Honor True Widows: 1 Timothy 5:3–16 with Implications for the Church’s Social Responsibilities, Part 4

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

Instruction of Younger Widows: Verses 11–15

νεωτέρας δὲ χήρας παραιτοῦ ὅταν γὰρ καταστρηνιάσωσιν τοῦ Χριστοῦ, γαμεῖν θέλουσιν ἔχουσαι κρίμα ὅτι τὴν πρώτην πίστιν ἠθέτησαν ἅμα δὲ καὶ ἀργαὶ μανθάνουσιν περιερχόμεναι τὰς οἰκίας, οὐ μόνον δὲ ἀργαὶ ἀλλὰ καὶ φλύαροι καὶ περίεργοι, λαλοῦσαι τὰ μὴ δέοντα. βούλομαι οὖν νεωτέρας γαμεῖν, τεκνογονεῖν, οἰκοδεσποτεῖν, μηδεμίαν ἀφορμὴν διδόναι τῷ ἀντικειμένῳ λοιδορίας χάριν ἤδη γάρ τινες ἐξετράπησαν ὀπίσω τοῦ Σατανᾶ.

But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan.

The δὲ is adversative, contrasting the widows who are to be enrolled with those who are not. This contrast is reinforced by Paul’s strong command παραιτοῦ. The context shows that Timothy is to refuse to enroll these younger widows. Paul begins his explanation for why they are to be excluded from the list in the second part of verse eleven. The γὰρ is causal, with ὅταν introducing an indefinite temporal clause that serves as the first reason for their exclusion. The verb καταστρηνιάσωσιν is only found here in the New Testament. It refers to being controlled by strong sensual desires. The genitive τοῦ Χριστοῦ is most likely one of opposition, though separation conveys basically the same meaning. The remainder of verse eleven and verse twelve provide the apodosis of the clause.

The result of being led in opposition to Christ is that the younger widow γαµεῖν θέλουσιν, with the result being ἔχουσαι κρίµα ὅτι τὴν πρώτην πίστιν ἠθέτησαν (so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith). The problem stems from understanding how a desire to marry could be in opposition to Christ and result in judgment/condemnation. The most common explanation is that the widows took a vow of celibacy upon enrollment as a widow, so their desire to marry breaks that vow. This view takes τὴν πρώτην πίστιν as a pledge. Since breaking a pledge would not seem to lead to actual condemnation, κρίµα is used here in the sense of censure.41 This view has several points to commend it: (1) It maintains consistency between references to marrying in verses eleven and fourteen; (2) it fits with Paul’s solution to allow the younger widows to marry instead of taking a pledge of celibacy and being enrolled; and (3) the idea of a pledge of celibacy finds support in extra-biblical literature from after the second century. However, it does not seem to account for some of the harsh language in the passage. The link to verses six and fifteen seem to point to an unbeliever being discussed in the verse. It also reads later church practices into the text, since there is no explicit reference to a vow of celibacy in the passage.

A better interpretation is to see the desire to marry in verse eleven as a desire to marry that stems from an opposition to Christ, most likely a desire to marry an unbeliever (cf. 1 Cor 7:39).42 Since the woman in that culture was expected to abandon her gods for that of her husband, she may have been tempted to abandon her faith in order to marry someone “who would not marry her if she remained a Christian.”43 This view allows πίστιν to have its common usage in the Pastoral Epistles of faith.44 It also incorporates better into the list of explicitly sinful behavior in verse 13 as an evidence of a self-indulgent lifestyle rather than one devoted to Christ, thus receiving God’s condemnation.45

Paul adds a second reason for refusing to enroll younger widows in verse thirteen. While they are turning away from Christ (ἅµα δὲ), they are also learning to be idle (καὶ ἀργαὶ µανθάνουσιν). The infinitive εἶναι must be supplied by ellipsis (cf. 5:4). Some claim that the way that these widows learn to be idle is by abusing their visitation opportunities (περιερχόµεναι τὰς οἰκίας), resulting in their being φλύαροι καὶ περίεργοι (gossips and busybodies).46 However, that assumes they have been given visitation duties, which does not necessarily arise from the passage.47 Rather, it is better to see the phrase περιερχόµεναι τὰς οἰκίας (going about from house to house) as the result of their idleness and not the cause.48 Since they no longer have a husband or children to care for, they are not engaged in anything productive to utilize their time and energy.49 Thus, they find unproductive ways to fill their time by going around and engaging in unwholesome talk. The final phrase of the verse, λαλοῦσαι τὰ µὴ δέοντα, further explains the nature of their gossip.

