Thursday, February 9, 2017

1 Timothy 5:3-16 :“Managing Relationships in the Church - Widows and vulnerable people”

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”.[1]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”. [2]

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[3], 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  

[1] See also  Ex 22:22-23; Deut.  27:19; Isa 1:17 ; Jer.  22:3-4
[2] Ex 20:1-21 ;Mark 12:28-31
[3] Presumably, at this age the temptations that faced the younger widow (vv. 11-15) would have ceased to be a serious concern.

No comments: