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

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

Concluding Exhortation: Verse 16

εἴ τις πιστὴ ἔχει χήρας, ἐπαρκείτω αὐταῖς καὶ µὴ βαρείσθω ἡ ἐκκλησία, ἵνα ταῖς ὄντως χήραις ἐπαρκέσῃ.

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 really widows.

Paul concludes this passage with a final exhortation to believing women to care for widows in their family so that the church’s limited resources could be used to care for the true widows who had no family. There is some confusion about Paul’s use of πιστὴ. Though some manuscripts have πιστὸς ἢ πιστή or simply πιστὸς, πιστὴ is supported by both external and internal considerations.58 Paul could be referring to either young widows or wealthy widows (Acts 9:36–42). However, it is probably best to see this as any believing woman who has a relative who is a widow. The reason he addresses women instead of men is “because the woman in a household would bear the main burden of caring for a widow.”59 Since χήρας is plural, it may refer to not only a widowed mother, but perhaps grandmother or mother-in-law as well.

The reason for the believing women to take this responsibility is explained in the remainder of the verse. βαρείσθω would include financial and temporal burdens that arise from caring for others. The church is not to be burdened with the care that the family members should take, because the church has the responsibility to care for widows who do not have family.

In this passage, Paul distinguishes between the responsibilities of family and the church in caring for widows. He also distinguishes between those who should be enrolled to receive help in the church and those who do not qualify. The younger widows should remarry and those who have family should be cared for by them so that the church can use its limited resources to care for godly widows who are older and have no family.

Duties of an Order or Qualifications for Support

A question that often arises in this passage is whether Paul is speaking of an order of widows in a church and listing their duties, or whether he is simply speaking of the qualifications of widows who will be added to a list of those who receive regular, ongoing support from the church. Those who see more of an emphasis on an order of widows in the church tend to view the list in verses nine and ten as laying out some of the duties a widow was to perform. This order of widows may not have included those needing support—as 5:3–8 speaks about—but those who could serve the church.60 However, the church may have still supported them for their service.61 Upon entrance to this order, a woman would be required to take a pledge of singleness, which younger widows would be tempted to break.62 This interpretation softens Paul’s exclusion of younger widows, since they are not excluded from support but from service in this order because of its pledge of singleness.

Though it is clear that by the third century widows were appointed to service in the church in order to minister to the afflicted and to pray,63 there is no indication that this was established when 1 Timothy was written.64 Rather, the emphasis of the passage is on which widows should receive support from the church and which should not. The list in verses nine and ten are set forth as qualifications to be enrolled for support, not service.65 The reason younger widows are excluded is because of the temptation they would face regarding marrying an unbeliever and becoming idle gossips and busybodies because they no longer need to work to support themselves. Paul does not address the issue of temporary support for other widows but lays out the qualifications for widows to receive regular and ongoing support.

Cause of the Problem

Why does Paul take the time to restrict those that the church would support? Bassler proposes that the problem arose as a result of the women in early Christianity striving to gain a measure of freedom in sociological realms. The only way to be free from the authoritative rule of husbands and father in society was to choose a life of celibacy and service to the church.66 A problem was created as a growing number of women chose this lifestyle, stretching the limits of the church’s resources.67 As well, the behavior of the women would have been considered inappropriate in larger society, so the author prescribes the characteristics that would have been approved by society to remove the offense of the widows who had already been enrolled and to limit their number.68

This interpretation is typically tied to the view that Christianity’s original structure was very egalitarian with 1 Timothy serving as an example of later Christians oppressing a rising order of powerful women in order to conform to a more traditional patriarchal society. As Johnson notes, this interpretation ignores the heart of the passage. “My disagreement with the feminist interpretation begins with its neglect of what appears to be the most obvious and central concern in the passage: the effort to balance the needs of the poor and the resources of the intentional community.”69

An understanding of the social setting in the first century provides a better explanation of Paul’s instructions here. There were a large number of widows in that society, with estimates reaching as high as thirty percent of women in the ancient world.70 Because of the high number of widows and their disadvantages in society, there were clear laws in those days that defined how widows were to be cared for. These laws related to the dowry that had been given to the husband at marriage. At the death of her husband a widow could choose one of two options:

If she had children, she could remain in her deceased husband’s home. There she would be maintained by the new κύριος of the household, possibly her son. She could also return to her parents taking her dowry back to her family. The returning of that dowry meant the legal severance from her late husband’s household.71

Whoever received the dowry then had an obligation to provide for the widow. In spite of the legal protection for widows, there were always some who fell through the cracks, and the church sought to care for them. However, it is not surprising that the church’s willingness to support widows easily led some to neglect their responsibility to care for widows in their family.72 Thus, Paul needed to provide instruction to clarify which widows the church was responsible to support.73

As well, the responsibility to care for widows living in one’s household was a legal obligation because the individual had received the dowry. Thus, the professing believers who neglected that responsibility were sinning for two reasons: they neglected the command to honor their parents, and they were worse than an unbeliever because they failed to fulfill their legal obligation. This sheds further light on the issue of reproach in verse seven.74 Unbelievers could have easily accused the church of hypocrisy if its members were ignoring their legal responsibilities.75

Notes

58 “While it is possible that πιστὸς ἢ was omitted accidentally through an oversight in copying, a majority of the Committee, observing that the shorter reading is somewhat better attested than the longer reading, regarded the latter as a natural expansion made by copyists who, in light of ver. 4, felt that a restriction of the principle of this verse to Christian women was unfair. The reading πιστὸς is confined to versions and may be merely translational in origin” (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament [Fourth Revised Edition], 2nd ed. [New York: United Bible Societies, 1994], 574–75).

59 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 229.

60 John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 132.

61 Ibid., 135.

62 Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 230.

63 See Patricia Cox Miller, ed., Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 51–61.

64 It is dangerous to read back the ascetic tendencies of later times into the first century” (Marshall, Pastoral Epistles, 578).

65 “While it is assumed that a godly woman would continue to do the same things after enrollment that she did before, this does not mean that this passage teaches duties. Paul is concerned not with duties but with the type of widow who should be enrolled” (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 274).

66 Jouette M. Bassler, “The Widows’ Tale: A Fresh Look at 1 Tim 5:3-16,” Journal of Biblical Literature 103 (March 1984): 23–24.

67 Ibid., 35–36.

68 Ibid., 38.

69 Johnson, First and Second Letters to Timothy, 271.

70 Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 124–25. Winter points out that the estimate is probably too high, but there is little doubt that widows did make up a significant portion of the population.

71 Winter, “Providentia for the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3–16,” Tyndale Bulletin 39 (1988): 84.

72 Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City, 70.

73 Winter, “Providentia for the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3–16,” 88.

74 Ibid., 92–93.

75 If a Christian widow was in the household of an unbelieving family, they would have a legal obligation to care for her. However, since they may have rejected her from their household or may have neglected their duty, the church would most likely step in to provide support.

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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