We finished up 1 Timothy this week in Woodlands in the Word, and began to read 2 Timothy. It’s remarkable how close we are to the end of the New Testament! In 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives some strict instructions on how to care for widows within the church. It would do us well to pause and consider not just what Paul is saying, but how we’re supposed to read this specific passage as well.
First, a few reminders… 1 Timothy is written by the apostle Paul to his young protege Timothy, who was leading the growing church in Ephesus. Paul was writing to encourage Timothy so that he would, “know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church” (1 Timothy 3:15). As a result, 1 Timothy is remarkably practical and often very specific. In chapter 5, which we read on Tuesday, Paul gives instructions for how the church is to respond to the plight of widows in the church. This is a concept deeply ingrained in Scripture, stretching back to Moses and the law: the community is to care for widows, who, particularly in that society, have lost their primary source of social security: their husband.
Tensions in the Text
And yet, depending on the translation from which you read, Paul’s guidelines can sound caustic and even heartless.
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 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. But refuse to enroll younger widows. – 1 Timothy 5:9-11a, ESV
Refuse to enroll younger widows – those under 60! Don’t enroll widows who have had multiple husbands. Who haven’t washed the feet of saints? How… how specific is that command? And how do you judge whether a widow has “devoted herself to every good work?” This is troubling.
What’s more, these commands are given directly to Timothy, who is serving in a specific 1st-century church in Ephesus. How applicable – how bound to them – are we today?
This brings up a fascinating hermeneutical discussion (hermeneutics is the process of understanding and applying the biblical text): “In light of these passage’s inspiration (acknowledging they were written by God, for all time), how should we understand these passages for us, today?”
A Helpful Correlary
Paul gives us a helpful example of how to read this passage in the very next section of 1 Timothy. In verse 18, he reaches back to Deuteronomy 25:4, to a seemingly obscure passage. In between commandments regarding equitable judgments and levirate marriages, Deuteronomy 25:4 simply commands, “Do not muzzle an ox as it treads out the grain.” The implication is that an ox – a lowly beast of burden – has the right to gain directly from the work it does. In the same way, in 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul says that Christian workers have a right to financial support from their ministry.
What a corollary! Because an ox can eat grain while it’s working, pastors can receive a paycheck from their church. That is not a likely connection – and yet there it is. Paul, speaking into an urban context, takes a rural principle from inspired Scripture and applies it.
This hermeneutical idea deepens and enriches our reading of Scripture. Passages that do not directly apply to our life situation still contain principles and concepts – often tied up closely with the heart of God – that can be applied to our own lives! There are rules and practices that will help us guard the text as we read – so we don’t read into the text or read something that isn’t there, but the idea that we can find principles from passages for application is rich and historical.
Principles of Care
So, what principles do we find for church care ministry from the passage in 1 Timothy? Let’s briefly consider four:
Church Care Is Limited
First, Paul starts by implicitly acknowledging that no body of believers has an unlimited capacity or ability to care for all people, all the time. There are limits, and those limits mean that boundaries need to be placed on who is cared for, and when. In the case of the Ephesian church, Paul states that they should focus on the older widows who have greater needs. They should focus on widows who don’t have independent means for gain. These boundaries make sense!
Are these boundaries absolute? It would be hard to imagine they are! If the church had capacity, and a faithful, 55-year-old, Christ-honoring wife loses her husband shortly after moving to Ephesus, would it be more Christ-like to care for her, or to say, “We’re sorry, but Paul has told us to only care for widows over 60?” A dogmatic reading of the text could lead to that position – but that would not be loving.
Personal Initiative Is Important
Secondly, the personal initiative shown by these women needs to be considered for the level of church support they should receive. This might initially seem callus – or even anti-gospel – but it’s a necessary conclusion from the first point! God’s grace is not in limited supply: He offers freely to all! That is the gospel.
But the church in Ephesus did need to make determinations about who they could support. Personal initiative and faithfulness were factors that Paul commanded be taken into account. Broadly, in church support, it is reasonable to expect churches to prioritize care for members and faithful, Christ-centered attendees.
Church Care Is Not Exclusive
Next, Paul implies that the church should work within already existing models of care within the community. Verse 16 says, “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.” If there’s an already existing model of care, the church should leverage that so that it can place its limited resources elsewhere.
It’s reasonable to expect that this principle also includes secular methods of care. If a church is seeking to care for a congregant, and there is a readily accessible community support program they qualify for, is it not reasonable they should take advantage of that program, and free up resources to go to others within the church who may not otherwise qualify for that support?
Discipleship Is the Goal
Finally, and so importantly, we must see that discipleship is the goal of care ministry. Paul’s commands, especially in verses 11-15, are directly related to practices that he has observed as being the most effective in helping widows faithfully follow Jesus after the death of their husband. Paul’s primary concern isn’t merely sustenance or support, but discipleship.
And this must be the heartbeat of church care. Care ministry is an indispensable, necessary element of seeking to follow Jesus in a broken world. It’s essential. But it’s also always only a component of our attempt to faithfully follow Jesus.