And how the local church should give dignity, identity & significance to those forgotten & neglected by society
A few weeks ago we saw that caring for widows, orphans & immigrants is something very close to God’s heart, & therefore ought to be part of the essence of who we are as his people. This explains why Paul’s letter to a young pastor & his local church includes extensive teaching on widows. Last time I also suggested the principles regarding widows should be extended to all types of vulnerable & neglected people & therefore cause us to ask questions like: Who are the needy among us today, and how can we meet their needs & bring dignity & value to their daily lives?
One of the things that amazes me about the early church is that it says in Acts 4:34: “There was not a needy person among them.” We learn that the early believers sold possessions, even their property, to make sure the needs of all believers were met (Acts 2:45; 4:34). This was not something they were obligated to do this is something they did willingly. It was the overflow of hearts flooded with the underserved kindness of God! Challenging thought or what!? These believers lived out the words of 1 John 3:16-18 in a radical way! John says; “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Jesus throughout the gospels basically teaches “that we should spend far more money & wealth on the poor than we do on our own entertainment, vacations, or eating out and socializing with important peers.” (Luke 12:23-24; 14:12-13). He also teaches that when we give, without drawing attention to it, he will see & reward us (Matt 6:1-4). Later in the same chapter he urges; “Do not lay up treasures for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matt 6:19-20)
When a crowd asked John the Baptist what to do in Luke 3:10-11 he said; “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” So then, as Christian’s we should be prepared to willingly sell possessions in order to provide for others (if that’s what it takes), & we should be eager to share what is ours with others. Sadly too often the attitude of the human heart is to take, take, take, or to withhold what we own from others & keep it for ourselves. Like in the parable Jesus told about the Rich Fool who built bigger barns so he could hoard more stuff for himself. “But God said to him, Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” After telling this parable Jesus said; “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” The way to be rich towards God is to be generous towards others, especially the poor. The way of love & faith is summed up in Jesus words to the 12 Disciples in Matt 10:8; “Freely you have received, freely give”. In other words since we have received undeserved & unmerited favour from God we ought to freely give to others, without making them feel like they have to earn it or that they owe us something! Our God is a God who shows unmerited & undeserved favour to people every day (including enemies), we should do the same! This is part of reflecting his glory. Are you a giver or a taker? [EXPAND] Because the truth is givers end up richer in this life & the next (& I’m not primarily talking about being materially rich but rich in every way)!
How would church look if we gave as freely to each other as God has given to us? Everything we have is a gift of God’s grace - our breath, our bodies, our family, our friends; food & drink, talents & gifting, creation, space & time; his Word & Spirit as well as his Son & the certain hope his death & resurrection brings to our hearts. James 1:17 says; “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
God is a giver! This truth never changes because he never changes! The reality is we can only give because he is a giver. For if he had never given us anything then we would have nothing to give anyone. But we have much to give because we have freely received from God. As John 1:16 says; “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” We have much to give each other (& Sligo & the world) today because from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. As the biblical saying goes, ‘we are blessed to be a blessing.’ We need to cultivate such an attitude in our lives & fellowship if we are to reflect the character of our outrageously generous God. Psalm 84:11 NASB declares; “For the Lord God is a sun & shield; The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” What’s clear from these verses in First Timothy 5:3-16 is that the church is to reflect God’s character by giving such grace & glory to elderly widow’s (& all needy people)! The church is to withhold no good thing from elderly widows who walk uprightly. Listen to what Paul writes in verses 9-10;
“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.”
Note firstly that the church was to keep a list of widows; they were to take note of the neediest members of their congregation! This also implies that the early church must have had some sort of wider record of its members which they could draw upon – church membership... Membership help’s local leadership know who is committed to the church so that in turn the local church can show commitment to its members... And these verses we’re looking at today highlight that from the church members an enrolment was to be made of all the widows over 60.
There were two reasons for this list. Paul has just written in V8; “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Now in verses 9-10 (&16) he seems to be extending this same principle, at some level, to the household of faith. In other words the local church is responsible for looking after her neediest members. This challenges us to recognise the neediest members of the church & to help provide for their needs as best as we can.
So then, the first reason for this list was that widows might be provided for, in the sense that their basic earthly needs are met. But clearly from these verses there is much more to it than this. There was second reason for this list. Jesus said in Luke 12:23 “life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” Of course material provision & food etc is essential for survival & life... However what we need to understand is that God’s intention was not just that these elderly widows would survive on handouts, but also that they would excel in ministry! God’s intention was to bring dignity, identity, significance & status to the lives of a group of people who were forgotten & neglected by the society they lived in! This is part of the churches mission today!
These verses are more than about giving money, they are about giving value, dignity, wisdom, belonging, education, help, support, purpose, identity, skills, status... People don’t only need money & food to survive & have a meaningful existence; they need these other things as well! There are many materially rich people whose lives are poor & there are many materially poor people who lives are rich... Jim Carey recently tweeted; “I wish everyone could experience being rich & famous, so they’d see it wasn’t the answer to anything.” And more importantly before he told the parable of the Rich Fool Jesus said; “Take care and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.” The reason for the list of widows over 60 was for support & service. The early church not only supported these widows, it gave them status of identity in a culture that gave them none. They were given an active ministry role in church!
