1 Timothy 5:11–15 – Problem Widows

There appears to have been some kid of problem in the Ephesian churches with younger women (5:11-15). This is one of many difficult passages in 1 Timothy because our modern world view balks at the idea of the church requiring a young widow to re-marry. But we need to read this text against the background of marriage in the Greco-Roman world as well as the context of the opponents who have been the subject of the whole letter.

The Merry Widow (1934)A younger widow ought to be encouraged to remarry and start a family. Presumably Paul has in mind here widows who do not have any children and would be considered young enough to start a family. If the age statistics mentioned above are accurate for Ephesus, there may have been a number of women widowed young. Rather than remaining unmarried for the rest of their lives, Paul says they ought to marry.

The motivation for this command is similar to 1 Corinthians 7. While it is ideal for a person to remain unmarried and wholly devoted to ministry, to remain unmarried is (for most people) a very difficult life. Better, Paul says, to marry than to struggle to maintain a pure celibate life.

In verse 11 Paul says these younger widows are drawn away (καταστρηνιάω) from Christ because of their desire to remarry. This is a very difficult line to translate because the verb only appears here in the New Testament. It is related to the verb στρηνιάω, to “live luxuriously,” only found in Rev 18:7 describing the city of Babylon.

This desire to remarry brings judgment because they “break their vow.” This is usually taken as a hint the younger widows have made some sort of commitment to not remarry, but later want to set their vow aside and remarry. This is anachronistic: Paul is not describing women who have run off to a nunnery and taken vows in a medieval, monastic sense!

Towner suggests the young widows desire to remarry and are choosing to marry outside the faith (The Pastoral Epistles, 352). The commitment they are setting aside is their commitment to Jesus Christ. Typically women in the Roman world would set aside their family gods and adopt the gods of their new husband. If this is the case, then the judgment they face is because they have recanted their faith in Jesus to marry a non-believing man.

It is possible the younger widows were encouraged not to marry by the opponents in Ephesus. Since they are not raising a family, these younger widows become “idlers and gossips.” An “idler” (ἀργός) refers to someone who is lazy, or unwilling to work. Whether male or female, Paul has little good to say for someone who refuses to work. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 deals with this problem. In Thessalonica there were people who were people who attempted to “devote themselves to ministry” and lived off gifts from the church. Paul states quite clearly people ought to work in order to provide for their own needs rather than rely on the church.

To describe these young widows as “gossips” is adequate, but it may create the impression of a modern “gossipy housewife.” The noun (φλύαρος, only used here) and associated verb (φλυαρέω, only in 3 John 10) can have the connotation of worthless talk, or even disparaging talk (BDAG uses “prattle”). In one sense, this is similar to the “myths and genealogies” which Paul condemned in 1:4, but the word may indicate the younger widows have fallen under the influence of the opponents and are disparaging Paul and his gospel. There is ample evidence some false teachers often targeted women as potential patrons.

An important observation here is that the young widows who are choosing to not remarry have the financial means to live an idle life. They have some sort of financial support (their dowry or some sort of inheritance) which enables them to be idlers and gossips. People who are working hard to meet the needs of their family do not have time for these things!

While these verses are sometimes disparaged as reflecting a patriarchal, even misogynist view of the church,but Paul’s concern in 1 Timothy overall is the reputation of the church in the community. The Roman world did not respect idlers, or people who were “gossipy” whether they were men or women. it is not as though women have a monopoly on gossip, men are just as likely to engage in worthless chatter.  To be honest, the biggest gossips I have ever know have been older men!

Like his comments on modest dress, Paul’s strand condemnation of idlers and busybodies applies equally to men and women.

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