This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear Older Sister in Christ,
I begin this letter to you with a sad story. The first two older women I asked to mentor me said no. I was devastated. I knew both women pretty well. We served together in the same church and enjoyed sweet fellowship together as sisters in Christ, and they were women whom everyone referred to as “Aunt Mary” and “Mama Gracie.” When you read Titus 2:3–5, their names are written all over it as models of women who were reverent, self-controlled, lovers of their husbands and children, and so on. Many women were learning from their godly lifestyle and strong faith, so I was excited about the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with them. You may ask, “If you were already learning from them, what more were you looking for?” Having been a Christian for only a couple of years, I was looking for an older woman with whom my life could be an open book. I desired someone to hold my hand as I walked out my faith and callings as a young wife and mother. I needed a spiritual mom, someone who could help teach and train me to live for the glory of God in all of life.
When I made my first request, Mama Gracie and I met at a local restaurant. Although I knew what I would order for breakfast, I nervously scanned the menu, stalling for time and praying for boldness and just the right words to express my desires. I’d prayed for God’s wisdom on just whom to ask, and believed this woman could encourage my faith as a young believer in Christ and equip me to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. I finally placed my order, put away the menu, took a deep breath, and said something like, “Mama Gracie, thanks for coming to have breakfast with me. I’ve been so encouraged by your faith and have been learning so much from you as I’ve watched you teach the toddlers in Sunday school, care for your children and grandchildren, and care for your husband. You have been a model to me in so many ways. But I know there’s much more I need to learn. I’ve been praying for a mentor and believe the Lord directed me to you to ask if you’d consider discipling me and helping me grow in my walk with the Lord.”
Silence. Awkward pause. Mama Gracie took a deep breath and said something like, “Honey [she calls everyone “Honey”], I’m honored you would make such a request of me, but I have to say no right now. I have my grandkids keeping me busy, and work.” Pause. “I don’t think I have time right now.” Embarrassed, hurt, and trying to play it off and let her off the hook, I responded, “Well, that’s okay. I understand [I didn’t]. If your schedule changes in the future, you can let me know.”
“I sure will, Baby” (she calls everyone “Baby”).
I finished that breakfast as soon as possible and drove home in a flood of tears. In that moment I made God a promise that, by his grace, I have kept for over twenty years. I promised God that if any woman in my local church ever asked me to mentor her, I would never say no. I would find some quality time that we could spend together in a one-to-one discipling relationship, whether once a month or once a week, whether for a few weeks or months or years.
Fast-forward years later. I was in conversation with Mama Gracie, and we were talking about the need for discipleship among younger women. Mama Gracie became very quiet, and after a moment of reflection said to me, “You know, I remember when you asked me to disciple you. Honestly, I had never been asked that question before, and I didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t too busy for you. I was scared because I didn’t think I could do what you were asking of me. Honey, I’m sorry for how I responded to you that day.” That conversation left me thinking and praying a lot about how older women could be encouraged to embrace their calling to train younger women, according to the instructions of Titus 2.
But who are the older women? At least three proposals exist in defining who should be considered “older.” Some say Christian maturity marks the older woman. Others say we’re all older than someone else, so, in a sense, we can all be considered older women. Some say there is an age requirement, though none dare suggest a number!
We know from Scripture that at age fifty the Levites’ priestly tabernacle duties changed from manual labor to supporting the younger men who assumed those day-to-day duties (Num. 8:25– 26). We know that Naomi was at least old enough to have grown sons (Ruth 1:1–4) and was apparently beyond the age and ability to remarry and have additional children (v. 12) or to do physical labor, as Ruth went alone to glean in the fields of Boaz (2:2). The Bible praises gray hair and old age (Prov. 16:31; 20:29; Isa. 46:4). Elizabeth was in her old age when she conceived, and though pregnant at the same time, she still took on the role of encourager to the younger Mary (Luke 1:36, 39–45, 56). We also know that women could not be put on church support until they were over sixty years old (1 Tim. 5:9–10).
These brief passages lead me to address this letter to women of experienced faith who are beyond the normal marriage and childbearing years, who are eligible for retirement from daily labor, and who may have more freedom to support and train younger women. I’d like to say three things to such older women: (1) Don’t let superhigh expectations discourage you. (2) We need more than practical instruction. (3) Anticipate gaining more than you give.
As I write to you, my dear older sister in Christ, I want to assure you first of all that our expectations are high. I don’t say that to scare you. Rather, please realize that you have wisdom and experience that can speak directly to the needs, hurts, and desires of younger women. Older women often express concern that they’ll not meet the high expectations some younger women have. We can often have unrealistic, unbiblical, inflexible, self-centered expectations of older women. But this is precisely why we need you! We need to learn to root our friendships, our counsel, our knowledge, and our womanhood in the finished work of Christ on our behalf. Christ did what we could never do for ourselves. Our efforts cannot earn us any merit before him. You can add balance to our expectations, pointing us to Christ and reminding us that our hope is in him.
