Wisdom for Widows

Treating older women like mothers meant caring for their physical needs when they were widowed. And yet, this generosity needed to be matched with wisdom, discernment, and even some difficult conversations sometimes.

Andrew Harder on December 29, 2019
Wisdom for Widows
December 29, 2019

Wisdom for Widows

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Passage: 1 Timothy 5:3-16
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Our passage today speaks about a few different groups of people. It speaks about widows. It refers to the children and grandchildren of widows. And, of course, it speaks to Timothy, who was responsible to make decisions involving these other groups.

If you are in one of these groups of people, which I know numbers of you are, you may find this passage to be intriguing. You feel like you’ve got some skin in this game and you’re curious about what we’re going to discover today.

If you are not in one of those three or four groups, you might be tempted to think that today’s passage is irrelevant to you. What here could possibly mean anything for you today?

Well, you might be surprised. In fact, I think you will be. As we’ve seen time and time again in God’s word, even the most obscure passages contain principles which speak into our lives today with surprising clarity and relevance. And today’s passage is no different. In fact, I’m not sure I could have chosen a better passage for the last Sunday of 2019 as we prepare to begin a New Year.

So let’s jump in and see what God’s word has to say to each one of us today.

God’s Concern for the Truly Vulnerable

Let’s begin with where we left off a couple of weeks ago: if we are believers in Jesus Christ, the church is our family. In verses 1-2 of this chapter, Timothy was told to set an example by treating the different age groups in the church as if they were members of his own family. And when it came to older women, that meant the church was to care for them financially as if they really were their own mothers.

This reinforces an important truth that we see all over the Bible: God cares about those who are truly vulnerable. And he has a special concern for widows, who, especially in the ancient world, were among the most needy in society.

Back then, women did not have the same opportunities for work as they did today. Their government didn’t offer any kind of support program. And so widows often faced poverty which they had no role in causing and couldn’t do anything about.

And that’s why, as you read through the Old Testament, you see God repeatedly telling His people to care for widows in practical ways (Leviticus 19:9, Deuteronomy 24:19-21, 26:12), and to refuse to exploit or take advantage of them (Deuteronomy 27:19). The Book of Ruth gives an example, in the person of Boaz, of how God’s people were to care for widows in their midst.

And so Timothy is told in verse 3, “Honor widows who are truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:3). The word “honour” has the sense of giving someone what they are due, what they deserve, and here it speaks to financial support. Timothy was to lead his church to take care of those widows among them who were truly vulnerable and truly needy.

Family Is Not Nothing

But right away after introducing this idea, Paul stresses that the church was not to be in the hand-out business, indiscriminately giving to whoever asked. There needed to be some significant qualifiers on their giving. Not every woman whose husband had died was eligible to receive the church’s support.

And that’s really what the rest of this passage is all about. From verse 4 up to verse 16, we see a whole list of qualifications that a widow had to meet if she was to be enrolled to receive the church’s support

The first qualification is that a widow on church support had to be truly needy, which meant that there were no children or grandchildren who could take care of her. That’s what verse 4 says. “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4).

The same idea is repeated in verse 8 in even stronger words. “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” (1 Timothy 5:8). And then finally again in verse 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” (1 Timothy 5:16).

So the church was not supposed to financially support widows if they had family who were able to care for them.

Now this shows us an important truth—we have a responsibility to care for those in our natural family. And maybe you hear that and say “of course!” But its important to remember just how often the New Testament says things which de-emphasize the importance of our natural family relationships.

Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).  And how can we forget the time when Jesus was told that His mother and brothers were waiting outside for him, “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:48–50).

So some of you have seen a phrase cross-stitched on your grandma’s wall, or on a magnet on her fridge, which says “Family Is Everything.” That idea is simply not biblical. It doesn’t survive first contact with Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean that family is nothing, either. Jesus left His mother standing outside when she was trying to pull him away from His ministry, but even as He died on the cross He made sure that her needs would be provided for by asking John to care for her (John 19:26-27).

And here in 1 Timothy 5 we read that a widow’s natural family, her blood relatives, did have the primary responsibility to care for her physical needs. Verse 4 tells us that it is a part of showing godliness, and it pleases God, when children and grandchildren provide for parents or grandparents who are no longer able to provide for themselves.

True Widowhood

So that’s one big qualification on the church’s care for widows. There’s another that’s pointed to in verses 5-7. “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach” (1 Timothy 5:5–7).

This seems to be taking things even a step further. A true widow, who the church needed to support, is not just someone who doesn’t have a husband or children or grandchildren. A true widow is someone who doesn’t have a husband or children or grandchildren and who lives in a certain way. She has her hope set on God and gives herself to prayer instead of to self-indulgence.

And those are the widows who the church should be supporting. Verses 9 and 10 make this even more clear: “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work” (1 Timothy 5:9–10).

Notice here that the church had a roll, an official list of widows they were supporting. And the only widows who were to be enrolled on that list were those who met these qualifications. They were older than 60. They had been faithful to their husbands. They had a reputation for good works. They had “brought up children,” a phrase that points to having cared for children physically and spiritually. They showed hospitality and did the really dirty job of washing others’ feet before meals. They had cared for the afflicted, and devoted themselves to every good work.

And only widows who met that description were eligible for church support.

So I don’t know about you, but when I read verses 5 and 9 and 10, I have questions. Two big questions. The first one is, is this even realistic? Is there anyone in real life who even matches this description in verses 5 and 9 and 10, or is this describing some super-Christian who doesn’t really exist just so that the church doesn’t actually need to support anybody?

