I Timothy 5, Widows and Church Versus Individual Action


     Alas, many today could not care less as to what the scriptures do or do not teach. They are self-deceived into thinking that they are "free in Christ" and that those who insist on Bible authority for what is taught and practiced are sinful legalists (see the link to an exchange on I Timothy 5 and also the questions and answers at the end of this article, following the addendums). I Timothy 5 contains teaching that is basically either unknown or known and rejected. Let us introduce I Timothy 5, the text that we wish to herein explore:

     "3: Honour widows that are widows indeed. 4: But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. 5: Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. 6: But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. 7: And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. 8: But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. 9: Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, 10: Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. 11: But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; 12: Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. 13: And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. 14: I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully." 15: For some are already turned aside after Satan. 16: If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed."

     Residing in I Timothy 5 is some of the most extensive teaching on the subject of the treatment of widows. The church had anterior to this writing incurred the situation of needy widows (Acts 6: 1-7). While the text of Acts 6 generally mentions the matter of assisting widows, I Timothy 5 provides specific and detailed teaching. The text also clearly shows that there are restrictions placed on the church treasury and how it is to be used.

     The text of I Timothy 5 decisively establishes the need to, "…honor widows that are widows indeed" (vs. 3). That both "church" and "individual" action is addressed, respectively, cannot be denied (vs. 16). In one pondered case, certain individuals have primary responsibility and in the same considered case, the church is not to act (vs. 16). Hence, the belief that, "What the individual can do, the church can do and, conversely, what the church can do, the individual can do" is not necessarily true. We shall see in our study that the local church is presented as having structure, functionality, and demarcation. The text of I Timothy 5 also presents a gradation regarding benevolent responsibility concerning which many Americans have totally forgotten. This gradation is children and/or grandchildren are to first take care of their parents and/or grandparents and the local church is not to be charged (vs. 3, 16). "Let the government do it or the church take care of my parents," say many. Such a mentality while prevalent is anti-biblical.

     Let us now temporarily abandon the immediately above to return to it later and presently notice the widow situation in I Timothy 5.

     I see three classes of widows being set forth in our text. I believe the absence of conjunctions (asyndeton) and then their presence, assist in such a determination. I Timothy 5 verses three through eight address widows indeed. The "widow indeed" is defined as one who does not have children or grandchildren to whom to look for financial help (see addendum 1). Such believing parents/grandparents are especially deserving of the help and love of their children/grandchildren. This is the meaning of, "…let them learn first to show piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God" (vs. 4). Children and/or grandchildren who thus neglect their parents and/or grandparents commit a grievous sin and, "…hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (vs. 8).

     Beginning in verse nine, there is evidently a different circumstance involving widows. These widows must meet certain qualifications and regarding them, there is the situation of, "…taken into the number" (vs. 9-10). Is Paul teaching that before the local church can assist a widow indeed, assuming the matter of verses 4 and 16 is not an issue; she must be at least sixty years of age, etc.? I think not. I believe these widows having these extra requirements were a special class.

     Catholicism sees the widows of I Timothy 5: 9 and 10 as the class they recognize as Nuns. However, their division and provision of Nuns do not require them to be widows. Hence, they cannot use I Timothy 5 to support their practices of nunnery or convents.

     Some believe these widows of I Timothy 5: 9, 10 were not just widows in need, but the additional requisites point to them being spiritually used in some capacity. We must remember that in the First Century there was a clear distinction and demarcation between men and women. Perhaps these widows were "enrolled" to assist with other widows and to even teach the younger women (Tit. 2: 3, 4, see addendum 2). If not, why the extra requirements?

     Then there are the "younger widows" (vs. 11—14). In contrast to the widows having special qualifications and to be "enrolled," these young widows are to be refused and the reason is provided. I might inject that some do not see these "young widows" as a third class, but part of class one (vs. 1-8). However, these "young widows" could be widows who are not in a position by reason of age to have grown children and/or grandchildren. If we are correct about the involvements of the "enrolled" of verse 9 and I believe we are, these younger widows would not have the maturity to be of service in the more "permanent" arrangement of enrollment and rather than fruitfully use the circumstance, they would abuse it (vs. 11f., see addendum 3).

