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"My Son, Listen...."

The Attitude of Youth to the Heritage of the Fathers1

Rev C Bouwman

Iíll concede at the start of my talk that the fault for my standing before you tonight is mine alone. If I get mauled, the blame shall be mine Ė and the credit yours.

Iíve been following your clubís publication with interest since it first came out (and Yes, I did pay the subscription fee Ė happily so!). Of late, material has appeared in the Ameliorator that gave me cause to reflect. I understand well that youth by nature ask critical questions, and Ėif asking questions critically describes what youth is all aboutĖ Iím persuaded that university students are certainly true young people. Still, I detect in the Ameliorator of late a spirit that does more than ask critical questions; I detect a spirit that doesnít accept the answers weíve heard over the years. I need not go into specifics to illustrate the point, for straightaway weíve got authors in mind and I suppose theyíre real flesh and blood persons, with feelings that can be hurt and names that can be smeared. In the course of my talk a good listener will pick up my drift and possibly apply it to various articles youíve surely read from your famed magazine.

To understand my concern, youíll need to realize that I read the Ameliorator in a particular context. You will all know me as a minister of the Word of God. What you might not know of me, though, is that I am persuaded that I cannot before God carry out my office by focusing my attention only on the congregation entrusted to me. The world is shrinking so rapidly in our age of communication and transportation that what happens elsewhere in the world shall certainly not leave us untouched in our forgotten corner of the globe. One might wish with Mr Keating that Australia had a more central place on the stage of world events, but when all is said and done Australiaís 16 or so million people are but small players in the forces shaping the culture of the world as a whole. Rather, the culture of our 16 odd million is formed and shaped by influences drifting our way from Europe and America. I see it as my duty, then, to remain aware of whatís happening overseas, in order to be somewhat prepared for what trends and developments might shortly appear on our horizons.

On the subject in question, what I notice is that youth in our Dutch and Canadian sister churches are becoming increasingly vocal in their criticism of customs and events (and doctrine too) in their churches, are becoming increasingly sceptical of the answers theyíve heard from their parents and officebearers, are increasingly going their own way in finding solutions to the questions they see. I suppose I am cosmopolitan enough to realize that these influences shall invariably touch the shores of that distant and romantic Land Down Under, and so am not surprised to find evidence in recent issues of the Ameliorator of this same spirit. But I do not find it a good spirit (in the Scriptural sense of what is good), and hence took it upon myself to have myself invited to speak to you tonight.

Having said all this, I see my task this evening as comprising the following aspects. For the sake of completeness I wish to present you first with a bit of a rundown of what I see happening amongst the youth overseas; that could give us some idea of why Iím saying what Iím saying as well as some idea of what could be in store for us in Australia. Thereafter I wish briefly to offer an explanation of why these trends are developing overseas; that should help us to understand whether or not we ought to be wary of these trends coming our way. In the third place, I want to open the Bible to determine what sort of attitude the Lord would have youth (including the educated) to embrace. Finally, I want to work out some conclusions for ourselves here tonight.


1. First, then, whatís happening overseas?

1.1 Canadaís Fraser Valley is home to some eight Canadian Reformed Churches, with a membership not much different from the total of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Some three years ago a new magazine came off the ground there, entitled Information. Increasingly of late, this publication prints articles by young academics about matters traditionally not touched by youth. I think, for example, of a contribution by a brother who would now be some 23 or 25 years old in which he sets out to tell the churches how the broader assemblies should function. I submit for your curiosity that twenty years ago such an article would scarcely have seen the light of day, simply because it was understood that it was not for youth to tell the leaders how to do things. And certainly such an article would not have been printed by any church paper worth its salt. Iím not commenting on the value of what this brother wrote; my comment concerns now simply the fact that a brother of this age had the impudence to set the older straight.

