The care for Widows, Part 1: The Family’s Duty – 1 Timothy 5:3-8
“Honor widows who are widows indeed; but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives. Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
This text is fascinating to me. There is nothing quite like it within the New Testament. There is nothing to match the detail and explanation given to the care for widows in any other portion of the New Testament. These six verses are only the beginning of Paul’s treatment of widows in 1 Timothy. The full thrust continues all the way through v. 16. That’s a total of 14 verses dedicated to the single topic of widows. Just to put some perspective on this, there are only 113 verses in this letter. That means that a little over 12% of 1 Timothy deals specifically with widows within the church. There is more room given to the care for widows than the combined topics of the qualifications of overseers (3:1-7) and deacons (3:8-13). If nothing else, we can safely assume that this is necessary and important.
The fact that widows hold a special place in the heart of God is abundantly evident in Scripture. He commands His people to care for them (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; 14:29; 24:17-21) and promises that He will personally care for them and judge their oppressors (Ps. 68:5; 94:6; 146:9).
God is a good God. He created a world without sin, without death, a world that was very good. Man was designed to protect, defend, and provide for his wife. Woman was never designed to be the provider, but the helper. God designed the family in such a way to provide for and protect the weaker vessel (1 Pet. 3:7). But God is also a sovereign God. He knows the end from the beginning. When sin entered the world and death along with it, there entered the possible scenario of a woman finding herself without a head, without a provider, without a protector, and without defender. This did not take God by surprise. He designed the family in such a way to solve this problem before it ever existed. And because the church is built with the same blueprints as the family, where the family is lacking the church is there to support, protect, and defend the widow.
While the full treatment of widows by Paul goes all the way through v. 16, we will confine our study to these verses. There is so much here and there are many implications we can draw from this passage. There are four questions that Paul answers concerning the care for widows here. Let’s ask these questions and find the answers to them within Paul’s charge to Timothy and the church.
What is a widow?
“Honor widows who are widows indeed”
That might seem like an obvious answer. We generally think of a widow as a woman whose husband has died. In our modern society, these women are usually older and now dependent upon a fixed income. Yet the word used by Paul (which is the term used throughout the Bible) does not put such a strict definition on the term. The Greek χήρα simply indicates a woman who has been bereft of her husband. It comes from the same root as robbed. She has been robbed of her husband. Yet there is no indication that the loss of her husband is a result of death.
We tend to think of situations like divorce or abandonment as modern problems with modern solutions. Yet divorce was rampant in the ancient world. In almost every culture since the dawn of time women were treated as little better than property. Divorce simply became a legalized form of abandonment. It mattered very little if a woman’s husband died, divorced her, or simply left her to her own devices. She now finds herself without a provider, protector, or defender. She is a woman who has been robbed of her husband. She is a widow.
So the answer to our question is this: A widow is any woman who is without a man (husband or father) to care for her, provide for her, protect her, and defend her. As far as the definition is concerned, the situation that led to this position is irrelevant. She is defenseless. Paul’s command to the Ephesian church through Timothy is simple: Honor them.
The command to honor widows is only used once more by Paul in Ephesians (same audience) 6:2 – “Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise”. It becomes clear that Paul is thinking of the fifth commandment (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). To honor someone means to respect them. For young children this honor comes in the form of obedience. For grown children this comes in the form of care. The principle set down in the Ten Commandments is never outgrown and never goes away.
Who cares for widows?
“But if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God”
The word but introduces a contrast. The command to the church is to honor widows who are truly widows, women who are left completely alone in this world. Yet few women are truly in this predicament because they have children or even grandchildren that are duty bound by Almighty God to provide for the husbandless matriarch. This does not mean that a woman without a husband is not to be considered a widow unless she is also without additional family. Paul is simply saying that there is a chain of command. The duty of caring for widows begins where everything begins, at the family level.
They must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents
It is not the widows who must learn but her surviving descendants. This imperative (μανθανέτωσαν) comes from the same root as μαθητής or disciple. A disciple is first and foremost a learner. This implies formal instruction as well as hands on experience. The term paints the picture of an apprentice more so than student. The surviving family members are commanded to learn (through instruction and example) two things: practice piety towards their family and to give back what they have been given. To learn this is of first priority.
To be pious means to show respect. It even carries the idea of service. This is the same term used by Paul in 4:7&8, where it was translated as godliness. If God is the object of piety, then to respect and serve Him is truly godly behavior. But if our mother, grandmother is the object, then we show piety by providing for her, caring for her, protecting her, and defending her. Yet maybe we should draw such a strict line between serving her and serving God. After all, this is the first commandment that comes with a promise. In caring for her, we are actually obeying God. This is certainly true and genuine piety.
The phrase and to make some return to their parents may cause some confusion. The NKJV is more straightforward when it says, “and to repay their parents.” The point is very simple. Parents pour out their love, resources, and wisdom into their children for nearly two decades (per child). There is no price one can place on that kind of gift. There comes a time when those children will have the distinct privilege of repaying that love to their parents.
