30s, and so Paul is simply giving principles to Timothy regarding how he should relate to people that are older than him and to people in the same stage of life. He doesn’t say anything about relating to younger people because Timothy probably wasn’t having issues there. But we are safe to assume the family metaphor can be extended to treating younger people as sons and daughters. Third…
The context of Paul’s charge is pushback Timothy was receiving because of his youth.
This issue just came up in 4:12 where Paul commanded Timothy not to let anyone despise him based on his youth. Like most concerns in this epistle, this was probably tied to the work of the false teachers. They understood Timothy was their adversary on Paul’s behalf, and so they were looking for ways to undermine his authority.
Again the false teachers and probably some of the elders they had influenced were quite a bit older than Timothy, and so Timothy had the uncomfortable task of needing to confront older men who were glad to use Timothy’s age against him. Paul is explicit about this duty later in the chapter (vv. 19–20).
Compounding matters was the fact that both Greek and Jewish culture esteemed age far more than our culture does. Timothy had to walk a very fine line. Notice that v. 1 says don’t rebuke an older man, but v. 20 says to openly rebuke some of the pastors. The Greek verbs are different, and we will talk about that in a bit, but you get the point that Timothy was in a sticky spot in trying to honor his elders while dealing with sin. With those points in mind, let’s consider the first major principle in our text.
Honor your elders.
Verse 1 begins with the command, “do not rebuke an older man.” This is a strong verb. One commentator describes it as “a strong, almost violent term” (Mounce). It pictures a rebuke as a physical blow. In context it describes a nasty, emotionally charged, and degrading rebuke.
It’s a very different term from the one Paul uses in v. 20 when talking about the need for Timothy to publicly rebuke some sinning elders. The verb in v. 20 describes a normal rebuke or refutation. According to v. 20 Timothy had to rebuke sin for the sake of the church’s health and the individual’s health. But v. 1 prohibits something very different. It prohibits a nasty sort of character assassination that has no edifying purpose.
Therefore, Paul is not telling Timothy that he can never confront an older man; rather he is saying that when he does, this confrontation should not be irreverent or mean-spirited.
Really, this is true for any confrontation, but it is especially true when dealing with an elder. Paul is commanding us to treat those who are older with honor and respect.
This focus continues into the second portion of the passage where God commands us to relate to older men as fathers and older women as mothers. Now in and of itself that’s a fairly vague reference, but not when you understand it in light of the broader biblical testimony. The fifth command of the Ten Commandments and the first that deals with human relationships says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12). And this command is repeated over and over in the Scriptures as foundational to human relationships and to society as a whole. Ephesians 6:2–3 say that it is “the first commandment with promise.”
And so when our text says that Christians are to treat older men and women as fathers and mothers, we must understand Paul as saying that all older men and women deserve the kind of honor and respect that God requires us to give to our parents. This will be very clear in the next section where Paul talks about the church’s need to care well for older widows.
The basic principle is very clear. Godliness means honoring and respecting those that are older than us. We should never disrespectfully rebuke an older person, and we should honor all of them according to the biblical pattern of honoring parents. Sadly, this kind of thinking is quickly fading from our culture, so I think it’s worthwhile for us to ask why God places such a high value on age and on honoring our elders.
There are several reasons we could give, but I would like to highlight two in particular. The first is…
God values a structured society.
You don’t have to study Scripture for long to see that God doesn’t into rogue individualism like American culture is. No the moment God created Adam and Eve he established the social structure of marriage to govern Adam and Eve’s relationship. And when anarchy began to rule humanity, God sent a flood, and as soon as Noah and his family got off the ark, God established the principles of government to add structure to society. God governed Israel by a very extensive law code, and the NT establishes structures for the church. God values structure on the macro level but also on the micro level, and when you look at the biblical testimony regarding how communities and families are to function, reverence and deference to age is a huge part of that structure. The Bible consistently teaches that a healthy community cares for the elderly and honors their wisdom.
A second reason we should value age is because…
Experience breeds wisdom, and God values wisdom.
