Caring for the Elderly (1 Timothy 5:3-16)

Paul devotes a great deal of space to the care of widows in 1 Timothy, likely because this was a problem for Timothy in Ephesus.  The Hebrew Bible has a remarkable interest in the protection of widows (Exod 22:22; Deut 10:18; Ps 146:9; Deut 24:17-21). Based on the commands in the Law, Jews in the Second Temple Period took care of widows who had no protector. But what was the status of widows in the Greco-Roman World? When a woman married in the Greek world, she brought a dowry to the marriage. That dowry was managed by her husband; if he died then the dowry would be managed by her son. Winter cites W. K. Lacey, “the law was explicit; the person who had charge of her dowry had the obligation to maintain her” (117).

WidowThe situation in Roman culture was similar. In A.D. 9, Augustus created legislation which required a widow would re-marry if she were under 50. “‘There can be little doubt, that young widows, even if they had children, were expected to remarry,’ for remarriage provided a secure option for the younger widow” (Winter, 85).

For older widows, both Greek and Roman laws provided for widows. Winter comments that from a legal perspective, “a woman was never as thoroughly protected as she was in her old age” (86). As in most cultures, the law would not have protected every woman and many women may have found themselves widowed at a young age and without a protector. This would be especially true of the poor who perhaps did not have much of a dowry in the first place. Unlike contemporary culture, women in the Roman world had status and “social identity” through their family; first through their father, then later through their husband (Towner, The Pastoral Epistles, 334. ). To be single, widowed or divorced was not a normal status for a Roman woman.

Paul’s concern in this section is care for widows who are genuinely in need. Be begins in verse three with a general principle, honor widows. While the noun τιμάω does have the general meaning of honor, “set a price on,” etc., given the context Paul uses the word to refer to financial support of widows by the community of believers. Verses 5-8 are directed at families with widows. Paul is very clear that children and grandchildren have an obligation to care for their own elderly parents. This is essentially the point of the fifth commandment, to honor ones own father and mother. The verb is the same is used in both the commandment and this text, the allusion seems clear.

The context in 1 Tim 5 clearly refers to financial support for widows who have no other means of support (family, etc.) “Honor” here has the connotation of financial support, both here and in verse 17, where it refers to honoring the elder who teaches.

Why are there so many widows in the church that Paul needed to devote such a long section to their care? One factor is that most women in the first century married much older men. Evidence for this comes from Roman census records from Egypt, where 87% of marriages were to older men, from one to thirty years older. The early church reached out to the poor and slaves. It is entirely likely that this meant that a sizable minority in each church were un-supported widows. There may have been an attraction to Christianity because the church offered to help support a poor widow in ways that Roman society was not able or willing.

Paul uses the phrase “let a widow be enrolled,” implying that the church ought to keep track of women who were in need. The verb καταλέγω is used for enrolling someone a member of a group, like a soldier joining the army or a “membership list” for a religious organization (POxy 416, 4, for example).

Since the opponents in Ephesus rejected marriage, it is at least possible that they rejected other family obligations. Perhaps they used Paul’s own teaching about a “new creation” in Christ Jesus to argue that they had no obligation to other family members. If a person became a Christian, they might say, their old life is buried with Christ and they are under no obligation to care for widows in their own family, especially if they were unbelieving (Padgett, 21).

Paul wants the churches in Ephesus to care for widows who are in genuine need primarily because the church is a family.  His Jewish worldview would see it as shameful for a family to not “honor their mother” by refusing to help a widow in need.  This sort of  care for those who cannot care for themselves was something the church must do if they are going to be the people of God.

This is a very specific issue that will be increasingly important as the American church ages – how should the church respond an aging population? What is the responsibility of the family of God to care for the elderly?

Bibliography: W.K. Lacey, The Family in Classical Greece (London, Thames and Hudson 1968). Bruce. W. Winter, “Providentia For The Widows Of 1 Timothy 5:3-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 39 (1988), 82-99; J.M. Bassler, “The Widows’ Tale: A Fresh Look at 1 Tim. 5:3–16,” JBL 103 (1984): 23-41; A. Padgett, “Wealthy Women at Ephesus: 1 Timothy 2:815 in Social Context,” Interpretation 41 (1987): 21.

12 thoughts on “Caring for the Elderly (1 Timothy 5:3-16)

  1. I think that the church should respond to the aging population by welcoming them in and taking care of their needs. I do not think it should be the job of one, but of many. A person could help a widow out by donating things such as their time, money, food, clothing, or shelter. Widows can become very lonely, a time spent with people who are there to help take care of them, support them, and encourage them would be very helpful. I think that the family of God should most definitely reach out and care for the elderly. Maybe help out and cook them a homemade dinner once a week, share some of your time by coming over to make sure they are okay, help pay bills, or talk to them. Older people have a lot of knowledge and a lot to say if only someone would listen.

  2. The bible is very clear on the taking care of those who are no longer able to care for themselves. In the Old Testament, God mentions taking care of the orphans and the widows Exod. 22:22. Also how we deal with the elders is a reflection on how we deal with our parents. God tell us to “Honor your father and mother”. So truly if we honor our father and mothers, we should apply the same principle towards our elders. The elders are important part of the church body. In Acts 15:1-2 Paul talks about when some of the men were arguing about circumcision the elders were the ones who were able to listen to the arguments and make a decision. This teaches that the elders are helpful in making important decisions. Also in James it talks about how the elders are able to pray for the sick. In James it teaches that those who are seek should seek the elders for prayer. In conclusion, the elders hold an important position in our churches, so it’s important for us to care for them and honor them.

