The Position of Older Believers in the Assembly and our responsibility towards them
Andrew Jessop, East Dereham, Norfolk [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
We have been blessed today in far better ways than previous generations in terms of good housing, a good diet, a good, free healthcare system, and wealth, probably way beyond that of previous generations. On the other hand, these temporal advantages have contributed to a weakening of moral standards, a loss of interest in the prospect of eternity, and a hardening of receptiveness to the gospel.
People are living longer, are more mobile in older age and stay fitter for longer. None of these comments are universally true, but they do apply to older believers as well as non-Christians. For many, however, as time marches on and the prospect of eternity grows ever closer and sweeter, and the passing of three score years and ten becomes a more distant memory, age starts to take its toll. A weakening of the body, illness, frailty, and, for some, a degree of dementia takes hold. The Lord’s people are not immune to these things. They start to affect not only the outward abilities of our brothers and sisters, but their spiritual needs as well. Their needs change and the need for support on a day-to-day basis grows, particularly if there is either no family or they are located away from close family. There may come a time when, because of the ills of old age, the fellowship of the local assembly and the gathering together to remember the Lord becomes more difficult. Isolation and loneliness can be a terrible thing for the older believer, as can that loss of fellowship with fellow believers. Of course, we share something the world does not have or understand, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the closeness of our Lord and Saviour, Heb. 13. 5. Our older brothers and sisters do, however, have needs that can be met by family, the local assembly, fellow believers, and, when needs grow further, the loving care of Christian care providers and, in some cases, the state.
The value of older brothers and sisters
Most of our older saints have been saved for many years and have much experience of the Christian life, of serving the Lord faithfully, both in the local assembly and individually. They are experienced and knowledgeable in the things of the Lord and it is scriptural that we recognize that, ‘Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ’, Philem. 9. They have much to teach the younger members of the local assembly, ‘One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts’, Ps. 145. 4. They should be encouraged to use their gifts and experience as long as it does not become a burden to them. They have a special place of service and those final days can bring much blessing, Luke 2. 25-38. What a testimony Simeon and Anna had! Indeed, older brothers and sisters have a responsibility to set an example to the young members of the assembly by demonstrating self-control, patience, and usefulness in the Lord’s service. There should certainly be no giving way to grumbling or talking incessantly about the problems of life and the world today, ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom’, Ps. 90. 12.
It is a great testimony to grace when an older, less mobile believer, uses their often lonely hours to pray – briefly when concentration starts to fail, and using a list if it helps. However, prayer is not their only service just because they are old, for we have the example of Daniel, who was in his 80s when cast into the lion’s den! Whilst still able or until bodily limitations stop active service, they can remember what a privilege it is to grow old. A close relationship with God is a reality and should be for us all. Bodily limitations do not hinder that and then prayer can indeed be a continuing service of love. Those of us who are younger should also remember to join in prayer with our elderly brethren who are no longer able to get out so that sweet fellowship can continue.
We must all recognize that there does come a time when the younger brothers and sisters in the assembly must start to take more active responsibility for the work. Older believers must bring the younger ones on and should include them in the responsibility for the work so that their experience grows and they are ready to take full responsibility when others are no longer able. There is a need to recognize that the time does come when responsibility has to be handed over.
The particular needs of our older brethren
Older saints have particular needs that, to a degree, younger believers do not. We all share a ‘sure and certain hope’; we are all looking forward to the coming of the Lord to the air (it could be today!); we all would prefer to meet our Lord this way rather than be ushered into His presence through death despite knowing ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord’, 2 Cor. 5. 5-8. I was once told by an elderly believer that he had prepared for death, but no one had ever told him that he needed to prepare to be old!
Being more specific, what are these needs? We all need pastoral and spiritual care and that does not stop simply because one has become old! We have a responsibility to support and care for our older brothers and sisters.
Loss of fellowship
I am sure we can all think of an elderly brother or sister who has not been able to get out to the meetings and just gradually sees less and less of their fellow believers. That loss of fellowship is a dreadful loss that can’t be made up with the help of unbelieving friends, neighbours or even family. We must remember they are still in fellowship even if they are not physically present at the meetings. They will always have the Lord, but where are we?
Going to the meetings
Scripture commands us to ‘forsake not the assembling of ourselves together’, Heb. 10. 25. Yes, we need to remember the Lord at the breaking of bread; we do it in fond remembrance of Him; we do it at His command, and it is entirely for Him. But it is a sweet time for us as well, something that is greatly missed if absent from our lives. We should encourage and help the older saints to continue to come to the meetings. But, more than that, we need to be patient and understanding when the needs of their bodies or, in the case of dementia, the foibles of their mind start to lead to changes in their behaviour. What does it matter if they have to pop out to the toilet a few times? Maybe their personal hygiene is no longer what it once was; do we shun them because of that? Dementia can lead to odd and even disturbing behaviour; does that mean we should exclude them? God forbid!
Sadly, a growing number of older people are suffering from some form of dementia. The statistics are worrying and the Lord’s people are not immune. This is not the place for a detailed thesis on the subject, but we must recognize that we will have older believers in assembly fellowship who will suffer some degree of dementia at the end of their lives. Praise the Lord, the deterioration of the mind due to dementia does not mean the deterioration or loss of salvation! It is often the case that the memory loss associated with dementia can rob the sufferer of most of their recollection but not the memory of their salvation. I meet older Christians who have very serious dementia; you are no longer able to have a conversation with them, but when you sing a well-loved hymn or quote a verse of scripture, they will sing it word perfectly and will say that verse of scripture right along with you! I heard of a brother who was seriously affected, he normally did not speak coherently but would stand in public prayer at the Lord’s supper and praise the Lord without faltering or failing, ‘How good is the God we adore’. They need the fellowship of the saints; they need to continue to come to meetings; we need to ignore the inexplicable behaviour, the crying out, the occasional shout, the wandering! We accept such behaviour from the very young, don’t we? So why not from those who are ill with dementia?
Daily personal time with the Lord
We all need to be in touch with the Lord regularly and frequently and aim for this to be daily; to read the scriptures, to pray, to meditate, and listen for the Lord’s leading, guidance and reassurance. It is sometimes difficult when you have a very busy life, but imagine what it must be like if you can no longer read the scriptures for whatever reason, find it difficult to focus, find that the helps you used to love are now incomprehensible? What is to be done? This is where we need to help, to read the scriptures when we visit, to spend a time in prayer. This is where it is so helpful if aged, frail or dementia-suffering believers are cared for by Christian family or in a Christian care home or, in their own home, where regular visits by members of the assembly or Christian friends are carried out. Keeping up the routine of time in the Lord’s presence is both strengthening and reassuring and also leads to that filling by the Spirit day by day, ‘As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore’, Ps. 133. 3.