Proverbs 3:18 says that wisdom is “a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who retain her.” Therefore, we should aggressively pursue it. Proverbs 4:7 says, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.” And Proverbs repeatedly emphasizes the value of experience for gaining wisdom and the need for us to learn from people with more experience. Proverbs 16:31 says, “The silver-haired head is a crown of glory, if it is found in the way of righteousness.” Proverbs is itself the wise words of a father to his son. And so the Scriptures continually push back against youthful arrogance by urging us to respect the wisdom of those who have more experience and to learn from them.
Because of this, I am incredibly thankful for the gray heads in our church. They are an invaluable resource of wisdom for those of us who are younger. And I am really emphasizing this value today because it’s not just that our culture doesn’t value experience enough; our culture actually denies the value of age.
Just watch a few commercials, and you will quickly see that we value being young and edgy. We actually want to be juvenile, and this is even true in church marketing. You will have a very hard time finding a church marketing manual or church-planting guide that will teach you how to target the elderly. It is all about getting the young people. Now young people are the future, so they are very important. But experience is very important also.
But even worse than how we market, is how we tell children from the time they are little how wonderful and brilliant they are.
We grew up in the age of participation trophies and self-esteem. We’ve been told since we were babies how smart we are and how gifted we are. We grew up watching T.V. shows where half of the humor was quick-witted kids correcting air-headed adults and where the kids consistently talked back to their parents with a nasty, irreverent tone.
And so it is no wonder that our generation thinks that they have the world figured out better than any generation that has ever lived. It’s no wonder they don’t want anyone to tell them what to do or that they have no interest in learning from the past. They love to talk about how they are the best-educated generation that has ever lived; therefore, they really do know better than the older half of society.
Now hopefully those of us who are Christians aren’t that bad, but I don’t think that we generally realize how much we have actually been shaped by our culture. I remember my pastor in MI saying once when I first started working for him that there is a noticeable difference in how my generation expresses opinions in a deacons’ meeting or staff meeting from how older people do. Just last week, I was listening to a podcast from a highly respected, well-educated middle-aged pastor. He said that the criticism he receives from younger people is consistently harsher than what he receives from older men. I’ve seen it to many, many times as well. There is a bravado about how my generation sees itself and expresses opinions that rejects the social structures of Scripture, and we need to guard carefully against this influence.
Proverbs 26:12 says, “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” We all need to take a careful inventory of our own view of self, and we need to hunger for wisdom. And then we need to seek out the treasure of wisdom that is found in those who are older. Honor your elders. Go to them for advice. Care for them with respect. And if you ever have to challenge or rebuke one of them, do so with tremendous care that demonstrates respect.
The second challenge I want to give is…
Demonstrate familial care to all.
Paul follows the command of what not to do with a second command of what Timothy was to do. He was to exhort older men as fathers… I talked at length about this verb, parakaleo, when we looked at 4:13. It describes an exhortation that is crafted to the need of the moment. It can range from a fairly strong admonishment all the way to compassionate encouragement depending on what is needed. Speaking truth appropriately to each other is just a basic aspect of life in the church and of helping each other on to spiritual maturity.
In this particular context, Paul is not just concerned that Timothy is sensitive to the spiritual condition of the individual and the kind of tone that would edify; he is primarily concerned that Timothy is sensitive to the age and gender of the person to whom he is speaking.
I think we can understand pretty easily what Paul has in mind. When Timothy was speaking with another man who were his age or younger, he should feel free to be pretty direct and blunt, but the older the man was the more careful he should be to show honor and respect. And when he had to cross gender lines, he needed to exercise another level of care. Timothy was free to exhort women, but he needed to be careful to honor them as women and especially if they were older women.
Now Paul’s primary concern is of course with how Timothy went about confronting sin and encouraging the downhearted, but clearly he is drawing on a broader principal regarding how the church should function. That is, the church is a family, and we should relate to each other according to the basic biblical pattern of how families interact.
Now, there are limits to that when it comes to relationships with the opposite sex, which is why Paul adds the purity qualifier to how Timothy should relate to women in his life stage. For example, I fall in the same basic age range where Timothy was, and I am not free to relate to all of the younger women of the church exactly as I would with my sister. I have to be careful to remain pure and at times defer to her husband if she is married.
