If I were to summarize the passage in question into a single topic, it would be: PURPOSE. Specifically, the passage addresses a program for widows in the Ephesian church, where Timothy is acting as Bishop in Paul’s absence.
Little background on the church in Ephesus: While the first Ephesian converts came to their initial faith through the ministry of a man named Appolos (Acts 18:24-28), it was Paul who taught even these the full Gospel message, emphasizing the full indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7).
Taking Appolos’ converts, Paul began ministering at the Jewish synagogue at Ephesus, where he stayed until the Jews kicked them out (Acts 19:8 & 9). The Ephesian church (now beginning to thrive, with Paul as the founding Bishop) then relocated from the synagogue to a secular school building (Acts 18:9). Paul’s ministry was so immense in Ephesus that within two years, not only all of the citizens of Ephesus, but the citizens of the entire region then called Asia (modern Turkey) had heard the Gospel (Acts 19:10).
It was at Ephesus that Paul was renown for ‘special miracles,’ Paul was known throughout Asia for casting out demons, and healing the sick and his anointing was so powerful that he didn’t even have to be present to lay hands on the sick, but garments he had worn were placed on the sick and they recovered (Acts 19:11 & 12).
There was such a powerful, and supernatural awakening under the ministry of Paul that pagans, and Jews attempted to copy-cat his ministry. It was also at Ephesus that the sons of Sceva attempted to exercise a demon in the name of the Christ preached by Paul (Acts 19:13-17). When they were unable to emulate Paul’s ministry, Christ was further magnified among the pagans, and there was a great revival among the witches and sorcerers (Acts 19:18-20).
With all that background, it seems that the church in Ephesus should be pretty concretely rooted in the Gospel… unfortunately, that’s not entirely the case. On the contrary, the Ephesian church was riddled by factions; one would hope that once converted, all the bizarre spirituality of Ephesus (idolatry, racism, intellectual philosophies, pagan witchcraft, Jewish witchcraft, and factions of every kind) joined the church with the new converts. Paul did the all the work of evangelizing the citizens, organizing a church body, appointing leaders only to have the great awakening move of God he spearheaded riddled with Paul despising factions.
I think the closest contemporary comparison we’ve got to the Ephesian church was the Jesus People Movement of the early 70s, where drugged out hippies were flocking to Christ – which is terrific! But you also had every strange paganism, new age spirituality, witchcraft and demonized druggee you could imagine filling up churches. Zealous recent converts turned pseudo-prophet overnight, and preaching everything from Christ-centered Hinduism to full-scale return to Jewish Law, and everything in-between. That picture is pretty stinkin’ close to the one scripture paints of the early Ephesian church!
The Lord had other work for Paul, so after his ministry finally caused a full-scale citywide riot (Acts 19:23-41), Paul left Ephesus for other fields of labor. In his absence, he appointed Timothy as the Bishop (overseer) of the church there. MAN! Paul had some big shoes to fill! What’s more the burgeoning factions were popping up with guru after guru to replace Paul.
This was the setting in which Paul wrote the book of 1 Timothy. What we’re going to be concerned with is chapter 5 of 1 Timothy. In whole of the book, Paul addresses a number of issues, including directives on how to appoint ministers in the church (or what kind of people to appoint, rather) so as to keep the structure consistent with the Gospel. Specifically, in chapter 5, Paul deals with a ministry program for widows (v.1-16), and then the appointment of elders (v. 17-25).
Interesting to me, is that in the face of the Ephesian culture, Paul takes a good chunk of his letter to Timothy to speak about this widows ministry. In fact, I think that the central topic of the first passage I will delve into (5:1-16) is PURPOSE. I think that PURPOSE is Paul’s theme in discussing widows… but that it is also a backbone principle for the Ephesian church (in fact, for ANY church).
I could say that Purpose is an essential part of the Christian experience, but to do that I would almost be selling us short because it is more than that. Purpose is an essential part not just of the Christian experience, but of life, itself.
Proverbs 29:18(a) declares that: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish…‘
A sense of purpose is essential to life. A person who has lost his, or her sense of purpose will quickly discover that they have lost their motivation to life.
As Christians, we ought to be a people of PURPOSE – a people of VISION.
Purpose is so important that when people don’t have it, it begins to affect their sense of identity. I should be clear, however, that our purpose is NOT our identity, rather it is a direction for something that we DO… or are called to DO.
Yet, if we have nothing to DO – nothing to accomplish… no PURPOSE, we quickly begin to see ourselves as worthless.