     It is also worthy of note to mention that when the New Testament presents a situation of benevolence, it involves the very necessities of life and not the communistic concept of equalizing the standard of living of all the Christians within a local church. "Widows" and "orphans," for instance, were often in dire need of basic survival means in the First Century. Hence, "affliction" is presented as their condition (Jas. 1: 27, see addendum 4). The Christian is to "go and inspect" these two classes to ascertain what he can do to assist (Jas. 1: 27, the Greek "visit," episkeptomai, is graphic and involves personal involvement, inspection, and assistance). The personal pronouns in the setting of James 1: 27 make it plain that the individual Christian has a duty to perform and that the text is not addressing clinical, uncaring institutionalization. I Timothy 5, though, provides for church assistance (collectivity, treasury) of certain widows, all things equal and understood.

     The subject of Homes for Widows has had a troubling history among churches of Christ, which I want to address at this time. The issue is not whether or not a local church can provide for widows indeed, the issue has become the indiscriminate, manufactured need, and institutionalization that also involves local churches in a working arrangement that violates autonomy, having one central overseeing eldership (cp. Acts 14: 23, I Pet. 5: 2f.).

     I recall while preaching in Texas during the seventies, we were contacted by the Central Church of Christ in Houston. The letter that they sent to many Churches of Christ was, "…an urgent appeal for financial help…." Central said of itself, "…we are in a serious financial condition and must…ask its sister congregations for help." Did they have so many widows among their own number that they needed outside help? No. Central set up the Christian Home for the Aged as a separate entity, but its charter provided that it be overseen by the elders of the Central Church. Central’s creation, Christian Home for the Aged, became a 232 bed building (1973), making it at that time (1973) the largest nursing home in the state of Texas. The last addition in 1973 cost 3. 7 million dollars. Christian Home for the Aged sought out "widows" from more than 14 states and even 5 foreign countries (track titled, Christian Home for Aged, A Status Report, July 1978). I imagine that there are now homes for the aged begun and maintained by Churches of Christ that would make Christian Home for the Aged small by comparison. Most of these homes offer church assisted and elder overseen work that is indiscriminate, not noticing I Timothy 5: 16. Many members within contributing churches send their parents and grandparents to these homes and personally neglect them, allowing churches to do what Paul said was their first place responsibility.

     Let us be fast to notice that I Timothy 5 does not contain the following now common situation:

1). A local church seeking out widows from churches around the world.

2). A local church establishing, staffing, maintaining, and elders overseeing an all out home for the aged, such as Christian Home for the Aged.

3). Widows of all situations being allowed into the home and children and grandchildren not provided first place position in requiting the needs of their parents and/or grandparents.

4). A local church designingly starting a work too big for them and then involving other churches to meet their financial responsibilities in such a home entity circumstance.

5). The eldership of one local church continuing to oversee the work in which many local churches are on an on going basis involved.

6). A local church establishing and maintaining a separate home and then accepting widows who are not even Christians.

     It is sad, indeed, that some have pushed their institutionalized, man-conceived version of world wide, indiscriminate widow care that involves churches of Christ forming an unscriptural union having one central eldership to the point of fracture, disruption, and division. Again, the division and disagreement is not over what is taught, a local church taking care of their own widows in the manner taught in I Timothy 5, but rather some ambitious men being determined to do and bind on others what is not taught! (Cf. Rev. 22: 18, 19, Col. 3: 17.)

     In general, church benevolence is seen in the New Testament as being simple, but effective. In the first place, such benevolence appears to have been the exception, not an assiduous, continuous operation, not based on actual need. Hence, there are only about three recorded cases, spanning a period of about thirty years (Acts 4; 11; I Cor. 16). Each local church is seen taking care of their own needy members (cp. Acts 4: 32-37). In instances when the need was greater than one church could handle, other churches are seen helping, but this help was obviously temporary and not permanent and church autonomy was not compromised (cp. Acts 11: 27-30, I Cor. 16: 1f.). These churches did not build "Church of Christ Hospitals" or "Homes for the Aged and they did not form a "Church of Christ Brotherhood World-Wide Work." The early churches focused on their needy as far as the treasury was concerned and did not attempt to serve as a modern Red Cross agency or general Eleemosynary Society taking care of the physical needs of the world.

