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First Timothy

Widows

1 Timothy 5:5-16

Lesson Audio

In the modern church there is an active debate over the usefulness and importance of the care and feeding of the destitute.  The problem is not, as is usually phrased today, such a new one.  It existed in the early church, as we shall see here.  The main difference is in the class of people who were to be the beneficiaries of the church’s care.  In their day, this was almost exclusively the elderly widow.

Things have changed:

  • We now live in a credit and banking society – wealth can be accumulated much more easily now.  For the middle class giver, it would seem that the poor are largely in other countries.
  • Our government has taken over many of the functions that the church could do better – for example, the elegant Ponzi scheme called Social Security.
  • And despite this, we have many more homeless now than in prior years.

I leave as an exercise to the reader the problem of bringing Paul’s wisdom and counsel up to date.  Here’s what he said about the problem they had then:

Principles

Now 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. But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives. Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach. But 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.

(1Ti 5:5-8 NASB)

The widow indeed

Paul, it will be seen, lays down strict requirements for the widow who would be supported by the church.  This may seem harsh to us today, but the principle is the same:  if you claim the support of the church, then you must do the work of God.  So what does it take to qualify?

  • She must be one who is left alone – a woman with no family to care for her. 
  • She must be one who now places her hope in God, and God alone.
  • She must be a woman of prayer – one who lives the devotional life.

This, then, is a woman devoted to God – and God will see to her supply.

The Merry Widow is also here. 

  • She is a woman who gives herself to pleasure while calling on the church to support her in that.  In this time, this could even mean a woman who was a prostitute.
  • As such, she is dead.  You must profess the faith; you must also practice it.

In this we see the opposite – the woman who is not devoted to God.  The church should not provide sustenance to one who wants to live the wanton life.

The other general principle is this:  the Christian must provide for his own family.  This is particularly true for those who are actually living under your roof.  You can see the public reproach that will come if somebody (for example) threw his own mother out on the streets, justifying it with the happy thought that the church would provide for her. 

Paul says that such a Christian has denied the faith, and is worse than a heathen.  How so?  If you won’t care for your own household and family, what chance is there that you will care for strangers?  Indeed, what chance is there that you will show love to anyone?  Even the heathen take care of their own.

The matter may seem difficult until you realize Paul’s objective:  he is concerned for the reputation of the church.  That’s been his theme so far, and he continues it here.  So what he says is designed to keep the church above reproach in the times in which he lived.

Details

A 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, having 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.

(1Ti 5:9-10 NASB)

Here is Paul’s checklist for eligibility.

·         She must be sixty or older.  Why?  Because (in that time) a woman of that age would be highly unlikely to attract another husband.  It’s also likely that she would not have the physical strength to work at a trade – especially as an apprentice.

·         She must be the wife of one husband.  This does not exclude (in my opinion) those widowed twice or more; rather, it excludes the woman who works her way through multiple husbands with a clear eye and grasp on the husband’s wallet.

·         She must have a reputation for good works.  Again, this is Paul concerned with the reputation of the church.

·         She must have raised children – recall in those days that a woman without children was considered cursed.  Children were your social security in those days.  So for a woman to have deliberately refused to have children would not at all carry the appearance of righteousness.

·         She must show hospitality to strangers (those who receive His ambassadors receive Christ).  This was of greater importance then.

·         She must have “washed the saint’s feet.”  A service no longer so necessary, it does tell us of the humility of the true Christian – in imitation of her Lord.

·         She must have assisted those in distress – the sign of a woman who cares for those whom Christ loves.

Paul ends with the requirement that she be devoted to every good work.  Notice there is no thought of prayer, or reading the Scripture – nothing of the devotional life (though that is obviously behind this).  He is concerned that the church is seen not as a woolly headed welfare agency nor as a cold, parsimonious bunch of holier than thou.

You can see it:  this is a description of one who is devoted to Christ.  If she’s on the list, she is someone who is doing God’s work, and accepting God’s provision.  Abased or abounding – it makes no difference.  The requirements may sound strict to us – but they ensure that the widows on the list are those who are genuinely doing God’s work.  And for God’s work there is always God’s supply.

The Younger Widow

But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. At 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. Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.

(1Ti 5:11-15 NASB)

The argument here is somewhat difficult for modern minds to follow, for we have abandoned the concept of submission so familiar to the ancient church.  Here’s how they might have seen it:

  • Every woman is in submission to a man.  First to her father, then to her husband, authority over her passed from father to husband.  When she becomes a widow, that authority passes from husband to Christ, for all Christians are in submission to Christ.
  • But this change in authority was not her choice (unless she poisoned her husband, which raises additional complications).  She therefore is not going to feel as committed to this choice as she did to her husband.  But in their time, neither father nor husband was her choice. 

So with such a weak commitment, Paul advises that the younger widow face the fact that she’s going to want a husband.  When Prince Charming calls, it is no sin to marry.  And rather than have oscillating loyalties, she should marry.

One way to see this is to take the opposite view.  Suppose we said to the young widow that she would be supported by the church as long as she stayed single.  We would be creating a group of women who had no employment, but no need for it either.  They would do what they would find at hand.  That, unfortunately, includes both gossip and being a busybody.  As one comic put it, “She lives for others.  You can always tell the others by their hunted look.”

So what’s the right answer? 

  • Get married. 
  • Have children (yes, you.)
  • Manage the household.[1]

In all this, the major purpose is to make sure that the conduct of the Christians is above reproach. 

Single moms

Of course, Paul is talking about widows.  But one must ask:  does this also apply to divorced, single mothers of children?

  • Just what aid should the church provide a single mother of children?
  • Should we counsel her to remarriage (assuming the divorce is morally sound) ?
  • Does the obligation of the church vary with the reputation of the divorcee?
  • Indeed, what is the role of the church post-divorce?

Role of Christian Women

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.

(1Ti 5:16 NASB)

In this short passage Paul gives us an example of the principles of Christian care:

  • We must show caring kindness to our family members before we can do so for those who are not.
  • Therefore, for most such cases, the family, not the church, is to care for those in need.  This is just – and also good stewardship.

Those are the principles; do we live by them today?



[1] The phrase in the NASB is misleading.  The KJV has “guide the house.”  The NIV says, “Manage their homes.”  Contrary to modern thought, it means a stay at home wife (realizing, of course, that home was also often the family business.)  It does not mean simply cleaning and dusting.

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