The Care of Widows
In the first four chapters of this letter or book, Paul has focused on leadership issues. He has provided the objective of good leadership which, primarily, is to preserve sound doctrine. Paul has also given a profile of the type of men who should serve as elders, deacons and ministers along with several verses describing the ideal character of their wives.
In chapter five, the Apostle addresses various difficult situations that may have been present in the church at that time, and in so doing help today's church deal with similar problems.
Attitude of the Minister — 5:1-2
In the previous chapter, Paul has encouraged Timothy to not let anyone look down on his youth or be afraid to admonish and encourage the congregation. In verses one and two of this chapter, he tempers this instruction by reminding Timothy of the attitude he should have when encouraging others.
Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers,
- I Timothy 5:1
Younger men are not to be rough with the older men, but appeal to them as they would appeal to their fathers. One could "correct" an older man, but not as one would correct peers. Timothy is reminded that he must maintain respect, even when he has to admonish an older brother or sister in the Lord. Younger men, also, are not to be despised because they are younger, but treated as younger brothers.
the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.
- I Timothy 5:2
The same kind of balanced approach is to be used for older and younger women when it is necessary to admonish or encourage them as well. "In all purity" does not refer to sexual purity but to the way Timothy admonishes all groups of people, young or old, men or women. In other words, the admonishing itself must be pure, without anger, pride, violence or disrespect so that Timothy himself not become the object of criticism by the way that he admonishes others. This would undermine his ministry on behalf of those he has tried to correct.
Care for Widows by Family — verses 3-8
At that time there were no social programs to assist the elderly, sick, widows or orphans. Families took care of their own, or people became destitute and in some cases were enslaved. It was especially difficult for women who lost their husbands because opportunities for work or remarriage were limited. In the church, however, the care of widows was a ministry practiced from the very beginning (i.e. Acts 6 - deacons appointed to manage food distribution for widows at the church in Jerusalem). Paul gives instructions about this special area of the church's work.
3Honor widows who are widows indeed; 4but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.
- I Timothy 5:3-4
"Honor" in the sense of respecting as genuine for the purpose of assisting those widows who are true widows: women who through the loss of their husbands have been left alone, in need and thus, vulnerable. The general rule is that her family (children and grandchildren) should care for her. Doing this is a form of spiritual exercise that is pleasing to God and a show of love and gratitude towards parents.
5Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. 6But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.
- I Timothy 5:5-6
There were two kinds of widows and Paul clarifies which of these was deserving of such honor. The woman who called out to God for help and was faithful despite her desperate circumstances was to be favored over the one who used her freedom from marriage to abandon God and return to a worldly lifestyle.
Paul says that there was a responsibility for both the family and the church to help widows, but not all widows qualified for this assistance.
7Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach. 8But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
- I Timothy 5:7-8
Timothy is to teach these two principles concerning widows and their families:
- Widows need to remain faithful to God, conduct themselves in all purity and rely on the Lord for help.
- Families need to remember that to neglect to help their own parents and children deny the faith in doing so.
Being a widow does not excuse one from being faithful, and being a faithful Christian means you care for your family members who are in need.
Care for Widows by the Church — verses 9-16
This following section is difficult because we do not have a lot of background information to understand the context of Paul's instructions. It seems, however, that the church in Ephesus had some sort of benevolence program for widows and the Apostle is providing guidelines for its organization and function.
The problem occurs when we try to apply this passage to the modern church context where widows have access to government or company pensions, along with the assistance that the church can provide. It helps if we keep in mind the following ideas we have previously reviewed:
- Some things in the Bible are "eternal" in nature (e.g. resurrection, baptism, communion, role of men and women, etc.) and never change from generation to generation.
- There are also "cultural" things in the Bible which change from one period to the next because they are human customs (e.g. wearing of veils, foot washing, etc.) and not eternal in nature.
The system they used to care for widows in the church at that time was based on the society and culture that they lived in. We can, therefore, take the "principles" and "lessons" taught from their methods and adapt them to our twenty-first century context today. For example, we do not wash feet to show welcome, hospitality and respect for our guests. Instead, we take their coat, offer something to eat, greet them with a handshake or hug, meet them at the door and see them out when they depart.
And so, the same is true with the care of widows by the church. It is different today than in that period because our society is different. We can, however, apply the same principles. With this in mind, let's examine their "system" as it is described by Paul in this passage.