It’s clear from these verses & from examples of women like Dorcas (Acts 9) that such widows had a distinctive ministry within the early church. There were large numbers of them & by the third century they formed an Order within the church. These widows were given a special role of ministry. It seems that there were elders, deacons & then these widows over 60. The main reason for believing these verses teach that widows over 60 were given a ministry role in the church is because verses 9-10 sound so much like the list of qualifications given to elders & deacons in chapter 3... These qualifications would seem very harsh if a widow had to meet them all before getting any material help from the church. They only make sense when we understand them also as qualifications for some form of ministry role in the church. Therefore the church provided these ladies with the recognition and status society neglected to give them...
The age Paul gives for these female ministers may well come as a surprise to a culture preoccupied with youth. However in the ancient world sixty was sometimes viewed as the age at which a person reached full maturity... The words of 2 Corinthians 2:16 also bring great encouragement to those who are old enough to feel aches & pains in their bodies; “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
John Stott says these widows “gave themselves to prayer, nursed the sick, cared for orphans, visited Christians in prison, evangelised pagan women, and taught... converts in preparation for their baptism.” In fact the church would not have been able to accomplish what it accomplished without these older women. Sadly by the middle ages few if any churches followed these guidelines in First Timothy. These verses shocked John Calvin when he studied them & he had to admit that when it came to widows, his church in Geneva was not organised biblically at all.
I believe these verses also challenge how we view the elderly... In our culture it is not only older women who get forgotten & neglected, but also older men. We live in a culture which sends out the message that those who are older are yesterday’s generation... This is the fruit of a self-centred, self-absorbed, secularised culture. You’ve perhaps heard it said ‘the youth are not the generation of tomorrow, but the generation of today.’ That’s very true! However it is equally true to say ‘the over 60 are not the generation of yesterday, but the generation of today.’ Older Christians are part of today’s generation as much as younger Christian’s. We are all part of what God is doing in this generation. The only way to not be part of what God is doing in this generation is either to not be born yet or to have died already! We must not tolerate ageism in church anymore than we do racism or sexism. These verses teach us clearly that God views those who are 60+ as very valuable to the life, ministry & mission of the church! This brings great dignity & significance to the later years of a Christian’s life on earth. The same letter that tells a young man not to let anyone despise his youth also gives great dignity to older ladies! True Christianity brings beautiful significance to every age group and every stage of a person’s life.
Paul continues with advice for younger widows;
“But refuse to enrol 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.”
These verses teach us that young widows (& all of us) should be careful about making rash vows to God, vows of celibacy or anything else. Perhaps in the midst of dealing with loss or with loneliness these younger widows were tempted to commit themselves to celibacy. Though well meaning at the time of suffering & bereavement, many would likely regret the decision as desires for companionship security & sexual intimacy inevitably returned. Also, culturally it was a much better life for a woman to be married since it guaranteed identity & provision. So Paul strongly discouraged the younger widows from making such vows. (He has much more to say on this issue & other related issues in 1 Corinthians 7.)
Getting remarried would also help protect these younger widows from wasting their time & concerning themselves with things which had nothing to do with them. People with too much time on their hands often become idle or else they end up sticking their nose in everywhere. God desires for each day of our lives to be focused & purposeful. This is hard to say in a time when jobs are scarce, but it still needs said. The truth is there are always things to do, there’s always opportunity for volunteer work in our communities. There are always people to be prayed for & reached with the gospel, & there are always people we can serve & help in various ways.
One of reasons Paul encourages these younger widows to remarry, bear children & manage their household was to bring provision, purpose & satisfaction to their lives. In a culture that generally didn’t employ women (in a way in which they could maintain godliness anyway) they could find a place of responsibility, purpose, satisfaction & significance in a Christian family. This would stop them from being idle or gossips. Or worse, it would protect them from turning to such things as prostitution, which was rampant in Ephesus & may be what Paul had in mind when he said; “For some have already strayed after Satan.” The fact that Paul says in V14 “give the adversary no occasion for slander” also builds on the theme of believer’s behaviour & the reputation of the church.
The bottom line is, culturally it was for the wellbeing of these young widows to remarry & this would also help free the church to look after older widows who had no one to turn too. Paul finishes the section with the following words; “If any believing woman (KJV: man or 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.” As we can see, there are very practical reasons behind Paul’s instructions.
In summery this section of First Timothy is mainly intended to make sure that widows (as well as all needy people) get the care they need. In order to make sure this happens we need to view the family unit as the first line of defence (like we looked at before). As John Calvin says; “before the Church has to carry the burden, let the children do their duty.” After this we need to view the church family as the second line of defence, for those who have no one else to turn too. One of the advantages of belonging to a local church should be that every member finds in it a family to provide for them. Since the finances of most churches are limited, it is important Christian’s care for their own poor... Then the church is more likely to have enough resources to assist those with no one else. And it also seems very likely that one of the duties of the ‘Order of Widows’ was to look after others who were in need. Which itself is a beautiful picture of God’s grace. The gospel meets the deepest needs of people & then empowers them to meet the needs of others!