     The Central Church of Christ got into trouble when it went into the nursing home business, taking on a "brotherhood project" about which there is not a scintilla of biblical teaching and forgot the basic spiritual, soul saving nature of the local church (I Tim. 3: 15). Let us learn from their negative example and retain the positive teaching of the scriptures, particularly in the case of our study, I Timothy 5. 

     Addendum 1: The Greek word translated "nephews" in the King James is, ekgonos and pertains to "born of." The translation "grandchildren" in I Timothy 5: 4 is more the meaning of ekgonos in the setting of I Timothy 5.

     Addendum 2: The wording, "taken into the number" is from the Greek katalego and seems to suggest something different from that considered in verses three through eight and verse sixteen. The expression appears to denote a special class of widows, having a special status and/or work assigned to them. "Enrolled" (ASV), kalalego, would appear to denote more of a "permanent" situation involving these widows than the "daily ministration" circumstance of Acts 6: 1. Some have suggested that these "women" are the same class as those intimated in I Timothy 3: 11 (Greek, gunaikas, "After a similar fashion, women be grave, etc.). Concerning this, I am not sure. I Timothy 3: 11 and Romans 16: 1 seem to correspond better (Phebe was a diakonos and some believe I Timothy 3: 11 is addressing female servants). It appears, in reality, that there were several groupings of women to serve in the early church and these special older women appear to be a separate class. Again, in view of first century culture and gender distinction, there was such a need. Perhaps this is why we do not read of special women circumstances more clearly, as is the case with the men (deacons). The Holy Spirit knew this circumstance was more endemic and did not provide the lasting detail and particularity. Whatever the case, these women were not public preachers of the word and did not "rule" in the early churches (I Tim. 2: 12, I Tim. 3: 2).

     Addendum 3: In the case of these younger widows, I do not believe Paul is saying that these widows are not to be assisted by the church, but simply that they are not to be considered for "enrollment." No doubt, a number of the widows of Acts 6 were "younger" and were involved in the "daily ministration" circumstance.

     Addendum 4: John considers the matter of assisting another in "need" (chreian, I John 3: 17). The expression, "…this world’s good" is the Greek, bion tou kosmou and literally means, "life belonging to this world" or translated with a little flexibility and considering syntactical contribution, "the means of life." Hence, the basic necessities for survival, such as food, clothing, and shelter. I say this to stress that from a biblical perspective, levels of lifestyle are not involved, but simply the base requirements.

Questions and answers:

To further explore I Timothy 5 and to help make practical application of the teaching, we shall at this time notice some questions that are raised about the text.

1. Does I Timothy 5: 16 really distinguish between individual and church or collective action?

Answer: Yes. What, in the circumstance of the text, individuals are commanded to do, the local church is told not to do. Notice also that even in the case of multiple believing children/grandchildren functioning in concert to take care of their parents/grandparents, such does not necessarily constitute church action.

2. Does I Timothy 5: 16 establish the existence of a treasury and structured work characteristic of early local churches?

Answer: Yes. The most natural way in which the local church functions is through its treasury. Such a work being not the work of an individual or individuals working concurrently, but rather the entity, the local church performing a work. Such is expressed in the negation, "…let not the church be charged…" and the understood converse, "…the church be charged."

3. How do we understand the statement in I Timothy 5: 8, "…worse than an infidel"?

Answer: Even infidels or unbelievers have been customarily observed taking care of their immediate family members. For a Christian to fail to do what they can regarding their parents or grandparents, is then worse than an infidel. Such failure constitutes "denying the faith."

4. Could there be a circumstance in which a local church uses means to assist a needy saint widow, such as a hospital or nursing home?

