Implications for the Church’s Social Responsibilities
Does this passage have any contemporary significance? It has direct significance on the matter of caring for widows today. But it has additional significance in offering principles for broader issues for the church’s social responsibilities.
Caring for Widows Today
Since Paul’s teaching does not seem linked solely to local culture and since it parallels the practice of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 6), churches should take seriously the responsibility to care for true widows as described in this passage. Caring for widows will most likely be an increasing issue for churches.
Current statistical projections indicate that the health needs of elderly women will assume increasing importance during the first half of the twenty-first century. To put the matter bluntly, the future is elderly and female. In 1900, one in twenty-five Americans was over the age of sixty-five. The U.S. Census Bureau (2004) projects that by the year 2030, one in five Americans will be over sixty-five, as the baby-boom generation moves from its middle years into old age.76
Unmarried women will compose the largest group of this aging population. Additionally, they make up a disproportionate number of the elderly who struggle with poverty.
Grim U.S. statistics demonstrate the tenuousness of the bonds connecting elderly women to the broader community, which is largely due to two interrelated factors: lack of a supportive family structure, and lack of financial resources. First, while most elderly men are married, most elderly women are not. Because of the different life expectancies of men and women, as well as the tendency of women to marry older men, 74 percent of American men older than sixty-five still have living wives, while only 40 percent of women over that age still have husbands who are alive. Moreover, elderly women are far more likely than elderly men to live alone. According to the 1990 statistics, 80 percent of the 9.2 million elderly persons living by themselves are female. One out of three elderly women who are not institutionalized lives by herself. Second, elderly women are far more likely than their male counterparts to be poor or nearly poor. While women counted as 58 percent of elderly Americans in 1990, they comprised nearly 75 percent of the impoverished elderly. Nearly one in three elderly women had an income level less than 150 percent of the poverty level. Furthermore, among older women, poverty is disproportionately concentrated among those who live alone and members of minority groups.77
Churches must be sensitive to these needs and make certain those in their congregations are being properly cared for.
One significant way for churches to help ensure widows are being cared for is by emphasizing the responsibility to care for one’s relatives. Paul indicates that failing in this area calls one’s salvation into question. Not only should believers take this responsibility seriously, but churches must recognize its importance.78 Churches must teach their members the need to care for their families and should be willing to enact church discipline on members who neglect their responsibility towards their families.
Beyond the specific issue of widow care, Paul’s instructions here offer several implications for the church’s social responsibilities. The passage points to the universal responsibility for believers to provide help, with a widow only to be enrolled if she had cared for the afflicted and “devoted herself to every good work.” This assumes that believers are all to be engaged in serving others—it is simply something Christians do.
Another implication is the reality of discrimination in the charity work of the church. Paul does not believe the church has the responsibility or ability to care for all widows, so he limits it to those who are truly in need, who are godly, and who have no other means of supporting themselves.79 Churches do not have the responsibility to provide ongoing support to all who have needs but should practice discernment in this area.
The nature of the church’s charity in this passage was purely internal. There is no indication that Paul encouraged the Ephesian church to see the reality of the social needs in Ephesus as an opportunity to reach out to unbelieving widows who had fallen through the cracks as a means of drawing them to Christ. Instead, the only evangelistic emphasis has to do with individuals demonstrating their blameless life.80
There is also an indication of the damage of providing support for those who are capable of seeking it on their own. The younger widows had other avenues of pursuing support, and it was dangerous for them to rely on the largesse of the church because of the sinful habits that could develop. People were made to be industrious, and the church only harms them when they provide an avenue to have their needs met while neglecting that duty.81
Social work is also portrayed as largely private and focused. Caring for one’s family “was the first step in godliness, for charity or benefactions began at home with one’s own widows.”82 While social issues that receive attention in our day are largely connected to global and popular matters, Christian charity is focused on meeting the often hidden needs that cross one’s path.83
The basis for Christian charity is human dignity and not societal value. The true widows in this passage offered little to the church in matters of material or social capital.84 The younger widows or widows with families would be more useful on a human plane, but God chooses the weak and despised things of the world.
Another implication from this passage is a distinction between responsibilities of the church qua church and responsibilities of individual believers. Many think it impossible to distinguish between the two, but Paul certainly seems to have two different categories in mind in this passage. Individual believers are called to tasks that the church is not to bear, and vice versa. Thus, the fact that an individual Christian is called to deal with a social issue does not mean the church bears the same responsibility. This is especially true in civil matters—those who took the dowry had a legal obligation to care for the widow while the church bore no such obligation.85
A final implication is the necessity of recognizing priorities in regard to charity. Paul considers it more important to care for those in one’s immediate family than to care for one’s general relatives (v. 8). He also considers it more important for the church’s resources to be used to help those who fall into the category of a true widow rather than any widow who had a need. Though the idea of prioritization is regularly ignored or even ridiculed, its biblical precedent must be noted. Churches should seek to practice biblical prioritization in meeting needs because they have limited resources.
First Timothy 5:3–16 deals with the important issue of honoring true widows. Caring for widows in one’s family and household must be done by believers, especially believing women. Those who are true widows—who meet the qualifications given in the passage—must be cared for by the church. Paul is not discussing an official order of widows with their attendant duties but the qualifications for those who will receive support from the church. The cause of the problem was not the efforts of Christian women to move toward greater freedom in that culture. Instead, the church’s willingness to help Christian widows who had fallen through the safety nets of society had led some in the church to neglect their obligation to care for widows in their family, and Paul calls them to take up their rightful responsibility to support their family members. Paul’s instructions here stand as an important reminder to the churches to instruct their members to care for their families and to provide support for widows who meet the qualifications he provides. It further offers several implications that the church must consider for other areas of social responsibility.
76 M. Cathleen Kaveny, “Order of Widows,” 18.
77 Ibid, 24.
78 As the word honor indicates, this help goes beyond paying for health services to include personal care and interaction.
79 Those with families are to seek support there first, and those who have either the ability to work or to remarry (i.e., younger widows) were instructed to do so.
80 “The manner of responsible care for the household’s membership has a salutary effect on outsiders who find the virtuous widow ‘blameless’ (v. 7; see 3:2, 7), while the younger widow who remarries rather than rejecting Christ squelches the opponents slander (v. 14). This mixture of responsible care for insiders and conscientious regard for the opinion of outsiders (v. 10) is characteristic of Paul’s household code, which reflects extraordinary sensitivity to people of all ages under the banner of God’s desire to save everyone” (Robert W. Wall, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 127).
81 It is also important to note that being industrious does not only mean work outside of the home but also includes caring for children, grandchildren, or elderly parents and grandparents.
82 Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City, 77.
83 This may be why the issue of widow care receives little attention. People are drawn by promises of stopping the sex trade or caring for adorable little children, while spending a couple of hours visiting with an eighty-year old woman, helping a mother-in-law clean her house, or creating a place for one’s grandmother to move in has less appeal.
84 “Paul urges his audience to ‘honor’ the widows (5:3), another group that falls outside of the apex of the traditional pyramid of power structure” (Pao, “Let No One Despise Your Youth,” 748).
85 Additionally, it seems that the only potential instance of charitable work with those outside the church was done by individual believers—the widows who showed hospitality or love for strangers.