“A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work.”
After turning the corner from the purpose (2:1-11), form (3:1-13), and function (4:1-16) of the church of Jesus Christ, Paul has turned his attention to the care required of the church to give to her members. This care begins with the loving but necessary confrontation of sin (5:1-2) and continues through the command to honor widows (5:3-8). But what is expected of the widows themselves?
This text comes with no shortage of controversy and misunderstanding. Much of that controversy revolves around the list. But if we carefully consider the content of what has come before (context) and study the content of the text before us, much of this controversy will dissipate. Let’s focus our study by answering two very basic questions: What is this list? And who belongs on the list?
What is the “list?”
“A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man,”
What is the list that Paul mentions here? Most suggest that this is a list of widows to be cared for by the church. The following series of qualifications dictate which widows are eligible to be placed on the list. Yet if we carefully analyze the text and do not jump to conclusions, this interpretation is simply not possible.
To create a list of widows in need of support suggests that there are widows who don’t “make the cut.” Look at the qualifications listed by Paul.
1) She is not less than sixty years old.
Are we to believe that the church does not support any widow unless she is a senior citizen? What about the young mother whose husband has died or deserted her? Is she not eligible for support? Did not Paul just say in v. 3 to honor all widows who are truly widows?
2) If she has brought up children.
Are we to assume that the only widows who are to be cared for by the church are those who have successfully raised children?
3) If she has assisted those in distress
The word assist (ἐπαρκέω) is not a common word in the New Testament. In fact it is only used twice. Once here and then again in v. 16. The term has a heavy nuance of financial aid. If we are truly speaking of widows who are destitute and are in need of the church’s support, why is there a requirement (because these are certainly requirements) for her to give financial aid to the afflicted? This line of thinking seems counterproductive.
If we are to take vv. 9-10 with any seriousness at all, these qualifications are non-negotiable and should not be spiritualized or generalized to the point where they cease to have any significance. Whatever this list is, not a single woman is to be placed upon its rolls unless this criterion is met in full.
Paul has already dictated the necessary circumstances in which the church must come alongside widows. First, she must be a widow indeed; that is, truly left alone (v. 3). Second, she must be left without family support (v. 4). And third, she must be a believer with a credible and visible testimony (v. 5). That’s it. There is no need to elaborate upon the widows to be supported because that is ground that has already been plowed.
The verb translated put on the list (καταλέγω) is a rarely used term in the Bible. This is its only use in the New Testament. It can be used in a clerical sense to keep record/to keep score. It is also used in reference to membership within a particular group – to enroll/to enlist. This is the term one would see used of an army keeping track of its soldiers or even the document that the soldiers would sign in order to enlist. The command is straightforward: A widow is to be enlisted only if she is less than sixty… The list does not keep track of those widows who are in need of care, but the widows who are enlisted for service.
Just look at the kind of qualifications and ask yourself, “What do these remind me of?” She is to be the wife of one husband, or literally: a one-man woman. This is the exact same form we saw in 3:2 of the overseers and in 3:12 of the deacons (men and women deacons). The entirety of v. 10 is also similar in form to the qualifications of overseers and deacons. The force of these actions are not given as commands, but these are general characteristics of her entire life. They mark her life, not since becoming a widow, but since becoming a Christian.
Just like the overseers and deacons, these widows are to have the background, maturity, and ability to serve the church in a particular manner. The list in question identifies widowed women who are eligible for service. The issue of caring for widows has already been dealt with. These verses focus on the role of widows within the church.
Paul’s letter to Titus (2:3-5) touches on this same subject. There he only addresses older women (we can assume those over the age of sixty), but he addresses them in the context of eligibility for service.
History teaches us that the early church also relied on mature and godly widows for various tasks like taking in orphans left to die in the streets, discipling younger women, assisting the women about to be baptized, and various other tasks. These women were never considered leaders in the sense that they gave direction or instruction to the body. But they were recognized saints enlisted to give support to the needs of the body in the specific ways that God had given them as redeemed women. The list refers to these women.
