1 Timothy 5:3-16 is packed with implications for local churches and especially older saints but is rarely discussed. Economic prosperity often buries this rich and very practical passage. It may be that many churches that have not taken this passage seriously because of prosperity will soon do so.
I encourage you to take the time to read these verses carefully before continuing: 1 Timothy 5:3-16.
As we take the time to understand this text and consider its implications, we find that it is relevant for every cultural context. We might also might find ourselves surprised that we have overlooked such valuable instruction.
Paul taught Timothy about how local churches are supposed to function. In doing this, he included a lengthy passage on the support of widows. In it Paul teaches us about the role of widows, how to support them, and also gives us principles that are applicable to all of God’s senior saints.
A continual need through the centuries
Financial support for needy widows is something followers of God have taken seriously since the beginning. The Bible teaches us that those who are genuinely righteous protect and help care for the poor, particularly widows and orphans. Local churches are responsible to financially assist impoverished widows and orphans within its membership. Just after Pentecost, the church in Jerusalem was zealous in this regard. There were political and cultural reasons why Jerusalem had so many widows at that time, so the Jerusalem church needed immediate guidelines about it (Acts 6).
Churches throughout history have supported widows, often as a part of their church budget. Though deacons were originally elected to oversee this kind of ministry in Jerusalem, churches have generally given this responsibility to certain women in the church.
In 1 Timothy 5, Paul answers this question in detail: How and when are local churches to financially support widows?
What it means to be a widow in much of the world
Paul’s instructions to Timothy begin with the definition of a “true widow,” the kind of widow that local churches are responsible to help. Paul then shows us how to prioritize funds for this purpose.
Becoming a widow was a tragic event in New Testament times, a reality that is just as tragic for women in much of our world today. For many, to be widowed meant at least relative poverty, maybe even abject poverty. To survive, provide for their children, and avoid shame, women usually remarried as soon as possible. Jobs providing enough income to avoid poverty were unknown. Some cultures have not even allowed women to earn wages. Imagine being in this situation! But it is often worse than this.
Women have often been denied legal rights, unable to inherit all, or even some, of their husband’s wealth. Though women might be able to contribute through various kinds of menial work, in most cases they are still going to be largely dependent upon someone in their extended family to avoid misery.
Generally, the neediest people in the early church were orphans and widows. There were no life insurance policies, social security, or welfare programs to support them. Jobs for either group were scarce, and if they had no close kin, or at least none who would help them, they were in desperate straits. Widows had little means of support. They were socially powerless and honorless in a society emphasizing status and honor but were still supposed to be protected under Jewish law. But, such attempts by law did very little. Widowhood was something to be truly feared by most women.
“Honor widows who are truly widows”
This command in verse 3 shows us that the church of Jesus Christ must not despise the poor and vulnerable, for we are all equal as family in Christ. Widows are not to be simply tolerated or assisted, but also honored and respected. This respect accorded to widows extends itself to acknowledging financial distress and giving aid. Honoring widows is often a counter-cultural expression of godliness.
Who are these “widows who are true widows” that the church needs to support? These women are in true need—poor and destitute. Material poverty in the Scriptures always refers to those without food, clothing, or shelter. Poverty is not the absence of conveniences, recreation, or unearned entitlements that citizens in some prosperous countries expect today. The women Paul describes are those lacking food, clothing, and/or shelter for themselves and their children. These are “widows indeed” because they lack the true necessities of life.
These truly impoverished widows have no family to depend upon and so should be considered for regular assistance from their local church. Paul strongly exhorts Christians to take seriously their personal responsibility for any widows in their family in such a position and help take care of them (v.4, 8, 16). All close family members are responsible for their kin who are “widows indeed,” but the primary responsibility falls upon the children of the widow.
Why is this matter so important to God?
Paul explains that to honor one’s parents or grandparents means that believers must be ready to repay their parents out of their means. This expresses gratitude for what they themselves had received as dependents.
Paul gave further explanation about why God’s people are responsible to care for widows who are close kin, especially one’s mother or grandmother:
- Honoring them through financial aid is an act of worship to God (v.3-4). It is an act of obedience to God, a sacrifice to Him: “This is pleasing in the sight of God.”
- Failure to do this is sin and damages our Christian testimony (v.7). Even pagan cultures often place high honor on the aged, as many Asian cultures do today. If God’s people fail to do so, it brings “reproach” upon the Gospel, God’s people, and God Himself. Since unbelievers often understand this basic moral responsibility without knowing Christ, for a Christian to fail to do so makes him/her “worse than an unbeliever.” Stronger still, Paul equates refusal to obey this instruction with denying faith in Jesus.
Practical reality for the local church
- Support of our own family’s widows removes an unnecessary burden upon the church (v.16). This is a serious practical concern, especially since most local churches in this world would find it very difficult to support just a few such widows. This is one major reason why the apostles asked Paul to remember the poor in Jerusalem and raise money for aid—there was an unusually high number of believing widows without family to depend upon there at that time.
Care for our parents and grandparents is a fundamental life responsibility. Part of our worship of God is also to sacrificially care for widows in our close family. It should be a well-known fact around the globe that Christian families care for their own. This pleases Christ.