All Widows Young and Old

I have always appreciated the Apostle Peter’s comment as he closes his Second Letter.

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 2 Peter 3:15-16

Indeed, there are some things in Paul’s letters which are hard to understand.  One of these hard things is the instruction he gives to the Ephesian Church, via Timothy, regarding the long-term care of widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16.

I always appreciate that my wife and children are very careful listeners to the preaching of the Word of God.  After preaching from this passage last night, on the ride home they shared with me that I had been very effective at creating opportunities for greater clarity on this passage.   So the following is an attempt to bring more clarity to some of the things which Paul says in this passage which are “hard to understand.”

The Enrollment

Paul twice uses the word, translated by the ESV, “enroll” in this passage, once, of those who are to be enrolled, and a second time when speaking of “younger widows” who are not to be enrolled.  Which begs the question, “what is the significance of this enrollment or list of widows?”

It is clear that the criteria for “enrollment” are different from those specified in 1 Timothy 5:3-8 which define the church’s responsibility to support “widows who are truly widows.”   So, to clarify this distinction, widows did not have to be enrolled in order to receive support from the church.   Enrollment is not analogous to being a “widow who is truly a widow.”  The criteria for enrollment are NOT a narrowing of the conditions of help for widows in need, young or old.  Rather, those who are “enrolled” are a subset of “widows who are truly widows.”  These are widows who, in the estimation of the elders, will require permanent support.  The witness of their lives, i.e. their “reputation for good works” demonstrates that they meet the criteria for support outlined in 1 Timothy 5:5-6.

The criteria that enrolled widows be at least 60 years old, spoke to the improbability that a widow’s need for continued support from the church would change.  According to J. N. D. Kelley, 60 was considered “in antiquity when one became an “old’ man or woman and a woman’s sexual passions might be deemed to have lost their dangers.”   It seems reasonable to conclude that this age requirement not a hard and fast rule for all times and places, but a culturally specific way to determine the likelihood of ongoing need.

One writer pointed out that 1 Timothy 5:3-8 focuses on the widow’s need while 5:9-16 focuses on the widow’s work.  This is a good observation as it seems that this enrollment carries with it more than the idea of mere support.  The reputation of these particular widows for faithful care of their own families and the household of God points to an expectation that with this support they will continue this ministry to the body of Christ.   Without this support they would be consumed with desperate attempts to survive in a world that showed little mercy to women without means.

Ministry in the body of Christ is organic and personal.  Our modern tendency is to institutionalize every avenue of ministry in to a program of the church, but this is not the picture that we see emerge in the pages of the New Testament.   These older widows have a track record of effective ministry within their own families, to other families in the church, and to widows and orphans (cf. Timothy 5:10, 16).  They are the “older women” Paul speaks of in Titus 2:3-5.  Consider how that passage mirrors this one.

Most probably these women were placed on the list, not only to ensure that they were not overlooked in the daily distributions of food (cf. Acts 6:1-2), but also because they assisted the elders and deacons in carrying out effective pastoral care to women within the congregation.  William Hendrikson notes in his commentary on this passage that “there is sufficient evidence to show that the early church had a body of widows with definite functions.  They were called intercessors or “keepers of the door.”  Their duties seem to be giving good counsel to younger women, praying and fasting, visiting the sick, preparing women for baptism, taken them to communion and giving guidance and direction to widows and orphans who were supported by the church.”

It would be a mistake to conclude as some have, that this enrollment was a form of employment, that the church was providing support in exchange for service.  The past tense forms of all the verbs describing the older widow’s good works speak of a settled habit of service.  Their support is not the motive to serve as they have, but rather their support empowers them to continue to serve as they have.   Consider how pastorally important this would be for grief care.  These women have experienced the grief of losing of a beloved husband and facing grave uncertainty.  To be bereaved of their ministry to others in the church would only compound their grief.  One of the key emphases of this passage is the empowerment of widows, both young and old, to serve Christ effectively according to their callings.  This is done through material support for older widows and through spiritual oversight and exhortation to marriage and family for younger widows.

The Younger Widows

One of the most difficult parts of this passage is Paul’s instructions regarding the younger widows.  At first glance, Paul seems overly harsh, like an old man who exalts the virtues of the old and despises the young.   A cursory reading might lead us to the following false conclusions that:

  • Paul does not want to support younger widows in need,
  • Paul views younger widows as lazy, self-serving and promiscuous
  • Paul views marriage, at the least, as a lesser expression of Christian life or, at the worst, as tantamount to apostasy and a denial of the faith.

