Around the time John was writing the book of Revelation in the mid-90s AD, a bishop in Rome was penning a letter to a troubled church. The epistle of 1 Clement is possibly the oldest non-canonical Christian writing that has been preserved. Clement of Rome sent his missive to the Corinthian church after a group of young men had instigated the removal of the church's elders. Clement rebuked the Corinthians for failing to respect their leaders, removing them without just cause, and causing dissension in the body of Christ.
I was once a member of a church that was contemplating a transition in its style of worship music. While that discussion was taking place, a visiting praise band led our corporate worship one Sunday. The lead singer, who was in his early twenties, told all the "old people" that God was through with hymns because they were out of style. At least one family walked out of the service, offended at the young man's arrogance. When the church considered the proposed music changes weeks later, the vote was 150 to 150. The visiting leader's disrespectful comments were the decisive factor in dividing the church down the middle.
A Command with a Promise
Respecting elders begins with parents. In the fifth commandment, Yahweh commanded His people, "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Ex. 20:12). This theme is emphasized throughout the Old Testament. Proverbs 23:22 echoes the fifth commandment: "Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old." Harsh consequences were set for children who did not respect their parents. The Pentateuch said that children who intentionally dishonored their parents were to be stoned (Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18–21). The Proverbs concur that disrespectful children are worthy of death (Prov. 20:20; 30:17).
Children are intended to be a blessing to their parents (Ps. 127:3–5) and are to listen to their godly counsel (Prov. 1:8–19; 19:26–27). Much of the book of Proverbs is structured around the idea of a wise father passing on godly wisdom to his son.
The New Testament writers agree that children are to show honor to their parents. Paul commands children to obey their parents "in the Lord," pointing out that the fifth commandment was the first with a promise attached to it (Eph. 6:1–3; see Col. 3:20). Godly obedience to parents contributed to good health and was tied to how long the Israelites remained in God's land. Ephesians 6:4 gives instructions to fathers as to how to raise children in the "discipline and instruction of the Lord."
The New Testament also provides us with examples of how not to honor one's parents. According to 1 Timothy 5:8, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." While the scope of Paul's command applies beyond respecting parents, it certainly includes providing for the needs of elderly parents. Jesus explains that it's possible to go through the motions of honoring parents while one's heart is far from his parents and the Lord:
You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, "Honor your father and your mother"; and, "Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die." But you say, "If a man tells his father or his mother, 'Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban'" (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother. (Mark 7:9–13)
The Scriptures present a unified witness in this matter (as in all matters). Children are to honor, respect, and obey their parents. Failure to do so is sin and carries significant consequences. Actions flow from attitudes, so one's heart is key to properly respecting parents.
Expanding the Principle
Reformational Christians recognize that good and necessary consequences always arise from particular scriptural commands. The command to honor one's father and mother, when applied more broadly, means that we also are to respect all individuals who exercise God-ordained authority over us.
The Old Testament sometimes makes this argument explicitly. Of older men in general, Leviticus 19:32 teaches, "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." Deuteronomy 17:12 commanded the people to respect the authority of their religious leaders: "The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel." Youth who were "insolent" toward their elders were a sign of God's judgment on Israel (Isa. 3:5). God appoints earthly rulers (Prov. 8:15; Dan. 2:21), and Daniel's testimony shows us that even the authority of ungodly rulers should be respected.
The New Testament also makes a case for respecting elders. Sometimes it speaks of older believers in general. Paul writes, "Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity" (1 Tim. 5:1–2). Peter ties respect for elders to godly humility: "Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.' Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you" (1 Peter 5:5–6).
As in the Old Testament, the principle of respecting elders is applied to those who hold authoritative roles in society and among God's people. Peter calls Christians to be subject to government officials and to honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:13–17). Paul says: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Rom. 13:1). Jesus Himself implied respect for all secular authorities when He told His disciples to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17).
As for respecting church leaders, Paul writes: "We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thess. 5:12–13). The author of Hebrews echoes this theme in what is likely the most famous passage that deals with submission to pastoral leadership: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Heb. 13:17).
Christians are called to respect our elders. Parents, pastors, and teachers should instill in children the importance of obeying parents and other authority figures. Adult believers also need to be constantly reminded of this truth, especially in a culture that values personal autonomy far more than respect for authority.
I want to close by suggesting one way to cultivate respect for elders among believers. More churches need to be intentional about ministry to elderly members, especially widows and widowers. Praise God for the renewed emphasis on adoption and orphan care in recent years, but we must also remember that true religion entails caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27). Most churches have older members who struggle with health concerns and/or significant physical needs. Many elderly believers simply want younger Christians to spend quality time with them. Ministry to these senior saints is rarely glamorous, but it is one tangible way to "stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man" (Lev. 19:32).