1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.
3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8 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.
9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. 11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry 12 and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan. 16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. – 1 Timothy 5:1-16 ESV
In the closing part of chapter 4, Paul gave Timothy three essential tasks to master if he wanted to be successful as a man of God. He must teach others, train himself to live a godly life, and he must use his life to typify what it means to love and serve God. Now Paul gets even more practical, giving Timothy concrete examples of how to apply what he is learning to everyday life within the body of Christ.
While Paul encouraged Timothy to never “let anyone think less of you because you are young” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT), he also wanted his young protégé to refrain from arrogantly flaunting his position as a shepherd of God or treating those under his care with disrespect. He was to give special attention to his relationships with older men and women in the church, honoring them as he would his own father and mother by giving them the respect they were due. And Timothy was to look on the younger members of the church as his brothers and sisters in Christ, treating the younger men with dignity and interacting with the younger women in purity.
Paul wanted Timothy to know that being a minister of the gospel wasn’t just about disseminating information and doling out discipline to the unruly and unfaithful. Everything hinged on relationships. The church was a family, a God-ordained collection of individuals from all walks of life divinely joined together and commanded to care for, love, and support one another. Personality conflicts, disagreements, and each individual’s residual sin natures would tend to cause conflict within the local body of Christ. So, Timothy needed to know how to handle the practical side of ministry; that or people and the personal problems they bring to the table.
There are always constant needs within the church. In Paul’s day, widows were a significant concern because, in that culture, they tended to be overlooked and neglected. Women were often considered second-class citizens with few rights and privileges. Marriage was their safety net. Being a wife and mother was a necessity for most women, providing a roof over their heads, a source of respect within the community, and a means of making ends meet in a culture where jobs for women were few and far between. That’s why widows were especially vulnerable. They were viewed as having little value and were neglected by the culture at large. But Paul encouraged Timothy to care for those widows who had become part of the family of God.
He was to see to it that they were cared for, knowing that these women were looking to God as their help and source of hope. The church was to be the hands and feet of Christ, ministering to these women, and ensuring that their families were caring for them properly. When there was no family to meet their needs, Timothy was to make sure that the family of God stepped in and cared for them properly.
As usual, these cases are never cut-and-dried. There are always underlying circumstances that must be considered and dealt with. It would be much easier if we could just say, “Take care of the widows in the church,” but there are always insinuating circumstances that make our decisions a bit more difficult and a shade more grey than black-and-white.
Timothy was to consider all circumstances regarding widows. He had to factor in their age, existing family relationships, and most importantly, their character. Not every woman who was a widow was to be the church’s responsibility. Careful consideration was to be taken when investigating the needs of these women. In some cases, their families were to be confronted and held accountable for having refused to step in and care for their own. Obviously, there were cases where sons and daughters had chosen to neglect the needs of their own mothers. This was unacceptable and the church was not obligated to take on the responsibility.
Younger widows were not added to the “list” of those who received regular support from the church. It was still possible for them to remarry, have their own families, and access to a reliable means of support. It would appear from Paul’s statements that he expected the older widows who received care from the church to willingly dedicate their lives and service to the body of Christ in return for financial support. They evidently vowed to not remarry, instead dedicating themselves to the service of God and the church. Younger women, if added to this list, and then presented with the opportunity to remarry, would find it hard to live out that kind of commitment.
These verses deal with a very specific issue that was a real problem in the church in Ephesus. It is more descriptive than prescriptive. In other words, Paul is not establishing a binding rule or law for the church. These 16 verses should not be interpreted as the non-negotiable biblical requirements for caring for widows in the local church. But they do provide an insightful glimpse into the kind of careful consideration that must be applied by shepherds when caring for their flock.
The bottom line is that the church is to be all about relationships. It can be messy and, at times, difficult. There are always variables and certain circumstances that make decision-making anything but easy. There are many things to consider when dealing with people and relationships. We must often apply a careful combination of biblical wisdom and common sense. We must do our homework, considering carefully and prayerfully what God would have us do, always striving to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and honor.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.