Worse Than an Unbeliever

In 1 Timothy 5:1–16, the apostle Paul gives pastoral instructions to Timothy on how to nurture and support different groups of people in the church. As a general rule, Christians are to treat members of the body of Christ as we would the members of our own family (verses 1–3). But widows are to be given special consideration. As part of Paul’s instructions regarding widows, he tells Timothy, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8, ESV).

God calls believers to be blameless (Ephesians 1:4), to shine “like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Philippians 2:15, NLT). One way we do that is by caring for our family members, especially those who are the neediest and most vulnerable. Paul instructed Timothy and the church to look out for defenseless widows: “Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her” (1 Timothy 5:3, NLT). The apostle stressed the responsibility of believers to provide for their own: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).

If a widow had relatives who were followers of Jesus Christ and members of the church, then responsibility for their care shifted from the church to the family. Paul expected Timothy, as a church leader, to instruct families to support and care for their aging parents. The person who neglects such an important obligation, who “does not provide for his family,” is “worse than an unbeliever” because he has proven his lack of love and insincerity of faith. He is like those in the church who “claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16). Paul’s assertion in 1 Timothy 5 implies that even unbelievers—those who lack faith in Jesus Christ and live without God’s Spirit—have enough good sense and compassion to care for and support their own household.

Throughout God’s Word, the Lord honors and defends widows and orphans. He is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5; see also Psalm 146:9; Proverbs 15:25). Since ancient times, Scripture has demanded justice, love, and support for widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 10:18; 27:19; Psalm 140:12). God expects His people to provide help and protection to the needy (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:17). Through the prophet, the Lord cried out, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

Jesus Himself showed compassion and deep concern for widows (Luke 7:11–12; 18:1–8; Mark 12:38–40, 41–44). Even as He hung on the cross, our Lord entrusted His widowed mother to John’s care (John 19:26–27). The early believers continued in Scripture’s teaching and Christ’s example, appointing seven leaders “full of faith” to oversee the care of widows in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1 –7). James eloquently defined “pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father” as “caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27, NLT).

In Jewish society, fathers and sons had a moral and legal obligation to provide for widowed daughters or mothers out of their dowry. According to dowry laws, a widow was to be cared for by the individual in charge of her dowry. Thus, a widow with a family should not need to rely on the church for support. For this reason, Paul told Timothy, “Support widows who are genuinely in need” (1 Timothy 5:3, CSB; see also 1 Timothy 5:5).

In 1 Timothy 5:4, Paul suggests two solid incentives for Christians to care for their widowed family members. First, this is how we repay our parents and grandparents for tending to us when we were young. And, second, “this is something that pleases God” (NLT). In Paul’s estimation, a Christian who neglects this basic familial expression of compassion and love sinks below the level of the godless, becoming “worse than an unbeliever.”

In contemporary times, it’s not uncommon for the elderly and the widowed to be left alone in care facilities, neglected by their families. Yet, in no uncertain terms, Paul expressed the fundamental Christian duty for us to honor our parents (Ephesians 6:1–3) and provide for our aging relatives: “But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers” (1 Timothy 5:8, NLT).

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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