Thursday, November 02, 2006

Did Paul Say, "Don't help widows under 60"?

My previous post is the beginning of a short project that I’m continuing here. What follows will make more sense if you’ve read the entry from Wednesday first.

Getting started, it’s probably best to explain that I’m a set-it-all-up, ducks-in-a-row kind of thinker. I do intend to explain my view of 1 Timothy 5:9. But in order to do that, I want to back up and take a run at it from the first part of the chapter. If you don’t have a Bible nearby, you can consult the NIV translation of 1 Timothy 5 here.

- - - - - - - - -

In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul discusses the church’s duty to Christian widows. Verses 3-8 teach that the church should honor those who are “widows indeed” (or “real widows”). According to Paul, “widows indeed” are those who have not only lost their husbands, but who stand in real financial need; that is, they have no living children who can care for them.

What should the church do for such women? “Honor” them. From the context it’s clear that Paul is not talking about a mere show of respect for destitute Christian widows. Instead, “honor” means “material support, financial help.” We would only dishonor widows if they received nothing but kinds words in response to their real needs. The Torah curses anyone who holds back what is owed to widows (for example, Deuteronomy 27:19; see also Exodus 22:22-24). James says,

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).

But what if a widow has children or grandchildren? Paul says that in that case, those people should learn to practice real religion by returning something to their parents. I love what David Lipscomb wrote in his commentary on this passage:

“None can ever know the intensity of a mother’s love for her child, her constant self-denying life to help the child she has borne. Now a child should remember this and return it in kindness, when the mother grows old. . . . What we render in kindness and love to our parents, God accepts as service to him.”

The description of the “true widow” does not end with this one point. Beginning with verse 5, Paul describes her as a praying woman who trusts in God (like Anna in Luke 2:36-37). On the other hand is the widow who chases after only pleasure (verse 6). A widow who lives like that has no claim to on-going support from the church. Paul closes this section by saying that if any one does not provide for his own, he’s denied the Christian faith and is actually worse than an unbeliever.

It’s my belief that in verses 9-16 Paul is not talking about any and all true widows in the church. Instead, he’s talking about a special class or distinct order of widows. Notice that Paul does not say, “Don’t help a widow who is less than sixty . . .” Instead, he says, “Do not enroll (or, put on the list) a widow who is less than sixty . . .” It’s a vast difference.

In all probability, the group Paul refers to beginning with verse 9 was responsible for taking care of certain tasks in the church. Notice that there is a character sketch of the kind of widow the church allows to be enrolled. It’s no accident that at other points in this letter where Paul provides a character sketch (for elders, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; for deacons, 3:8-10, 12-14; and for “the women” who may be female deacons, 3:11), the description pertains to someone who will be in a position of responsibility in the church.

My main reason for taking this view, which draws a line between the end of verse 8 and the beginning of verse 9, is simple. It makes no sense to think that only widows who matched the description in verses 9 and 10 (including “the rule of sixty”) would have received support from the church.

No doubt there were many near-helpless Christian widows, much younger than sixty, who could and did receive support from the church (Galatians 6:10; James 1:27). Not to mention that it’s inconceivable that Paul, a Christian rabbi, could have issued instructions to the contrary. A self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul knew that the Jewish Scriptures spoke up for “the orphan, the widow, and the stranger in your midst” more than 50 times; and he likely knew a tradition that says the more often a teaching is repeated, the more important it is. No right-thinking person believes that a young, godly, but destitute widow suddenly becomes worthy of the church’s support upon turning sixty years old.

For these reasons, it is better to understand verse 9 as the beginning of a new section which speaks of a different group. According to this view, a “true widow” is a Christian woman of any age who has no family to care for her. But beginning with verse 9, Paul is not speaking about “true widows” in general, but about a unique group of widows who were placed on a list, enrolled. That is, past the common age for remarriage, they were qualified for and committed to what most of us would call full-time ministry.

If this view is on target, then no one should say, “There was a time when Paul said, ‘Be sure not to help a widow unless she’s at least sixty years old'.” Again, not only is that inconceivable, it also ignores the fact that the verb in 1 Timothy 5:9 is not “help” but rather “enroll.”


Keith Brenton said...

No quibbles from me!

In fact, I think that "using" such a scripture to withhold help from a widow younger than 60 is tantamount to shopping in a Mark 7:11.

And I think the book of 2 Corinthians (3:6) makes clear whether one should insist on ministering to the letter of the new covenant ... or the Spirit of it!

Frank Bellizzi said...

"in a Mark 7:11" Thanks for the link. I had to laugh.

I don't know of anyone or any church that has tried to use 1 Tim. 5:9 as an "out" when it comes to helping widows. The real (and current) abuse of the passage begins with it being held up as a poster verse for contextual interpretation. Like this:

"Paul once said, 'Don't help widows under 60.' Now, we all know he didn't mean that for all time. Therefore, with other verses (like, say, 1 Tim. 2:12) it's valid for us to be equally dismissive.

That line of reasoning would work if only 1 Tim. 5:9 said what it's purported to say. But it doesn't.

Now, since it's biblical, logical, spiritual, something that Jesus did, . . . I'm all for contextual interpretation. I just think that when it comes to how this verse has been recently handled, we have a case of malpractice.

Serena Voss said...


My email is I would love to visit with you about Elm and Hudson. : )