“Let no one despise you for your youth.” I’ve been hearing 1 Timothy 4:12a quoted a lot recently, and it’s occurred to me that there are two ways that people have interpreted this verse, one I’d argue being obviously incorrect.
First, let’s put all arguments aside concerning just how old Timothy was. Although important to any study of his life, it’s basically irrelevant to my point here. We know that Paul met a disciple, not a child, well-known to Christians in Lystra and Iconium (Acts 16:1-3) and some years later, wrote to him while, according to church tradition, he was serving as the bishop (i.e., pastor or elder) in Ephesus (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3, 2 Tim. 1:18). It’s probably safe to assume he was at least thirty. At any rate, we can trust that he was suitably trained for the position, even if some members of his congregation thought he was still wet behind the ears.
So, what concerns me about the way some Christians use this passage? Recently, I discovered that some treat it as a command directed to laymembers: “Do not despise a male for his youth,” or something along those lines. The verse becomes a prooftext against anyone questioning someone’s ability to take on a particular job in the church. If you dare say someone is too young, immature, or untrained, apparently this verse should shatter all doubts. Any resistance then becomes blatant disobedience to a biblical command.
But notice that this direction was addressed to Timothy, not the church in Ephesus. It’s found in a pastoral epistle, not a general one. It’s for training church leaders specifically, not the congregation as a whole. Paul instructs Timothy to set an example for the congregation and continue to teach sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:11-16). By being a proper leader, Timothy would not give anyone cause to despise him. The burden was entirely on him. If he failed, I seriously doubt that Paul would’ve criticized the Ephesians for questioning Timothy’s suitability for his position.
Criticism related to someone’s youth, lack of maturity, lack of experience, or lack of education isn’t necessarily borne out of age discrimination. It’s an explanation offered when a person in a given position appears to have failed. When those criticisms arise, it’s not the congregation’s job to stifle it. It’s the responsibility of the church leader to prove otherwise.