Today we have an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at the diaconal ministry of the church. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he has written to him, among many other things, concerning two offices in the church - the eldership and diaconal ministry. In Chapter 3: 1-13 he outlines the essential qualifications for elder and diaconal leadership. Both offices are essential to good church governance. We see the outworking of this in Acts 6:1-7 in terms of the synergy between the apostles (prototype elders) and the 7 men full of the Spirt and wisdom (prototype deacons), chosen to solve a matter that was threatening the peace and harmony and therefore the testimony of the early church.
The eldership is entrusted with the human leadership of the church under the Lordship of Christ, and under directive of the Word of God, and the diaconal ministry exists to make the gospel that the elders preach look good by showing the love of Jesus in tangible ways. The diaconal ministry like the ministry of the elders is a beautiful and rewarding ministry. To see people helped and restored through the truth and grace given by our Triune God is a glorious thing to behold!
In our passage we now have an opportunity to discover diaconal ministry in action. We have here a case study of vulnerable people in the church – widows. Note, the principle can be applied to all types of vulnerable people in the church. In this case it is the widow. If a woman loses her husband, who is given to her by God as a protector, she becomes vulnerable. This is true today and in biblical times this was especially so, and therefore much is said in the Bible about the protection about vulnerable people. Strangers or foreigners , orphans and widows were classified as vulnerable. God has a heart for the vulnerable. James has a specific word on this matter: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…” [James 1:27]. In Psalm 68:5 God is called “the Father of the fatherless and protector of widows”.This is what made the early church act like she did in Acts 6:1-7. God measures the spiritual temperature of a society and of the church by the way they care for the vulnerable. It all flows out of the law of God which in summary says: ”You shall love the Lord your God…. You shall love your neighbour”. 
Our passage is most extensive treatment of the subject in the Bible concerning the care of the vulnerable. Two great subjects emerge here: the issue of church and community support for widows and at the same time, the widow is encouraged to take responsibility and to make positive contributions to the church's ministry.
|Diaconal Team Leader : Douglas Reissner|
1. Honour widows who are truly widows: The opening line (v.3) introduces the controlling thought of our passage. The church must honour (Gr. timaō lit. to revere, value) those widows who are (Gr.ontōs) – lit. alone, desolate. But how do we know which widow is eligible for church support?
2. Evaluate their needs (vv. 4-8). The church is not called to provide support to widows indiscriminately. Therefore some guidelines are provided. This is the kind of wisdom that a diaconal ministry needs. Before we continue this thought we need to remember that the OT considered re-marriage as the ideal for a widow. Where re-marriage was not possible, a widow could stay either in the house of her parents (Gen. 38:11) or that of her in-laws (Ruth 1:16). In our modern society it is good that a husband should make adequate provision (housing, pension fund, life policy) for such an eventuality. But the fact of the matter is that life is not always tidy. A young woman loses her husband to a heart attack or in a car accident. She is left with three children and very little means. What now? The first principle is this: Honour widows i.e. don’t neglect them; don’t disrespect them by ignoring their plight. Cry out to God for them; stand with them; love them, support them emotionally, physically and spiritually, and let the church help them however it can. Here is how help ought to be sought: This is biblical wisdom
(i) Widows with families (v.4) ought to be taken care of by their family members.. It is a matter of godly virtue and v.8 makes it clear that neglecting the needs of such a vulnerable person is tantamount to denying the faith … in fact it is worse than being an unbeliever. The logic is rooted in obedience to the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex.20:12; Eph. 6:2). Parents spend their lives working for the welfare of their children. When it comes to such a time at which a parent becomes vulnerable it would be a sin for their children and grandchildren to neglect them.