1.2. Various of you may be aware of the existence of the so-called Refnet. Thatís a body of students and other interested persons who communicate with each other on the Internet. Almost by definition, this Refnet (like the Internet) is a young peoplesí medium. Itís persons of reformed persuasion (be it from various reformed churches), from lands as Canada, Holland, South Africa, and even Australia who write on this Refnet. Though my computer is not hooked up to the Refnet (even non-students canít afford everything) I can tell you that all sorts of topics living in the churches today are discussed at length, from contact with Presbyterians to liturgy to sermons to the place of experience in the life of the believer and so much more. Whatís of interest to the topic this evening is the way the discussions occur; time and again questions are asked on the Refnet and solutions are offered that show but little appreciation for the answers that have been given in the past.2

1.3. On the Dutch scene, these sister churches have in time past appeared to the outsider as being quite uniform in appearance. There was one official newspaper servicing the churches, various magazines pitched to different readers but all pushing in the same direction. In the last decade that has changed in Holland so that magazines now represent different directions and encourage developments in opposing directions. You will have heard of Reformanda, a magazine now in its fifth year, understood by (too) many to be an effort of some die-hard conservatives to maintain at all costs the distinctives of the Liberation of 1944. What you might not know is that there exists on the other side of the spectrum (if one should speak of a spectrum) a periodical by the name of Bij de Tijd. This journal is rather critical of the history of the Liberated churches in the last two or three decades (to say now nothing of the Liberation itself). Whatís so intriguing is that this magazine is run predominately by people under 40 years of age. It is, in other words, a magazine of the young intelligentsia, and communicates whatís on the minds of the youth. Parallel to it, and also critical of the answers of the fathers is the youth magazine Kivive, as well as the latest newcomer to the scene, Clou. Altogether, these magazines freely print whatís on the (critical) minds of young people; more, they offer to their readers a leadership borne from the minds of learned young people. These magazines represent Ėand please excuse the use of this unhappy word, but clarity compels itĖ the liberal side of the Dutch churches. It is they who plead for the Dutch Book of Praise to be overhauled and replaced, they who plead for use of evangelical hymns in the worship services, they who plead for a new understanding of the headship concept of husband over wife and of the submission concept of wife to husband. It is they who plead for a review of Dutch church history that would see a rewriting of the decision of the churches in 1967 to abide by the confessions, they who would urge for unity with other reformed churches in the Netherlands on a relatively minimalist basis. It is they who propose a more relaxed understanding of parental authority, they who encourage marriage without obligation to receive children. And so on. To large degree it is the younger who write in this vein in these publications, not the older. And while it is one thing that questions are raised on the topics mentioned, itís quite another that the manner in which the questions are asked, as well as the answers that are given, shows no serious appreciation for the way in which the same questions were answered by the fathers in years gone by. That is my concern today: all these publications give to the youth (notably the educated) a platform to say their thing without interacting seriously with the answers of previous years.

2. Of course, there is an explanation why this happens. The churches overseas, just like we in Australia, live in a particular culture, are part of that culture, are invariably touched and moulded by that culture.

2.1. The culture thatís pervades the western world today is very much a culture of youth. Try to recall the last time you saw an advertisement to sell food, drink, cars, clothes, you name it, pitched to the age bracket of your parents. Itís not without significance that President Clinton at his first auguration (himself at the time one of the youngest presidents the United States ever had) appointed to his inner circle a man who was at the time a mere 29 years old (George Stephanopolus). The fact is that being young is in; you can scarcely get a job once youíve touched 40 Ė which, by the way, means Iím still pretty safe. Still, the emphasis on youthism instils in the young people the thought that theyíre important in the sense that theyíre to be listened to, have something to say which ought to make everybody else sit up and listen.