But as wise mentor once said, “a text without a context is a pretext.”  The immediate and the larger context of Paul’s inspired writing in the New Testament clarifies these misconceptions considerably.

First, as noted above, refusal to enroll on the list of widows, did not mean that the church was unwilling to provide for “widows that are truly widows.”  Younger widows who had no means of support and who were not living self-serving, profligate lives received help from the church.  Paul is not commanding the church to ignore the plight of widows.  This would be utterly opposed to the character of God described in the Old Testament and the overwhelming concern Paul shows for the poor and oppressed throughout the New Testament.   What Paul is saying is not to enroll them as permanent and perpetual wards of the church since, being young, they may well desire to be remarried.

Paul does not despise remarriage, nor does he forbid it.   He holds a high view of marriage.  In his letter to the Ephesians, he uses marriage to illustrate Christ’s love for the church and instructs husbands in how to love their wives (cf. Ephesians 5:22ff).  Also, much of Paul’s teaching about life in the church is drawn from the imagery of family life.  Consider how frequently he refers to the church as the household of God.  And many of the exemplary qualities of the older widows he mentions are related to the care of husband and family.   Paul’s language here can hardly be understood as a condemnation of marriage as apostasy or second-rate Christianity.

But Paul does note that singleness affords an availability for Christian service that married life does not.  Timothy would have been very familiar with Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 7 addressing these same concerns.  Two passages are particularly significant.

To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.  1 Corinthians 7:8-9

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 1 Corinthians 7:32-35

Here we see Paul’s concerns regarding how marriage and family commitments affect our service in the church.  What husband or wife has not felt the tension between the needs of the church and the demands of family life?  While it is true that the care of our family has priority and that maintaining this priority is a key qualification for elders and deacons, this is a very real tension, nonetheless.  Every pastor has felt this keenly, as has his wife.  And how many young mothers have been made to feel guilty because of external or internal pressure that they need to be at church every-time the doors are open, despite knowing that this will spread them thin, compromise their care of husband and home, and exhaust their toddlers?

Did you notice Paul’s concern in the Corinthians passage?  It is not the effectiveness of church programs or ministries, but feelings of anxiety and the tension of divided loyalties in the lives of those who are contemplating marriage or who are already married.  Paul is not forbidding marriage or remarriage.  Far from it!  But he is acknowledging that marriage and family changes the contexts and the availability of our service to Christ.  This can create anxiety, guilt or exhaustion, leading some to walk away from the church wasted and weary.  How many people have left the church because they felt used up and burned out?   Paul’s concern is borne out of practical love for those who are single, not any disparaging of younger widows as unreliable apostates.

So moving back to Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 5:11-15, Paul seems to imply that while being enrolled on the list of widows is not a vow of perpetual singleness or employment as pastoral care assistants, there is an expectation that those on the list will continue the pattern of service that characterized their lives as wives and mothers, but with greater availability.   Though no requirement is placed on them, this expectation would certainly be felt.  For older women, they will likely remain undivided in this work.   But for younger women it is probable they will desire to marry.  Paul is concerned that this desire will then create the kind of anxiety described in 1 Corinthians 7:34-35.  On the one hand feeling guilt that remarriage would amount to abandonment of their calling or on the other hand refusing marriage out of a sense of obligation.  Obligation which might lead to bitterness toward the Lord, the church, and even those they serve.

Furthermore, note what 1 Timothy 5:15 says, “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.”   Paul does not want these young widows to be constrained by anxiety and refuse remarriage which is a very important avenue of full and fruitful Christian service, and trains them to do what the older widows have done.   But notice the last phrase, “to give the adversary no occasion for slander.”   Who is this adversary?  Satan is described as an adversary and he is referenced in the following phrase, but there are also “flesh and blood” adversaries who are animated by Satan to discredit and divide the church.  Those young widows who seemed initially to commit themselves to single-minded devotion to the care of others and then leave to find joy in husband and home, may be the subject of slanderous criticism from the church’s enemies and also provoke grumblers in the church.

