An especially important ministry of the earliest church was the ministry of caring for widows. In fact, early in the book of Acts we see that the church’s first conflict was related to widows, when some were unjustly favored over others. The Apostles responded by appointing a body of men of good repute to oversee and ensure the equitable distribution of charity. And though that was undoubtedly the right course of action, it did not solve every problem or answer every question, for decades later we find Paul writing to pastor Timothy about a situation in his church in Ephesus. In that little part of a longer letter (the first part of chapter 5), Paul clarifies the church’s responsibility by telling Timothy who the church should and should not support.
But before he does that, he lays an important foundation by reminding his young friend that church is family. Timothy is to take family as his starting point and to relate to the members of his church accordingly. He should treat older men with all the respect of a father, younger men with all the affection of a brother, older women with all the devotion of a mother, and younger women with all the purity of a sister. Why? Because in a spiritual sense, these people really are his family and deserve to be treated as such. Only then does Paul begin his instructions on how to care for widows.
Why would the church need to care for widows? In short, because God cares about widows. Widows were an especially vulnerable group, who often had no means of support and no one to protect them or advocate for them. They were alone, often reduced to poverty, and were easily taken advantage of.
God hates and is opposed to any person or any system that either sinfully ignores or takes advantage of those who are unprotected or susceptible to harm. Psalm 68 calls God “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.” The Old Testament is full of calls for God’s people to care for the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, the vulnerable. So in Deuteronomy 27 we read that the Levites were to say to the people, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” And all the people were to answer, “Amen.” This shows that in God’s nation, run according to God’s law, there were meant to be rights and protections for widows and other vulnerable or destitute people. Meanwhile, God gave terrible warnings about what would happen if they failed to obey. In Ezekiel he warns that his judgment has fallen upon Israel because “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (22:7).
In the Old Testament, God embedded care for the widow into the laws of his land. Today, God still provides for his needy people, and does so particularly through his church. God is spiritually present in this world through his Spirit, but he’s physically present through his church. We, his body, are charged with carrying out his work here. And his work here includes caring for widows by showing them honor. Since church is a family, we are to care for widows like children care for their widowed mother. In the opening verses of 1 Timothy 5, Paul affirms that responsibility, and also defines it.
First he commands, “Honor widows who are truly widows.” To honor is to respect, or to give recognition to, or to attach importance to. Wrapped up in it is the idea of providing for needs, including material and financial needs. We can see this contextually, since in the very next section of his letter, Paul tells the church to show honor to preachers and teachers by paying them so they can make a full-time commitment to their work. Meanwhile, in the book of Matthew, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for failing to honor their parents, and their shocking dishonor took the form of a sneaky means of holding back financial support from their parents.
Honor, then, extends from basic respect all the way to financial provision. Thus, the church is not just to welcome widows, but to go even farther and to provide for their needs. Paul has just said to treat older women as mothers, so now he is telling the church to act out that kind of family relationship. The church is not a provider of social services to the community, but a family that cares for its own members.
Honor True Widows
Paul calls the church to provide for widows, but also places a condition on it. He doesn’t say “Honor every widow,” but “Honor widows who are truly widows.” This raises the obvious question: What is a true widow? Paul answers by providing two criteria, both described in verse 5 and expanded upon elsewhere: a true widow has a genuine financial need and she has genuine Christian character. “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.” The true widow is alone, with no one else to provide for her, and she is godly, the kind of woman who is committed to prayer. She’s not the kind of woman who is self-indulgent, who sees widowhood as her chance to throw off all responsibility and to pursue a life of depravity or luxury.
Thus true widows, the ones who are worthy of the church’s support, are those who have a genuine financial need and who show genuine Christian character.
Honor Today’s True Widows
In a highly socialized country like Canada and a highly serviced city like Toronto, we may not have a lot of that kind of widow. Depending where you live, you may face the same reality, that the great majority of people have access through the government to resources that will cover at least their basic needs. While we must be on the lookout for true widows as Paul defines them and be willing and ready to give them financial assistance as necessary, we may not find many.
But even though it’s true that we may not see exactly the criteria Paul distinguishes here, I don’t think it’s a stretch to extend the principle in a number of ways, like perhaps to a widow who doesn’t lack money, but who lacks love and relationship. Today many people, including widows, are financially wealthy but relationally impoverished. There is a great plague of loneliness in society in general and among the elderly in particular. The church has the opportunity and even the duty to provide for that relational need and many other needs among its members who are elderly or alone.
From what I’ve observed, most churches are pretty good at meeting those needs on Sunday—we look for people we can love and serve before, during, and after our services. But what about the other six-and-a-half days of the week? I’m not convinced we do quite as well there. While it’s good and noble to express love on Sunday, there are many other ways we can help through the week. Perhaps we can help by caring for a home and property, offering assistance with shopping trips, providing transportation to medical appointments, or bringing fellowship into her home. This elderly woman, after all, is to be treated like a mother. Wouldn’t you take your mother to her doctor’s appointments? Wouldn’t you make sure she has relationships not just on Sunday, but through the week? Wouldn’t you make sure that she’s got more than merely money?
Paul says to Timothy—and by extension to us—“treat older women as mothers” and “honor widows.” There are people in nearly every church who need a man to love them in a son-like way, a woman to love them in a daughter-like way, and children to love them in a grandchild-like way. Whether that’s providing money or love, provision or affection, the church is God’s means to care for his people. Let’s not neglect so great and so precious a ministry, a ministry that’s so near and dear to the heart of God.