Honour widows that are widows indeed …she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. (1 Timothy 5:3, 5).
Widows were a prominent figure in the epistles as well as the early apostolic churches of the 1st through 3rd centuries. The Bible encourages special honor be given to these godly women of the church, and their role became more and more organized and formalized in the early church. Let’s take a closer look at these brave and influential women.
1 Timothy 5 describes these widows, and in the passage there are two topics discussed. First, the issue of godly vs. worldly widows and the responsibility of the church toward them is discussed in 1 Timothy 5:3-8. Secondly, Paul changes the topic to discuss a “list” of widows and the things he expects of them in 1 Timothy 5:9-16.
1. Two Kinds of Widows
In 1 Timothy 5:3, the members of the church are to treat the “widows indeed” with honor. There are two characteristics of a widow indeed found in 1 Tim. 5:5. She is “desolate”, and she trusts in God. Apparently, these honored widows truly have no family on which they can depend. The family of a widow are the ones who have the first responsibility to support her, but some women are not so blessed. Some may be found alone in the world, or “desolate”, because they either don’t have any family, or their family has neglected their responsibility. In this case, the church does what it can to support a widow who indeed needs help. A godly woman truly trusts in God in this difficult time in her life.
We can conclude from these verses that since these widows continue in prayer “night and day” that they have the time to do so, something that may not have been so easily done while she was a wife and mother. This woman takes her new situation and uses her freedom and time for the spiritual pursuits. These women are called “widows indeed.” I highly recommend reading Lenski’s Interpretation of Paul’s Letter to Timothy. His very long explanation of 1 Timothy 5:3-8 is incredibly precise yet practical. He brings out Paul’s heart of compassion for a truly needy widow who is all alone. He says for instance,
With tender tact Paul only describes this kind of a Christian widow. He says, “she has set her hope on God,” on him who has made so many promises to just such sadly bereft widows and has raised so many protections around them in his Word. Paul states how this widow sets her constant hope on God (specifying καί): by ever continuing with her petitions, by laying all her needs before God, and by her prayers (the wider word which includes all types of praying), at night on her pillow, by day when worry would assail her about this or that. Paul does not command this widow so to set her hope, etc., nor order the church to ask her to learn to do this. This description, since it is only a description, is more effective than such a command or order would be. It implies that, before anybody can bid her do this, she has already complied. For the children and the grandchildren of the other widow Paul writes an imperative (v. 4) but not for this widow. Even the two tenses are significant: “has set her hope” from the start of her lone widowhood and “continues on” night by night, day by day. I greatly admire Paul for writing this verse as he did.1
But there was another kind of widow that is described in 1 Timothy 5:6. This second kind of widow apparently doesn’t have time for such things as prayer and fasting. She is too busy with the pleasures of life in her new-found freedom. Spiritual pursuits are not her focus. She is described as “dead while she liveth.” This reminds me of these verses:
“He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39), and
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
The second kind of widow, the worldly woman who uses her freedom and time to pursue her own gratification is not called a “Widow Indeed” and should not be honored for her choices.
2. Widows on the List
In the second portion of our text (1 Tim. 5:9-16), Paul speaks to Pastor Timothy about some sort of list of these honored widows. Some view this list as being the same women as are mentioned in the previous verses, a list of Widows Indeed. Others see this list as an entirely separate set of women since a new thought is begun in verse 9. However, Lenski simply says that although Paul and Timothy knew what they were talking about, we cannot be so sure. What we do know is that there was some sort of honored list of widows and there was a kind of organization to it. I tend to think it is a different set of women than the “Widows Indeed” for the following reasons.
- The prerequisites for a woman to be on the List is different from that of being a Widow Indeed. They are to be at least 60 years old. They are to have been the wife of one husband. Good works are to have been a part of her reputation including raising up children, lodging strangers, washing the saints’ feet, and relieving the sick. These are things this widow is to have done in the past. It is not a requirement for future actions necessarily. The requirements for a Widow Indeed is different and includes the need for support because she is alone and desolate.
- Both Widows Indeed and Widows on the List are godly women and so will look and behave similarly. This doesn’t require the two groups to be identical groups. Both types of widows have served the Lord in the past and now will do so again in their new circumstances.
- Also, if the Widows on the List are the same as the Widows Indeed, then it is basically a roll for women needing financial support from the church. However, the context places the emphasis on the widows’ spiritual health, not so much on her status or need. Paul says that the church should not consider a younger widow for this honored list because he is concerned for her spiritual well-being.
