I suppose it’s easy to dismiss 1 Timothy 5:3-16 as the first century church at Ephesus dealing with some in-house matters we don’t fully understand and therefore it has little or nothing to say to us today. But if you’ve made it very far down the biblical road, there’s probably something stirring around the back of your mind whenever you start to entertain such thinking. That’s because we’ve learned that what is in the biblical witness is there for a reason. Our failure to grasp it doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant any more than our inability to see an atom means it doesn’t exist. So with texts like this one, it’s best to acknowledge it’s more of a work in progress to us than a finished product.
What we do know is that the subject matter is the financial support of widows in the church at Ephesus. We have a inclusio bracketing the text in v. 3 and v. 16 where the phrase widows who are really in need is used. Everything in between these markers is about how to determine a widow who is really in need from one who isn’t, so there’s no doubt that’s the subject at hand.
In first century Mediterranean culture, there was no such thing as Social Security. Women’s work was usually limited to the home but even if they did something like Lydia (a dealer in purple cloth), there weren’t retirement benefits, 401 K’s, IRA’s, or anything like that. And of course, if your husband died before you did, the same was true for him—there were no benefits to be passed on to you. Your family was your fallback (v. 4, 8)—if they lived close and were able to take care of you. If you were a younger widow, you could remarry (v. 9, 11). However, if neither of these things applied to you—well, you were a widow who was really in need.
That’s the easy, simple, straightforward reading of the text. If you read through it, you’ll notice that there are other factors mentioned: 1) the positive spiritual/character qualifications (v. 9-10) as well as 2) negative, disqualifying factors for younger widows, a “pledge” (v. 11), and 4) the sister who has “widows in her care” (v. 16).
Of these, only #1 further qualifies our subject under discussion—widows who are really in need. It suggests that in addition to objective factors like her age and the absence of a supporting family, there is a spiritual/character factor. In fact, it overlaps somewhat with what has been said earlier in regard to those characteristics for elders (compare 3:2 with 5:9-10). This adds a spiritual dimension to what previously could have been viewed as strictly a benevolent situation. “The list” Paul refers to in v. 9 and 11—is it a benevolent list or a list of those who are engaged in some type of ministry (perhaps prayer and service – v. 5, 9-10)? Or perhaps it is a benevolent list of godly widows who started their own informal ministry (a view I tend toward).
Whatever the truth might be, Timothy certainly understood what Paul was saying as he had knowledge of the existing situation that we don’t. What is clear, is not whether the church should support widows, but who qualified as widows who are really in need. Click here as we reflect upon what the text has to say to us today.