Monday, February 17, 2014

Laboring in the word and doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17-18)


Why Elders Should Be Counted Worthy of Double Honor

Baptists have been notorious over the years for their stinginess in matters of money and ministry.  The story is told of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, at the beginning of his ministry in London, that he would often call the deacons together, share a need, and then pass his hat around the table for donations (from the deacons) to meet that need.  This happened so often that the deacons got together and decided that the next time Pastor Spurgeon called them together for such an occasion, they would simply pass the hat around without depositing any money in it.  Such an occasion did happen soon after, and when the hat returned to Spurgeon empty, he bowed his head and prayed, “God, I’m just glad I got my hat back from these skin-flints.”  Of course, the deacons relented and asked to have the hat passed around again.

I have myself seen such stinginess in action, and seen many pastors suffer for it.  Evidently, it is not a new problem, for Paul in our text had to remind the church at Ephesus through Timothy that it is right to give the elders remuneration for their work in the gospel: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine” (ver. 17).  Paul then gives two reasons why they should do this, using two analogies from the farmyard: “For the Scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.  And, the laborer is worthy of his reward” (ver. 18).  The first is a quotation from Deuteronomy 25:4, a text that Paul quotes in a similar context in 1 Corinthians 9:9.  In that passage, Paul goes on to argue from the lesser to the greater: if God cares for the oxen, who are allowed to share in the proceeds of the harvest, then surely God also cares for his pastors, who should be cared for by those whom they lead.

The second quotation is actually a quote from the Lord Jesus (which Paul clearly takes as having the same authority as the Old Testament), which both Matthew and Luke record for us.  When Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them not to take any bags, tunics, sandals, or staffs, “for the workman is worthy of his meat” (Matt. 10:10).  They were to be provided for from those to whom they preached.  Thus, Moses and the Lord Jesus unite in calling for God’s people to support those who are their spiritual shepherds.

In fact, in the Old Testament, it was considered a sign of apostasy when the people didn’t care for the priests, and part of any revival from apostasy was inevitably marked by a renewed care for the priesthood.  Thus, Hezekiah’s reforms not only included purging idolatry from the land (2 Chron. 31:1), but also putting the priests and Levites back in the ministry and providing for them (ver. 2-10).  Years later, after Israel returned from exile, Nehemiah had to rebuke the leaders because they had failed to take care of the priests: “And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field” (Neh. 13:10). Nehemiah worked swiftly to correct these abuses.

It is no different in the church.  Let’s be clear: when Paul says that the elders who rule well should be given “double honor,” he does not mean an extra pat on the back.  “Honor” in this context certainly involves financial compensation for a job well done.  The context backs this up: when Paul tells Timothy to “honor widows” (5:3), he means take care of them in very concrete, material ways.  In the same way, to honor the elders means to provide for their material needs.

What then does “double honor” mean?  I doubt Paul meant that the elders who ruled well should be paid twice as much as the elders who did not rule well, or twice as much as the widows who were cared for by the church.  Probably, Paul meant that elders should have the double honor of being both respected and compensated for their work.  They should receive honor and an honorarium.  

And this is important.  It is important because an elder without respect cannot do his job.  The job of an elder is to lead the church, to provide spiritual oversight, to rule.  You simply can’t do that if you don’t have the respect of those you lead, or even if you don’t think you have their respect.  This respect goes both ways: the pastor is to earn it (which is the point in chapter 3), and the church is to give it (which is the point here in chapter 5 – he should “be counted worthy”).  Though honor is not just a pat on the back, sometimes that can go a long way in encouraging your pastor.  But it shouldn’t just stop at respect.  Pastors who are struggling financially are not going to be able to rule well.  As one man put it, “It’s hard to clean out the swamp when you’re up to your armpits in alligators.”  When a pastor is up to his armpits in alligators of debt, large bills, broken automobiles, etc., it’s hard to concentrate on the ministry.  In such a scenario, a pat on the back just won’t cut it; in fact, it would be demeaning rather than encouraging.  Thus, Paul is certainly right in calling for double honor.