Answer: Yes. For instance, a local church could assist in paying a hospital bill or nursing home charge, all things equal and understood. Let us realize, though, that such a situation is not tantamount to a church establishing, staffing, and maintaining, even the elders overseeing their own hospital or nursing home and opening the doors to all, as the Central Church of Christ did, and then expecting other churches to regularly contribute to such a "brotherhood work."

5. What if the children or grandchildren are not able to assist or refuse to help their parents, grandparents, are they then allowed to starve to death?

Answer: There are a lot of "what if situations." "What if there is not immediate water sufficient for immersion," etc. (Mark 16: 16). First, we must realize "what ifs" do not negate or alter what is explicitly taught! I cannot imagine a widow being neglected. For instance, there would surely be individual Christians within the local church to see that the widow’s basic needs were met.

6. What should be done by the elders if the immediate offspring who are also members of the same local church as their parent(s) and/or grandparent(s) are able, but refuse to assist their parents/grandparents?

Answer: In a clear case, the offspring could and should become subjects of church discipline. If not, why not? They are certainly "walking disorderly" (2 Thes. 3: 6). For sure, the elders would need to have a serious talk with the offspring and encourage them to do what they can.

7. I Timothy 5 presents the case of all being believers or Christians, the widow and the immediate offspring, does this mean that the church can only assist needy saints?

Answer: The detailed case relative to widow help and all the other cases noted earlier only present the local church(es) assisting needy saints. The language is plain in the case of the collection for the needy saints at Jerusalem that it was gathered and to be used for them (I Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8, 9. Rom. 15).

8. Why is church benevolence limited to saints only?

Answer: Just as there are many "what if" situations, so there are also multitudinous "why" matters. We do not always know why because we are not expressly told. However, common sense would tell us that if local churches had the charge of caring for all the needy in addition to their own, they would be totally preoccupied with eleemosynary work and could not even preach the gospel, the chief function of the local church (I Tim. 3: 15).

9. May individual Christians assist those who are needy in general?

Answer: As seen, I Timothy 5: 16 pertains to the local church. Individual Christians are in a different situation as they move and mingle in society, they can come upon cases of need and assuming they have the ability, they can and are to assist (cp. Eph. 4: 28).

10. May individual Christians form Homes for the Aged and assist the needy in general?

Answer: Question 10 is really not pertaining to the teaching of I Timothy 5 and, therefore, has the element of irrelevancy as to applying the text. The simple answer could be a qualified, "yes." However, there could be and usually are many problems with this effort. Are they going, for instance, to limit the recipients to non-saints? If they include saints, what are they then going to do about the teaching of I Timothy 5? If they try to limit their efforts to saints, are they not then competing with the work God assigned to local churches, based on need, overseen by the local elderships of each local church? The matter is very problematic in its best presented case, to say the least.

11. Would it be wrong for a Christian, not a church, to contribute to such an arrangement as the Central Church of Christ Home for the Aged?

Answer: Some think that if the church as such is removed, then action is allowed by the individual. However, such thinking is flawed. The original church action that is forbidden and is a scriptural aberration, as we have heretofore seen, remains. How, then, can even an individual Christian bid "God speed" to and have fellowship in such error? (2 John 9-11.)

12. For the sake of peace and church unity, what would be wrong with providing a "box in the vestibule" to allow those who want to "individually" contribute to such homes as "Home for the Aged"?

Answer: Such a practice involving the church building, a facility purchased and maintained by the treasury, is a spiritual compromise. Such a practice also inevitably sends the strong message that for individual Christians to contribute to Home for the Aged is without problems. Hence, this practice is unacceptable. The real means of achieving "church unity" is for the preacher/elders to preach and debate such matters and urge the members to do what is scriptural (cp. I Cor. 1: 10). We need preachers and elders to only "speak as the oracles of God" and in so doing, all such concoctions and inventions of men, notwithstanding their attendant emotional appeals, will vanish and cease being sources of division among God’s people (I Pet. 4: 11).  (For additional study of I Timothy 5, especially focusing on verse 16, click on "An Exchange on I Timothy 5: 16")