Honor True Widows: 1 Timothy 5:3–16 with Implications for the Church’s Social Responsibilities, Part 2

From DBSJ 21 (2016); posted with permission. Read Part 1.

Exegetical Study

With the historical and literary context addressed, it is now possible to look more closely at the passage itself. Verse three provides the underlying principle for the passage. In verse four, Paul gives his initial instruction to the family of the widow. Paul lays out the first criteria for true widows in verses five and six, before returning to his instructions for the family of widows in verses seven and eight. In verse nine, Paul moves to his instruction to the church regarding widows. In verses nine and ten, he deals with enrolling older widows in the care of the church, while in verses eleven to fifteen he gives his instruction for younger widows. He concludes in verse sixteen with a final exhortation for believing women to care for their own relatives in order to free the church to care for true widows.

The Underlying Principle: Verse 3

Χήρας τίμα τὰς ὄντως χήρας.

Honor widows who are truly widows.10

Paul uses the second person singular imperative τίμα. Though it is directly addressed to Timothy, it is clearly intended to include the action of the church, as the plural verbs of verses four and seven and the reference to the church in verse sixteen reveal.11 The command not only includes respect but also carries the idea of care and concern that would include financial support.12 This is evident from Paul’s commands to the relatives to provide for their family members (5:8), his concern that the church only provide for true widows rather than being burdened by others (5:16), and his use of the cognate τίμῆς to refer to monetary support of elders (5:17-18). The object of the verb is χήρας, which is clarified as τὰς ὄντως χήρας.13 What Paul means by that category is clarified as the passage progresses. Paul’s concern in this passage is that true widows be cared for.

Initial Instruction for the Family: Verse 4

εἰ δέ τις χήρα τέκνα ἢ ἔκγονα ἔχει, μανθανέτωσαν πρῶτον τὸν ἴδιον οἶκον εὐσεβεῖν καὶ ἀμοιβὰς ἀποδιδόναι τοῖς προγόνοις· τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν ἀπόδεκτον ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ.

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.

Paul makes his first clarifying remark by contrasting the true widow of verse three with the widow with family in verse four. The δέ is adversative, signaling a contrast between widows who should be cared for by the church and those who should be cared for by their families.14 The εἰ and τις make a first class conditional inclusive phrase with the imperative μανθανέτωσαν forming the apodosis. The subject of the imperative is τέκνα ἢ ἔκγονα from the protasis.15 The infinitives εὐσεβεῖν and ἀποδιδόναι are both infinitives of complement modifying μανθανέτωσαν. The first infinitive points to the religious duty that believers have to care for their parents or grandparents with πρῶτον indicating the importance of this duty. The second infinitive explains further how the family members are to “show godliness”—by giving back to their parents. The γάρ shows that the reason believers should care for their widowed mothers or grandmothers is that it pleases God.16 Paul teaches that a widow with family members should be cared for by her family rather than by the church because the family members are to please God by fulfilling their religious duty to return payment to their parents/grandparents.17

First Criteria for True Widows: Verses 5-6

ἡ δὲ ὄντως χήρα καὶ μεμονωμένη ἤλπικεν ἐπὶ θεὸν καὶ προσμένει ταῖς δεήσεσιν καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας, ἡ δὲ σπαταλῶσα ζῶσα τέθνηκεν.

She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.

After dealing with the responsibility of the family to care for their widowed parent/grandparent, Paul returns to clarify further who falls into the category of those “who are truly widows” in verse three. The δὲ is adversative, contrasting the widows with family with those who are left alone (μεμονωμένη).18 This provides the first description of what a true widow is—she is someone who is not only without a husband but is also without any children or grandchildren. Since she has no family on which she can rely, she ἤλπικεν ἐπὶ θεὸν (has set her hope on God), which is the second description of a true widow. She demonstrates this hope through her prayers. The verb προσμένει combined with the genitives νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας (night and day) point to the constancy of her prayers, expressing her hope in God.19

The δὲ of verse six contrasts the godly and true widow with a different kind of widow. Two descriptions are given of this widow: σπαταλῶσα and ζῶσα τέθνηκεν. The first description, σπαταλῶσα, occurs only here and in James 5:5. It speaks of living for pleasure and self-indulgence.20 The second description uses a concessive participle (ζῶσα) to point out that this widow may be alive physically but she is dead spiritually. Thus, true widows are not only those who are without family but are also those who demonstrate evidence of salvation through their dependence on God.

