The Christian faith does not encourage us to have romantic or sentimental views of human nature—as this passage amply demonstrates. But as we learn to live as God would have us live, we find that the results are often quite remarkable. The instructions here are primarily about women—and the expectations are, oddly, both low and high. And to what result? As Chrysostom once said, quoting a sophist teacher of his day: “Heavens,” the man said, “what women there are among the Christians.”
“Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity. Honour widows that are widows indeed . . .” (1 Tim. 5: 1-16).
The apostle concludes his exhortations to Timothy by telling him what kind of relationship he should have with the different kinds of people in the church, and the two dividing lines were age and sex (vv. 1-2). Timothy was to take particular care with the sisters (v. 2). Widows who are genuinely alone and destitute must be helped (v. 3). But relatives have the first responsibility to help, not the church (v. 4). A “widow indeed”is defined as desolute, believing in God, and dedicated to prayer (v. 5). This is contrasted with a woman who lives in pleasure—she is living in death (v. 6). The church is to be taught the standard (v. 7). If children or grandchildren don’t take care of their widows, they have fallen below the standard of pagans (v. 8). St. Paul then makes it clear that to prevent a certain abuse, certain qualifications had to be met by any widow who was enrolled to provide service for the church. She has to be at least sixty, and has to have been a faithful wife (v. 9). She has to have a reputation for good works—childrearing, hospitality, serving the saints, relieving the afflicted—in short, all kinds of good works (v. 10). Younger widows may not be enrolled because their sexual desires might lead them away from Christ (v. 11). They incur condemnation and blame because they left their former faith (v. 12). Supported by the church, and without lifetime habits of godliness, they slide into real trouble (v. 13). Younger widows should get married and occupy themselves there (v.14). Paul speaks about this from experience (v. 15). So family should take care of widows first, so that the church can honor those who are widows indeed (v. 16).
SETTING THE STAGE
We don’t come to this chapter cold. The Bible has a great deal to say about our responsibilities to widows, so let us begin there. Our God is the defender of widows (Ps. 68:5; cf. Dt. 10:18; Ps. 146:9; Prov. 15:25). God gets angry with those who take advantage of widows (Ex. 22:22ff). Magistrates who rip off widows will be judged (Dt. 27:19; 24:17). Farmers were to make allowance for them by leaving the gleanings (Dt. 14:28-29; 24:19ff; 26:12-13). And it is a regular complaint of the prophets that their nation abused widows instead of protecting them (Is. 1:17, 23; Jer. 7:5ff; 22:3; Ezek. 22:7; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5; Ps. 94:1ff). Pure and undefiled religion is measured in terms of its attitude toward the widow and orphan (Jas. 1:27). In short, getting this right is not a trivial matter.
In our discussion of the “deaconnesses” of chapter three we addressed this briefly already. But here are the basic considerations. First, this class of widow was defined by her service, not by her need primarily. What she received was “honor” (v. 3), enrollment was based on her character, not on need (vv. 9-10), the age requirement meant that need was not the criterion because need doesn’t wait until sixty (v. 9), and simply getting off the deacons’ list through marriage is not disloyalty to Christ (v. 11). These are clearly women who are “adopted” by the Church, and they are expected to have a proven lifestyle that shows that they would be a blessing to the Church. That arrangement, once made, is permanent.
Some of the early fathers thought that Paul was discouraging second marriages here, and exalting celibacy or virginity. It is just the opposite—he was encouraging second marriages here, and discouraging celibacy. This does not contradict 1 Cor. 7:8, 40 because the women in view here clearly do not have the gift that Paul assumes.And enrollment was permitted only for women who were past menopause (v. 9) and who had no family who could take care of them (v. 16). This means that even if a woman was spiritually qualified to be enrolled as a widow, her family should still take care of her.
We learn some other important lessons in passing. Why should we take care of our own elderly family members? First, we need to repay them (v. 4). When they werein their prime, they did a great deal for us, far more than we know (2 Cor. 12:14). Second, we do this because it pleases God (v. 4). Third, we are to do this because it preaches the gospel, as opposed to denying the faith (v. 8). And fourth, we are to be concerned that the church not be burdened (v. 16). Thinking ahead is important. We are to be diligent children, grandchildren, and relatives, not perfectionists. But don’t kid yourself, and don’t let “the system” buy you off cheap. Honoring your parents is a command with a promise.
What should the older widows have done, and what are the younger widows to do? The older women trusted in God and were given to prayer (v. 5). They were faithful to their husbands (v. 9). They had to have a good reputation for good works (v. 10), and those good works included bringing up children, showing hospitality, and being given to philanthropic work. For the younger women, Paul urges a second marriage (v. 14), the bearing of children (v. 14), becoming a house-despot (v. 14), giving outside slanderers nothing to say about us.
And in doing all this, what are these women avoiding? Obviously, they are avoiding the contrary of all the things already mentioned, but there are specific sins mentioned as well. Living in luxury is living in death (v. 6). They are avoiding rash vows (v. 11). Receiving a stipend from the church without proven character is a real stumbling block.Women in that position would learn idleness, would begin gadding about, would begin to speak far too loosely, and would become fussers in the affairs of others (v. 13).