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

From DBSJ 21 (2016); posted with permission. Read the series so far. This installment continues the exegetical study of 5:3-16.

Enrolling Widows in the Church: Verse 9–10

Χήρα καταλεγέσθω μὴ ἔλαττον ἐτῶν ἑξήκοντα γεγονυῖα, ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή, ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς μαρτυρουμένη, εἰ ἐτεκνοτρόφησεν, εἰ ἐξενοδόχησεν, εἰ ἁγίων πόδας ἔνιψεν, εἰ θλιβομένοις ἐπήρκεσεν, εἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ ἐπηκολούθησεν.

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.

Paul transitions from the families’ responsibility to care for widows to the church’s responsibility. He begins with the command to enroll true widows, further clarifying who those widows are.

The command καταλεγέσθω refers to enlisting or enrolling someone, though “it does not specify the nature of the group into which the person is enrolled.”29 The following clauses provide the requirements for widows to be considered for this group. The first is that she be over sixty years of age (μὴ ἔλαττον ἐτῶν ἑξήκοντα γεγονυῖα). Paul’s choice of this age appears somewhat arbitrary.30 Roman law required women under age fifty to remarry.31 It is likely that Paul is reflecting a common idea that sixty is when a person entered a stage of life in which they were considered older and no longer able to work.32 Thus, it seems to be a practical limit to distinguish between younger widows who could still remarry or provide for themselves and older widows who would be unable to do so.33

The second requirement regards a woman’s faithfulness to her husband. The phrase ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή (having been the wife of one husband) is the reverse of the qualification for overseers and deacons (3:2, 12). Some claim that this means the widow has not remarried since her husband’s death.34 However, the majority of commentators view it as describing the faithfulness of the widow to her husband while married—she was a “one-man woman.” Otherwise, Paul’s instructions for the younger widows to remarry in verse fourteen would preclude them from being enrolled if they lost their second husbands.35

The third requirement is at the beginning of verse ten: ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς μαρτυρουμένη (having a reputation for good works). Paul elaborates on what those good deeds are in the remainder of verse ten, though the listing is probably representative rather than exhaustive.36 The first good work is εἰ ἐτεκνοτρόφησεν (if she has brought up children). There is no indication that these children were her own—they may have been orphans—but a childless woman would not be excluded from help any more than a man without children would be excluded from the office of overseer or deacon (3:4, 12). The widow would not need to be able to present the children she brought up as proof of fulfilling this requirement, for if the children were available and willing they—not the church—would have the responsibility to care for the widow (cf. 5:4, 7–8).37

The next good work mentioned is εἰ ἐξενοδόχησεν (has shown hospitality). Hospitality was not simply required of overseers (3:2) but of all believers (Rom 12:13). The fact that these widows were in need of support from the church does not mean they were unable to show hospitality. Chrysostom pointed out that the widow of Zarephath displayed hospitality to Elijah though she did not even have enough for herself and her son (1 Kgs 17:7–16).38

The third good work mentioned is εἰ ἁγίων πόδας ἔνιψεν (has washed the feet of the saints). This most likely refers to the humility of the widow and her willingness to serve others even in menial tasks. Though some point to this as support for foot washing as an ordinance, it more likely refers to actual works of service to others, perhaps including literally washing the feet of traveling believers. If it were a reference to an ordinance, it would then fail to serve as a distinguishing requirement.39

The next good work is εἰ θλιβομένοις ἐπήρκεσεν (has cared for the afflicted). The affliction here does not necessarily refer to persecution but could include any kind of distress. Paul then concludes the list with a general statement: εἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ ἐπηκολούθησεν (has devoted herself to every good work). This reinforces the representative nature of the list and emphasizes the godly character of the widow. Paul here commands that widows who are over sixty, who have been faithful to their husbands, and who have demonstrated their commitment to godliness are to be supported by the church.40

Notes

29 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 286.

30 It is common, however, to set somewhat arbitrary ages for a number of issues. As Winter notes, there is little reason for many countries to establish sixty or sixty-five as ages at which people can begin to receive a pension (Bruce W. Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 72, n. 50).

31 Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 125.

32 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 286–87.

33 Whether or not this was an unbending guideline is difficult to determine. At the least it is possible to say that the church may have supported widows who had genuine needs before they turned sixty but they would not commit themselves to regular and ongoing support.

34 Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles, 102. The ESV, NASB, and KJV seem to reflect this interpretation in their translation.

35 The suggestion that Paul is discussing two groups of widows—those who are to be cared for in vv. 3–8 and those who are to part of an official order of widows in vv. 9– 15 will be discussed below under “Duties of an Order or Qualifications for Support.”

36 Lea, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, 150.

37 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 288.

38 Efthalia Makris Walsh, “Wealthy and Impoverished Widows in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom,” in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, ed. Susan R. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 179.

39 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 224. The reasoning is that all believers would participate in the ordinances.

40 Since Paul has already stated that the family has the primary responsibility to care for the widow, he does not reiterate that here. It is assumed that the widows who are to be enrolled do not have family.

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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