Paul then goes on to encourage Timothy to support those elders who “labor in the word and doctrine.”  Some see the phrase as indicating two groups of elders: those who rule well and those who labor in the word and doctrine.  Thus, some ecclesiastical traditions have “ruling elders” and “teaching elders.”  I think these categories are superfluous.  

The main reason I think this is because all elders are supposed to be qualified to teach (cf. 3:2) and therefore teaching is part of the job description of an elder.  Thus, all elders are teaching elders.  This idea that in the church there are some elders who are gifted administrators but you wouldn’t want to listen to them very long in the pulpit goes against the qualification of an aptness to teach, and therefore cannot be right.  No one should be ordained as an elder that does not possess a gift to articulate God’s truth clearly and engagingly.

More probable is one of these two scenarios: either Paul is referring to two groups of elders, all of whom teach (like bi-vocational versus full-time), or Paul is referring to just one group of elders.  If the latter, the word “especially” (malista) would carry the same meaning as it does in 1 Tim. 4:10 – “to be precise.”  In other words, Paul would be saying, “Honor elders who rule well – that is, those who labor in the word and doctrine.”  The word for “labor” is a word which means “to work hard” and “is Paul’s normal word for Christian labors and describes strenuous work.”[1]  I prefer this view because otherwise by the word “especially” Paul would either be making a distinction in function (ruling versus teaching) or he would be making a distinction in the amount of commitment elders gave to their job (those who “labored” – possibly in the sense of full-time work – and those who didn’t).  But neither of these options have much to commend them.  The former goes against the requirement that all elders teach, and the second is hard to believe because even if an elder is bi-vocational, working hard at the word and doctrine would seem to be a requirement in any case.  Thus, for an elder to rule well means that he must labor in the word and doctrine.

We need to understand what Paul is implying here: elders should be supported by their church in their work because their work is very important.  Their work is laboring in the word and doctrine.  Thus, preaching and teaching the Word of God is incredibly vital and central for the church.  And what I want to do for the rest of this message is to help you understand why this is so important.

Four Reasons Elders Should Labor in the Word and Doctrine

Philip Ryken, in his commentary on this passage, admits that this part of 1 Timothy feels especially like a manual on church order.  And manuals on church order can get very boring.  However, he goes on to point out that regardless, this part of Paul’s letter to Timothy is nevertheless very important.  For in verses 17-25, Paul outlines three things with regard to elders: their remuneration (ver. 17-18), their accusation (ver. 19-21), and their ordination (ver. 22-25).  He invites us to think about what would happen if Paul’s instructions to Timothy were left unheeded: “If ministers were not adequately paid, then they are distracted by worldly cares and may be tempted to become discontent.  If they are falsely accused, then their teaching will be dismissed.  If they are not disciplined, then the whole church will fall into disrepute.”[2]  In other words, we need to listen to what Paul has to say here.  But we also need to understand why he is saying what he is saying.  In particular, why should elders labor in the word and doctrine?

The word “labor” here is just as important as the phrase “word and doctrine.”  It’s not enough that pastors fiddle with the Bible.  They need to work hard at getting the message right.  I’ve been to countless church meetings where a minister is allowed to preach who has obviously not prepared.  It shows and the people suffer for it. 

1. Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because they come from Scripture, which is the Word of God.  In other words, it is what the man of God is dealing with that should make him want to labor in it.  The Word of God is more precious than anything else in this world.  As the Psalmist put it, “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver” (Ps. 119:72).  In the same way, we should care more about the message of the Bible than getting wealth or being famous or having fun.  And if we care about it more than anything else, we are going to want to work hard at hearing exactly what God is saying to us in it.