Our purpose will define our mission, our goals, our vision… and these likewise will support our purpose. Our sense of purpose, and our sense of hope are so interrelated that they cannot be separated from one another.
If a person loses their purpose, the next thing to go (if they cannot immediately find another vision of purpose to pursue) is their hope. Likewise, when a person loses hope, it is almost always because they believe that they are destined to fail in their purpose.
‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’
As Christians, we all have a purpose. You might not feel like it sometimes… you may wonder what it is, but God has given us all a purpose in His Word – surely, in His wisdom, He knew that withoug one we would be lost, and perishing.
Our purpose in the Gospel is very simple.
What is universal PURPOSE of individual believers?
Mark 1:17 & 18
17 And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. 18 And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.
Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
Notice in these two passages, the directive given is incredibly simple. Each comes with a promise of what God will do (‘…I will make you to become…’, and ‘…a land that I will shew thee’), but the directive given in each case was simply this:
‘FOLLOW ME.’ Short, sweet and simple, our PURPOSE as Christians is to follow Christ. In both passages, the Lord essentially says: ‘Get up, leave whatever you are doing, drop whatever you are involved in, FOLLOW ME.’
THE ESSENCE OF OUR PARTICIPATION IN THE GOSPEL IS TO FOLLOW CHRIST. This is a Christian’s purpose.
PASSAGE: 1 Tim 5:1-16
In looking at the content of this passage in the literal, historical sense (in which Paul is giving Timothy instructions about running a ministerial program for widows in the church), there are a few things to take note of right off the bat.
- Paul’s expectation of godly widows is nothing more than the practical participation in the Gospel. Just as we have looked at a moment ago, participation in the Gospel is following Christ – and this is the Christian’s purpose. Paul’s given description of a godly widow is little more than a description of a woman who is actively pursuing Christ.
- Paul is not merely describing this widowhood ministry by principal only, but by his given description, it really is a specific ministerial program (like an organized ‘Women’s ministry’) for godly widows. (v. 9 for example)
The chief reason I point out that Paul’s description of this ministry reveals an organized program of the church is because of the placement of this thought (and what its placement tells us about Paul’s focus, or emphasis in church ministry). In chapter 3 of the book, Paul described to Timothy the role of bishops, and deacons; in the following passage, which we may look at in a subsequent post (or reference post ‘Who Runs the Church?‘), Paul describes the third ministereal role in a church organization – the position of elders.
It is interesting that Paul makes an interlude between discussing the primary roles of ministry in a church organization in order to discuss a ministerial program for widows. We don’t generally take this passage about widows as direction for a widows program in contemporary churches like we may take the definitions of the ministerial roles (bishops, deacons, elders). To some extent this is because the widows program that Paul describes is a cultural need which was more prevalent at the time (which I’ll get into in a momment), but the fact that Paul breaks up his description of ministerial roles with a segment about caring for widows speaks to me about how important it is for individuals to participate in the church… for them to have PURPOSE.
While Paul’s literal, and cultural focus in this writing is a program for widows, the principal of its application is eternal, and speaks to all of us.
In order to really extract the principles that we can apply from the passage, it will be important to consider the culture that Paul is speaking to.
In the Hellenistic culture that Existed in Ephesus, women (as a general rule) had a specific place in society: chiefly, she kept the affairs of the household in order. No matter her husband’s place in society – rich, or poor; well respected, or of low degree – his wife had the role of keeping the affairs of his home in order. In that culture, women did not compete with men in the workforce, rather, their family status in society was dependent on how well their husbands did… and how well run his home was.
Men were expected to do work outside of the home, they were artisans, soldiers, merchants, government officials, etc. A woman who wanted to move up the social status would push husband to do very well in his field of labor – the more successful he was, the wealthier he became, the larger his household grew. The larger his household, the more responsibility his wife had to manage his home. The greater the husband’s household became, the greater his wife’s role, and the better she did in managing her husband’s household, the more honor and prestige she gained.
While this isn’t really the way that families, or society works today, one really positive aspect of that sort of cultural setup is that it motivated the family to work together to move ahead in society because the success of each member of the home is dependent upon the others. Our cowboy culture of ‘every man for himself’ may well play into our divorce rate.
But I digress. We’re talking, contextually, about widows. A very unfortunate aspect to this sort of societal setup is that it leaves the wife more or less entirely dependent upon her husband. If her husband dies, she has not only lost her life companion, but is left utterly destitute. As the husband was the breadwinner, and it was the wealth of his earnings that she was managing as the keeper of his home, his death means the end of the income. With no income, the household dries up, the wife cannot afford to keep servants, or continue spending, yet she is left to pay the necessary bills.