The old widows as a class were not penniless and dependent on congregational support. Charity, both private and congregational, was always practiced where it was needed. It is not credible that Paul is here arranging congregational support only for lone widows who were beyond sixty and is insisting that younger widows be supported by second husbands. His object is not to relieve the charity budget of congregations … Paul’s concern is the spiritual welfare of all younger widows. That is why he wrote 1 Timothy 5:6 about the gay widow who is already dead while living … Spiritual welfare is the point, remaining with Christ and not letting Satan draw one away. The loss of a husband puts a young widow into danger; suddenly being alone, she may plunge into the gay life of the world (vs. 6); or if she wishes to remarry may disregard Christ and disown her first faith. Support is not the question, for on an average young widows are not left more penniless than old ones.1
The Widows on the List, therefore, do not seem to be a roll of widows supported by the church. Some denominations have expanded this text throughout the centuries into a monastic order of even young women who reject family life for the service of the church with the church supporting them. The roots of that belief begin here in 1 Timothy 5. But I think we have seen that the discussion of support for widows and their service to the church has been distorted by some to even suggest a superiority of the monastic orders to the laity. If we take the view that the list of widows is not having to do with support, but rather a way to facilitate service opportunities, then neither church roles nor domestic roles are in competition.
So in 1 Timothy 5:9-16, Paul is urging young widows not to be involved in direct ministry to the church to the detriment of their own spiritual well-being and that of their own responsibilities at home. “They don’t need to be on this list,” he says. This list of widows seems to be more of a group of older widows who are no longer so concerned about managing a household. They are now free to minister to the household of faith, the church. The early church saw these widows ministering to the congregation in baptisms of women, relieving the sick and needy, and in other situations in which it would be inappropriate for a man to be involved (with a single young woman, for instance). Their prayer life is a prominent and vital ministry that is highlighted in many of the early church writings. Hippolytus stated it this way in the 2nd century as he recorded the common practice among the churches:
First, widows were not ordained as were bishops, presbyters, and deacons. The reason for this is specifically stated—“ because she does not offer the oblation nor has she a liturgical ministry.” Second, widows who had been tested for a time were allowed to be enrolled on the church’s lists. This evidently means that there were two groups of widows or at least that there were widows and probationers. Third, the ministry of widows, besides being stated negatively as not being liturgical, is stated positively as being that of prayer.2
To marry or not to marry
1 Timothy 5:11, 14 are curious. In verse 14, Paul says that young widows are to marry, bear children, and guide the house. But in verse 11, he says that some widows who marry have rejected their faith in doing so. Why the contrast?
In vs. 14 Paul himself wants these widows to marry, wants them to want to marry, which is a good thing. In vs. 11 wanting to marry is the result of becoming high and unrestrained toward Christ and thus the very opposite and a bad thing. 1
Marriage doesn’t sanctify an ungodly life, but a godly woman may have an opportunity to marry a godly man so they can lead a sanctified life together. If a widow’s life is one lived in pleasure (1 Timothy 5:6-7), then she needs to focus on her spiritual health rather than her marital status. It reminds me of Paul’s other exhortation to virgins as they choose whether to marry or not (1 Cor. 7). The concern is not that all eligible women be married. The concern is that all women, whether virgins, or widows, or married, be found doing whatever they can in life to glorify God the most.
A woman’s thought should always be, “How can I more fully serve and glorify God in the decision before me?” For some women, this will mean getting married to a godly man. For others, this will mean staying single.
In today’s American society, widowhood looks different than it was in centuries past due to the progress of healthcare and lengthening of lifespans and the opportunities to support oneself as a woman. However, we do find many ladies who are past age 60 and who have more freedom with their time and responsibilities than they had while raising their children. Just as in the early church, these elder women might be spiritually mature women who invest their lives into spiritual pursuits, or they may be worldly women who are concerned with their own freedom and pleasure.
The church’s responsibility to these women is two-fold. (1) We are to determine whether a widow has proven to be a godly wife and mother and continues to be godly in her character. She is the widow who is deserving of honor and support. (2) Those widows indeed (i.e. not the worldly-wise widows) are to spend their time serving the Lord through the church and through hospitality in a deliberate way. For the early church this meant they were enrolled in a particular society that organized these service opportunities.
Whether our churches do exactly the same thing is not the point. At a crossroads in life, a woman may look back and see a deficient spiritual walk and may choose to focus on her own devotion to the Lord rather than begin another marriage. A woman may see a new set of circumstances as an opportunity to expand her scope of service to the Lord. A woman may choose to remarry a godly man. It is more than appropriate for our older ladies of the church to involve themselves in the ministry of the church in an organized way under the godly leadership of the pastor and deacons. After all, the role that women have been created to be is a supporter, a helper. If a woman has no husband, then who is she going to support? It would be natural for a widow to gravitate to the church to serve there, and just as naturally a church will provide for her needs since she has no husband or family to fulfill that role to her.
The question should not be “what can the church do for me as a widow?” It should be, “What can I do with my new circumstances for the church and ultimately for the Lord?” Whether a woman be a young virgin, or a married woman, or a widow, the point is that a woman’s life is wholly given to serving the Lord in whatever calling she finds herself.
I had fun creating this flow chart. It was just how my mind was working on the day. I needed to visualize what Paul was saying about how to treat widows in 1 Timothy 5.
- Lenski, R. C. H. (1937). The interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (pp. 659–660). Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern.
- Ryrie, Charles (2011-10-01). The Role of Women in the Church (Kindle Locations 2655-2661). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.