People have worked themselves to death trying to get a little gold or silver out of a river or mountain.  Today, some people are willing to spend millions and work long hours looking into the blackness of space in order to try to catch some evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence.  Why should not we, who believe that God is speaking in the Bible, work hard to hear his voice in its pages and mine its riches for Divine wisdom?  Those of us in the church believe that God speaks in nature and in his Word, and that he does so infallibly in both.  And yet we are often willing to work a lot harder at hearing what he has to say in nature than we are to hear what he has to say in his Word.  Make no mistake about it: our appreciation of the nature of Scripture can be measured by how much effort we are willing to apply to understanding it and applying it to our lives.  And any minister who deals tritely with Scripture just proves that he does not believe what the Scriptures claim to be: the Word of God.

2. Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because of what Scripture, taught rightly, can do.  The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17).  “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  The Lord Jesus sent Paul to preach the gospel to the Gentiles in order “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in [Christ]” (Acts 26:18).  In other words, God’s Word, empowered by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Thess. 1:5), has tremendous potential to change lives for the good.  “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

And only God’s Word can do this.  It is God’s truth meeting hearts touched by His Spirit that changes lives, and nothing else.  The amazing thing is that God has entrusted this word to broken vessels: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.  And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-18).  But if we want to see God use us as his ambassadors, we had better get his Word right.  We don’t want to be misrepresenting God to the world!

In this connection, I’ll never forget what a godly man once said to me about training in the ministry.  He compared preachers to heart surgeons.  Both are physicians of the “heart” but with a very important distinction – one is a physician of the physical heart and the other of the spiritual heart.  In other words, what pastors do is in a very real sense infinitely more important that what any heart surgeon can do.  And yet we send heart surgeons to school for years and years of intense training.  Why then do we think that all a man needs is some sort of itch to preach to qualify him for handling the Word of God?

3. Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because of what Scripture, taught wrongly, can do.  It’s important to get the message right, not only because of the good that can be accomplished as a result, but also because of the terrible harm that can come about by the false and careless teaching of the Word of God.  In fact, most of the problems that Paul and Timothy had to combat at Ephesus (and other places) were not the production of an outright pagan philosophy but twisted interpretations of Scripture.  It was the wrong use of the law (1 Tim. 1:7-8) that stood at the bottom of many of the problems in the Ephesian church.  Peter tells us that some who were “unlearned and unstable” in the church were taking Paul’s words and wresting them, “as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).  It is a fearful thing that what can edify when received with understanding and faith can also destroy when wrested and disobeyed.

Doctors and pharmacists are trained extensively in pharmacology because even though medicine can heal us, it can also kill us.  We teach people how to safely drive cars, because they are not only useful in getting us places; they are also very dangerous in the hands of an unskilled driver.  The same is true of the Bible.  Of course, it is not that the purpose of the Bible is to bring about spiritual harm; this is the result of a misuse of it.  Thus, just because of man puts the Bible in his sermons does not mean that his message is good.  The question is how the Bible is being used in the sermon.  Is it being interpreted correctly?  Or is it perhaps just being used like a Hallmark card uses Scripture, as a backdrop for the preacher’s own ideas?

4.  Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because teaching, if it is done well, is hard.  This is true in general.  Teaching is hard, even for most of those who are gifted at it, no matter what the subject is.  But this is especially true of the Bible, for the following reasons.

First, the Bible is an ancient document written in languages other than our own.  Thus, the culture behind many of the stories and sayings in the Bible is lost to us.  As a result, the significance of some of the statements of the Bible is lost to us because we don’t live in that culture.  For example, unless you know about the Roman Triumph, you are likely to lose the significance of what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16.  I’ll never forget how much the book of Isaiah opened up to me once I understood the geo-political events that were taking place all around Israel at the time Isaiah wrote his prophesy.  Whereas the book seemed a bunch of disjointed prophesies before, suddenly I saw a clear structure to the book.  Thus, pastors of today need to labor to get a grasp (as much as they can) of the original languages and to understand the world the Biblical characters inhabited.