Further Instructions for Families of Widows: Verses 7-8

καὶ ταῦτα παράγγελλε, ἵνα ἀνεπίλημπτοι ὦσιν. εἰ δέ τις τῶν ἰδίων καὶ μάλιστα οἰκείων οὐ προνοεῖ, τὴν πίστιν ἤρνηται καὶ ἔστιν ἀπίστου χείρων.

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.

There is some debate regarding what ταῦτα refers to and who the subject of ὦσιν is. The subject could be the widows in verse six in which case Timothy is to warn them about their behavior.21 However, it is more likely that the subject is the τέκνα and ἔκγονα from verse four and therefore that Timothy is to prescribe the directives of verse four. The widows have not been addressed to this point, so the only plural subject that has been given a directive is the children and grandchildren.22 As well, this makes more sense of their being ἀνεπίληµπτοι and flows more naturally into verse eight.23

The δέ in verse eight is adversative, contrasting those who care for their families and are ἀνεπίληµπτοι with those who neglect that responsibility. The εἰ and τις once again form a conditional and inclusive phrase. The protasis is τῶν ἰδίων καὶ µάλιστα οἰκείων οὐ προνοεῖ (does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household). The verb προνοεῖ reinforces the idea that honor in verse three includes the idea of financial support. The two genitive objects form a plural Granville Sharp construction in which the second is a subset of the first.24 A believer has a responsibility to care for his relatives in general and an even greater responsibility to care for those in his immediate family, as indicated by µάλιστα.25 The apodosis provides two consequences for a failure to provide for one’s family. The first is τὴν πίστιν ἤρνηται. Here, τὴν πίστιν refers to an objective faith or the body of apostolic doctrine that is denied by those who neglect this responsibility. The second consequence is ἔστιν ἀπίστου χείρων. Some argue that these phrases refer to a believer who is practically denying his profession and is worse than an unbeliever because he fails to do what unbelievers do.26 However, it is better to see that Paul is teaching that those who neglect this responsibility show themselves to be unbelievers.27 This better correlates with the teaching found elsewhere in Scripture that a key sign of embracing the gospel is helping fellow believers who are in need (Gal 6:6-10; Jas 1:27; 2:14-17; 1 John 3:17-19).28


10 All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the English Standard Version, 2001.

11 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 215.

12 “After all, within an honor and shame culture, to honor a person is not simply a verbal or mental act. The concrete and material implication is always an integral part of any act of honoring a person” (David W. Pao, “Let No One Despise Your Youth: Church and the World in the Pastoral Epistles,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57 [December 2014]: 753-54).

13 It is possible that the term widow could be applied to an older woman who had never married, but not likely to a younger celibate woman since the term “virgin” would already cover them. See I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (London: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 578.

14 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 217.

15 The use of the word εὐσεβεῖν, with its emphasis on service to God by honoring one’s parents, reinforces the interpretation that the subject of the imperative is the children and grandchildren rather than the widows (Jerome D. Quinn and William C. Wacker, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, Eerdmans Critical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 430).

16 It may be pleasing in that it reflects the teaching of the fifth commandment (Marshall, Pastoral Epistles, 586).

17 The question of whether or not this passage addresses a widow with unbelieving family will be considered further below under the section “The Cause of the Problem.”

18 Dan Wallace lists ἡ δὲ ὄντως χήρα καὶ µεµονωµένη as an example of the Granville Sharp Rule (Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 275).

19 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 282.

20 It may also suggest that the widow has some financial means that enables her to be self-indulgent (Marshall, Pastoral Epistles, 588). However, the primary emphasis here seems to be on the sinful lifestyle rather than wealth, since Paul does not address the issue of those who have wealth but are godly and merely possessing wealth does not cause a person to be spiritually dead.

21 Kent, Pastoral Epistles, 177; Lea, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, 148.

22 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 220.

23 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 284. Guthrie believes it encompasses both widows and their children (Pastoral Epistles, 101).

24 Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, 280-81.

25 Paul is clearly moving from a more general to a more specific group, though the exact identity of the two groups is disputed. The three most likely possibilities are moving from household members, including slaves, to blood relatives, from relatives outside of the home to those inside, or from general relatives to immediate family (Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 344). I prefer the third option, though it is difficult to determine which it is with certainty.

26 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 285.

27 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 221.

28 The specifics of how this relates to an unbeliever will be discussed further below under the heading “Cause of the Problem.”

Ben Edwards 2017

Ben Edwards is associate pastor of discipleship at Inter City Baptist Church in Detroit Michigan. He oversees the instructional ministry of the church, seminary, and Bible Institute, as well as teaching the Crossroads Adult Bible Fellowship (College and Career). He has been on staff since 2008.

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