[Note: this post was written by Cindy Carrier, with approval by her husband, Marc.]
Here in Kenya, unlike in the West, “youth” are identified as those under 35 years of age, whereas wazee (older men) are 40 and over. (As far as I know, there is no name for those in the nebulous 35-40 year-old age range.) The wazee are often leaders in the community, functioning as local/village elders. They are sought for advice and are patriarchs of their families. I love our wazee and am incredibly thankful to have so many in our network of house churches! They meet together on a weekly basis to fellowship, share teachings on the Scriptures, pray, discuss current community or church happenings, and sing. There is nothing like hearing a room full of wazee praising God!
Don’t get me wrong, the wazee are…old…and have their cantankerous moments. They are often frail in health and in need of medical assistance. But they are also awesome sources of wisdom and encouragement and they take seriously their role in the church. A large number of wazee tends to be an anomaly in Kenyan churches, as in many areas (such as the slums) there is a strikingly disproportionate number of women, particularly widows. As well, here in the village, it is the women who tend to go to church regularly (often for social reasons more so than religious), and the men don’t seem to be as involved. Thus, we are blessed to have them among us.
In this part of the world (unlike the West—according to our observations, at least), there is a healthy respect and honor for the wisdom and life experience of the elderly in all areas of life. An African proverb states the reason quite succinctly: An old man sitting down sees farther than a young man standing in a tree. The Bible is not silent about the value of the aged and the necessity of listening to their wisdom: “’You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:32, as just one example).
Even the Early Church (Ante-Nicene) writings speak of the honor that is due to those in positions of leadership who serve well. To our modern ears, Ignatius’ teachings sound a bit over-the-top, but he says, “I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons.”
This wisdom and life experience of the wazee should be leveraged and respected in the Church. The Scriptures identify overseers [or bishops], elders [or presbyters], and deacons, all of whom are expected to be proven in their maturity, with older children and households in proper order. (It is important to note that these terms identify roles rather than titles, as they are commonly used today.) A proven elder is both honorable and worthy of honor, as no accusation against an elder is to be entertained unless it is brought by two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). Elders not in positions of church leadership are still influential in the life of the church and should be valued for their contribution. In no area is this quite as important as that of church discipline (per Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18). We have seen first-hand the power of a meeting of wazee as they listen intently, ask thoughtful questions, and come to a wise consensus in matters pertaining to the life and health of the Church body. It is the role of such elders to be a persuasive influence on the congregation.
Though the Apostle Paul admonished his protégé Timothy, “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), he also warns him “not to rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father” ( Timothy 5:1). First Peter 5:5 says, “you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders,” and Hebrews 13:17 echoes that sentiment: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” First Thessalonians 5:12-13 says,
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.
Unfortunately, the role of elders and the respect due them, particularly in the realm of Church leadership, has largely fallen into disrepute in many of our modern churches. This seems to follow the general trend of young people being in rebellion in many areas of life over recent decades. Youth have dishonored and even usurped the authority and influence of the elders. At the same time, there have been some recognized as elders who have not met Biblical qualifications or who have abused the honor of their Biblically-sanctioned roles. This has often led to the general disdain for Church leadership in general. Even the valued wisdom of the older men of the Church has been disregarded. The advancement of youth and the degradation of the aged have worked together to bring a host of negative consequences to the called-out people of God as they assemble and serve in local congregations, often without the valuable leadership and influence of wazee.
Of course, our observations and opinions cannot swing the pendulum back into a healthy balance, but we hope to offer some constructive criticism for growing churches; as they seek to honor God and His Word, may they also value the wisdom and experience of their wazee.