Let me balance this by saying the following: I do not believe that the ordinary Christian who is untrained in these things cannot read the Bible profitably.  Of course they can.  It is true that the main need of any person is not academic expertise, but the Holy Spirit.  There is a clarity and perspicuity to the Scriptures so that any man, woman, or child can be led by them unto salvation, through the power of God’s Spirit.  But neither does this reality remove the need of a teaching ministry – a ministry ordained by Christ himself (cf. Eph. 4) – a ministry whose main tool is the teaching of God’s Word.  This Word has meaning objective to us, and if we are to get at its meaning, we have to get back to what the human authors (under the inspiration of Spirit, of course) meant.  Another way to put this is: we know we are interpreting a text correctly if we understand it the same way the original audience would have understood it.  But to do this well, we have to understand language and culture.  And that takes work, especially at the distance of 2000+ years.

Second, teaching the Bible requires more than just reciting facts about the Bible and its doctrines.  It needs to be applied.  But to really apply the Bible well requires work.  To illustrate: suppose someone is preaching through 1 Corinthians and comes to chapters 8-10, where Paul is dealing with the problem of the Corinthian believers feasting in idol temples.  Now, a person can go through the text and explain what Paul was saying.  But if you stop there, little application and edification is going to happen because no one in the West is going to be troubled by this problem.  How then are you to apply it?  This can only happen whenever the context is thoroughly understood – once this happens you can translate the principles that Paul used to address that particular historical event into the present.  But the principles must be firmly rooted in the text itself, and not imposed on the text by the preacher.  Thus, it takes more than a casual reading of the text, but an immersion in it, and that often requires hard work.

Finally, we need to preach the Bible in a way that glorifies the God of the Bible.  Not just with respect to content – getting the doctrine right and so on, but even in the way we present truth.  If I teach the Bible in a way that makes people think God is boring or small or insignificant, then woe is me.  My words may not be the words of a Spurgeon, but I ought to try to get them there.  God is worthy of the effort.  On Valentine’s Day, my wife and I ate a fancy dinner with some friends.  We dressed up for it.  When one of my sons asked me why I was dressing up, I told him it was because the food I was about to eat was so good it required me to dress up.  In the same way, God’s Words are so good, so magnificent and wonderful, that I ought to dress up my teaching as well as I can with fitting words, because God’s Word deserves it.  And that takes work – good work, but it takes work.


[1] William Mounce, The Pastorals (WBC), page 310.
[2] Philip G. Ryken, 1 Timothy (REC), pages 221-222.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What Kind of Ministries Should Believers Support? (I Timothy 5:1-16)

When I went to Mexico almost 20 years ago, I came back with an appreciation for the saints in that country that I had not previously had. I was particularly struck by three things. First, they were almost all very poor. The places they lived, the clothes they wore, the things that decorated their places of abode all had a story of poverty written all over them. Second, they were nevertheless incredibly generous. I put the word “incredibly” there on purpose. They didn’t have a lot to give, but what they did have, they gave without thinking twice. On one occasion, we went with the pastor of the church we were visiting to call on a family in the church. I didn’t think anything of it when they offered us a soda. Of course I accepted and enjoyed the drink. But as we were leaving, the pastor told us that the family had made an incredible sacrifice to purchase Coca-Cola for us. They never had it because they couldn’t afford it. But when they learned we were coming to visit them, they went and bought some – and then gave it to us. Things like that happened over and over again the two weeks I was there. Finally, despite their poverty, they were very joyful in the Lord. They put into life what Paul wrote of when he described the Macedonian brethren: “How that in a great trial of affliction and abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality” (2 Cor. 8:2). It was amazing.

I know one reason why they were that way. Their deep faith in the Lord led them to see other believers as more than people who agreed with them on doctrine; rather, they saw us as members of the same family and that’s how they treated us. You see, they got what Paul wanted all of us to see: that the church is more than an institution, it is a family.

When Paul begins the fifth chapter of his first letter to Timothy, we are reminded again of this fact. He writes, “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity” (5:1-2). Paul wants Timothy and the church at Ephesus (and us) to see each member of God’s church as a family member. You treat an older believer as you would your own mother or father, and the younger believers as you would a brother or a sister. Paul himself is an example of this mindset when in writing to the saints at Rome he calls the mother of Rufus, “his mother and mine” (Rom. 16:13). 