The condemnation they incur is the condemnation of others as well as that of their own consciences.  Though they do not sin when their passions stir them to desire remarriage, it does create a crisis of expectation and commitment, which will no doubt provoke a faith crisis.  Notice that Paul speaks of “abandoning their former faith.”  The ancient language says “first faith.”   This brings to mind Christ’s word of condemnation to this very church of Ephesus in the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2.

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Revelation 2:4-5

In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul speaks of professing believers who refuse to care for their needy relatives as “denying the faith.”  But that is not the language he uses here.  This is not apostasy, but the crisis of faith that arises when they abandon the life of singleness and service implicit in being enrolled by the church for marriage and family.  We must remember that the command here is given to the church, and in particular the leadership, to “refuse to enroll” the young widows so as not to place them in the situation of an internal crisis of faith and guilt or of external condemnation and accusation.  The church is not to make enrollment on the list of widows a condition for its help.  Likewise, the church must not lose sight of its larger responsibility to encourage them to be settled as wives and mothers.

But what about Paul’s characterization of young widows as idlers, gossips and busybodies?   It is important to note a key verb in verse 13 – “learn.”  Paul warns the church that perpetual provision for young widows poses a threat to their character.  Freed from any concerns for support and without ingrained habits of service, the church’s support, rather than empowering them for productive ministry, threatens to enable them in idleness.  Paul does not say that young widows are idle gossips and busybodies, but that the learn to be these things, precisely because the church has made them permanent wards, without clear accountability or direction.   Of course, this is not true for every young widow.  Some will remain in singleness and may need prolonged support from the church.  Paul is not forbidding this, per se, but setting forth practical principles so that the spiritual lives of young widows can be guarded from the well-meaning, but potentially destructive benevolence of the church.

There is perhaps a final concern here was well.   Paul’s polemic against the dangers of false teachers is pervasive in the Pastoral Epistles (see also Acts 20).  In 2 Timothy 3, he warns that in the last days (i.e. all the times from the Resurrection until the Return of Christ) there would be those “who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions.”   If the younger widows are added to the list and learn to be idlers, gossips, and busybodies then they are extremely vulnerable to every sensational speculation, myth, endless genealogy and false teaching.   Paul seems particularly concerned in 1 and 2 Timothy with the vulnerability of the Ephesian women to the influence of the false teachers.  If these young widows fall prey and spread heresy as they “go about from house to house,” the church will suffer irreparable harm and division.

Far from showing contempt or a lack of concern for the younger widows, Paul’s instructions display great insight into the tensions and temptations they will face as they move through the grief process.  He also shows tender concern for their character and growth in godliness.   His abiding concern in this passage is for these widows, young and old to recover a sense of purpose and meaning as they travel through the valley of the shadow of grief and loss.

Application

Paul says some things here that are hard to understand.  But God’s Word is meant to be applied.  So how do we apply this passage?

First, Paul’s overwhelming concern here is not to multiply centralized church ministries which must be administered, structured, funded and staffed.   He is instructing the church that in its support of widows through material provision and spiritual oversight, it is not only exercising benevolence, but empowering organic, personal, ministry.    In so doing, the Church also provides good pastoral care for those who are experiencing the grief of devastating personal loss by helping them restore a sense of purpose when life seems untethered and unstable.

Second, the Church’s call to provide temporary and perpetual material support for widows implies an ongoing and sacrificial commitment to personal giving on the part of the members.   Our household budgets reflect careful consideration of our own needs and wants, but what do they reveal about our ongoing commitment to the widow and the orphan?  The idea of “enrollment” here challenges the congregation to personal responsibility with both material resources as well as time.   Paul says elsewhere, “let no debt remain outstanding, except the debt of love you owe to one another.”  Our care for widows and orphans has no expiration date.

Finally, the instruction to refuse to enroll younger widows makes huge demands on pastors and elders to exercise substantive spiritual oversight and direction and not just “throw resources” at a need.  The easiest thing to do for someone in dire straits is to give them money.  But often this is the most destructive thing we can do.  We need look no further than the lives of past lottery winners or those enslaved in the labyrinth of government support to see this.   While giving a needy person money seems compassionate and easily discharges the pangs of our conscience and duty, pastors, elders and deacons are called to do the hard work of shepherding.

Throughout the Old Testament God is characterized not as a “provider for widows” but as a “defender of widows and a father to the fatherless.”  Let this give us a larger view of our tender love and care for those “widows who are truly widows,” both young and old.

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