By providing financial assistance to widows who were really in need, the church was fulfilling a vital part of its mission. The church as the body of Christ is to practice justice, mercy, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23). If the church is the expression of God’s kingdom’s coming, then our Father’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Leadership in the church is an instrument toward that end. For the church to view leadership or leadership to view themselves as simply a decision-making body that keeps things running smoothly is to woefully miss the mark. As with the kings and judges of Israel, they are tasked with implementing what is true, right, and good. The church is to bear witness to the world of God’s reign of righteousness. This is a task leaders must take seriously.
When this is practiced, people are able to live and thrive in community. In the kingdom of God, everyone is someone and Jesus Christ is everything. That’s just another way of saying that we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
Here’s some things the text suggests in regard to justice:
1. Justice has to do with how we treat “the least of these.” Taking care of the widow who is really in need is taking care of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45). In Scripture, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner represent the spectrum of marginalized people. The church, as much as it is in its power, is to ensure justice, mercy, and faithfulness is experienced by them all. Anything less, means a lesser church and a lesser reflection of God to the world.
2. Justice begins in the home and family. The situation at Ephesus was that there were people who, if not pushing for it, were at least okay with the church taking care of a widow who was part of their family. Catch the irony—they wanted to church to live up to being just and doing the right thing—even though they weren’t. Sometimes the people calling the loudest for justice are those who have practiced it the least.
Justice in the church and justice in the world begins with justice in our homes and families. That’s why the qualifications for church leadership (3:1ff) have so much to do with marriage and family. If you want to change the world that’s noble, but make sure you start with your home and family. And to that point, any person claiming to work for justice but wanting to disrupt the family structure is critically off course.
3. Justice is a two-way street. The church was accountable for supporting widows who were really in need, but the widows were also accountable for meeting the definition of truly being in need as well as in reference to their character (v. 5, 9-10). Working for justice meant both sides had something to do. The man with one talent was just as accountable as the man with five. We would have a lot more justice in the church and in the world if people on both sides of an issue recognized this and were willing to make themselves accountable to what they needed to do.
Accountability ultimately honors people. Not holding people accountable dishonors them. Michael Gershon speaks of it as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
4. The goal of justice is to do what it true, right, and good—not to make everyone happy. As Timothy implemented Paul’s instruction, it’s doubtful that everyone at Ephesus was happy. There was probably a family or two who would rather have had the church take care of their grandmother than them. It’s not hard to imagine there was a widow or two in their late fifties who thought the sixty-year-old cut off was arbitrary. Nonetheless, Timothy was doing the right thing. Those who didn’t like it disagreed with God.
5. Justice can be a powerful witness. In Acts 6:1-6, Luke tells us a somewhat similar problem that faced the early church in Jerusalem. There was a certain group of widows who were being overlooked in the food distribution. This was a justice issue and wise leaders looked into the situation and delegated authority to men who were equipped the handle the situation. These men did what they were appointed to do and the church didn’t just move on—”the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (v. 7). The way they handled the situation was a powerful witness to the world around them!