Regeneration and conversion do not just put us into a relationship with God; they also put us into a relationship with all who are in a saving relationship with Christ. The apostle John writes, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren [which refers to both brothers and sisters]. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. . . . Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:14, 16). John is not writing here about physical siblings; for what relates us to each other, according to John, is none other than the death of Christ. These are spiritual brethren that John is speaking of here.

I think it is important to underline the fact that one of the purposes of redemption is to put all who are in a saving relationship with God into a family relationship with each other. This is implied in the text in 1 John 3. Paul also speaks of it in Ephesians 2: “For through him (Christ) we both (Jew and Gentile) have access by one Spirit unto the Father (there is the saving relationship with God). Now therefore ye are not more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God (there’s the family relationship),” (Eph. 2:18-19). In other words, the very gospel we confess teaches us not only to confess God as our Father and Jesus Christ as our Brother, but also that every believer, every one of God’s elect, is a brother or a sister in the Lord. Our Lord himself, when told that his mother and brothers were seeking him, responded by saying, “’Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?’ And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, ‘Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother’” (Matt. 12:48-50).

All this is vitally important to understand, given what Paul is about to say about widows and the church’s obligation to them in verses 3-16. Because the church is a family, we are obligated to each other in ways that are very similar to the ways we are obligated to our own flesh and blood. One very important implication of this fact is that the church has a responsibility to minister not only to the spiritual needs of its members but also to their physical needs as well. 

This has been a point on which it is very easy to go one way or the other. Throughout its history, the church has often been good at either one or the other. But when the Holy Spirit is working, both happen. Spiritual growth happens, and physical needs are taken care of. For example, in Acts 2, right after Pentecost had happened, we read, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:42-47). We read of something similar happening after another outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 4:31-37. 

Nevertheless, the question inevitably comes: who should we support in physical and material ways as individuals and as a church? For we live in a world that is inundated in need. We are constantly being asked to contribute to this cause or to that, and often in such a way as to be made to feel guilty if we do not give to this or that particular ministry. How then do we discern where we should put our resources as believers and as a church? I think this passage can help by giving us some principles to govern our decision-making when it comes to meeting the physical and material needs of others.

The Situation at Ephesus

First of all, however, we need to nail down what was happening at Ephesus. What situation is Paul addressing in these verses? One thing is clear: Paul is making a distinction between widows who are to be cared for by the church, and those who are not to be supported by the church. Paul calls those widows who should be supported by the church “widows indeed” (ver. 3, 5). On the other hand, there are widows that should not be supported by the church. This includes those widows who have children or grandchildren that can take care of them (ver. 4, 16), as well as those widows who are young enough to be remarried (ver. 9, 11-14).

Thus, a “widow indeed” was a woman whose husband – almost always the sole bread-winner in those days – had died, and had left her without any means of support. If such a woman’s age precluded the possibility of remarriage, she would be truly “desolate” –totally alone in this world without any hope of financial help. Although there were laws in the Roman world that governed the use of a dowry, which could be used to support a woman whose husband had died, not every woman would have had this kind of insurance. An aged widow without a dowry in the ancient world literally had no means of support. There were no safety nets provided by the government in the Roman and Jewish worlds, and so such a woman would be truly in need.

It was this sort of widow that Paul wants the church at Ephesus to support. By “support” is meant more than just an occasional looking in on the widow’s welfare; rather, what Paul is encouraging here is a formal connection between the widow and the church at Ephesus such that the church committed itself to supporting the widow for the rest of her life. This is almost certainly what is meant by being “taken into the number” – being enrolled or registered by the church (ver. 9). Though this is not an enrollment into some type of official “order” as occurred later in church history, nevertheless the relationship between widow and church was a formal one with commitments on both sides.

