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.

1 Timothy 5:9-14 – Caring for a Widow in Need

Old LadyIn 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.

In general:

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.”

1 Timothy 5:3-16 – Caring for Widows

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?  Why would Paul need 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.

What are some practical ways this care for widows can be expressed in a modern context?

 

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.

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.

1 Timothy 5:9-14 – A Widow in Need

Old Lady

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 (Prov 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.

In general:

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.”