But as a general rule, we should mimic the biblical pattern of a family in how we relate to each other in the church meaning that the more similar someone is to me, the more free I can be in how I relate to them. The further away they are based on gender and age, the more care I should demonstrate.
I particularly want to highlight two sins of our culture that this passage confronts.
We ignore gender lines.
It’s no secret that our society is doing everything it can to blur gender lines. Of course, this issue touches on many complex and controversial subjects. Right now bathroom usage is at the top of the list. These kinds of things are obvious to those of us who are committed to Scripture. But I do think that there are subtle ways that we can sometimes buy into this blurring of the genders and not see it. At the very least, those of you with kids in the home need to be intentional about helping your kids think biblically about the value God places on gender within social structures.
Folks, our culture’s attack on gender is not just about the transgender debate, there is also a strong push to eradicate all distinctions in how we relate to men and women. Girls are taught to be rough and tough and to not act like ladies. And boys are taught to play rough with the girls and to burp, pass gas and just be guys no matter who is around.
We don’t teach girls to be ladies, and we don’t teach boys to defend and honor women because our society assumes that making distinctions necessarily means propping up one gender as superior to the other.
But this is bogus. God made us male and female, but as equal bearers of the image of God. Furthermore, he made these two genders to complete each other beautifully. Men and women have complementary strengths, and we are so much better off with each other.
Therefore, we must reject the efforts of our society to erase gender lines, and men we must honor and protect women according to the biblical pattern. And ladies embrace the biblical model of womanhood. Act like one and return to men the honor they are to give you.
We must reject our society’s efforts to blur the gender lines, but we must also reject a very different kind of problem.
We view gender with a highly sexualized and romantic point of view.
While one side of society is trying to remove gender distinctions, the other side does everything it can to sell a sexualized view of gender, and pretty much everyone is obsessed with romance. And again, I don’t think we always realize how strongly we are influenced by all of this.
I’ll use myself as an example. When I was high school and college, I rarely if ever thought of a girl, in the terms of our text as a sister. My first thought when I walked the halls of my new high school and when I started as a student at Northland was to distinguish who is attractive and who is not. Who would be worth getting to know in a romantic way and who should I ignore. Of course with some, I moved passed that and became friends, but my whole view of girls was based on physical attraction and romance.
And I know I’m not alone. I did a dating series with my teens several years ago, and I remember the looks I got when I presented the principal in this passage. Good, godly Christian teenagers looked at me like I was from Mars when I told them that they should primarily look at each other and relate to each other as brothers and sisters until they were ready to seriously pursue marriage.
Now I want to be clear that I am all for marriage. And I believe that from the time kids are small we should be teaching them the beauty of God’s creation in gender and marriage, and we should be intentionally preparing our children to be godly husbands and wives. And if you are single, it should be your desire to get married some day if God permits.
But I also want to say to all of the teenagers and single adults among us that first and foremost, you need to view each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with all purity. You should not look at the other gender through the lens of your perverted selfish lust. You must look at them with brotherly love that is truly concerned for their well-being.
Of course getting married doesn’t remove the issue. If anything it heightens the significance of what Paul says. You should never look at anyone with a lustful eye or imagination. Rather the significance of viewing someone as a brother or sister is that you look at them with sincere love that is primarily concerned for that person’s good, not what they can do for me.
Folks, we cannot tolerate the sexualized, romance-driven view of gender that is so prevalent in our world. We must love our peers of the opposite gender like family and act with purity. And then we must extend this kind of familial love to all. To the older folks in our church, I would say to be a father or mother to the younger people in our church. God has entrusted you with a stewardship of wisdom and godliness. Invest it in those who are younger. All of us need to take an interest in the kids of our church. Love them and show them Christ. And then we also need to look to those who are older with reverence and honor. Care for them and learn from them.
The challenge of this passage is that Christians must honor the elderly, and they must extend familial care to all. May God help us to live with discernment in a wicked world to model his perfect way for the good of the church and the glory of our Savior.