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The Care of Widows

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Wed. Dec 5th 2018
In this section of his letter, Paul will move away from instruction on doctrinal matters and provide guidance on not only the care of widows in the church but also which women were eligible for the church's assistance.

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 is, first and foremost, to preserve sound doctrine, and he has given a profile of the type of men who should fill the position of elders, deacons, ministers, and also, several verses concerning the character of their wives.

He has also provided encouragement to these people so that they will continue in ministry. In chapter five, the Apostle is going to deal with individual "situations" that may have been present in the church at that particular time, so a lot of these lessons here are applicable to similar situations that occur in the church in our day.

Attitude of the Minister - 5:1-2

Paul has encouraged Timothy not to let anyone look down on his youth, in chapter four, verse 12, and to not be afraid to admonish and encourage the congregation.

In verse one and two, he balances 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 you would your father. You can "correct" an older man, but not as you do your peers. Timothy is reminded that he must maintain respect, even when he has to admonish an older person, an older brother or sister in the Lord. Younger men, also, are not to be despised because they are younger, but treated as you would a younger brother.

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 them and encourage them as well. "In all purity" does not refer to sexual purity, it refers to the way Timothy admonishes all groups of people, young and old, men and women, are to be admonished in all purity.

In other words, the admonishing must itself be pure, without anger, without pride, without violence, without disrespect, so that Timothy not open himself up to counter-criticism by the way that he admonishes. This would cause his admonishment to have no effect.

Care for Widows by Family - vs. 3-8

At this time there were no social programs to assist the elderly, sick, widows, or orphans. Families took care of their own, or people became destitute or were enslaved. It was especially difficult for women who became widows because opportunities for work or remarriage were not great.

Obviously the church "family" was not different and had the challenge of caring for widows among them. Paul gives instructions about this special area of the church's ministry.

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, 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 to 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. Paul clarifies which widows are deserving of such honor. The woman who calls out to God for help and is faithful despite her desperate circumstances. The woman who uses her freedom from marriage to go back to the world and abandon God.

Paul says that there is a responsibility for the family and for the church to help widows but not all widows qualify.

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 themselves need to be careful to remain faithful to God, pure in their lives, relying on the Lord for His help.
  • Families need to remember that to neglect to help their families (in general) and their own parents and children (specifically) deny the faith by this neglect.

Being a widow does not excuse you from being faithful. Being a faithful Christian means you car for your family members in need.

Care for Widows by Church - vs. 9-16

This following section is difficult because we do not have a lot of background information to understand the context of what Paul is talking about. It seems that the church in Ephesus had some sort of benevolence program in order to help widows and Paul is giving instruction to help organize and direct it.

The problem occurs when we try to apply this passage to our modern context where widows have government or company pensions, social programs. etc.

  • Remember, I taught you that some things in the Bible are "eternal" in nature (i.e. resurrection, baptism, communion, role of men and women, etc.) and never change from generation to generation.
  • Then there are "cultural" things in the Bible which change from one period to the next because they are customs (i.e. wearing of veil, foot washing, etc.).

Well, the system they used to care for widows in the church is based on the society and culture they lived in.

We can take the "principles" and "lessons" taught from their methods and adapt them to our twenty-first century context today. That is if we do not wash feet to show welcome, hospitality, respect to our guests, we take their coat, offer something to eat, greet with a handshake or hug, meet them at the door and see them out.

And so the same is true with care of widows by the church. It is different today than in that period because our society is different but we can apply the same principles. First, however, we need to examine their "system."

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 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.

In any event, there was a benevolence list and there was a question as to who should be on it. Paul clarifies this in his instructions to Timothy:

  • She must be at least sixty 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." She was faithful to her husband.
  • Be of good reputation for doing good and serving others.
  • She must have brought up her own children, not abandoning this to others.
  • Be hospitable, especially to Christians.
  • She must have been benevolent herself 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 benevolence whose only qualification was widowhood but who were not living the Christian life. Paul is clear about who should not be put on this list for regular assistance:

  • Any widow under sixty years of age.
  • Those who go back to worldly living and sexual immorality.
    • The "pledge" in verse 12 is not the promise not to remarry. It is to be faithful to Christ. Some younger widows are falling away from their original commitment to Christ by marrying pagans and espousing their religions. In addition to this, some who do not remarry and live from benevolence are wasting their time as busy-bodies and gossips.

Paul then summarizes by saying he wants young widows to marry rather than be placed on the benevolence list. Young widows on this list may not be motivated to marry, may waste their time, or be drawn to sexual sin or marriage to non-Christians. He advises them to remarry, raise families, and care for their homes and remain faithful to the Lord. This type of life 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, a widowed woman with older widows in her family dependent on her somehow, like Ruth and Naomi.

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 qualified widows who truly need help and can only count on the church for assistance.

Modern Application

What principles does this passage teach us for our day in the care of widows?

  1. We are first and foremost responsible to help our parents and our families. The commands to honor our mother and father and 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?
  2. The church is responsible to help those widows among its members who have no help from elsewhere. 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 to the elderly, but in the end we are responsible when these are not available.
  3. 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.

In closing, it is more challenging for women today because they must balance careers and family but they find the right balance when marriage, family and home are a priority and not merely extra baggage in their pursuit of a career. (If you are not sure, ask your children)

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Barry Day,
Pulpit Minister,
San Diego - Canyon View Church of Christ