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.
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.
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.