For our modern audience we might think of a group text with which the elders might mobilize a certain portion of the body for a specific need. Who’s going to be on that list? That’s the next question the text will answer for us.
Who is placed on the list?
There are really only two qualifications for any widow under consideration. There are two verbal ideas, each fleshed out in full. The first revolves around what she has become and the other focuses on how she is observed. The first speaks of her faithfulness while the second identifies her fruitfulness.
A Faithful Widow
“A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man.”
We just can’t get away from this age restriction. Clearly this restriction argues against the list being used to identify the widows in need of support, but that doesn’t answer the question of the restriction itself. We must be able to understand the reason for it. Simply put, women over sixty are much less likely to remarry.
Paul by no means discourages remarriage. Quite the contrary, he urges younger widows to pursue that very thing (5:14). The point he is making is that of single devotion. The widows that are to be considered for this list of service, ministry to the body, need to be solely devoted to that task. Any woman who is currently married, or may soon pursue marriage, has the primary responsibility of supporting her husband.
To take a younger widow with prospects of remarriage and place this task upon her is foolish and possibly dangerous. But an older woman who has no inclination of remarriage is a perfect candidate for this faithful post. She must be a woman who is devoted to the body with no other obligations that require her attention.
She must be in a position to devote herself to faithful ministry, but she must also have a track record of faithfulness.
Having been the wife of one husband.
This phrase is a close parallel to what we saw of the overseers (3:2) and deacons (3:12). Literally the Greek reads a one-man woman. Everything that we have already stated about this phrase in previous expositions stands true here as well. This does not imply that she has only been married once. In fact it makes no comment to the number of husbands she has had at all. It is conceivable that her husbands had the nasty habit of dying off. That was not an uncommon occurrence in the ancient world. What it means is that she was completely and totally devoted to her husband. She did not have a wandering eye. She was wholly submissive and supportive of her husband. While she was married, she strove to be the helpmate that God designed her to be.
Once again we see the strong ties between the family and the church. If one is a lousy parent, husband, or wife then there is no room for them in the ministry. Ministry begins at home. Only those widows who are in a position to pledge their faithfulness and have demonstrated a history of faithfulness should be considered when enlisting these servant sisters.
A Fruitful Widow
“Having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work.”
The term translated having a reputation (μαρτυρουμένη) is the same root as witness. A witness is one who testifies to what they have done, saw, or experienced. But this is in the passive voice meaning that we are not concerned with what the widow has witnessed, but what others have witnessed about her. What has her life looked like from the outside?
Having a reputation for good works
Broadly speaking, any widow who is to be added to the list must have a reputation, having been witnessed by others, for good works. The word good here is the same Greek term (καλός) used to translate the finished creation of the earth. It speaks of intrinsic beauty, purity, usefulness, something that works exactly the way it ought. From the inside out her deeds are good. But what does that look like?
What follows is a list of five characteristics that are necessary to have witnessed in any widow under consideration to add to the list. There is no need to make exceptions or to spiritualize these qualifications. In fact to do so would be to render the entire passage void of meaning. It would also leave implications with horrific applications. For example: If we can make exceptions for these widows, then why not make exceptions for the overseers and deacons? But if this list contains names of widow servants rather than widows to be supported, there is no need to cut corners.
If she has brought up children
This means exactly the way it sounds. Any woman to be considered for the list must have first hand experience in child rearing. It is at this point that many pastors seek to excuse those who were never able to conceive and bear children of their own. I’ll say only two things about that. First, this statement is no mark against such women. If a woman is not on this list she is not in danger of losing support from the church. In fact she is probably the exact sort of widow whom the church must support, having no children to care for her. But she lacks the exact sort of experience necessary for this task. Much of her time will be spent with young mothers who need biblical encouragement and counsel around the task of mothering. Any woman who has never been a mother has no place being in such a position.
