Take not an older man [of the community] to task but appeal to him as a father, and to younger men [appeal] as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, maintaining your complete innocence.
     Honour widows who are genuinely in need. For instance, if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show due respect to their own households and pay back [what they owe] to those who brought them into this world, for this indeed is pleasing before [the throne of] God.
     But the genuinely needy widow, in her bereavement, has set her hope on God and continues in prayer night and day. And the one living in self-indulgence has, as it were, died already. Emphasise these things that they may live without being faulted.
     But if anyone provides not for his own community, and especially his own family, this person is worse than an unbeliever having denied the faith. Don't go enrolling a widow unless she has reached 60 years and have been the wife of [but] one husband. She should have a reputation for doing good, having raised her children, entertained strangers, washed the feet of the saints, having given support to those in trouble, having undertaken every good work. But decline the younger widows for whenever they wish to marry they [will tend to see it] with growing resistance to Christ, and making a call to cast off from their original faith. And with such support they learn idleness, [simply] doing the rounds, maintaining the local gossip and getting involved in what is not their own business, speaking completely out of turn. So that's my view as to why] younger women should marry, bear children and manage their households, giving no opportunity for the adversary to speak unfavourably. For some have already been turned away by [the accusations of] Satan.
     If any believing woman has the care of a widow in her charge let her do what she must to relieve her needs, and so not burden the gathered assembly, that they may give their support to the truly needy widows. - I Timothy 5: 1-16/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne.

Elderly hands

PICTURE: Cristian Newman/Unsplash

 

"The congregational support for widows is not there to relieve family members of their duties to their parents, particularly when they are responsible for their widowed mothers. The congregational support is for those of the wider family or community who are isolated in a familial sense..."

In his work, Timothy confronts those who will, in some way or other, resist his serving in their midst on account of his youthfulness. It seems his legitimacy is in question and Paul gives advice which then moves on to those elders who do have a legitimate standing in the midst of the congregation. It later goes to how he should relate to all men, to older and younger women. There is to be an ethic of purity, of due respect and chaste relations on all fronts.

Having instructed Timothy about his relations with older men and how he is to treat all with respect, Paul raises the question of the support of widows, those in need of the congregation's assistance. The advice is about wise discernment, identifying the truly needy and those who should be getting support from their own children. In effect, Paul is expounding the fifth commandment. The support of the congregation for widows is in order that the reverent and hospitable women, bereaved of her husband, can continue in good works already initiated, and for which she has already won approval on all sides. The support is not for sustaining a dissolute life-style; the assistance is not for funding self-indulgence. Is Paul, perhaps, discussing a project in hospitality in which such elderly widows serve?

Even among widows it is possible to discern the path that leads to life and that which leads to ruin and death. There is an expectation that accompanies this support, Paul says, and it should be spelled out, not only to the recipients, but to be understood by the congregation that the policy may be rightly explained and appropriately defended.

The congregational support for widows is not there to relieve family members of their duties to their parents, particularly when they are responsible for their widowed mothers. The congregational support is for those of the wider family or community who are isolated in a familial sense - this is implied when Paul says that a person should provide for “his/her own”. The duties of congregation membership are highlighted; believers band together in order to assist each other in the fulfillment of their duties according to the needs they have and in terms of the resources at their disposal. Then Paul confirms this in a negative sense: to fail to honour and support one's own family is to deny the faith - this is to be worse than an unbeliever.

It is of intense interest to see how Paul's advice moves, seamlessly as it were, from “church” responsibility to family duty and how these duties relate to each other in a reciprocal reinforcing way. There are those older women who have, as it were, earned the support they are receiving in their advanced years.

They have developed habits of generous hospitality from their domestic realm. This raises a question about how such communal support is distributed. Should it be offered to younger widows? Are they not faced with the possibility of remarriage? The project to support older widows is certainly out of a recognition of the congregation's responsibility to help form social conditions from which the Christian way of life can flourish in their midst. All the women of the congregation, the married, the unmarried and widows, the older and the younger, are therefore kept in view with this policy.

But the energy and youth of younger widows holds out a prospect of marrying again, bearing children, and developing their own household with its own generous hospitality. Paul therefore concludes that to provide the assistance usually reserved for older widows to younger widows provides the younger widows with temptations that they should not have to face.

The implication is that there are potentials in people's lives that should, in communal support for each other, lead to a further deepening of discernment among all the faithful. Paul's advice to Timothy on “widows” is all about how life within the congregation can actually give sustenance for growth among the faithful. The congregation is deeply in need of the “peace of God which passes all understanding”, in the households of its members. Likewise, “household holiness”, on display in generous hospitality, must be encouraged. Timothy's teaching is to commend such developments.