Let me suggest four ways our desires can go off balance and how you might help tip the scale in the other direction:
Mother Figure. Some of us realize how drastically the cultural voices around us have warped our understanding of what it means to be a woman. Some of us have lacked spiritual, godly influence from our birth moms or those who raised us. We never received practical guidance on womanhood. We need to learn from you forgiveness, biblical womanhood, and how to nurture the children in our lives.
Resident Theologian. Some of us want an older woman to answer all our hard questions, to school us in theology, to be our walking Bible dictionary and concordance. We need to learn from you how to seek God for ourselves and how to dig deep in God’s word for knowledge that fuels our faith in and dependence upon Christ.
Pro Bono Counselor or Ad Hoc Holy Spirit. Some of us are looking for an older woman to solve all our problems, to rain down her years of experience and wisdom, and tell us how to respond to every roadblock we face as Christians. From you, we need to learn to rely on the Holy Spirit as our counselor and to seek God in prayer and in his word for wisdom on how to navigate the difficulties of life.
Girlfriend or Social Buddy. Some of us just want a friend. We want someone to chat, cook, shop, and just hang out with. From you, we need to learn that there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (or sister). We need to understand how to have fun for the glory of God and how to live practically and wisely in a fallen world.
We need to learn to root our friendships, our counsel, our knowledge, and our womanhood in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.
Second, we need more than practical instruction. Often, when we read Titus 2:1–5, we read these verses as very practical instructions the Lord hands down from pastor to older women to younger women. It is true that how we live before God and man matters, how those of us who are wives and mothers treat our husbands and children is crucial to the love, joy, and peace we share in the home. Paul teaches that faithfulness in these practical matters makes the word of God attractive and honored—serving as evidence of the grace of God at work in us who are saved by the gospel of Christ. A wise older woman said, “The gospel empowers and compels us to live out our design, and the gospel provides the context in which the helper design makes sense.”
However, if we settle for taking care of practical concerns, focusing solely on our roles and conduct, we will fail to grasp the greater redemptive purpose in our practice. We will fail to root our endeavors in the gospel. We will fail to have our character shaped by the Spirit in all of life. We will therefore diminish our calling as redeemed women of God.
As you help us to live out Titus 2:3–5, we recognize that our greatest issue is not whether women should work outside the home, for example, but whether women are demonstrating holiness by their work in or outside the home. What matters most is that the fruit of the Spirit is on display—love, self-control, purity, diligence, kindness, submission, reverence. This focus on holiness as demonstrated by the fruit of the Spirit allows for any woman—married or single—to carry out and to receive this teaching and training. We restrict the passage in an unbiblical way when we make it solely about domesticity. Titus 2 is not merely about domesticity. It’s about holiness that adorns the gospel.
Finally, I would encourage you older women to anticipate gaining more than you give. As younger women, we want to learn from you. We want to be encouraged by you, equipped by you, and corrected by you (most of the time ☺). We want to be ever growing in the faith. But I would ask that you also look to see what the Lord wants you to gain from your investment in our lives. I believe that through our times together, the Lord will continue to encourage and equip you to live for his glory, even as you encourage and train us.
Through my own limited experience in mentoring ladies younger than me, the Lord has taught me many valuable lessons I may not have learned outside of those relationships. Sometimes I can feel quite inadequate in my attempts to minister to them. The Lord reminds me that I am indeed inadequate! He emboldens me to allow younger women to see not only my trials and sins but also how I respond as God brings me through them. It is through this kind of vulnerability that I learn to make my life an open book to the women I disciple. I learn to trust in God’s good purposes for my own struggles and to receive his comfort for myself so I can in turn comfort others.
I often reflect on my requests of those godly older women to mentor me. Though I was disappointed with their no, I never thought they were any less godly. I recognize that many older women have not had but greatly need and desire intentional training in spiritual mothering. Much of this training comes from the regular teaching of sound doctrine in the local church by faithful pastors and elders. More could be done in local assemblies to help older women articulate the wisdom they have gleaned through years of living as women who follow Christ, so as to pass it on to the next generation. If that does not happen, younger women can continue to learn from older women at a distance. You may not have all the training and tools, but you have a life that we can watch and imitate. God was at work in my heart through the no. May he be at work in your heart to say yes.
Your sister in Christ,
This article is adapted from Word-Filled Women’s Ministry: Loving and Serving the Church edited by Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson.
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