2.2. Our cultural fascination with youth is encouraged further by the failures of the older generation to make the world worth-while for the younger. I mean this: todayís older generation Ėraised as it is in the 50ís and 60ísĖ has largely thrown out any perspective concerning life that makes life meaningful. Whereas todayís grandparents had been brought up in the 30ís and 40ís with a sense of the God-ness of God, had been taught to fear the Lord, the generation of the 50ís and 60ís Ėitís the era of Elvis Presley and the BeattlesĖ discarded the old-time religion in favour of man-centred me-ism. These are the people who today are parents, but see no purpose in living beyond the here and now. So notions as eternal youth are encouraged, including facial operations, hair loss treatment, excessive emphasis on sport, etc. Life is for the now, and now you have to be young. The youth pick up on this perspective, and know themselves in; theyíre the envy of the older. It adds to a feeling of importance.

2.3. Again, connected with the this-worldiness of the older generation is the fact that they have raised their children in a vacuum. That is: there is no reason for the youth to look up to the older generation, for that older generation has nothing substantial to offer. All the older generation could offer is things like the countryís massive foreign debt which will require years of labour for the next generation to pay off, pollution of the environment which the next generation will need to clean up, rape of rain forests with so many countless species of floral and fauna extinct for good. Add to that the disintegration of family structures as society has known it over the years, and it all adds up to the conclusion that the older generations havenít anything to offer the youth, havenít the answers. So the responsibility for the future lies squarely on the shoulders of the youth; if theyíre wanting society to be reasonable in days to come, the youth are going to have to start thinking, analysing, coming up with the answers the older generation failed to find.

I put it to you then, that itís no accident that your profs at university donít give you answers as the profs of old used to do; the profs at uni would show you instead how to ask the right questions, would encourage you to think through an answer true for yourself and maybe, hopefully, helpful to those around you. The world is at a loss, and is looking to the youth for the answers.

This is the society in which you live, and through such a society you are encouraged to think for yourself, express yourself, and in the meantime take nothing for granted. This is the spirit, I submit, that moves the younger generation Ėin the church tooĖ to write articles that lack appreciation for the answers of the past. But this is a spirit, Iím sure, thatís not of God; itís not the way the Lord would have things be. That brings me to the meat of the material I wish to lay before you this evening: what says the Lord God about these matters in His Word?


3. Iím going to start with what, to our minds, sounds like a very negative presentation of youth. I refer to the statement of Solomon:

"Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child;
The rod of correction will drive it far from him" (Prov 22:15).

The reference is in our translations to a "child", and so there appears before the eye of our mind the image of an 8, 10 or 12 year old. We feel vindicated that the reference is to an actual child by the reference in the second half of the verse to a rod; rods, weíre sure, are for children, not for teenagers Ė let alone a person whoís reached his 21st. Itís important for us to note, then, that the word translated for us in our text as "child" is used in Scripture to cover anything from infancy to, say, age 30 or 40. Absalom, for example, at the time when he drove his father David out of Jerusalem and ascended the throne himself is described with the same word thatís used in Prov 22 (cf II Sam 14:21; 18:5). Solomon the king, when God appeared to him in that dream, described himself as a little child, and he uses the same word (I Kings 3:7). Rehoboam was 41 years old when he became king, and in his first year as king is described with the same word as appears in Prov 22 (cf II Chron 13:7). The point I want to make is that Scriptures do not present folly as being characteristic of the very young alone; the term describes also persons of your age (and mine).

As to what is meant by "folly", the term captures the notion of being "morally deficient". The point here is that each person by nature is depraved, and therefore by nature inclined to evil. It is through the Holy Spirit working in depraved hearts through the preaching (and that preaching occurs in the midst of the hard knocks of the school of life and is digested through these hard knocks) that one learns to curb folly and becomes wise. So it is that the Scriptures also present the elderly as people to look up to; these are they who have been through the school of life, have learned much through the working of the Holy Spirit, are wise. The contrast to the child of Prov 22 is, then, not the 22 year old; the contrast is instead the person with the white hair. So it is that leadership in the Bible is not set aside for the young, not even for the 20 or the 30 year olds. Leadership in the bible is set aside for the seniors, the white haired.

