The Aged in New Testament Teaching

Bill Echols
Indianapolis, Indiana

While gerontology is one of the newer branches of social science, many of the problems with which it is concerned were discussed in the New Testament. The apostles of Jesus recognized the potential and position of the aged, and taught their followers accordingly.

The principles they enunciated are fully applicable to this age.

The Words Used

Several Greek words are used in the New Testament to describe those who have reached old age, but none gives a hint as to the number of years necessary to be classed as "aged," "old" or "elderly." Among the most common of the words used is presbuteros. It is translated often as "elder," and is defined as "an adjective, the comparative degree of presbus, an old man, an elder is used of age . . . of a person advance~ in life, a senior . . . the feminine of the adjective is used of elder women in the churches . . . (Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. II, p. 20).

Other words used include presbutes, translated as "an old man" or "aged men," and presbutis, the feminine form. (Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 43). The word gerasko is also used. It is from "geras, old age, (and) signifies to grow old . . ." (Ibid. Vol. 1, p. 43).

From these we cannot set a numerical age as to when a person is old. This makes the New Testament teaching concerning the aged adaptable to any group of people culturally defined as "the aged."

Duties of Aged

The New Testament is concerned primarily with spiritual matters. Therefore, its teaching to the aged and about the aged will have moral and spiritual significance. One of the most important passages is Titus 2:1-5. "But speak thou the things which befit the sound doctrine: that aged men be temperate, grave, sober-minded, sound in faith, in love, in patience: that aged women likewise be reverent in demeanor, not slanderers nor enslaved to much wine, teachers of that which is good; that they may train the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sober.-minded, chaste, workers at home, kind, being in subjection to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed."

The apostle's teaching is two-fold. Not only are the aged to live properly as befits their faith, but they are also to be examples and teachers of the younger. The aged women are especially told to be "teachers of that which is good" and to "train the younger women." The aged are especially equipped to help at this point. There are many things that are learned and appreciated through experience which can be taught and passed on to subsequent generations.

Paul, the writer, also touches upon another significant factor involved in aging, the individual's personal attitude. He says the aged man is to be "temperate, grave, sober-minded, sound in faith, in love, in patience." Training to be these things must begin before old age. When an individual possesses these characteristics he is provided with the necessary attitudes for successful living. The first three attitudes listed for the aged men, "temperate, grave and sober-minded," are adjectives of moral excellence. The others are of a more strictly religious quality. Aged men who are temperate are "the opposite of all extravagance of conduct or character" (Whedon, Commentary on the New Testament, Vol. V. p. 15). Being sober-minded implies "self-mastery; the well-balanced control of all our appetites and passions" (Ibid., p. 15). Older men may be tempted to lose patience and to be carried away with exasperation. Some may be prone to other extremes of attitudes. These tendencies must be curbed. When older men show the proper frame of mind in their age and position, they will by example and precept educate others in the proper attitude for aging.

The aged women are to "be reverent in demeanor, not slanderers nor enslaved to much wine, teachers of that which is good." The older women should be concerned with their general impression on the public. Paul says this should be one of holiness and reverence. Without this, they will be unable to teach the younger women. The aged women are warned against being slanderers. "There was the danger that with the growing influence of years they would become bitter in their feelings and on slight grounds bring accusations that were not true" (Lipscomb, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, Vol. V, p. 272).

Elders in the Church

In providing for the leadership of the church, we note that from its earliest history the church had elders. During Paul's travels in Asia Minor we read that "they had appointed for them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). These men served as overseers of the various local churches of which they were members (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1, 2). The term "elder" is one indication of the type of men selected for the task of overseeing. Titus 1 and I Tim. 3 contain lists of specific qualities these men were to have. It is not necessary for our present purpose to note all the qualifications, but age 0one was not sufficient.

Some of the qualifications give indications as to what age a man became old enough to serve as an "elder" or overseer. An elder was to be "one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity." Chronological age in this area was less significant than the ability to meet the moral and religious qualifications. These qualifications, however, required living long enough to understand the problems of others, to show by family rule the ability to lead, and to serve as "ensamples to the flock" (I Peter 5:3). The men who served as elders could be supported financially by the church over which they were overseers (I Timothy 5:17, 18).

Duties to the Aged

What do we today owe to the older generation? The New Testament teaches that the aged are to be respected. "Honor thy father and mother (which is the first commandment with promise)" (Ephesians 6:2). This passage is limited to the family. Others are wider in application. "Likewise, ye younger, be subject unto the elder" (I Peter 5:5). "Rebuke not an elder, but exhort him as a father; the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, in all purity" (I Timothy 5:1, 2). While older men may need correction, those who seek to help them must not lose patience with them. In dealing with older women, the instructions to treat them as mothers would eliminate harshness and provide for respect and affection. When respect is shown to the aged as the New Testament teaches, the older person will be able to maintain a status and receive the honor due him. In this sense the New Testament looks upon aging as an achievement.

Caring for Aged

Our generation is greatly concerned with the physical care for the aged. The New Testament has much to say on this aspect of the problem of the aged. The entire scope of New Testament teaching places emphasis on the family. The family is accepted as the basic unity.

"Honoring" parents includes providing for them when necessary. Jesus rebuked the Jewish people of His day because they would (4no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother" (Mark 7:9-13). The apostle stressed family responsibility when he said, "But if any provideth not for his own, and specially his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever" (I Timothy 5:8). We might note that no specific instructions are given as to how or in what fashion this provision is to be made. Each person is left to decide the manner in which his responsibility will be met. Again we see a principle that is of universal application.

The most extended discussion of caring for the needy, especially the widows, is found in I Timothy 5. "But if any widow hath children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show piety towards their own family, and to requite their parents: for this is acceptable in the sight of God. Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, hath her- hope set on God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day" (Verses 4, 5). "If any woman that believeth hath widows, let her relieve them, and let not the church be burdened, that it may relieve that are widows indeed" (Verse 16).

All of these passages place emphasis on family responsibility. The last, however mentions needy widows who have no families to provide for them. These "widows indeed" should be cared for by the church. From its earliest existence, the church recognized its responsibility toward the widows in its number. The church in Jerusalem had a "daily ministration" from its funds to those who were widows (Acts 6:1-6).

The plan of care in the New Testament was first, individual action, and when this was insufficient, collective action on the part of the whole membership. There is no evidence in the New Testament that the church as a collective body ever tried to relieve the needy of the whole world. Provision for church action was made only for those who were members. Here it is significant that the New Testament recognizes a difference between the action of an individual and the action of the collective church. Every Christian is commanded to "work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10).

While the New Testament does not concern itself with any political or social aspects, it does lay down principles for individual and church action which are applicable in all ages and in all systems of social or political organization. At the same time, it does not forbid participation in governmental or social provisions for the necessities of any group.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 12, pp. 5-7
September 1968