From Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary’s DBSJ 21 (2016); posted with permission.
Paul’s instructions in his first epistle to Timothy are an invaluable resource to believers. They serve as a superb foundation for knowing how the church is to be organized and to function. Paul’s guidelines for overseers and deacons in chapter three are familiar to nearly all Christians as they consider who is qualified to serve in that capacity. The exhortations for Timothy’s life and ministry in chapter four have often been used to challenge both new and experienced church leaders to fulfill the responsibility they have received from God. Paul’s discussion concerning prayer in chapter two is a popular passage, both for church life and in discussions of God’s will in regard to salvation. One’s understanding of the role of women in the church depends heavily on the interpretation of Paul’s teaching in 2:11–15. These concerns make certain passages in 1 Timothy well-known among contemporary believers.
One passage that receives less attention today is Paul’s guidelines for widows in 5:3–16. Though not ignored by the church in the past, this section seems easily overlooked in modern culture. Perhaps current believers feel that the issue of widows is not as relevant for the contemporary church. This is especially surprising with the growing focus on social justice. Issues surrounding poverty, human trafficking, abortion, sexuality, and adoption/orphan care garner increasing attention, while issues surrounding widows, a group intricately tied to social justice matters in the Scriptures, are inexplicably missing from the discussion.3
This article will explore Paul’s teaching concerning widows in 1 Timothy 5:3–16, the church’s responsibility in that role, and the reason for his instruction with the goal of gaining insight into modern discussions of the church’s role in social justice issues. In pursuing that goal, the passage will be considered in order to clarify precisely whom Paul is addressing and what his instructions are. Then, two background questions will be briefly discussed: whether or not Paul is establishing the office of widow for the church and what has created the need for Paul to provide this instruction. Finally, some implications for contemporary issues will be presented.
ANALYSIS OF THE PASSAGE
To understand Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 5:3–16, the historical context and literary contexts will be discussed, followed by an exegetical study of the passage.
The historical background of 1 Timothy cannot be constructed with absolute certainty, since it was written after the events recorded in Acts. It seems most likely that the Apostle Paul wrote this epistle sometime between his first and second imprisonments in Rome.4 Paul likely traveled to Ephesus and Colossae after being released from prison (Philem 22). Timothy may have met Paul in Ephesus, or perhaps somewhere along Paul’s journey to Macedonia. Paul urged Timothy to remain in Ephesus in order to deal with the false teaching that had arisen there, while Paul hoped to return soon. Since he was delayed, he wrote this letter to Timothy to encourage him to deal with the false teaching and to provide direction and order for the church (1 Tim 1:3; 3:14–15). Though addressed specifically to Timothy, Paul also intended this letter to reinforce to the church in Ephesus that Timothy was acting as Paul’s authorized representative (cf. 6:21).
Since Paul is writing to deal with the heresy in Ephesus, 1 Timothy is not simply a church manual. Thus, understanding the heresy is important for proper interpretation. Though it is not possible to determine every element of the false teaching, it is possible to get some understanding of it through Paul’s statements in the epistle. Apparently, the false teachers had gained significant influence in the church, either by rising from within the church or serving as leaders of the church (1 Tim. 1:18–20; 3:1–13; 5:17–25; cf. Acts 20:30).5 The actual false teaching included a faulty understanding of the Law (1:7–8); claims to superior knowledge (6:20–21); controversy over minutia, such as words, myths, and genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4; 6:4); love for money (6:5); and unbiblical restrictions on marriage and dietary practices (4:3).6 Paul intended to counteract this teaching, though it is not necessary to see every passage as a direct antidote to the false teaching.
Since 1 Timothy is Paul’s instruction for Timothy, it may be helpful to consider the structure of the book as a series of charges to Timothy.7 After the greeting (1 Tim. 1:1–2), Paul gives his charge to Timothy concerning false teaching and sound doctrine by warning against the false teaching and pointing to his own ministry as consistent with true teaching (1 Tim. 1:3–20). He then charges Timothy about matters in public worship, dealing with public prayer and with the roles of men and women in the assembly (1 Tim. 2:1–15). Next, Paul moves into his guidelines for church officers, laying out the qualifications for overseers and deacons and finishing with a reminder of the importance of his instruction (1 Tim. 3:1–16). In chapter four, Paul returns explicitly to the false teachers and points out how Timothy is to respond to this threat of false teaching by being faithful in sound teaching and godly conduct (1 Tim. 4:1–16). Paul then moves to instructions for different members of the congregation (1 Tim. 5:1–6:2). In the section immediately preceding the passage under consideration, Paul issues instructions about confronting various church members (1 Tim. 5:1–2). He then addresses the care of widows in the church by explaining the description of true widows, the responsibility of the relatives and the church, and the instructions for younger widows (1 Tim. 5:3– 16). Paul transitions to his charge relating to elders and addresses their compensation, discipline, and ordination (5:17–25). He concludes this section by giving instructions for slaves in the church (1 Tim. 6:1–2). Paul finishes with his final charge to Timothy, which addresses false teachers, greed, godly conduct, and the wealthy (1 Tim. 6:3–21a). He then closes with a brief benediction (1 Tim. 6:21b).
The change in subject to χήρας (widows) and the use of the imperative τίμα (honor) mark the transition in 5:3 from Paul’s directives regarding confrontation with a variety of groups to the need to honor widows. The appearance of ὄντως χήρας/ χήραις at 5:3 and 5:16 mark the beginning and end of the section.8 The introduction of πρεσβύτεροι in verse 17 marks a transition to another section dealing with elders, though both sections are linked by the idea of τιμῆς.9
1 I count it a privilege to have studied under Dr. Combs, Dr. Compton, and Dr. McCabe. I am thankful for the example they have provided along with the knowledge and skill they have imparted. They are men who have been able to blend scholarship with pastoral concern and intelligence with godliness. I am also extremely grateful for the opportunity to have served with them at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary where my appreciation for them has only increased. The genesis of this article was a remark Dr. Compton gave in the course “Greek Exegesis of 1 Timothy” as to the neglect of this passage in the modern church. Thus, I thought it fitting to offer it as a means of seeking to honor my professors for their service to Christ and his church.
2 Dr. Edwards serves as Instructor in Pastoral Theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and as Executive Pastor at Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.
3 One reason widows may receive little attention among evangelicals is that they receives little attention in society at large. “Unfortunately, despite the rapidly growing numbers of elderly women, their health needs have until recently received scant attention from either the feminist or human rights communities” (M. Cathleen Kaveny, “The Order of Widows: What the Early Church Can Teach Us about Older Women and Health Care,” Christian Bioethics, 11 [April 2005]: 19).
4 This paper assumes Pauline authorship of the epistle. For a thorough defense of this view, see Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 12–52.
5 Thomas D. Lea, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 42. Based on 2 Timothy 3:6–9, it may be that the women in Ephesus were particularly vulnerable to the false teaching. However, Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9–15 and 5:3–16 do not necessarily point to that reality.
6 The issue of marriage is of particular significance for the passage under discussion.
7 The following structure is based largely on Homer Kent, The Pastoral Epistles: Studies in I and II Timothy and Titus (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), 72–73.
8 William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 277.
9 George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 231.