And this commitment is surely right. James tells us in fact that “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the widows and fatherless in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jam. 1:27). This concern for widows and orphans is echoed from the Old Testament, which says, for example, “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child” (Exod. 22:22). William Mounce summarizes the Biblical teaching in the Old Testament: “Repeatedly God is pictured as the provider and protector of widows and orphans (Exod. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; Ps. 68:5; 146:9; Isa. 1:17), Israel is called to defend widows (Deut. 24:17-21; 25:5-9; 27:19; Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Zech. 7:10), and mistreatment of widows is often given as an example of sin (Job 24:21; Ps. 94:6).”1 This stems, as he points out, from a commitment to the fifth commandment, to honor father and mother.

However, it’s important to point out that the reason why widows and orphans are singled out in the Bible for intervention really has to do with the fact that such people were the socially disenfranchised of that time. The principle of these passages therefore teaches us that wherever we find people who are destitute in this way, we should do what we can to help. One thinks of the parable of the Good Samaritan in this connection: all are our neighbors, and if they are in need of help and we are in a position to help them, then we should.
But the church at Ephesus had taken this principle and misapplied it. In what was surely motivated by good intentions, they had put in place a system that was being gamed by some of the younger widows, with disastrous results. These widows, as Paul describes them, began “to wax wanton against Christ” and “cast off their first faith,” leading them to “learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not” (ver. 11-13). Paul goes on to summarize this calamity as turning aside after Satan (ver. 15). These younger widows, being provided for by the church, lived in idleness and pleasure (ver. 6), and thus became easy prey for Satan and (probably) false teachers (see 2 Tim. 3:6). 

The real puzzle is in verse 11, where Paul appears to condemn remarriage, which he then advises just three verses later! However, what was probably happening was that these widows, whose passions were drawing them away from Christ (cf. ESV on ver. 11), wanted to marry outside the faith (why would such women want to marry a godly man?), and this led them to abandon the faith altogether, which is almost certainly what Paul is referring to in verse 12. The remarriage which Paul commends in verse 14 would have been to believers (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39), which was not what these younger widows were doing.

Thus, Paul forbids Timothy to allow such widows to be supported by the church. Instead, the church is to support those who are true widows, who are alone in this world. In giving this advice, Paul thus lays out several principles that are to guide Timothy in deciding who the church supports and who not to support.
So what are some principles that should guide us in whom we should support? I offer the following several considerations. This is not a complete list (other texts such as Gal. 6, 2 Cor. 8-9, among others, should be considered when approaching the subject of giving in general), but these principles come from the text of 1 Timothy 5:1-16.

Family First

Paul says three times in the text that family should take care of family. By this, he is not talking about the spiritual family, but our own flesh and blood. First, in verse 4, he says, “But if any widow have children or nephews [grandchildren], let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.” Then, in verse 8, in very strong language, he writes, “And if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” Finally, in verse 16: “If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.” Thus, at the beginning, middle, and end of this passage is a stirring call for believers to take care of their own.

Why is this important? It is important for three reasons. First, it is important because it pleases God (ver. 4). Second, it is important because to do otherwise is to deny the faith (ver. 8). A failure to take care of our own family gives the lie to any claim to care about our church family. And thus, it is a denial of the gospel truth that Christ makes all his people a family. It also is the worst possible witness to a watching world. This is why Paul says in verse 7, “And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless.” (Note the similar concern in verse 14.) Finally, it is important so that the church is not unduly burdened (ver. 16). 

Thus, it is obvious from the overall gist of this passage that our first and foremost obligation is to our own family – not just our immediate family, but our extended family as well. This is one area where I think we can learn from Asian cultures. Our Western culture basically says to let Mom and Dad take care of themselves. But that is not what God’s word commands. We are not in obedience to Christ – no matter how spiritual we think we are, no matter how much we claim to be doing for the church – if we are neglecting the physical and material needs of our parents and grandparents (cf. Matt. 15:3-9). 

