In order to clarify who is a “widow in need,” Paul provides a description of a widow who is worthy of support (5:9-14). To a very large extent Paul’s description of a “proper widow” is consistent with wisdom literature (Proverbs 31, Ruth, perhaps also Judith).
She is not less than sixty years of age. Unlike the modern world, the age of sixty is quite old in the first century. No one really knows why Paul chose this number, Roman law used fifty as the definition of a widow who should be supported by public funds. It is possible Paul has in mind Lev. 27:7 which makes a distinction for vows after age 60.
She was a faithful wife, “the wife of one husband.” The phrase here cannot mean, “only married once” since Paul is telling younger widows to remarry. Potentially they could be widowed a second time and find protection in the church.
She has a “reputation for good works.” The woman is “well known” in the Christian community for living the sort of life that reflects her faith. Perhaps an example of this might be Tabitha / Dorcas in Acts 9:36, she was “always doing good and helping the poor.” Paul expands “good works” with four brief statements on what these good works might include.
She has brought up children. On a practical level, this distinguishes the “proper widow” from the young widow in the next paragraph. This women was faithfully married and has already raised a family.
She has shown hospitality. Proper hospitality is considered a virtue in the ancient world and was one of the criteria for an elder in 1 Tim 3:2. In fact, the letter of 3 John concerns proper hospitality towards traveling teachers in Ephesus.
She has washed the feet of the saints. Of the four phrases, this is the most difficult, although it may be related to showing proper hospitality. Rather that participating in the ritual of foot washing in the church, Paul is thinking of one element of showing proper hospitality in her home.
She has cared for the afflicted. To care for the poor is part of being a virtuous person in Judaism, and there is ample evidence that Greco-Roman women often participated in charity work. It is possible that Paul has in mind people who are facing persecution, but helping the poor is likely the main point.
She has devoted herself to every good work. This last line of the description returns to the idea of good works. To be “devoted” (ἐπακολουθέω) means something like “model oneself after.” 1 Peter 1:21 uses the word for following in Jesus; footsteps; here the widow has followed after good works, modeling her life after the sorts of things demonstrate her faith in a tangible way.
Does this list mean that Paul would not support an older widow who did not have this kind of a reputation? I doubt that Paul intended for the church to let lazy widows die of starvation! Jesus did not demand that people become perfect before he would talk with them or heal them. This description is the ideal, like the Proverbs 31 woman. In describing the ideal, Paul may be encouraging women in the congregation to aspire to this sort of a reputation. Paul sets up a definition of a “widow who is in need.” She does not have a family to care for her or other means of support (a managed dowry), she has already raised a family and is unlikely to remarry.
In Paul’s view, the church ought to care for people who cannot care for themselves or have no other means of support. The problem with a section of scripture like this is that it is very difficult to apply since the cultural situation has changed radically over church history.
The church must care for genuine needs of the poor and needy. Caring for the widow, orphan, refugee, etc. has always been an important ministry of the church. This care for the needy is found throughout the Hebrew Bible, the teaching of Jesus and the ministry of Paul and the other apostles. The early church excelled in caring for people that society would not. There are many sad examples of abuse of the system in history, both from the church and from the poor, but these tragedies ought not deter the church from their responsibility to care for those in need.
The church must be wary of people who want to avoid responsibility. The reason Paul works at defining a “proper widow” is that the church resources are limited. If there is no standard, then the limited resources will be stretched thin and genuine needs will be overlooked.
To neglect this responsibility is a shame on the church in the community. One of the greatest condemnations of the church by the world is that we spend too much money on our beautiful buildings and nothing on “real ministry.”