A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 5:3-6:2. Social responsibilities.
Having just mentioned the older and younger men and women in the Ephesian churches (5:1-2), and how Timothy should relate to them, Paul now takes up three more particular groupings – widows, presbyters and slaves – and indicates what Timothy’s and the churches’ responsibilities are towards them. In relation to widows he is concerned about their need for support and their qualifications for ministry (5:3-16); in relation to presbyters about their pay, their appointment and their discipline (5:17-25); and in relation to slaves about the quality of their service, whether their masters are believers or not (6:1-2).
In each case Paul writes something about their service, since all three groups are called to *diakonia* (ministry) of some kind, and in the first two cases he adds instructions about their support. Moreover these two concerns belong naturally together, service being what we give and support what we receive. The interplay between them is healthy, for the Christian community (like every family) is a fellowship of ‘giving and receiving’ (Phil. 4:15).
Scripture has much to say about widows, and honours them in a way that most cultures do not. Too often a married woman is defined only in relation to her husband. Then, if he dies, she loses not only her spouse but her social significance as well. In Scripture, however, widows, orphans and aliens (people without husband, parents or home) are valued for who they are in themselves, and are said to deserve special honour, protection and care. Throughout the Bible justice and love are demanded for them. God is described as ‘a father to the fatherless’ and ‘a defender of widows’ (Ps.68:5); and it is written of him that ‘he defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow’ (Dt.10:18; cf. Ps.146:9; Pr.15:25). Because this is the kind of God he is, his people are to be the same. ‘Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan’, he says. ‘If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused…’ (Ex.22:22ff.) So magistrates who withheld justice from widows would come under God’s judgment (Dt.27:19; cf. 24:17); farmers were instructed to store a tithe of their produce for widows and orphans, and to leave them gleanings of field and orchard as well (Dt.14:28-29; 24:19ff.; 26:12-13); and the prophets regularly complained that, instead of defending and providing for widows, the nation exploited and oppressed them (Is.1:17, 23; Je.7:5ff.; 22:3; Ezk.22:7; Zc.7:10; Mal.3:5. cf. Ps.94:1ff.).
Our Lord Jesus was himself consistently compassionate towards widows. He restored to life the only son of the widow of Nain (Lk.7:11-12). He commended both the importunity of the widow who badgered the unjust judge into action and the generosity of the poor widow who contributed her two small copper coins to the temple treasury (Lk. 18:1ff.;Mk.12:41-42). He warned his disciples against the scribes who ‘devoured widows’ houses’, while at the same time they were ostentatiously religious (Mk.12:38). And from the cross he practised what he preached, and commended his widowed mother to the care of John (Jn.19:26-27).
The early church learned this lesson from the teaching of the Old Testament and the example of Jesus, and continued to show the same concern. Seven gifted leaders were appointed to supervise the daily distribution to the widows in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1ff.; cf. 9:39, 44), while James categorically defines religion which is ‘pure and faultless’ in God’s sight as ‘to look after orphans and widows in their distress’ (Jas.1:27).
Coming to 1 Timothy 5, we notice at once that the section on widows appears to be divided into two paragraphs, each of which is introduced by a different main verb. The widows in mind in verses 3-8 Timothy is to *give proper recognition to*, literally ‘to honour, or rather support’ , whereas those in mind in verses 9-16 he is to *put on the list of widows*, that is, ‘register’ or ‘enrol’ them. Commentators differ as to whether Paul is referring to the same group of widows in both paragraphs, or to two distinct groups. That different categories are in view is suggested not only by the different introductory verbs (‘honour’ and ‘register’), but also by the different conditions for admission into the two groups. In the first case it is destitution and godliness, while in the second it is a combination of seniority, married faithfulness and a reputation for good works. I shall take it this way, understanding that the former group of widows is to receive financial support, and the latter opportunities for ministry, alongside the presbyters and deacons of chapter 3, although no hard and fast line is drawn between the two groups, and they will probably have overlapped.
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 5:3-8. a). Widows to be supported.
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.