  3. Interesting points on an important topic… applicable to today, as you well point out. Yes, indeed Christian churches (and others) have obligations toward the elderly who may be in need, as a great many are. And both members/attendees and those nearby in the community regardless of belief or affiliation.

    I might point out that in our relatively more egalitarian society (than the Roman one), it is quite often aged men who need support as well as women. I have to admit my gender is often actually “weaker” emotionally than women in a couple regards: men seem to be more prone to loneliness, especially in old age, than women. That is partly related to an additional weakness: we tend not to be as social, talk over feelings and form as many friendships as do women. So we should be sure we’re not overlooking older widowers or otherwise single men either.

  4. I think that it is important to link up widows in the church with people in the church who can help them do the things they need done. This can even stretch to an old couple receiving the help of the people who are able. Something my church did while i was growing up was find out who in the church needed help-be it yardwork, painting, or company-and they lined those people up with primarily teenagers from the youth group. We all went out in about 5 different groups, each to a house to help someone. I was unable to work one time (broken leg) and so i just sat inside and kept the lady company. I think this helped her to not become a busybody like Paul warns against in verse 13.

  5. I think that this applies to today in how we treat our elderly in the church. We should support them, just as Paul states, for we are a family-while the widow may not have an immediate family, the church is her family and we should act accordingly. I think we could also apply this to elderly men who are also windowed in the church, for the church is their family as well. I think not only should their physical needs be met but also their emotional needs, through programs like support groups and the heart-to-heart program like we have here at Grace, where an elderly widow could be paired with a young adult where they can grow in their lives together. We have to stray from the societal view that the widowed and elderly are nuisances that require too much funds to support and aid (just look at complaints about medicaid).

  6. Basically the idea should be to “keep on caring”. We care for our mothers, so why not to others?
    The age comes, and with it, comes the need for the church to be ready to take care and give support to those who are elders.

    In my church we have this ministry called “Oasis”, where the focus is to the elderly people. Every Wednesday morning we have worship (mainly hymns) and a message. The attendance is 100% of people above 50yrs old. After the service, we serve a meal where we all have fellowship together. I’ve participated many times, and through all of them I learned something new. It creates compassion and patience inside of us.

    If we don’t take care of our elders, how can we take care of the youth? The youth today will be the elders tomorrow.
    Paul understood the need to take action towards the situation.

  7. I think it is important to look after the elderly, because they have already done so much in their lifetime for others, usually, and regardless the it is the “Christian thing to do” to help those who cannot help themselves. As humans get older their bodies do not work the way they used to, and they are also more susceptible and likely to get sicknesses or diseases in old age unfortunately. I believe it is the Church, meaning the body of believers, who should be the ones showing Christ’s love to others, and the elderly seem to get less respect in this day and age than ever before. I think that the church has a greater responsibility now than in the past to look after our elders and widows, because society tends to shut them away on a shelf. God had Paul put write those words for a reason, and as Christians we should want to do what the Bible tells us to do, and we should be portraying godly character through all our actions.

  8. Echoes of the Law are clear in this passage. The Old Testament mandates care of widows (and orphans) by the community. In the culture since there was very little power afforded to women, it was very hard for a widow to take care of herself, and the State did very little to care for these women. So then, it fell to the church. Just as in our society, these women, and especially the elderly, tend to get marginalized and ignored. Paul was calling the church back to what was a foundation of the Law, care for widows. Caring for widows was so foundational that it was to be one of the things that marked who Christians were, “Failure to put one’s ‘religion into practice’ along these lines is regarded as a denial of the faith and as being ‘worse than an unbeliever.'” We as believers are called to practice what we preach.

  9. This is very important for this day and age. With modern medicine, so many more can now live longer, but the problem is that they will have health problems and need a lot more help. There were many widows in Rome, but I wonder if there are a lot more of the elderly today than before because of the advancement of medicine. This would make it a little more difficult for today. Even though, we are to help the elderly by “honoring them” or by giving “financial support,” and so on, it is still good to remember to continue to pray for them- their healing, that they won’t become lonely, etc. (1 Tim 2:8). In return, the elderly should become like mentors to the younger generations- teaching them to be pure, kind, self controlled, etc. (Titus 2:5).

  10. As a church we need to reach out to the elderly more. In my church, we rely financially on the elderly for financial support. Soon they may not be able to give as much as they have in the past. At some point, they might be stuck in a nursing home & would just like to have some company. I love the idea of having a day care or preschool class held in nursing homes or for nursing homes to offer rooms for college students to live in, in exchange for help around the facilities & to work with the elderly who live there. Today’s generation is failing at seeing the worth of the elderly. They think that since they are in nursing homes, someone will take care of the elderly for them. Something needs to drastically change. Just because there are people working there to take care of them doesn’t mean that they are fully being taken care of. The elderly that live there get tired of seeing the same people every day & some don’t feel loved. Some may not even have family in the area or even living family. They still have feelings & memory & we could learn a great deal from them. Even if they like to tell the same story over & over & over.

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