More affluent widows may be able to survive on savings… but only if their husbands were immensely wealthy aristocrats.
For most, widowhood really only left two options: if you were young and attractive enough, you could remarry. Otherwise you’d have to hire yourself out as a servant to someone else’s home.
Really, in Paul’s discourse about widows here, he is speaking of equipping the church to handle one of the most down-and-out people groups in the culture. This i sthe demographic we’re concerned about in this passage. God is concerned for widows.
Now, because God is concerned about widows, the church ought to be, too – so the question becomes this: should the church become exclusively a social welfare organization in order to minister to the practical needs of some of society’s most down-and-out people? Well, no. The church is the body of Christ on earth, so obviously it can, and should care for those in need; and it should – as the existence of this passage in the bible indicates – have programs for assisting the needy. Yet bearing in mind the church’s PURPOSE as set by Christ and the Apostles, it is bigger than individual needs on the microcosmic level. The main purpose of the church is to preach the Gospel for the saving of souls.
This was the very reason why the position of deacon was established in the first place: because community needs were important, but not at the expense of the ministry of the Word. Lest the Apostles be burdened with waiting tables and thus hindered from doing the work that Christ had entrusted to them, they instituted essential ministries. Likewise, it was essential to meet the needs of the destitute members of society but the financial burden of such a ministry could easily bog down the church as an organization, so that it is not able to support the ministries of those preaching the Word.
Paul’s directives guide Timothy the necessary principles for rightly balancing the ministry of charity with the responsibilities of the church organization in sustaining ministers of the Gospel. Notice Paul’s primary concern in addressing this matter is PURPOSE, specifically the purpose of the church as the body charged with the fulfillment of the great commission, then with the purpose of the individuals involved with relation to their vision.
Now that I have laid out a couple of preliminary thoughts, namely:
- Our PURPOSE in relation to the Gospel, and
- The cultural context for Paul’s concern about widows,
With those thoughts in place, let’s look at the specifics of the passage in a little more detail:
Read Passage in full (1 Tim 5:1-16):
Some passages of scripture seem to be as plain as day, with very little explanation – Paul’ sinstructions to Timothy in this passage is so practical, and down to earth that it requires very little explanation aside from cultural understanding (which we’ve already covered). Rather than break this passage down verse by verse, let’s look at the type, and anti-type of the widows that Paul lays out.
Along with outlining his expectations of widows to be included in the ministerial ‘widows program,’ Paul also supplies his reasoning, and cautions for widows who are involved in the church in general.
Let’s start with the general requirements for widows who were to be included in the program. Paul uses the term: ‘widows indeed’ in reference to this godly type of widow.
The key verse describing them in the passage is verse 5 – ‘Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.’
In this Paul is very clear: in order to be supported by the church, she has to truly be in need, and not only in need, but also exerting herself in practical spirituality. With this one verse, Paul paints a beautiful picture of faith:
‘A widow indeed, and desolate trusteth in God…’ If someone is desolate, and ALSO godly, their desolate state will not produce hopelessness, but FAITHFULNESS. Paul declares that a woman who is a ‘widow indeed’ is a woman who has used her adverse situtation not as an excuse for fruitlessness, but to propel her into a life of faith.
The kind of woman that Paul is looking for is a woman who, having no hope, nor recourse in the natural, has therefore learned to rely on God for her help, and provision. Not only has she learned to rely on God for her own help, but also she has learned to apply this help from God to others through prayer.
The widow that Paul is describing has learned to turn her adverse life situation to her spiritual advantage through faith. In so doing she has developed a ministry of prayer, and intercession that gets results at the throne of grace. This first, and central requirement for those seeking to enter the widows’ ministry is that she is evidently a prayer-warrior.
In the next verse, he contrasts this sort of highly honorable widow with a carnal widow… or shall we say, a widow who is not spiritually exercised:
v. 6 ‘But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.‘
Wow, that’s a stark contrast from verse 5! In verse 5 he has just described a spiritually living, and powerful woman who lives by faith, and gets results in prayer, but the woman who is full of spiritual vitality is temporally ‘desolate.’ She acquired her spiritual vitality through a lifestyle of taking up her cross, whereas, the spiritually dead woman lives for her pleasure rather than living by faith. Or, rather, the woman who lives for pleasure is spiritually dead.