Thatís not to say that there were no young leaders in the Bible. Joash became king at the tender age of 7 years. Josiah was a mere 8. Solomon was around 20. Timothy was but a young man. The fact that God was pleased to call such young men to positions of leadership does not take away from the fact that this is not in accordance with the norm God has set for peopleís conduct. Leadership is for the seniors, because by nature the heart of every person leans contrary to God. Says Eccl 10: "Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child" (vs 16) Ė and thereís the same word again as in Prov 22. See also Is 3:4ff,12.

What, then, is the place God would give to the young? We hear the fifth commandment week by week, and understand it to mean that children are to obey their parents. I remind you, though, that the fifth commandment itself does not tell children to obey their parents; that they are to "obey" is Paulís inspired exegesis of the fifth commandment (Eph 6:1). The commandment itself instructs one generation to "honour" father and mother. The word "honour" describes the notion of considering someone as weighty, important (cf TWOT, Douma, The Ten Commandments, pg 171). Whether that other person is senior or not, wise or not, educated or not, correct or not (to the judgment of the child) makes here no difference; it is the Lordís will that one consider weighty, important, the persons whom God has made your father and your mother, and is therefore to show that person honour. We understand that age in no way ever alters the instruction of the fifth commandment, then; even the sixty year old son is to consider weighty, important, honourable the parents to whom God still gives life.

As to the reason why the younger are to show honour to father and mother, an indication is given in a text as Lev 19:3. Godís instruction here is this: "Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father...." The word thatís used here is "revere", "fear". This particular word is used in the Bible exclusively in relation to God, though sometimes a person is mentioned besides the Lord. I Sam 12 gives us an example; we read that "all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel" (vs 18). Samuel is feared because he represents God. So too the mother and the father of Lev 19; they are to be revered, feared because they represent God. That also explains why the person who strikes or curses his father or mother is, says Ex 21, to be killed (vs 15,17). For by striking or cursing a parent, one strikes or curses the God behind the parent.

The apostle Paul interpreted the fifth commandment in terms of obedience; children are to obey their parents (Eph 6:1). Paul could offer this interpretation because of the reason why God gave parents to children; children, God knew (foolish as they by nature are), have need of instruction and correction. Children were, then, to appreciate the instruction of the parents, were not to think that they themselves knew what was right. The book of Deuteronomy binds on the hearts of the fathers (and mothers) the need to teach the children the way of the Lord. Scarcely has Moses repeated the 10 Commandments in Dt 5, when he adds in chap 6 this instruction to the parents of Israel: "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (vs 6f; cf 11:19). And the son who was unwilling to abide by this instruction was, Moses adds later in the book, to be brought to the elders for stoning (21:18ff). Itís all tied together in the words of Solomon in Prov 3: "My son, do not forget my law.... Do not be wise in your own eyes" (1,7).

That book of Proverbs: repeatedly it lays before the younger the instruction to listen to the teaching of the older. Prov 1: Solomon wrote his book Ėwhy?Ė "to give prudence to the simple, To the young man knowledge and discretion" (vs 4). [Between brackets: thereís that same word we had before, elsewhere translated as "child"; Solomon wrote his book so that the young man, the child, might learn knowledge, discretion.] 1:8: "My son, hear the instruction of your father, And do not forsake the law of your mother." 2:1: "My son, if you receive my words...." 3:1: "My son, do not forget my law." 4:1: "Hear, my children, the instruction of a father...," etc, etc. Itís a refrain recurring time and again throughout the book; "My son, listen!" And of course we understand the implication of this instruction; if the younger were already wise, if they had the answers themselves, they would not need to listen, would not need to heed the instruction of a father. But as it is, youth donít know the answers; they may think they do, but God in His word of life says they donít. Hence the word of Prov 13:1: "a wise son heeds his fatherís instruction" and Prov 17:21: "the father of a fool has no joy."

