By Russ Ramsey
What a fascinatingly specific text we have today! Though it’s focus is on the care of widows in the church—a very important topic—it reaches well beyond that topic alone.
Before we venture into a broader application, let’s break down what the Bible says about the church’s care for widows. First, it says we are to care for them. To care for them is a way that we honor them. It also says that the church should not be the first line of support for widows if she has family. If she has children or grandchildren, they should be the first to care for her. If you are a Christian and you have a widow in your family who is being primarily supported by people outside your family, this text is a call to get more involved. It is dishonoring, Paul says, for family members to deny care for those among them in need.
But then, we see Paul start to define what sort of widow he means. This may sound harsh at first, but what Paul is teaching Timothy is the principle of reserving as many resources as possible for those with the greatest need. A widow the church should care for first is one who is all alone in the world without them. The church cares for her because if they don’t, no one will.
Notice too that Paul is describing an early form of a church program, an intentional system or ministering to the needs of the people in the congregation, or a “deacon fund,” if you will. Widows under this system were “enrolled” in the care process, and that enrollment required vetting. Paul recognizes that there will be people (and maybe there were in Timothy’s church) who will try to game the system by asking for support when they are able to support themselves. There are a lot of first-century cultural presumptions made in this passage that differ from how our culture works today, perhaps chief among them the idea that unless a woman had a husband or father to care for her, she would be destitute. That’s not always the case today. But it is also true that plenty of people these days end up in positions where they require assistance, and the church may be the only place where they can find it.
The broader application of this passage is that the church is called to care for its own, to get to know one another well enough to be able to recognize real needs, and generous enough that we are able to respond to those needs.
Our culture celebrates individualism—people living in such a way that they don’t need anyone else. The church celebrates the opposite—living in such a way that our lives are not our own, and that we lean on each other in both our giving and our receiving. This is not only a model for care within the church, but it also models the gospel, which tells us that apart from the care and intervention of another, we would be without hope. But because we belong to the body of Christ, we are never alone, and all our needs are perfectly met in Christ Jesus.
Modeling the gospel is what this text is ultimately about.