You aren’t a witness if you help others when you don’t help your own family. You’re not spiritual, you’re Rip Van Winkle! Let not Irving’s description of him be the description of yourself: “The women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them; in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, it was impossible.”2

Especially. . . the household of faith”

In Galatians 6, Paul is exhorting the believers to “not be weary in well-doing” and that “as we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (ver. 9, 10). That is, though we do have an obligation to all men, we are especially indebted to the household of faith – that is, the church. Therefore, the second principle we should follow is that we are obligated to the church before those who are outside the church.

Make no mistake: it’s not a matter of either, or. It’s simply a matter of emphasis. The group of widows that the church was to take on involved a considerable commitment on the part of the Ephesian church. And it was the kind of commitment that only made sense if they were believers. Paul describes the widows who are to be enrolled in verse 5 and verses 9-10. In verse 5, Paul says that the widows who are to be taken care of by the church are those who trust in God and continue in supplications and prayers night and day. Then Paul lays out the guidelines that Timothy is to use to choose who the church is to enroll: “Let a widow be taken into the number if she is at least 60 years of age, if she has been a one-man woman, if she has brought up children, if she has a reputation for good works, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints' feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work” (ver. 9, 10). 

This is not the description of a special class of believing women; rather, this is a description of an average, normal, godly woman who has lived out her faith. It doesn't mean, of course, that the only widows who qualified were widows who had reared children. Paul means that if she has had children, she did not neglect them but brought them up. Similarly, in the phrase “one-man woman” he is not forbidding women who had married more than once; Paul must mean that as a married woman she had been faithful to her husband. (If Paul had been forbidding women that had married more than once, he would forever disqualify from being enrolled the women he would in a few verses counsel to marry again.) It is in this light also that the age of 60 should be considered. Paul is not saying that if a 59 year-old believing widow is destitute she must wait another year before she can be enrolled (though if Paul were outlining a government program, she would!). In the ancient world, when the life span was much shorter than modern times, 60 was simply the age when people were considered to have entered the stage of old age. When Paul therefore says a widow cannot be less than 60 years of age, he is indicating that only those widows were to be accepted for whom on account of their advanced age there was no hope of remarriage and therefore no hope of support.

This was a tremendous commitment on the part of the church. For enrolled widows, the church was committing to take care of them in every way. Why this commitment? Because they are part of the family! The principle of verse 8 applies not only to flesh and blood relations, but also to those who are related to us through the blood of Christ, our spiritual family.

The Tree is Know by its Fruits

Finally, Paul indicates in verses 11-15 that if the church undertakes to do something that leads to sin, it should stop doing it! I wouldn't be surprised if the church at Ephesus initially included all widows in light of the pervasive Old Testament teaching on the importance of helping the widows and orphans. It was well-intentioned. Nevertheless, the tragic results of this ministry should teach us that those of us in the church should always re-evaluate its activities to see if we are really applying Biblical principles correctly. Good intentions are simply not a good ruler to measure the mission of the church. One way to find out if we are doing the right thing is to look at the fruits. Is what we are doing leading to godliness or idleness? Growth or decay? If the latter, we need to seriously reconsider what we are doing. 

A tree is known its fruits, and a ministry is, too. If a ministry is leading people to abandon the faith, then it is not right, no matter for what reasons or how well intentioned it began. The aim of any church effort is not just to be doing something, but to do that which promotes the glory of God and the holiness of men and women.

Conclusion

It was the glory of the early church that it cared for those whom the pagan world had cast off. Not only widows, but orphans and abandoned children were cared for by the early church. Out of this effort eventually arose hospitals. Hospitals are not the product of a pagan world or of the Renaissance and Rationalism. They are rather the product of Christian faith. We should not shy away from meeting physical and material needs while at the same time maintaining that meeting physical needs can never replace the centrality of our fundamental need for the forgiveness of sins and acceptance with God. Rather, meeting physical needs are part of our proclamation of the gospel – not merely something tacked on, but as an integral part of it. In doing so, we will not deny the faith, but better show it to a watching, and lost, world.

1Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (WBC), p. 278.

2Washington Irving, Rip Van Winkle. You can read this book online at http://www.bartleby.com/195/4.html.

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