Many of us were taught the importance of manners when we were young—always say “please” and “thank you,” always hold the door open for someone, and always show respect for our elders.
But today, the notion of respect is often confusing. For some people, respect might mean making sure to call older people “Mister” or “Missus,” while for others, it means adopting a position of humility and accepting their guidance and advice.
And the concept of “elder,” too, is shifting. Is an elder someone who is “elderly,” or is this any person who is older than we are, past a certain age? Or perhaps an elder is someone with a special title or position, such as a teacher or community leader.
What does the Bible say about respecting our elders, and why is this important today?
The good news is the Bible says plenty about the importance of respecting our elders.
What Does it Mean to "Respect Your Elders"?
Respect means to have deep admiration for someone, usually because of their abilities, achievements, or special qualities. An elder is someone who is older, and often this is also someone who has authority or high regard because of this. The consensus usually is that life brings wisdom, and those of advanced age are considered to be wiser—and therefore more respected—than the young and more inexperienced.
An elder is also defined as an official in a church, such as someone who serves as a spiritual leader or shepherd, sometimes with a preaching or pastoral role.
When we respect our elders, this basically means to admire or highly regard our older adults and church officials.
What Does Respect Look Like?
Respect usually involves reverence and gratitude for someone. When we respect someone, we appreciate them and think well of them. We act kindly and politely toward them, and listen when they have something to say. We look them in the eye and give them our attention.
We also might adopt a heart of service toward them, offering them our seat or coat, or trying to show them honor in some way. We behave considerately and supportively.
Who Are Our Elders?
Our elders can be any older person in our community, or it can be an older relative or neighbor—an aunt, a grandfather, a parent, or an older family friend.
In some church traditions, a pastor might be considered an elder, or an elder might include someone who teaches Bible study, leads prayer, or chairs a ministry.
An elder can be a man or a woman, and there is no set age to define an elder. There is also no physical ability or disability that factors in. Some elders might be as strong, healthy, and vibrant as people half their age, yet as a sign of respect, a younger person might still offer them their seat or hold their door as a way of expressing courtesy and regard.
What Does the Bible Say about Respecting Elders?
The Bible says quite a bit about respecting our elders.
For example, Leviticus 19:32 urges the people to “stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God.”
Proverbs 31:23 mentioned how the husband of a woman with noble, honorable character is “respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.”
Lamentations 5:12 bemoans how “princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect.”
Deuteronomy 28:50 warns about a “fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young.”
Clearly, respect is important to God. We are to give God respect, of course. But giving respect is also a positive in human relationships and a good way to honor people.
What Are Some Bible Stories about Respecting Our Elders?
The Bible teaches us that all people deserve respect, for it says we are to love, respect, and appreciate others just as we do our own selves. And a number of Bible stories also illuminate this.
For example, God had initially selected and anointed Saul as earthly king over Israel. But Saul disobeyed God grievously, so God selected another man, the young shepherd David, in his place. God’s prophet, Samuel, anointed David as king—and yet Saul remained in place as ruler.
David respected this, even though he, not Saul, was now God’s anointed and chosen one. In fact, he entered Saul’s service, becoming an armor-bearer and playing the lyre to soothe the old king, for Saul was tormented by evil spirits (1 Samuel 16:21-23). Later, after David killed Goliath, Saul gave him a high rank in the army. David worked faithfully for Saul, even though Saul was corrupt and deluded.
Later, consumed with jealousy, Saul hunted David down to kill him, yet David spared Saul’s life when he had the chance to kill him first (1 Samuel 24). When Saul died many years later, David mourned the fallen king out of respect for him (2 Samuel 1:17-27).
We see from this story that David, said to be “a man after God’s own heart,” did the right thing by respecting his elder.
In another Bible story, we see the opposite: the danger of not being respectful toward our elders. In 2 Kings 2, the Lord’s prophet Elisha was journeying to Bethel when he encountered a group of boys who were being incredibly disrespectful, taunting and jeering at him and calling him “baldy.” So Elisha turned around and cursed them—and two bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys.
Much later, when Jesus was a man but not yet ready to begin his earthly ministry, the Bible gives us another powerful story. While Jesus was at a wedding with his mother, Mary, the hosts suddenly ran out of wine. His mother told Jesus about the problem: “‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’” (John 2:4-5).
And so, in Jesus’s first recorded miracle, he heeded the wishes of his mother—his elder—even though he’d told her his time had not yet come. He respected her.
Later, as he hung dying on the cross, he demonstrated one more sign of respect for his mother, the woman who’d birthed, raised, and loved him. He looked over and noticed his mother standing nearby: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). What a show of great honor.
Why Do We Respect Our Elders?
We show respect to our elders for a number of reasons. One, it’s the right thing to do. God sent these men and women ahead of us, and caring and respecting them is a way of honoring and showing gratitude for what they did to pave the way for those who came after them.
We show respect because we are commanded to care. Jesus told us in Matthew 22:39 to love our neighbor as ourselves, and the apostle Paul reflected on this when he wrote to his young friend Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father,” Paul wrote, and treat “older women as mothers” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
Paul added that we are to care for widows, and as for church elders, they are worthy of double honor, especially “those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).
Thirdly, we show respect because it helps us model obedience. When we are humble and adopt a servant’s heart, we model the kind of love Jesus wants. As Jesus said in Matthew 20:28, he “did not come to be served but to serve.”
Also, the concept of honoring our parents, our original elders, is high on God’s list of Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12).
It’s important to God, so it should be important to us.
How Can We Show Respect to Elders Today?
There are so many ways we can show respect to our elders today. We can spend time with them, listening to them, expressing gratitude, and giving them attention.
We can heed their advice, especially if we know them to be godly people.
We can provide for them, bringing or cooking meals, doing chores, running errands, or offering financial support.
We can take elders into our own homes in honor and recognition of the care we received when we needed it in our youth.
We can provide opportunities for them to serve and we can welcome their wisdom, guidance, and contributions instead of making them feel ignored or sidelined.
Respecting our elders is a way we can show love and honor for God, who deserves our ultimate respect. Think about it: How can you honor the elders in your life?
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.