Meditations in 1 Timothy: 30: Caring for Widows (2)
1 Tim 5:9,10 No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
What we now find in this consideration of care for the vulnerable in the church – specifically widows – are a number of very practical guidelines. “No widow may be put on the list of widows” (v.9a) suggests that the early church ‘registered’ or made a list of such ladies who qualified for care by the church. A problem that arose in the church at Jerusalem shows this daily care when a complaint arose by the Greek Jews that “their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1). Such was the very practical caring of the elderly in the church of those who had lost their husbands.
For this caring to be warranted the lady in question had to conform to a threefold requirement: “(i) she is over sixty, (ii) has been faithful to her husband and (iii) is well known for her good deeds” (v.9,10) These clearly are the expectations of a woman in the church and any shortcoming would suggest possibly a backslider, or someone who is not part of the redeemed community. The age requirement is fairly obvious and we must suppose that even as today there are age requirements for receiving a pension, that was an age that it was obviously considered a woman might be showing signs of older age. Faithfulness in marriage was also a ‘given’ in the early church.
The fact that she is well known for her good deeds again reveals the expectation on women believers and Paul spells out what this might include: “such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” (v.10) That is an interesting list that may bear more private meditation and reflection.
If there are sometimes criticism of Paul being sexist, perhaps these verses that follow, which appear somewhat harsh, give some credence to that claim: “As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry.” (v.11) However this may not be as bad as at first sight. The comments don’t apply to just any younger women but those who apparently have entered into a vow of service, which appears to have been a practice of those days. This seems a reasonable assessment of what Paul is saying when he speaks of them sometimes having “overcome their dedication to Christ” and then going to say, “Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.” (v.12) Now it is possible that he means their first commitment to Christ but he doesn’t spell that out. Instead he says that he sees that some of them at least “get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to.” (v.13) In other words they are contributing nothing to the church and should not expect the church to look after them (remember his first call is for families to look after their own women who are now widows).
Now there are times that some readers of Paul’s writings think he is against marriage because they take out of context, “to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.” (1 Cor 7:8) and “Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.” (1 Cr 7:27), but actually that may have more to do with the difficult times than it does with any personal feelings Paul has. Indeed if we read on in both of those above quotes we find, “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Cor 7:9) and “But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.” (1 Cor 7:28) That latter verse reinforces what we said about difficult times.
Now, in our present verses we find he continues, “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” (v.14) In other words if there are young widows, marriage is probably exactly what is best for them in that time. The concern to be married is often a strong pull and can draw young women away from Christ – any man rather than none! Paul is aware that in his day, “Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan,” (v.15) i.e. have gone away from Christ.
Reverting back to his original call for families to look after their own women, he specifically speaks to Christian women before he finishes: “If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.” (v.16) What a piece of common sense! If it is possible, let those in families look after their family members who are now widows. How much better than leaving them to the church to look after. In every way that builds family relationships and unburdens the church.