A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 5:3-8. a) Widows to be supported.
The context makes it clear that the ‘honour’ due to widows (their *proper recognition*, in fact) must go beyond personal respect and emotional support to financial provision (see 4, 8 and 16). The honour to parents required by the fifth commandment had already been shown by Jesus to include this (Mk.7:10ff.), and the honour due to presbyters, which Paul will come to next, implies the same thing (17). So ‘”honouring” includes material provision as well.’
But who is responsible for the financial care of widows? And which widows qualify for such support? These are the questions Paul addresses here, for evidently the local church was maintaining some widows whom their own family should be supporting.
Dr. Bruce Winter has thrown light on this situation by drawing attention to the social background in the Graeco-Roman world, and in particular to the dowry system. He writes:
The dowry, which was provided by the bride’s father, always accompanied a woman to her marriage. It constituted an important legal aspect of marriage… In the event of a husband’s death, the laws governing that dowry were clearly defined. A widow was cared for by the person in charge of that dowry. Two options were open to her. If she had children, she might remain in her deceased husband’s home. There she would be maintained by the new ‘lord’ (*kyrios*) of the household, possibly her son. She could also return to her parents, taking her dowry back to her family.
This legal provision gave a widow financial security. She would be maintained out of her dowry either by her son or by her father. Such a widow did not need the church’s support, since her own family had both a moral and a legal obligation to look after her.
The church’s financial support should be limited to widows *who are really in need* (3), or ‘widows in the fullest sense’ (REB). This expression occurs three times (3, 5, 16) and means that such a widow is destitute, being unable to support herself and having no dowry or relatives to support her. For *if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice (eusebein) by caring for their own family* (4a).
Two motives are now given why family members should do this. First, it will be a way of *repaying their parents and grandparents* who cared for them when they were young. Secondly, it is *pleasing to God* (4b), the God who in Scripture both commands us to honour our parents and declares his own concern for widows. In contrast to widows who can and should be supported by their own family, Paul reverts to *the widow who is really in need*. She is *left all alone*. In consequence, having no surviving relatives to succour her, she *puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray* (either privately or in prayer gatherings) *and to ask God for help* (5), like Anna the prophetess and widow (Lk.2:36-37).
Totally different from such a godly woman is *the widow who lives for pleasure* (6a), that is, for herself rather than for God. She *is dead even while she lives* (6b), ‘separated from the life of God’ (Eph.4:18). For one kind of life (self-indulgence) is in reality spiritual death, while one kind of death (self-denial) is in reality spiritual life. Several commentators suggest that *lives for pleasure* may be a euphemism for a widow who, lacking a dowry, relatives or profession, has no alternative to prostitution.
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy. 5:3-8. a). Widows to be supported (continued).
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.