And my answer is that yes, this is realistic. People like this do exist. This is not some kind of a super-Christian. In fact, this is just a normal Christian. Someone who has their hope set on God, prays continually, was faithful to her husband, has a reputations for good works, raised a family well, showed hospitality, did the dirty jobs, showed care to the sick and suffering, and devoted herself to every good work is just a normal Christian.

Because each one of those is simply something that God has told us to do.

“Pray without ceasing” says 1 Thessalonians 5:17. “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works” says Titus 3:14. “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” says 1 Peter 4:9. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” says John 13:14.

And the widow described in verses 5 and 9 and 10 is simply a woman who obeyed. She heard those commands and she said “OK” and she did them.

I don’t know how it happened, but it seems to me that many Christians in North America have come to think that guilt is an acceptable substitute for obedience. And here’s what I mean by that. If we hear a command in the Bible like some of the ones we’ve just heard, if we just nod our heads thoughtfully and say “Yes, I should do that,” and take a moment to feel a little guilty for not doing that, then we’re good. We’ve done our duty and we can move on to the next thing.

It’s like we think that God accepts our guilt in place of our obedience. And in the process we allow ourselves to get used to a standard of Christian living that is so far below what’s described for us in God’s word.

This is not OK. That is not what being a Christian is all about. The Bible is not a book of suggestions which we are free to take or leave. And the widow described here is simply a normal Christian. She has heard the word of her king and she has obeyed it.

And of course, she has not obeyed it in her own strength or ability. She has obeyed by the power of the Holy Spirit. She’s obeyed as she’s trusted in God’s promises. And she hasn’t obeyed to earn God’s favour. She’s obeyed as she’s remembered that she has already been fully accepted as a daughter of the king through the death of Jesus.

But she has obeyed.

So that’s my first question and answer. Is this realistic? And the answer is yes.

My second question is this. Are verses 5 and 6 and 9 and 10 suggesting that Christian woman who was not like this, who had not been obedient to Jesus, who had been self-indulgent or unfaithful to her husband or had no reputation for good works or who had not been a good mother or who had not shown hospitality or hadn’t done anything to serve her brothers and sisters in Christ or who had ignored the afflicted or who hadn’t really bothered much with good works—are these verses really saying that if a woman was to lose her husband and fall into financial trouble, and come to the church asking for help, the church was supposed to say “no, we will not enrol you and support you”?

You want to know what the answer is? Yes. That’s exactly what this is saying. If verses 9 & 10 are the requirements for a widow who would be enrolled, then someone who didn’t meet these requirements was not to be enrolled.

I know how challenging this sounds. I know how wrong this might even feel to some of you right now. This just doesn’t seem right or fair.  And so we need to stop and remind ourselves that we don’t decide what’s right and fair. God does. And He’s revealed Himself to us in His word. If something in God’s word seems wrong to us, we need to trust Him, and we need to change.

And I suspect that what we have in this passage is a case where God’s word and the kingdom of Jesus has a head-on collision with the values of our North American culture.

See, especially here in Canada, we believe in being nice. We really don’t like offending people. People’s feelings really matter to us. And yet good feelings don’t survive a passage like this. If Timothy was to be obedient to these guidelines, he would need to hurt some feelings. He would need to offend some people by telling them that they didn’t qualify for the church’s support because they had not been obedient Christians.

But in so doing, he actually would have been showing them genuine love. He might have hurt some feelings, but by speaking the truth to these ladies, he’s actually giving them a wonderful opportunity for growth and change. If he was to go ahead and support them anyways, would be not be harming them by holding them back back from becoming what God wanted them to be? And how is that loving?

This is the theme that comes out again and again in the four gospels. Jesus is very willing to offend people in order to show them love. He is very willing to hurt our feelings in order to heal our souls. Paul is just following in His footsteps here, and we have a lot to learn from this.

Paul’s Advice to Younger Widows

So the church was to refuse to enrol widows who didn’t meet the qualifications described in verses 9 and 10, even if that hurt their feelings. A widow who didn’t qualify would have had no-one to blame but herself, and if she responded humbly, that experience would give her the opportunity to make some important changes in her life and actually grow in godliness.

But what about her age? She couldn’t help that. What if a widow was godly but happened to be 50 or 55 instead of 60? Why should Timothy “refuse to enrol younger widows,” as verse 11 says?

Well, here’s what we see in verse 11 and 12. The reason Timothy was to maintain this age limit is because younger widows were more prone to their passions drawing them towards marriage, and in the process, they would be drawn away from Christ and would “incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith” (v. 12).

Some of you are wondering, “What in the world does that mean?”, and that is a good question, because this is a puzzling verse. As I read the commentaries this week, scholars admit that this is difficult to understand. And there’s really two main options for what’s going on in verses 11 and 12.

One option is that, when a widow was enrolled by the church for financial support, she had to make a pledge to stay single and devote her time to the church’s ministry. And so if she was enrolled but then changed her mind and got married, she would be breaking that pledge that she made.

Other scholars look at verses 11 and 12 and see this as describing a woman who married someone who was not a Christian. In that culture, when a woman married a man, she had to formally adopt his religion. And so if a Christian widow chose to be remarried to a man who was not a Christian, she literally would have abandoned her former faith, like verse 12 says. And many interpreters think that this is the issue Paul is indirectly referring to in verses 11 and 12. He’s not criticizing remarriage in general, just marriage to thos