This, too, demonstrates the basic purpose of Christians – living a lifestyle of repentance, of humility, of taking up the cross and following Christ. Paul is not painting any different picture for women than he is for men – in fact what he’s doing is practically applying the Gospel to the life-situation these widows are in.
v. 7 affirms this: ‘And these things give IN CHARGE that they may be blameless.’ Meaning, these are not suggestions, Timothy is to give them to the church as a CHARGE, that is: as a spiritual directive. He is declaring these points to be the command of God to widows, for it is (as I said) the Gospel applied practically to their situation.
v. 8 ‘But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.’
Here Paul charges that the family of the widow whether she is righteous, or carnal must provide for them for God has placed them within their family. This is a pertinent corrective statement as he continues speaking on the topic of the church’s correct response to the widows, because the CHURCH should not be charged to care for widows who live in pleasure (who are carnal), because they are not contributing to the body of believers. However, the FAMILY which is connected to that widow has familial obligation to her whether she is carnal or spiritual – the family (specifically the head-of-household) which is connected to the widow is not exempt from caring for her for the same reason that the church is. Anyone who does not care for their own family members who are in need (regardless of their spirituality, carnality, or contribution to the family) Paul says are worse than unbelievers.
v. 9 ‘Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore (60) years old, having been the wife of one man.’
Here Paul begins to give further directive to those whom the CHURCH should care for. She should not be allowed into the program (even if she is a godly ‘widow indeed’) unless she meets these criteria, lest the church be over-burdened with caring for widows who could remarry, or attain some other means of provision. She must be at least 60 years old. Why? Chiefly because most women hit menopause at about 60. At 60, she can no longer viably bear children; she has passed the age of availability. Also she must have been the wife of only one man. Why? Probably because if she has been married more than once, she should certainly have family to care for her; if she has been married once she has only her family of origin, and her husband’s family; if she has been married more than once she should surely have more familial ties.
v. 10 ‘Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children [(apparently meaning: not her own)], if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.’
Again, Paul shows that the widows to be supported by the church financially, ought actually to be involved in ministry. Just as financial support was reserved for ministers among the men who are preaching the Gospel, so the church funds ought to go to the work of the Lord – supporting only widows who show that they will continue to minister to the needs of the body.
v. 11 ‘But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to was wanton against Christ, they will marry.’
Here, again, Paul affirms why the women ought to be at least 60, being still eligible for marriage, and being inexperienced in bridling their passions they will be the more tempted to marry. Remarriage is no sin (in fact, Paul clearly encourages it for the younger widows), but once the woman has made a commitment to separate their lives unto the ministry of service, and prayer, to turn back from that commitment is to dishonor the commitment they’ve made to God. Which thought should help us understand the following verse:
v. 12 ‘Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith.’
Because they had made a commitment to God (supposing the church agreed to support them in ministry as widows), their re-marriage becomes a broken promise to the Lord. Thus Paul, by refusing younger widows into the number is in wisdom saving them from a great snare which could cause them to backslide, which he goes on to describe:
v. 13 ‘And withal, they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also, and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.’
The context here is widows, but honestly, this warning applies to anyone who would seek to enter the ministry, but loses sight of their purpose. Don’t financially support anyone in the work of ministry who is not demonstrating the Gospel in their lives. A person who has their needs met, and nothing to do will become idle. Again, what a stark contrast from those whom Paul calls ‘widows indeed’! The godly widows are desolate, yet they have used their time to be spiritually productive.
A young woman who is recently widowed is much more likely to feel like she needs to be DOING something not in the spiritual sense, but in the temporal; they are not exercised unto constant prayer, so when they find themselves freely financially supported, and having lots of time on their hands they will begin to fill up the time with ‘fellowship,’ rather than prayer, and service. This makes them both idle (unproductive in anything), and still searching for purpose, this puts them into the position that they begin to listen for tidbits of gossip. Instead of being invested in prayer, they are always asking what they can be praying for… so that they can get the latest information.
v. 14 & 15 ‘I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. 15 For some are already turned aside after Satan.’
Verse 15 is an interesting statement. Paul is declaring that he has already seen, and observed this unfortunate state take place, and that it has destroyed the faith of the young women who have been placed in such a position. It is a grave warning.
v. 16 ‘If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged, that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.’
Again, Paul makes a final reiteration that families should care for their own needy – any member of the congregation who has needy persons (specifically widows) ought to care for them so that the church can support those who are really worthy, and have no other help.