I refer yet to Paulís words to Timothy. The apostle tells youthful Timothy Ėheís a minister of the WordĖ that "in the last days" "men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemous, disobedient to parents," etc (II Tim 3:1ff). Itís most noteworthy that the apostle juxtaposes pride with disobedience to parents. For thatís what it is: going oneís own way, working with the assumption that you yourself know best, is nothing else than pride, arrogance.

From texts as these (and thereís more, you understand that), I conclude that it is not for the younger to think or speak or act as if they have the answers. I know itís typical of youth to think in those terms, and I was myself possibly a rather apt example of such a youth; I hope Iíve learned a bit in the decade or two since I was at uni. In this regard, itís for the youth who take Godís Word seriously to be rather different from the people of our society.

At the same time I want to add that you ought not to think either that your parents or grandparents have the answers. Their hearts too remain too full of sin for them to chart lifeís course and specify solutions to all the problems that be. That prerogative belongs to the Creator of life alone. And the thing is that He has said that itís for the younger to listen to their elders Ėwhy?Ė not because the elderly know better, but rather because it pleases the Lord to teach and mould the one generation through the experiences and wisdom He has granted to the previous. In agreement with the way God has ordained the structures of society, it is for us as younger people Ėnever mind how many years of education we haveĖ to cultivate in ourselves an attitude of humility. Very fitting are the words of James: "be quick to hear and slow to speak."

4. That brings us ultimately to the last point I want to lay before you this evening. In the course of hundreds of years of church history, the Lord God has led His Church through many and various trials and difficulties, be it persecution or heresy or apathy or whatever. The result of these persecutions and heresies and apathies, etc, has been that Godís people have had to be busy with Godís Word and so were granted particular insights into His Word, have also developed particular traditions. It is true that these particular insights Ėlet us for argumentís sake think of those insights echoed in our ConfessionsĖ are the insights of men and hence theoretically open for correction and improvement. It is equally true that these particular traditions Ėlet us for arguments sake think of things as praying before and after the meal, reading the Bible together as family around the tableĖ are the insights of men and hence can be improved upon. Still, these insights and traditions are the result of centuries of battle against the attacks of the devil. In the words of Edmund Burke: tradition is the accumulated wisdom of the fathers. For a new generation, then, to belittle these traditions, for a new generation to challenge these confessional insights, is nothing short of arrogance. The whole attitude of youth is, by the revealed will of God, to be one of humility, one of being eager to be shown the way; the doctrine of sin demands this attitude. If your parents, then, have taught you certain habits or certain doctrines, itís not for you to toss them out lightly; itís for you to treasure them on the understanding that there is a reason why they have done things the way they did and thought things as they did Ė and that reason could be embodied in decades and centuries of church history and church struggle.

No, Iím not saying that youth may never ask questions, may never challenge what youíve inherited from the generation thatís gone before you. But you pick up the point: thereís a way to ask questions, and there a way to challenge. That is: itís all to be done in humility, itís all to be done on the understanding that fathers are probably right, that you will assume them to be right, that in your mind you want them to be right Ė until the evidence lies thick and solid that thereís a better way.

Itís for neither young people nor old people to build Godís church, to make His kingdom come; thatís only for God to do. Itís for us to labour on the foundations God has laid in Scripture, foundations upon which previous generations have already built. Keep building, by all means, but donít start all over new on any part of the building Ė unless you can convince the grey headed, by thorough search of both Scripture and history, that theyíve been building wrongly.

Godís kingdom hasnít started with this generation.


1. Address delivered on August 14, 1995 to the Tertiary Students Club of the Free Reformed Churches in Perth, Western Australia. (Return)
2. By the end of 1997 (when I reviewed this speech for inclusion on the Internet), the RefNet has developed into a less critical, more mature discussion forum. Possibly the more critical aspects of RefNet have found a place in SkreedNet. In any case, there is development. (Return)