9A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, 10having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints' feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work.
- I Timothy 5:9-10
Paul lays out the qualifications for a widow in the church to be put "on the list." We do not know what "the list" is exactly but many scholars believe that it was a benevolence list containing the names of widows that the church helped on a regular basis (like in Acts 6:1). Some say this is where the practice of having nuns began, but there is no support anywhere in Scripture for this idea.
In any event, there was a benevolence list and there was a question as to the women it should include. Paul clarifies this in his instructions to Timothy:
- She must be widowed and at least 60 years old.
- The wife of one man. This does not mean married only once. She could have been widowed twice or divorced and remarried with her second husband dead. The point is the same here as in the instructions for elders. She was a "one-man woman." In other words, she was a faithful wife.
- She had a reputation for doing good and serving others.
- She brought up her own children, not abandoning this task to others.
- She was hospitable, especially towards Christians.
- She was known to be benevolent towards others in distress.
In other words, not just a widow but a widow who has been faithful and productive as a Christian.
11But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, 12thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. 13At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. 14Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; 15for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.
- I Timothy 5:11-15
In these verses, we may get some insight as to why Paul had to write about this subject in the first place. There may have been some women who claimed the church's benevolence whose only qualification was widowhood but who were not living the Christian life. Paul was clear about who should not be put on the list for regular assistance:
- Any widow under 60 years of age.
- Those who returned to worldly living and sexual immorality after losing their husbands.
- The "pledge" in verse 12 was not a promise to avoid remarriage. It was the promise to be faithful to Christ. Some younger widows were falling away from their original commitment to Christ by marrying pagans and espousing their religion. In addition to this, some who did not remarry but lived from benevolence were wasting their time as busybodies and gossips.
Paul then summarizes his instructions by saying that he wanted young widows to remarry rather than be placed on the benevolence list. Young widows on this list were less motivated to marry, but rather wasted their time or were drawn to sexual sin or marriage to non-Christians. Paul advises them to remarry, raise families, care for their homes and remain faithful to the Lord. This type of life, he said, was noble and blessed by God.
If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed.
- I Timothy 5:16
Finally, Paul speaks to women who for some reason may themselves be responsible for widows. For example, a single woman caring for a mother or grandparent, or a widowed woman with older widows in her family dependent on her somehow, like Ruth and Naomi (Old Testament book of Ruth).
He repeats the same general principle: if the widow in question is a true widow in need (as described before), the younger widow needs to care for her and not put aside this responsibility because she herself may be widowed. The point is that some widows may have been fine financially and supported by other family members. Paul says that this woman cannot place one of her widowed parents in the care of the church using the excuse that she is a widow herself.
If able, we are to help our parents no matter what our status is in life. In this way the church can concentrate on those widows who truly need help and can only count on the church for assistance.
What principles does this passage teach us for our day in the care of widows?
- We are first and foremost responsible to help our parents and families. The command to honor our mother and father as well as loving our neighbor are first seen in the way we care for our parents and family. If we neglect to do this, how can we say we love our neighbor that we do not even know?
- The church is responsible to help those widows among its members who have no other source of assistance. Faithful Christian women who have served the Lord and continue to do so in old age should be able to receive help from the church when necessary. Thankfully, we live in a society that provides many resources for the elderly, but in the end we are responsible when these are not available.
- Marriage, family and the home remain a woman's first priorities. Of course we have more opportunities for women to be educated and trained for careers in our society today, but marriage, family and home have never been replaced by career in God's eyes, only in the world. It is more challenging for women today because they must balance careers and family, but they find the right mix when marriage, family and home are a priority and not merely extra baggage in their pursuit of a career.
- What is the relationship between Paul's teaching from I Timothy 5:1-2 and his instructions in Titus 2:1-5 and how do these apply to each of us?
- What is the relationship between Paul's instruction for widows in I Timothy 5:3-4 and what James teaches in James 1:26-27?
- Defend the following statement:
- "Being a faithful Christian means you care for your family members in need."
- What are some lessons we can learn from Paul's instruction to Timothy concerning the church's responsibility to provide for widows; why is it important for the church to be active in this area; how does this relate to Paul's teachings in Galatians 6:10 and the early church's activities seen in Acts 2:42-47?
- What are some modern applications for caring for widows and what other ministry opportunities relate to this?