A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 5:9-16. b) Widows to be registered (continued).
Having laid down the conditions for the registration of widows, it is clear that younger widows would not qualify. So Paul gives Timothy a different set of instructions for them. *As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list* (11a). Why not? For two reasons. The first is because such younger women would become restive in their single state and would naturally want to re-marry. *For when their sensual desires*, their natural sexual impulses, *overcome their dedication to Christ*, that is, become stronger than their commitment to stay single and serve the church, *they want to marry* (11), and if they do so, *they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge* (12).
The second reason for not registering younger widows seems to be the uncertainty whether they will concentrate on responsible service. Instead, *they get into the habit of being idle and going about (‘gadding about’, NRSV) from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to* (13). Dr. Gordon Fee identifies these young widows with the ‘weak-willed women’ of 2 Timothy 3:6-7, whom the false teachers had won over. Their ‘going about from house to house’ and their ‘saying things they ought not to’ he then interprets as their disrupting the house churches with their heterodox views. It is an ingenious reconstruction, but Paul gives no explicit indication that they are doing more than wasting their time in frivolous talk.
*So I counsel younger widows to marry*, Paul writes (14a). There is no need to read this as contradicting what he has already written in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor.7:8, 40). True, the apostle expressed a personal preference for singleness (1 Cor.7:7a, 8, 40). At the same time, he acknowledged that each person has his or her own grace-gift from God, whether to marry or not to marry (1 Cor.7:7b), that it is necessary to be realistic about sexual desires (1 Cor.7:2, 9; cf.1 Tim.5:11), and that single people are free to become engrossed in the affairs of the Lord, while married people tend to become preoccupied with the affairs of the world (1 Cor. 7:32-35). When the younger widows have re-married, they will of course have their hands full, and so be largely rid of the temptation to be idle gossips and gadabouts. For they will be able *to have children* and *manage their homes*, and so *to give the enemy* whether human or devilish, *no opportunity for slander* (14). And it is important not to give the enemies of the gospel any further such occasion, because *some* younger widows *have in fact already turned away*, that is, from Christ and their pledge to him, in order *to follow Satan* (15).
After this common-sense counsel to the younger widows, and to Timothy about them, Paul reverts briefly to the other category of widows. He insists for the third time (3-4, 8) that only the destitute are to be maintained by the church, and not those who have family to look after them. *If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need* (16).
Two lasting principles of social welfare seem to emerge from these apostolic instructions. The first is the principle of discrimination. There was to be no general handout to all widows, irrespective of their circumstances. Widowhood was not in itself a qualification for support by the church. No, the church’s welfare provisions are to be limited to those in genuine need. If there are any alternative means of support, they should be used. In particular, the first call is on the widows family. All of us must accept responsibility for our own relatives. The church’s sense of social responsibility is not to encourage irresponsibility in others. And government welfare programmes should supplement but not replace either individual or family obligations.
Secondly, there is the principle of dignity. It is very interesting to note the two distinct categories of widow Paul mentions, the one needing support and the other offering service. Although we have considered them separately, they must have overlapped. Indeed ideally, health and strength permitting, the supported and the serving widows should be same people. Widows (together with others in similar circumstances like single mothers, abused and divorced women) should have the opportunity both to receive according to their need and to give according to their ability, that is, both to be served and to serve. I was impressed some years ago to see this principle operating in the ‘Refugee Industries’ of Zerka in Jordan. The refugees not only received food, clothing and shelter, but also found self-respect through contributing their own skills to a variety of cottage industries. Christian relief should never demean its beneficiaries, but rather increase their sense of dignity.
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 5:17-25. 2). Presbyters.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.