Verse fourteen gives Paul’s instructions for the younger widows to counter the temptations just mentioned. The οὖν is inferential, drawing a conclusion in light of the preceding dangers. βούλοµαι signals not merely Paul’s desire but expresses his apostolic instruction (cf. 1 Tim 2:8; Titus 3:8). The context shows that νεωτέρας is referring to younger widows. There are four infinitives that complement βούλοµαι. The first is γαµεῖν.50 Rather than having younger widows be enrolled to be cared for by the church, they are to marry.51 The next two infinitives, τεκνογονεῖν and οἰκοδεσποτεῖν, are both found only here in the New Testament. Both would be normally expected in a marriage, and would ensure that the widow does not fall into being ἀργαὶ.52 That, in turn, will ensure the final infinitive is true: µηδεµίαν ἀφορµὴν διδόναι τῷ ἀντικειµένῳ λοιδορίας χάριν (give the adversary no occasion for slander). It is unclear exactly who the adversary is, but whether it is speaking generically or of Satan himself, it is clear that Paul believes his prior instruction will remove any opportunity for λοιδορίας.

In verse fifteen, Paul indicates the urgency of his instruction: Some had already turned aside to follow Satan. “The ἤδη γάρ combination forcefully joins the temporal and the logical together and therefore gives greater urgency to Paul’s warning.”53 Though Paul does not exactly state what following Satan entails, in the context it would fit as a reference to their turning from Christ to a sinful lifestyle. Some had already adopted a promiscuous lifestyle and were bringing reproach against the integrity of the Christian faith (cf. 5:14c).54

From secular and legal literature of the time, it is evident that younger widows had a reputation for promiscuous behavior.55 Apparently, there was a strong temptation for younger women to take advantage of the support they could get, allowing them to develop sinful lifestyles. “With the church caring for their physical needs, they had time to indulge themselves and live totally self-centered lives.”56 In order to combat this threat to the lives of younger widows and to maintain purity of the church, Paul instructs that the younger widows should not be enrolled but should instead marry and manage their household.57


41 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 226.

42 The fact that the desire to marry comes after the statement that they are drawn away from Christ supports the idea that this marriage is one with an unbeliever rather than a breaking of a vow to Christ, in which case it would make more sense for the order to be reversed—they desire to marry, and so are drawn away from Christ (Marshall, Pastoral Epistles, 601).

43 Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 137.

44 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 292.

45 The desire to marry is not sinful in itself, while the desire to marry for selfish reasons or to marry outside of the faith is sinful in itself.

46 Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles, 103–4.

47 For a further discussion about whether the passage prescribes duties or describes characteristics, see discussion below under “Duties of an Order or Qualifications for Support.”

48 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 293.

49 Marshall, Pastoral Epistles, 602.

50 This marriage, as opposed to the one described in verse 11, would be a marriage to a believer.

51 “It was expected in the ancient world that a widow would remarry. Augustus, in the lex Papia Poppaea of A.D. 9, actually legislated for this after a husband’s death if the widow was still of child-bearing age, i.e. under fifty. The period during which she could remain a widow was finally set at two years. This was the legal position in the empire in the first century, even if it was not observed by all” (Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City, 73).

52 The first three infinitives assume not only a desire to marry, have children, and manage the household but the ability and opportunity to do so (e.g., a willing candidate to marry, etc.)

53 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 229.

54 Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 139.

55 Ibid., 123–24.

56 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 290.

57 What about young widows who had no prospects for remarrying? “It is less likely that Paul was deliberately callous toward such cases than that he did not know of them in the Ephesian church. Or perhaps he assumes that since they are still young, they would be under the responsibility of their parents’ oikos” (Luke Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible [New York: Doubleday, 2001], 276).

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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