Second, there is nothing within the statement about the ability to conceive and bear children but simply that she has reared children, fed them, nourished them, trained them, and nurtured them. The focus is on the experience of raising children, not on her ability to conceive. Children are a gift from the Lord. Women are not held responsible for not receiving a gift that has been withheld. But how have they used the gift given? What of adoption? Let’s keep the focus where it belongs – The experience of child rearing.
If she has shown hospitality to strangers
This should remind us of the qualification of the overseers back in 3:2, that he must be hospitable or have a love of strangers (φιλόξενον). The term is similar here, but distinct. The Greek term here is ἐξσενοδύχησεν or she has received strangers. The term received naturally carries with it the idea of feeding them. A man may open up his home, but it is the wife that makes sure the guests bellies are full.
The 1st century church commonly knew itinerant or traveling preachers. Those preachers would need a place to stay and depended greatly on the hospitality of the local church. Does this woman have a history of feeding those strangers that come knocking on her door? Was she a true helpmate to her husband when he opened up the family home? All of these qualifications speak of a lifetime of Christian service, not just since she’s been widowed.
If she has washed the saints’ feet
The saints is a reference to fellow believers, whether they be from the local assembly or not. Any host would offer to wash the feet of his guests. Walking in sandals along dirt roads is a recipe for some potent toe jam. This was a hospitable, but really a necessary task when reclining at a table only a foot off of the ground. When sitting down in this fashion, your feet will be right next to your neighbor’s head. It’s a simple matter of hygiene.
In secular homes this task was reserved for the lowliest servant. Seriously, who wants that job?! But if you recall from John 13, it was our Lord Himself who washed the feet of His disciples in an effort to show them the true humility required of Christian service. The point is simple: there is no task to demeaning for this widow. She has a history of taking on whatever task is necessary in order to serve the saints. No matter how unpleasant the task, she is a servant of Jesus Christ.
If she has assisted those in distress
As we have already stated, this term assist implies financial support. But to be fair it is not limited to such. Those in distress or those who are afflicted (θλιβομένοις) refers to those who are pressed. Whether that pressure is emotional, financial, or physical this is a woman who rushes to aid and relieve that pressure. From the time she was a young bride until her current state as a saintly widow, she rushes to the aid of those in need.
If she has devoted herself to every good work
The term devoted literally means to follow. It means to pursue, to apply oneself whole-heartedly to a task with eager dedication. I find it interesting that Paul uses a different term for good here. Rather than καλός as he used in v. 9, he uses ἀγαθός. The terms overlap in meaning. Both refer to something or someone that is good/useful/beneficial/beautiful. The difference is slight, but difference lies in the internal vs. the external. This term views the actions or objects from the outside. That is what is under examination, is it not? From an outsider’s perspective, what is her reputation? Simply put, every single work to which she turns her hand is good.
These are the qualifications required of a widow before she is put on the list. The church desperately needs the perspective, experience, and support of these saintly sisters every bit as much as they need the protection and provision of the church. But only enlist those who are truly qualified for the task at hand. Only enlist those who are faithful and have borne fruit.
There are two applications for this text; the first of which I hope is very obvious. By looking at these qualifications we must understand them as extending well before the woman’s widowhood. In other words, these qualifications should describe each and every woman in each and every congregation. We must raise our daughters to be women who will one day be worthy of being added to the list. We must shepherd our wives to engage in the task of Christian service while they are under our current protection. We must encourage and exhort our sisters to live a life of ministry now. There is nothing spectacular about these requirements. They only describe a woman who is faithful and fruitful. Is that not what every Christian is called to be?
The second application may not be so obvious. The fact that such a list even exists assumes that widows, even those who are in need of support, are not exempt from the basics of Christian service. Even widows are expected to be active members within the body of Christ’s bride. What excuse does any man have to consume himself with worldly pursuits and be a flaccid appendage? What excuse does any woman have to hide away at home and completely neglect the body?
It is true that the family is the first priority. But the family is in need of discipleship. The family has no need of programs, sports, and entertainment that serve only to distract the family from genuine worship through obedience and service. To serve the body is to worship the head. If this is not too great a task for widows who are widows indeed, then what’s our excuse?