Support widows who are genuinely widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, they should learn to practice their religions toward their own family first and to repay their parents, for this pleases God. The real widow, left all alone, has put her hope in God and continues night and day in her petitions and prayers; however, she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command this, so that they won’t be blamed. Now if anyone does not provide for his own relatives, and especially for his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. No widow should be placed on the official support list unless she is at least 60 years old, have been the wife of one husband, and is well known for good works—that is, if she has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to every good work
---I Timothy 5:3-10
Here the Apostle Paul is discussing the care of widows. As is typical, Paul was not dealing with an abstraction but addressing a concrete and serious reality. In the first century women married young and typically wed older men, and then as now, men generally died earlier than women. The first century also preceded the advent of Social Security, pension plans, etc.
The care of widows is addressed throughout Scripture; in the Law (Ex. 22:21-24, Dt. 10:18, 14:28-29, 24:17-22, 27:19) and Prophets (Is. 1:17, 23; Jer. 7:5; 22:3; Ez. 22:29; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5), Wisdom Literature ((Ps. 68:5, 94:1, 146:9, Pr. 15:25), the ministry of Jesus ((Luke 7:11-15, 18:1-8, Mark 12:41-44, John 19:26-27), and in the teaching of the apostles (Acts 6, James 1:27). God cares for the weak: "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing" (Deut. 10:18).
So who is primarily responsible to care for widows in need? According to Paul, the family and not the church is the primary institution ordained by God to be responsible for the provision of welfare. Moreover, the possibility that a widow should rely on the state is not even considered (v. 4). If the widow had children or grandchildren, they were expected to provide care for the family member.
Paul provides three reasons for this framework in verse 4. First, we must learn to practice our religion toward our family first. This is merely an extension of the 5th Commandment’s injunction to honor our parents. It is also the case that throughout I Timothy and the rest of Scripture the home is portrayed as a training ground for service in the church. In learning to care for our kin we learn how to be servants to others.
Second, when children take care of their widowed mother they acknowledge a debt owed to faithful parents.
Third, Paul says it pleases God when children and grandchildren care for the older generations.
What about those family members that do not meet this obligation? They must be dealt with and disciplined by the church (v. 8). Paul says they have "denied the faith" and are "worse than an unbeliever." Consider what Paul is saying; they are worse than infidels. Whatever their verbal profession of faith, a man’s refusal to support his mother marks him as a covenant-breaker.
As William Hendriksen says, "He has denied it not by means of words necessarily but by means of his sinful negligence. Lack of positive action, the sin of omsission, give the lie to his profession of faith. Though he professes to be a Christian, he lacks the most precious of all the fruits on the tree of a truly Christian life and conduct. He lacks love. Where this good fruit is absent, there cannot be a good tree."
Paul next considers the duties of the church, for when there is no family, or the family fails in its obligation, the church should step in to assist the widow in need. The church is indeed a family, and we are adopted into the family through our profession of faith and baptism. If a widow has been abandoned, she deserves economic assistance.
But there are also requirements of widows seeking financial support from the church. First, she should not be "self-indulgent (v. 6) and must be at least 60 years old (v. 9). This would have been an old woman in the first century, a woman unable to glean, find work, or take a husband. Moreover, in later verses (11-16) Paul indicates in very strong terms that younger widows were not to be supported by the church.
Second, she was to be the wife of one husband (v. 9). This may mean that she had been married only one time or perhaps that she was faithful to her husband while he lived. Probably the latter considering that Paul says later that young widows should remarry.
Third, she was to be known for good works (bringing up children, hospitality, and service) (v. 10). The accent here is on service. Such a woman had been a servant of Christ and a servant to the church, and now it was her turn to be served.
Paul commands that all of this be laid out so that no one would be blamed (v. 7). Who is he talking about? Well, the widow will understand her responsibility, families will comprehend their duties, and the church will acknowledge its limited role only when necessary.
In the church today, what is our role, and how might it be different from the first century church? Our elders are, on the whole, significantly wealthier than we are. In fact, in the twentieth century, we largely transferred the care of the elderly from the family to the state, so that now we are taxed to pay for the care of strangers, and a generation raising children has their wealth transferred to the gray-haired lobby while sending grandma to the nursing home.
Does anyone else think this is godless?