For this is acceptable in the sight of God
What an obvious yet beautiful statement! Paul has said nothing new here. He has given no additional information from what has already been clearly commanded in Scripture. He has only fleshed out the obvious implications of honoring parents when the tables have turned and they are the ones in need of love, care, wisdom, and resources. Do you think that obedience is acceptable in God’s eyes? Do you suppose that it pleases Him when His children show the defining love of the brethren that marks His disciples? Of course it does! Yet in making this obvious statement, Paul redirects the readers’ thinking back to a divine trajectory. It is good and noble to care for the widow primarily because in doing so we are obeying God.
Everything we say, do, and think is either in conformity with God’s will and Word or it is in opposition to it. Our primary concern in caring for aging parents is pleasing God. Any other motivation would come with an escape clause. What if we have lousy parents? What better way to demonstrate the love of Christ than to love the unlovable? Let us be motivated by objective obedience to our God and Savior rather than by subjective reasoning.
The answer to our second question is this: the care for widows begins with the family.
Which widows are cared for?
“Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.”
The question may arise about the woman who is truly destitute and deserted without children to care for her, either because she has no surviving relatives, or because her children are cold-hearted monsters. Where there is no family by blood ties, there is the family bound by the blood of Christ. Yet the church is the Bride of Christ, not a welfare system. These two verses describe two different women. One is a widow indeed. The other is a husbandless harlot.
Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day
This description of a genuine widow who is in need of the church’s care brings out three actions. The first two are stated as past actions with continuing effects. First, she has been left alone. This means exactly how it sounds. She has no husband, no father, no children or grandchildren who are left or willing to support her. She is, by human standards, alone in this world. Second, she has fixed her hope on God. She has placed her waiting expectation for deliverance upon God. She knows that God has promised protection to the widows and orphans. She knows that only God can bind up the broken hearted. She knows that only God can save. We’re speaking about a redeemed woman who is resting in God and God alone to provide, protect, and defend her.
The third action describes her current and continuous state. She continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. She has devoted herself to prayer and worship. When she lays her head on her pillow, she is in prayer. When she arises with the sun, she is before the throne of grace. Paul actually borrows the language of Luke in his description of Anna (Luke 2:36-37).
“And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.”
What a marvelous example of a widow indeed! This is the picture of a woman who not only needs, but is appropriately given protection by the church. She is genuinely a child of God and therefore a member of Christ’s church. Yet not all husbandless women are described like this.
But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.
Notice that Paul does not even call this woman a widow. She is only one who gives herself to wanton pleasure. The word here (σπαταλάω) is only used one other place in the New Testament. In James 5:5 the word is translated as luxuriously. The idea is that of one who lives large at the expense of others. This verse paints the picture of a leech who siphons off any and all support she can from whoever she can to support her self-absorbed passions. There is not a clear picture as to what those passions consist of, but it hardly matters. She lives only for herself and supports her self-absorbed lifestyle at the expense of others. Paul’s conclusion is simple: she is dead even while she lives. She may be standing and breathing. But her spirit is cold and dead.
Notice that there is no need to command the church to aid the one and turn the other away. Paul does not need to insult the Ephesian church with such an obvious statement. What genuine Christian church would turn away a dear sister and mother within the body? What truly redeemed and discerning body would aid and abed such a lifestyle?
Just as the family has an obligation to its own, the church has an obligation to its own. Just as the family has no obligation for those outside, neither does the church. Which widows are to be cared for? Any and all widows who are truly members of Christ’s body.
Why bother caring for widows?
“Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
We see a repetition of 4:11. Not only is Timothy to order/direct/command the warnings of apostasy (4:1-5) and the focus required of a good servant (4:6-10), but is also to order/direct/command the body to care for the widows who are widows indeed. The purpose for this direction is plainly stated in the second half of v. 7: so that they may be above reproach.
This is the same word used of the overseer in 3:2. The same meaning applies here. Timothy must command the Ephesian church to honor widows so that they might be blameless, beyond accusation. “They” refers to the entire congregation. Widows must understand that their circumstances do not give them license for licentiousness. Children must be commanded to fulfill their God-given duty. Members must be directed to care for those women who are in need and use discernment when considering who receives that care. The direct applications may vary, but the purpose remains the same: so that they may be above reproach. This is immediately followed by a stark warning.
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
There is no need to find some hidden meaning here. Paul is very plain. To neglect God’s crystal clear command is to effectively deny the faith, the sum total of Christianity. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35). For a father to fail to provide, protect, and defend his family; for a child to fail to care for their bereft mother; for a church to leave a widowed member to her own devices is the direct antithesis of love. This is not the mark of the redeemed. This behavior betrays whitewashed tombs that are full of dead men’s bones.
These are worse (literally – more evil/more dangerous) than an unbeliever. An unbeliever may or may not care for their own. That’s not the point. But when they fail to care for their own, they are acting according to their self-loving nature. Yet when a professing believer behaves in this way, he is acting in direct violation to the truth. This is worse than an unbeliever. This is an apostate.
We should have began by noticing the placement of this passage within the context of 1 Timothy. 5:1-2 spoke directly to the way in which believers confront sin in the body. The church functions exactly like a family. Where there is sin, there is confrontation. That confrontation is done with respect and with the desire to see the one in sin repent. There is no difference between the family and the church. The parallel does not end there.
The church isn’t like a family. The church is a family. The older men and women are fathers and mothers. The younger men and women are brothers and sisters. The implications are clear. Love and honor them!
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. - John 13:34-35