Local churches are comparable to families, consisting of believers at different stages in life older and younger, male and female treated appropriately (vv.1,2). Just as love is expected in family life, and the Lord Jesus commanded His disciples to love each other (Jn 13.35), local assemblies should, if required, readily demonstrate this love by financially supporting vulnerable members - in this instance, widows (vv.3-16). Every family needs good leadership, as does every effectively functioning Christian church. The sometimes thorny issue of how church members ought to treat their elders is also addressed (vv.17-25).
There was no ambiguity. Timothy was to give these instructions as an authoritative charge to maintain the blameless character of the local church (v.7). And in order to keep Timothy healthy and physically fit enough to pursue his service for God, Paul exhorted his young friend, who was at times overly scrupulous, to use a little wine for its medicinal value (v.23).
Salvation transports us into a new sphere. We were children of the devil (Jn 8.44), of disobedience (Eph 2.2), and wrath (Eph 2.3). But we have become "the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Jn 1.12; Rom 8.15-21; Gal 3.26; Eph 1.5). Fellow believers are now family (Mk 3.32-35) and we should treat them accordingly. The Bible consistently teaches that older people deserve respect. Moses linked such an attitude to the fear of God (Lev 19.32): "Honour thy father and mother" was the first commandment with promise (Ex 20.12; Eph 6.2). Even after elevation to the position of queen, Esther still "did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him" (Esth 2.20). Therefore, in local churches older men must not be harshly rebuked, but respected as fathers. Similarly, treat older sisters with that tenderness afforded to mothers. Older men can despise younger men (4.12). Do not do it. Rather, treat them courteously as brothers in the Lord. View younger women as sisters, avoiding any appearance of impurity. Never allow impropriety to make inroads into the local assembly.
We live in a sad world where death touches every family; widows are present in all societies. At the time and place of the writing of this epistle there was no state organised social security system or pension schemes, meaning that widows did not just experience severe loneliness, but often financial destitution. In these circumstances the local assembly, as the early church did (Acts 6.1-4), was to "honour" them monetarily. The Old Testament also advocated supporting socially disadvantaged groups within Israels society (Deut 14.29; 16.11; 24.17-22). When a local church lives by this principle, showing practical love for its needy members, its witness is enhanced (v.8).
Having said this, such generosity was never meant to remove from individuals their personal responsibility to care for elderly relatives. In fact, anyone with older relatives was responsible to care for them, so freeing up extra funds to support truly needy and worthy widows (v.16). In order to miss no one out, and ensure regular support, the local church would draw up a list of supportable widows, "taken into the number" (v.9).
Several conditions were to be met before the church would add widows to this list (vv.3,4,6,9,10). First, they must be desolate and without possibility of family support or help (vv.4-5). Second, they must, in their extremity, demonstrate trust in the living God who in His word has made ample provision for widows (v.5), and like Anna, who "served God with fastings and prayers night and day" (Lk 2.37), pray continually. Third, they must be older than 60 years of age and so unable to work to support themselves (v.9). This may, with the extended life expectancy in western society today, now be equivalent to a much older woman. Fourth, in their youth they were morally upright, being "the wife of one man" (v.9). Fifth, they must have been well-known, much like Dorcas (Acts 9.36-39), for good works. For example, they will have raised children, shown hospitality to strangers, washed the saints feet in humble service, and graciously relieved the afflicted (v.10). The following three kinds of widows were excluded from the list.
1. Supported widows, i.e. those with younger living relatives (vv.4,8,16) Christians are expected to support older needy relatives. The Greek word translated "provide" (pronoeo) includes the concept of thinking "beforehand, and then to prepare for the need foreseen".1 If possible, let us, by wisely predicting and providing for the needs of elderly relatives, and thus repaying them the great debt we owe them, show piety at home and please Gods heart. Failure to do this is a denial of the faith we confess, and behaviour unseemly even for unbelievers (v.8). The Lord Jesus rebuked the Pharisees hypocritical refusal to do this very thing, as they claimed it was corban (Mt 15.5-6). Never forget, our family life impacts on the testimony of the local assembly.
2. Pleasure Widows (v.6) self-indulgent widows are as good as dead spiritually.
3. Young Widows (vv.11-15) too much free time holds many hazards. Therefore, to place younger women who are physically fit and able to work or remarry on the list for ongoing assembly support would expose them to serious temptations. They may idly wander from house to house gossiping and being busybodies (v.13). They may also, as many young women do, have a desire to marry, and perhaps, in their desperation, marry an unbeliever: "wax wanton against Christ will marry damnation cast off their first faith turned aside after Satan" (vv.11,12,15). It is far better for younger widows to remarry, bear children and take up the duties of married life. After all, contrary to contemporary public opinion, the chief sphere of female service, and where she is happiest, is in the home. This action would negate slanderous reproach (v.14).
Though at the moment in western society financial support may not be required to the same extent as in other areas of the world hit by extreme poverty, assemblies should show practical care for elderly widows. This could be as simple as washing clothes, taking a hot meal round, or visiting them in their loneliness.
Throughout Biblical history the leaders of Gods people have faced opposition. Korah and his associates charged Moses and Aaron with taking too much responsibility and vaunting themselves above others (Num 16.3). Gideon suffered fierce criticism from Ephraimites who felt that he overlooked their potential to participate in the battle (Judg 8.1). Absalom usurped Davids position as king by appealing to the peoples feeling that justice was not being meted out effectively under his fathers rule (2 Sam 15.1-6). Even during Solomons reign of peace and prosperity there was an underlying current of discontent at the perceived harshness of his administration (1 Kings 12.4).
So how should a local assembly treat its elders? It should honour those who "take the lead among the saints well" (v.17, JND). Such honour is not limited to esteem but, if necessary, financial support. Let every assembly appreciate the efforts of elders who are so caught up with the study of Gods Word that they labour to the point of exhaustion (v.17), particularly when it involves loss of personal income. For example, a self-employed plumber may give up a days work to study to teach the saints. The Lord Jesus Christ taught that "the labourer is worthy of his hire" (v.18; Lk 10.7). The Old Testament put it this way: "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn" (v.18; Deut 25.4). Paul wrote to the Galatians, "Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things" (Gal 6.6).
Because of their public position elders will come under attack, slander and accusation. These accusations must not be allowed to stick, unless they are true. Sadly, saints do stumble, and elders are not exempt from failure. A sinning elder must be publicly rebuked, instilling a fear of God in the whole assembly, and thus discouraging others from sinning. Such disciplinary action must be done with a sense that God, Christ, and the holy angels are watching, and be completely free from partiality.
If extreme caution was taken before ever publicly recognizing men as elders many potential problems could be avoided. Some men are so obviously disqualified because of flagrant commonly known sins. There are others, who have engaged in secret sins that are not initially apparent, but with time these sins begin to "dog their steps" (RWP). Therefore, let every assembly be slow to identify overseers. Otherwise, undue haste in associating with such men will mean association with their sins: "keep thyself pure" (v.22).
To be continued.
1 Hiebert, D E. Everymans Bible Commentary: First Timothy (Moody Press, 1957)