Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
1 Timothy 4:12
Currently, I am on a study track that is taking me through Paul’s epistles. This started by remembering being in one of Allen Hood’s classes about six years ago, when he told us, “You need to make friends with some dead guys!”
Now, before anyone gets too weirded out, this is not in the Sixth Sense vein (“I see dead people!”) or in the light-some-candles-and-get-out-the-Ouija-board vein. What Allen was talking about is getting to know the Biblical authors and characters. This means seeing and being inspired by their lifestyles, successes, struggles, hardships, and victories. It means observing how God moved in them and through them in their unique lives and personalities. If all we do is sift through their works looking for quotable soundbites and cut-and-paste sermon illustrations, we are significantly losing out on some of the richness that God has packed into His Word.
So right now, I’m being intentional about making friends with Paul. We’re presently hanging out in 1 Timothy. I’m finding that the pastoral epistles are incredible opportunities to get to know Paul as not just the powerful apostle, but a father in the house of God. In these books, we get to see some very personal stuff regarding how he cares for the churches, as well as how he cares for the leaders of those churches (Timothy and Titus).
So it’s in writing to Timothy, a “true son in the faith” (1:2), that Paul gives a bit of fatherly advice. This is perhaps the most-quoted — and most-misquoted — verse in the history of church youth groups: “Let no one despise your youth”.
I remember, as a teen, hearing this verse trumpeted from a variety of different speakers in a variety of different contexts. Each time, without fail, it was taught something like this: “Old folks aren’t the only ones who have it going on! You can do great things for the kingdom, even though you’re young, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”
I remember thinking two things every time I heard this. The first thing was, “Yay!” The second thing was, “…huh?”
To the first, I was always excited about doing big things for God. The idea of frittering my life away until I was old enough to get serious about Jesus always seemed dumb to me. I wanted to be radical. I wanted to be on fire for God. I wanted to go into the ministry when I grew up. This teaching was awesome.
To the second, I had no idea how my being amped up and zealous, refusing to let any old sticks in the mud stand in my way, was supposed to keep people from despising my young-ness. The youth preachers were always adamant that it was wrong for grownups to look down on us teens for being “just teens”. But Paul didn’t say, “It’s wrong if people despise your youth”; he said not to let it happen.
The preachers never did get around to explaining how that worked. I was no Bible scholar, but I had a hunch that walking around saying, “Don’t despise me, old people!” probably wasn’t going to cut it.
So how does that work? What was Paul expecting Timothy to do?
Timothy was perhaps Paul’s closest and most trusted co-laborer in his ministry. The church in Ephesus had been planted under Paul’s care, and he himself had even overseen it personally for more than two years. He had since been compelled to move on and continue his work in other regions. But because of his trust in Timothy, Paul left the young man in Ephesus to lead the church and establish it, grounding it in sound doctrine and building up a solid leadership team. This was no small work. It says a lot about Timothy’s capabilities, and Paul’s confidence in them, that he would assign him such a task.
Many commentators suppose Timothy to be about thirty years old at this time. Although thirty hardly seems like “youth” to the fifteen year-olds who mostly hear this message, thirty was certainly not old enough to be a respected elder in the Hellenistic culture of Timothy’s day. As a pastoral leader, Timothy would have been at a noted disadvantage trying to gain the trust and respect of older Ephesian believers. Especially considering what Timothy was there to do — correct the false doctrine of puffed up, deceived people who loved a good intellectual squabble (1:3-7) — having his youth despised was a very real potential problem.
Paul knew Timothy, and Ephesus, well enough to anticipate this. So he instructed his son in the faith, “Let no one despise your youth” (4:12).
Great, Paul. Thanks. How is that supposed to happen, exactly?
Paul actually lays it out in the text, if we read his whole thought. “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” The “but” is a word clue that introduces the alternative, preferred activity. So instead of being despised, Timothy is to be an example through his lifestyle and leadership. Paul lists five basic areas in verse 12 itself, but actually, we can see the train of thought continuing unbroken through the next whole chapter. Paul does not just say to be an example in general, but to continue to grow in the doctrine, to be kind and gentle in how he exhorts men and women, both younger and older than himself, how to care for the widows, and how to relate to the elders in the church.
Perhaps we could sum it up roughly like this: don’t act like an arrogant, rash young punk who thinks himself to be miles ahead of his peers and his elders. Or in other words, don’t embody the things about youth that older people despise.
That’s a bit of a rally killer to the rah-rah youth group sermon.
Now, Timothy was supposed to lead with boldness and to be on fire for God. But “not being despised” had nothing to do with the belligerent stodginess of the older saints, and it had everything to do with the humility of Timothy’s own demeanor. He was not supposed to put his foot down and demand people listen to him and follow his orders. His leadership style was supposed to win over the hearts of the church, showing himself to be someone worthy of their trust and respect. He was supposed to be one who practiced what he preached, one who served and gently led the people under his care. The church was to see in him a humble saint, not a cocky pipsqueak. Or to say it another way, if he wanted people to receive him as a mature, Christ-like leader, he had to act like one.
As someone who is still about five years shy of Timothy’s youthful state, this provokes me immensely. We live in a culture that, in many ways, is the reverse of Timothy and Paul’s — here, youth is idolized, reveled in, and pursued at all costs. Media fairly swoons over headstrong, stubborn, “it’s-so-crazy-it-just-might-work” entrepreneurial young people. The younger generations are quick to throw out the wisdom, experience, and beliefs of the older in favor of whatever is new and trendy. Leadership goes to the dominant personalities with fresh faces, and the loudest voice wins.
No wonder older generations may find themselves grumbling about “kids these days”.
But it should not be so with us young’uns. We are not to take pride in our youthfulness. We are not to set out to prove that we’re just as good, or in fact better than the generation before. Our leadership is to be with kindness and gentleness, humility and integrity. We’re to give ourselves to the things of the Lord and love people. And it really is pretty much as simple as that.
We can’t ultimately make anyone respect us. We can’t demand recognition, attention, or even a platform. But we can live our lives in such a way in the body of Christ that is not to be despised.