By Adam Brown –
The tenth instruction to the church in 1 Timothy is that we must help those who cannot help themselves. We find this instruction in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. At first, this passage seems to be about widow care. And, indeed, it is. However, this passage is not primarily about widows, though widow care was the original occasion addressed. Within this passage are principles that include, but go beyond, widow care.
In the first century Ephesian church, the most obvious group in need of church-wide care was widows. This is unlikely to be the case in twenty first century Canada, though there may occasionally be a widow that is in need of such care. The important point is this: First Timothy 5:3-16 is about caring for those in need more than it is about widows. If we interpret 1 Timothy 5:3-16 to be about widows more than it is about caring for those in need, then we will miss the point of the passage. We will invent ways to care for widows who are not in need all the while we miss the underlying instruction that we are to help those who cannot help themselves.
Paul begins this section with a very clear and simple command:
Honour widows who are truly widows (1 Timothy 5:3).
To honour someone has a twofold meaning: (1) accord proper respect that is befitting a bearer of God’s image; (2) be of material benefit to the one whom you honour. Thus, the church is to respect and provide for “those who are truly widows.”
Who are the true widows? Paul gives us four marks of a true widow:
- They are “left all alone” (1 Timothy 5:5a). In verse 4 we see what Paul means. A true widow has no children or grandchildren who can care for her basic needs.
- They have “set their hope on God” (1 Timothy 5:5b). In other word, they are believers.
- They “continue in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Timothy 5:5c). This does not mean that they pray a certain number of hours per day. Rather, it means that true widows trust in God to provide for them.
- The are not “self-indulgent” (1 Timothy 5:6). Self-indulgent people make every gathering of the church all about them. The wheels of discipleship grind to a halt every time self-indulgent people show up. Moreover, they love to take from the church, but rarely, if ever, give back in any way.
Thus, the church is to support those who (1) have no other means of support; (2) are believers; (3) are reliant on God; and (4) who give as much as they take. These guidelines are applicable beyond women who have lost their husbands. The church must help those who cannot help themselves, provided they meet these qualifications.
In 1 Timothy 5:7-8, Paul reiterates the basic point:
Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
If the church is going to be without reproach in the eyes of the world, it must care for the most needy among its members. However, let the relatives of those in need be the first to meet the needs of their own family.
As an aside, in addition to calling on the relatives of those in need to be the first to care, we all must consider who among our family members are in need of our support. If we want to see our unbelieving family come to faith, let us be first in line to meet their material needs. May it not be that our unbelieving family is ahead of us in helping father or mother or brother or sister when needs arise.
The rest of the passage is somewhat alarming. Having already clarified that the church is not to help any and every widow that comes along, Paul makes it all the more difficult to qualify for organized, top down, long term, church-wide support.
First, he adds three additional requirements for a widow to qualify for support:
- She must be “not less than sixty years of age” (1 Timothy 5:9a). This demarcation is not intended in a legalistic sense, but rather indicates the age at which a woman is less likely to remarry and bear children. In our context, it represents the age at which a person is less likely able to provide for himself or herself.
- She must be “the wife of one husband” (1 Timothy 5:9b). This is not a prohibition against lawful remarriage. Rather, this is indicative of a faithful character.
- She must have “a reputation for good works” (1 Timothy 5:10). Paul then proceeds to give five examples of good works. In other words, to qualify for church support a person must display an active engagement in the life of the church.
Just as with Paul’s definition of a true widow, these three requirements reach beyond widows. In order to qualify for long term church support, a person must be unable to provide for himself or herself, must exhibit basic faithfulness, and be active in the church.
Paul then proceeds to describe the kind of person who does not qualify for support in 1 Timothy 5:11-15:
But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan.
These are difficult verses to make sense of. These verses make more sense when we can see the principle behind the example of widowhood. Thus, “younger widows” are representative of those who can reasonably provide for themselves. In the original context, younger widows could reasonably provide for themselves by getting remarried. In our context, remarriage remains a valid avenue for support. Additionally, younger women, like younger men, are usually able to provide for themselves by finding employment.
Paul gives three reasons that the church ought not commit long term support to those who can reasonably provide for themselves:
- Eventually, “their passions draw them away from Christ. . .” (1 Timothy 5:11). In the original context, the idea is that eventually a younger widow will be enticed to remarry. Obviously, remarriage is not a problem. Paul encourages it two verses later. However, the problem is the posture of the young widow’s heart. There will always be people who are willing to take from the church until a better offer comes along. Thus, the commitment is entirely one-sided: the church is expected to be there for the widow but the widow can come and go as she pleases. The exact situation in view is not entirely clear. Either these younger widows are marrying non-believing husbands or they are breaking a vow given to the church. Either way, the point is this: The church ought not help those who are using the church while it suits them, but who are ready to discard the church at the first opportunity.
- Additionally, younger widows “learn to be idlers” (1 Timothy 5:13). Early retirement is not God’s plan: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Having all of their needs met without needing to work, younger widows are prone to go from “house to house” disturbing otherwise busy members of the church.
- With this extra time, and with this “house to house” routine, these younger widows are well positioned to receive all kinds of information about the lives and struggles of people in the church. Thus, they are prone to be come “gossips and busybodies” (1 Timothy 5:13), who disturb the unity of the church. It is better for younger widows to busy themselves than to stir up dissentions with their extra time (1 Timothy 5:14).
As before, these reasons apply more broadly than “younger widows.” Anyone who intends to take advantage of the church’s generosity until a better offer comes along, ought not be supported. Additionally, the church ought not put anyone in the position of idleness, for with extra time comes the temptation to gossip and entangle ourselves in other peoples’ business. Therefore, anyone who can seek self-provision ought to do so.
Finally, Paul summarizes the entire passage in 1 Timothy 5:16:
If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.
In other words, if a person has any other means of support, especially from family, let them be cared for accordingly. Let the church not be unnecessarily burdened. However, anyone who is in legitimate need ought to be cared for by the church.