(ii) Widows without families (5:5, 9-10); These are distinguished from widows having support or financial means – they are truly widows. They are all alone. But this is not the only criterion. The character of this kind of widow is also considered in vv. 9-10. So, in this passage we find an extended discussion on what a ’real’ widow is and what kind of widows should be supported and not supported. The church (or presumably the deacons on behalf of the church) are called to examine the practical circumstances in which the widow or the vulnerable person finds herself. If she is all alone, without any means of support (i.e. no husband and no extended family), at least sixty years of age (v. 9), the culturally recognized age of retirement, as well as at an age at which remarriage was unlikely, and if she is a woman who has a reputation of good works in the church and in the community, a faithful ‘one husband woman’, faithful mother, hospitable, caring for the church and the afflicted in her life she would be eligible for church support. The standard for bona fide church support is incredible high, you may think, and yet this is an exposition of the life of a normal Christian woman of God.
We see that practical need alone was insufficient grounds for receiving financial help from the church. The church, having many financial responsibilities could subsidize only the activities of widows with exemplary lives of faith. But more than that the widow was also one that did not simply hope in the support that the church would give. Her supreme hope was ultimately in God (v.5). She knows that ultimately He is her Provider. Clearly, the widow eligible for financial support was the one who manifested godliness in every part of her life. Therefore, to qualify for church support the widow had to be truly all alone, she needed to have demonstrated a life of God centered service and she needed to display a hope that was continually fixed on God, with prayer and supplications.
(iii) Widows that do not qualify for support. In v.6 mention is made of the widow who is self- indulgent. That thought may be connected with the younger widows of vv. 11-15, and provides a graphic contrast to the widow described in v.5. The bottom line, says Paul is that there are some widows who show no trust, devotion, love or faithfulness to God. She lives for her pleasures. She is dead in her sins, meaning that she is unconverted. The church is not under any obligation to support her. Now we need to understand that this is generalization. Not every young widow would be indulgent. Paul was clearly observing a general trend in society, a pattern of behaviour among young widows, and he wants to avoid that undue pressure is exerted on the church’s limited resources. And so the general advice and rule was that young widows were not to be considered for enrolment on the list of widows supported by the church (v. 11). The general advice given was that young widows should remarry. They should not be placed on a widows list, by which the church became responsible for their support. Once it is granted, it is very difficult to undo the support of a vulnerable person. Vv.11-15 makes some critical observations in this regard. Younger widows would be more subject to strong physical desires that would draw them away from Christ. Their strong desire to remarry in v. 11 could lead them to marry unbelievers who would inevitably draw their hearts away from Christ. Many people get into a bad relationship because they think that they desperately need a relationship. It’s a common occurrence that Paul warns against.
A second reason not to include young widows on the list appeared to be the tendency to become idle, to flit from house to house and, worse yet, to become gossips and busybodies, saying things that are inappropriate (v. 13). It may mean that young widows, their financial burden lifted, lacking the spiritual maturity to apply themselves to prayer and other tasks of ministry associated with the list, became lazy and even counterproductive. V.15 indicates this to be true: “some have already strayed after Satan”. Some have already departed from the faith (see 4:1f)
What Paul has just laid down as reasons for excluding young widows from church support now leads to the logical conclusion: They should marry. Obviously they should only remarry in the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 7:39).
This passage helps us to understand the responsibilities and manner of working of diaconal ministry as an arm of the church’s ministry :
1. To ensure that real need is addressed.
2. To ensure that people are really helped. Most help is short term. The work of the diaconate is to prayerfully seek solutions in which the person in question is helped to cope on their own. Dependency is never encouraged as a rule in the Bible.
3. The only time the Bible envisages an ongoing support structure is when the person in question is aged and unable to look after themselves financially. Even then the criteria for supporting such a person are that she must reflect a consistently godly demeanour, in which she is able to demonstrate that she has lived a life of godly virtue, and that she continues even now to hope in God and help the church by her prayerful demeanour.
4. This passage clears the church’s ministry from a sense of false guilt. Any pastor can give you many stories about strangers who call the church and ask for some kind of assistance – and any pastor can tell you how hard it is to deal with such situations with love, but without getting ripped off. The principles revealed here are extremely relevant today, when many look to the church as a place where the poor and needy should be able to come for financial help. Let us pray for our diaconate, and let us thank God for this ministry of good works that makes the gospel look good! Amen