Rev. Margaret Minnicks is an ordained Bible teacher. She writes many articles that are Bible lessons.
The Bible is very clear on how widows in the church should be taken care of. Paul did not mince his words when he told Timothy how the widows in the church should be cared for. All of his instructions are included in 1 Timothy 5:3-14.
If you have never read that passage, then you should because the instructions are crystal clear for that time and in that culture in Ephesus.
In the days of Paul and Timothy, there were no social services programs from the government to offer help to those in need. Today, there are dozens of programs to help those who need help. In New Testament times, it was encumbered upon the church to offer support to those who needed help. One vulnerable group that needed help consisted of older widows who no longer had a husband or children to support them, and they had no means to support themselves.
In the long passage about taking care of widows, Paul gives two lists: a list of widows who should be taken care of and a list of widows who should not be taken care of by the church.
A widow is a female whose husband has died. A widower is a male whose wife has died. The Bible doesn't address how widowers should be taken care of.
Paul gave specific instructions for the care of only widows in the church under certain conditions.
The First List of Widows
Every woman whose husband had died was not automatically put on the list to be helped by the church.
Paul told Timothy that proper recognition should be given only to those widows in the church with the following specifications:
- They had to be really in need.
- They had to have no children or grandchildren to take care of them.
- Widows who were left alone and depended only on God were included.
- The widow had to vow to pray night and day and ask God for help.
- The widow must not live for pleasure.
- She must be at least 60 years old.
- She must have been faithful to her husband while he was alive.
- She should have had only one husband.
- The widow must be known in the community for her good deeds.
- The widow must have shown hospitality to others.
- She must have helped others when they were in need.
- She must have devoted herself to good deeds.
- The widow must vow to remain a widow and not marry again.
- The widow was expected to be devoted to the church and pray for it on a regular basis.
The Second List of Widows
The second list includes instructions that are the complete opposite of the ones on the first list.
- Paul instructed Timothy that the widows to be helped are those in the church.
- Young widows should not be put on the list.
- Widows younger than 60 years old were not included on the first list.
- Widows must be in real need.
- Widows who have sensual desires should remarry and have children.
- Widows must be dedicated to Christ.
- They must not be idlers, gossipers, or busybodies.
- They should live in a way to give no place for the devil.
Was Paul Too Harsh with His Instructions?
Paul was Timothy's father in the faith and his mentor. Timothy was a young pastor and Paul did not want him to be taken advantage of. Therefore, Paul gave Timothy some guidelines not only about widows, but also about other groups of people in the church in 1 Timothy Chapter 5.
Paul gave Timothy special instructions at a time when widows were a real concern for the churches. After the death of their husbands, some of them had no support at all. According to Acts 6:1, widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
Paul placed emphasis on "real widows" in the church who should be supported if they were destitute and godly. He used the expressions "real widows" or "true widows" throughout his instructions to Timothy.
When reading the passage on the surface, it might seem like Paul was harsh with his instructions. Paul does a lot of teaching to other groups within that one passage.
- He taught that older children should take care of their parents.
- He explained who "real widows" are.
- He gave advice to young women.
He concluded the passage by saying, "Let the church not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are real widows (1 Timothy 5:16b).
How Do Churches to Respond to Widows Today?
What Paul commanded Timothy to do was during the time he was a young pastor when churches were first being established. There are no lists in modern-day churches similar to Paul's two lists. What was appropriate at that time, certainly is not accepted today.
However, there are some guidelines that churches go by in helping their members and those in the community, even if they are not widows at least 60 years old and do not attend the church.
The mission of the church today is quite different from the goals and mission of the early churches. Pastors and other leaders must rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them to offer support for everyone in need regardless of their age or other strict criteria.
I once belonged to a church where a widow complained because she wasn't getting support from the church. She was must younger than 60 years old. She was still working and getting a lucrative salary. She was also getting her deceased husband's pension. She had grown children with good jobs. She had been married twice.
The only criteria she based her complaint on was that the Bible said the church was supposed to support widows. To her, none of the other specifications mattered. Needless to say, the church did not give her support because the leaders agreed she didn't need it.